The fight for the family dollar has split the mid-size SUV class into smaller segments. Buyers can opt for vehicles that are larger or smaller, offer two rows of seats or three, and come with engines ranging from naturally aspirated inline-4s to turbocharged V-6s.
The duo we're pitting against each other here represents the full range of the class. At one end is the smaller two- or three-row Kia Sorento; at the other is the larger, more powerful, three-row Ford Explorer.
Both models were updated for 2016. The Explorer's refresh includes smoother bodywork, an improved feature set, a quieter interior, and a strong 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-4. The Sorento has been completely redesigned and re-engineered, with every bit of exterior and every piece of trim changed. It has a new body structure, an available turbocharged inline-4, redesigned seating, and some new active-safety features.
We gave the 2017 Ford Explorer a 6.7 overall out of 10 on our new ratings scale, the Kia Sorento got a 7.2. Does that mean it's better in every way? Well, no. But we like the Sorento's value and ride. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Both vehicles are attractive and somewhat conservative. Ford has carried over the side sheet metal from last year, but, with new front and rear styling, the Explorer has a more finished and finely detailed look. From the outside, the Sorento's redesign is so evolutionary that it’s easy to let your mind fill in the lines. However, it features some cleaned-up, more mature, upscale details, and a little more softness for the overall look.
The Explorer offers three engines, and the two best are turbocharged. The new 290-horsepower 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-4 is gutsy, and we prefer its power delivery to the cammy feel of the standard 290-hp 3.5-liter V-6. The available 365-hp 3.5-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6 is a beast, making this the closest thing to an Explorer SHO as we're likely to see.
Ford has retuned the Explorer’s chassis as well. It's an exuberant setup that combines quick electric power steering with relatively firm damping. Performance is buttoned down, almost to sport-wagon standards. The Explorer also doesn't mind getting dirty now and then thanks a Terrain Management system.
The Sorento offers a 185-hp 2.4-liter inline-4, a 290-hp 3.3-liter V-6, and a new 240-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. We prefer the 2.0-liter turbo-4 model for its perky feel in most types of driving, even if its off-the-line acceleration isn't the fastest of the three.
From the driver's seat, the Sorento responds quite well. The steering tracks nicely on center, the suspension provides a firm, composed ride, and the stiff body structure provides the hefty, confident feel and vault-like ride of a German car. Both rate well for SUVs in performance, but their character and road manners are quite different.
Fuel economy is nearly a wash. The Explorer's base 3.5-liter V-6 tops out at 20 mpg combined. The 2.3-liter turbocharged four gets 22 mpg combined with front-wheel drive, and the twin-turbo V-6 is rated at 18 mpg combined. The Sorento's EPA ratings are 24 mpg combined for the 2.4-liter with front drive, 23 mpg combined for the 2.0T with front drive, and a low of 19 mpg combined for an AWD V-6.
Interior space is in the Explorer's favor, but the we rate both vehicles the same for comfort and quality because of the fit and finish of the Sorento's cabin. The Explorer has a spacious interior. Up to seven passengers can fit, and five adults will be fine in the front two rows. Getting into the third row is a bit of a chore, but it's roomier than the Sorento's rear bench.
The Sorento's second-row accommodations are essentially the same for the two- and three-row versions, though you get an underseat storage system in two-row models. The second row is a little too hard and short for adults to be comfortable over a long day, and the third row, while small, will do just fine for a quick dinner outing for those under 5-feet-10-inches tall.
The Explorer makes up for any shortcomings in materials with a richer feature set. Pricing ranges from about $32,000 to the mid $50,000s, and the top Platinum model feels like it could have a luxury badge. Value and features for the money have always been a big deal for Kia. The Sorento starts around $26,000 and reaches up to $44,000. At the high end, it offers many of the luxury amenities you'll find in the Explorer.
While it is one of the safer vehicles Ford builds, the Explorer's scores in the latest small-overlap crash test are "Marginal," according to the IIHS. It offers advanced features such as inflatable rear seatbelts, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warnings with automatic braking, a lane-keeping system, blind-spot monitors, and a new 180-degree front-end camera. The Sorento is available with such features as lane-departure warnings, forward-collision warnings, and surround-view cameras. It also gets better crash test results, and that's why we rate it higher for safety.
The result of our matchup is a narrow victory for the Kia Sorento, but a case can be made for the Ford. If power and space are your preferences, opt for the Explorer. If a smoother ride and a lower price are the goal, the Sorento is a fine choice.