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The Kia Sorento knows a thing or two about reinvention. Back in 2011, it gave up on the truck-based formula that it had relied on since it was brand-new, chucking it all for a version of Kia's mid-size Optima platform and a new mission as the brand's mainstream crossover. Trading off-road talent for on-road fluency has paid off: Kia can hardly keep up with sales at its Georgia assembly plant. But more important, it's crafted a crossover that offers shoppers a good alternative to a slew of best-sellers--Escape, CR-V, Edge, and Equinox among them.
The Sorento returns for the 2013 model year with no major mechanical changes, and just a few updated features. It remains a value-rich vehicle, even in base form, with all kinds of configurations and options--engines, transmissions, traction systems, seating--to appeal to almost any wagon buyer. It's all wrapped in good-looking, nicely detailed sheetmetal that doesn't play to outdated SUV cues, and doesn't go overboard on mimicking carlike shapes or worse, borrow from boats. Handsome in a middle-of-the-road manner, the Sorento's charm only dulls a bit when the plastics in the cabin undergo a tougher scrutiny. They're not shiny, and they're matched well--they're just not as lush as you think they'll be, with all the tight fits and spare lines.
Most Sorento drivers will want to leap instinctively for the top V-6 drivetrain, but there's a four-cylinder in the middle worth examining. It's not the base 2.4-liter, 175-horsepower four, though--skip that one and the manual that's only available with it. It's sluggish and dated, and delivers low gas mileage that's only offset by its low base price. The mid-range four, with direct injection, is up to snuff: it's a 191-hp four that spins sweetly enough, and delivers as much as 30 mpg highway according to the EPA's ratings, with a well-sorted automatic transmission and good handling that gives more weight to comfortable ride than to even moderately brisk cornering. Opting into the V-6 version is something we'd reserve for drivers who tow on occasion, or for those who regularly run the kiddie carpool and use all of the available seats.
The base Sorento comes out of West Point, Georgia, as a five-seater, and even for adults, those seats have ample leg room and good head room. The seats themselves are supportive--even better when they wear leather. There's a third-row offered on some models, but that bench is only for those under five feet tall, with the dexterity to jump into the way-back, and the distractions to ignore the low seating position. Cargo space is fine, mostly, but a seven-seat model with the back row raised won't leave much room behind for any cargo.
Strong safety scores from both the Feds and the IIHS put the Sorento in good stead with the competition, as does the array of standard equipment--air conditioning, power features, Bluetooth, satellite radio and a USB port are present and accounted for on every version. If you get spendy, the SX offers standard navigation, leather, and has an available panoramic roof, but prices zoom past the $35,000 mark, at which point the Sorento runs into some bigger, richer hired hands--vehicles like the Ford Flex and Explorer, the GMC Acadia, and likely, the upcoming Nissan Pathfinder.