Don’t expect the new 2021 Kia Sorento to feel like a miniature version of its star sibling, the Telluride. Once you get to know the Sorento, you’ll understand. The three-row Sorento bursts out of the Telluride’s shadow with a more chiseled look than before, a surprising driving experience, and the ability to compete across three segments. Yes, three. Really.
Segment-straddling versatility isn’t new territory for the Sorento; the 2021 model simply presents a more effective case for itself. That’s because there’s more of almost everything (except length). Kia stuffs the slightly wider Sorento with more standard safety tech, more power from the base engine, more efficiency in every configuration, more engine options, more interior space, and—as a result of all this more-ness—more money for a base model. The previous-gen Sorento’s L trim is gone, leaving the 2021 Sorento LX as the entry-level offering. Coming in at $30,560, the new Sorento LX is about $1,300 more than before. That once again makes it one of the most affordable three-rows in the industry. The SUV comes in $2,600 less than a 2021 Telluride LX, and compared to the Sedona minivan … we’re just kidding; we know you aren’t interested in spacious and practical minivans.
More Torque Than a Telluride
A hybrid and plug-in hybrid will follow the 2021 Sorento‘s launch engines, which include a 191-hp 2.5-liter I-4 and a 281-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged I-4 with a whopping 311 lb-ft of torque—that’s 49 lb-ft more than in the Telluride’s naturally aspirated V-6. Go for the EX 2.5T or SX 2.5T trims with that engine, and you will absolutely feel that oomph. Whether they like it or not, the tires will, too. We found that the 2021 Sorento’s 281 horses and 311 lb-ft are too much for the SUV to handle in FWD form. If you planned on using that impressive power to make entering traffic or passing easier, know that you’ll need some finesse to avoid spinning the front tires. Or pay $1,800-$2,000 for AWD.
With AWD, the 2021 Sorento 2.5T’s engine makes more sense. In that configuration, it might surprise more than a few lead-footed customers on test drives. Really, though, it’s not just the turbocharged powerplant but the eight-speed dual-clutch it’s paired with. With help from AWD traction, that transmission does an admirable job extracting performance from the turbo-four. When you need to accelerate quickly, the Sorento delivers the type of near-immediate response you expect of sports cars, not six- or seven-passenger SUVs.
That dual-clutch transmission, however, is also the Sorento 2.5T’s greatest flaw.
In our 2021 Sorento SX FWD and 2021 Sorento X-Line AWD test SUVs, the dual-clutch delivered an unacceptable lack of refinement in everyday driving. This is a family-oriented SUV first, and the early-production units we drove lacked the smoothness we praised about the Telluride, a vehicle that comes with a traditional automatic transmission. A FWD SX model especially had this issue, occasionally exhibiting shudders felt through the pedals and seats at very low speeds. In both SUVs, it was more difficult than it should be to accelerate or edge forward smoothly due to the transmission and surges of power from the turbo-four. Still, if you’re after a midsize SUV that feels quick, the 2021 Sorento 2.5T models would be one place to start. Just have a long think about how important smoothness and transmission refinement are to you.
What’s the 2021 Sorento’s Competition? (Everything)
If you appreciate the 2021 Sorento’s combination of big SUV style at nearly compact SUV prices, try the LX or S trims. Both offer FWD and AWD, but with a 191-hp I-4 and a more conventional eight-speed automatic. Perhaps because the new 2.5T engine improves efficiency so much over the V-6 it replaces, the base 2.5 models have EPA-rated efficiency that’s not much different from the trims with the 90-hp more powerful engine.
Even so, if you like the Sorento and aren’t sure about the 2.5T trims, consider the $33,060 S. That trim adds a smart key and push-button start, features we couldn’t imagine living without on a $30,000-plus car today. If you can resist the temptation of a power liftgate and electric parking brake—unfortunately not available with the standard engine—the 2021 Sorento could captivate a Honda CR-V buyer willing to sacrifice one or two features for a larger package.
More often, the 2021 Sorento’s competition will be midsize two-row SUVs, including the Subaru Outback, Ford Edge, and Hyundai Santa Fe. With a standard third row and a garage-ready length of only 189.0 inches, the 2021 Sorento really does have a unique selling point in the segment. But it’s no mini Telluride. Although both SUVs were designed in California, the Sorento has different exterior details front to rear, from the horizontal headlights to the side-vent-like door trim and the more angular surfacing in back.
Let’s Talk About That Three-Row Interior
Every 2021 Sorento has three rows of seating. If you get a Sorento LX 2.5 or S 2.5, the layout includes a second-row bench seat and a seven-passenger capacity. Go with a Sorento EX 2.5T, SX 2.5T, or hybrid for a six-passenger layout with second-row captain’s chairs. Both of our test SUVs featured this layout.
The Sorento’s not-quite-full-size length compromises the third row, but maybe not in the way you expect. Roll forward the second-row seats, and the third row seats are cozy, not unusable. The real issue—what makes them more of what Kia calls “5+2” seating—is how high the floor is behind the second row. That and the small side windows (another departure from the blocky Telluride) limit the Sorento’s three-row abilities from everyday-carpooler to an occasional-use perk. When that third row is folded down, the second row can roll back to create more room.
If, on the other hand, you’re using that third row, press a button on the second-row seats to watch the backrest fold and the entire seat roll forward. The resulting opening into the third row is still small, but the extra convenience is appreciated. As is the stylish interior that makes a statement while mostly preserving function, too.
Road Trip Ready?
If you’re searching for a road trip-ready ride, the Sorento could work. Both of our test SUVs rolled on 20-inch wheels and delivered a stiff but not harsh ride. Not ideal for a long highway drive, but also not a deal-breaker. They also provided a moderately quiet experience at speed. If the road ahead turns twisty, the Sorento will certainly feel sportier than the more sedate Telluride. Even with the stiff suspension, decent steering tuning, and the available turbo engine, though, the Sorento never feels as sporty as, say, the smaller Mazda CX-5.
If your road trips involving towing, know that the 2021 Sorento tows just as much as the 2020 model in FWD form, but it maxes out at 3,500 pounds with AWD compared to the 2020 Sorento V-6 AWD’s 5,000 pounds. Oh, and we hope future Sorentos will adopt a smart key system that doesn’t require a button push on the door to unlock.
Is the 2021 Sorento Worth It?
We like the swifter and more stylish Sorento, but in our early experience with two test SUVs, the 2.5T’s dual-clutch transmission isn’t worth the trade-off in everyday smoothness. The Sorento S or the moderately priced hybrid could have potential if you don’t mind the latter variant’s FWD-only configuration. Either way, the Sorento is worth consideration across a wide variety of SUV wants. Select your trim carefully to avoid long-term grumbling, and you might find this is all the three-row SUV you really need.
|2021 Kia Sorento|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 6-7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.5L/191-hp/181-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve 4-cyl; 2.5L/281-hp/311-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve 4-cyl; 1.6L/177-hp/195-lb-ft turbo 4-cyl, plus 60-hp/195-lb-ft electric motor, 227 hp/258 lb-ft combined|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed auto, 8-speed dual-clutch auto, 6-speed auto (hybrid)|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,700-4,150 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||189.0 x 74.8 x 66.7-70.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.2-8.9 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||21-39/25-35/24-37 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||86-160/96-135 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.52-0.82 lb/mile (est)|