Upgrades reduce Sorento's off-road appeal

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 Upgrades reduce Sorento's off-road appeal A major upgrade has boosted the Kia Sorento's everyday appeal, though at the expense of some of its off-road versatility, as David Thomson discovers.

With a full and sunny day in hand to return to Dunedin following a recent extended break in Clyde, the question was not whether to eschew one of the conventional all-tarmac routes home, but rather which of several predominantly gravel-and-dirt alternatives to take.

The Old Dunstan Road won the selection battle. As well as being a gloriously spectacular drive in its own right, this journey across the old gold-mining trails from Moa Creek to Clarks Junction offered the possibility of a side trip in to the Serpentine and, if the weather turned nasty, an easy mid-point exit on to the lower, sealed roads of the southern Maniototo.

Transport was the latest Kia Sorento R, which has been subject to a recent upgrade so major that Kia are calling this latest iteration a completely new model.

Though the Sorento 2013-style has been visually tweaked about the nose and tail, it doesn't look to have any new exterior sheet metal in between. What makes this so much more than a minor facelift is a 10mm lowering of the car's floor, associated modifications to the vehicle's front and rear sub-frames and a consequential widening of its track and changes to the suspension.

Reworking these crucial underpinnings has cost the Sorento ground clearance (dropping to 185mm) and reduced the vehicle's approach and departure angles (now 19.7 and 22.4 degrees respectively). On the other hand, structural rigidity has been increased and almost 80kg in weight saved.

The convenience benefits of a lower floor were established over the first days of the Drivesouth road test programme: entry to and exit from the cabin are easier than before, as is loading luggage; once aboard there is extra legroom for both the second row of seats, and for the handy fold-down third row.

These gains can be appreciated on any variant of the revised Sorento line-up, which now opens with two-wheel-drive LX petrol at $46,490. The test vehicle, though, was the flagship $66,190 all-wheel-drive Premium Diesel, which is loaded with features to boost driver and passenger appeal.

A panoramic power sunroof, power adjustment ventilation and heating for front seats, and a heated steering wheel are key creature comforts the flagship model has to itself. It is also the only Sorento variant equipped with adaptive headlights that swivel in response to steering angle and speed.

Leather trim, keyless entry and start, parking sensors, an automatic self-parking system, and full-colour 7-inch centre display screen and xenon headlights are also provided on the Premium, as well as on other top-end variants. Features provided across the entire Sorento range include a reversing camera (integrated into the rear vision mirror), a six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth for audio and phone, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, auto-lights and rain-sensing wipers.

Satellite navigation is the oddly missing item on both the standard and optional equipment lists.

Along with access benefits, the fundamental platform change has significantly altered the Sorento's dynamic feel, and probably most obviously on the flagship Premium because (like the LTD), it sits on 19-inch alloys and 55-profile tyres rather than on 17- or 18-inch wheels and correspondingly deeper tyres.

The dynamic positives include reduced body roll and better body control at open road speeds. Thanks to greater rigidity, and aided by steering and brake changes, the latest Sorento is also easier to drive smoothly and precisely over winding stretches of tarmac. Add into the equation a fine six-speed automatic gearbox and an engine that is refined once it moves beyond idle and that produces its peak power and torque quite low in the rev range, and the end result is a much enhanced and most economical highway cruiser.

Taken together, these changes made the Sorento R Premium a fine vehicle for the open stanzas of the Drivesouth test. The gains that accrue have, though, come at the inevitable expense of back-block comfort and go-anywhere ability.

These points were aptly illustrated traversing the Dunstan, for while the test vehicle was always up to making the trip, it jiggled markedly and at times uncomfortably over the worst of the trail's road surfaces while doing so.

Indeed, the intended foray in to the Serpentine was abandoned after a few kilometres when it became clear that the test car lacked the suspension absorbency to complete the trip comfortably. Had, as would almost certainly have been the case, conditions deteriorated further, then that reduced ground clearance would also have become an issue.

Any disappointment was quickly overcome a few minutes after bailing from the Serpentine: nearing the end of the western section of the Dunstan, we drove a few metres off the road to ''discover'' a stunning picnic spot, tucked out of the breeze under towering schist tors with clear blue skies above and a stunning vista over the Maniototo below. Even when plans have to be changed, or even be abandoned, travel off the beaten track is rarely disappointing in this part of the world.

The same should also be said of the Sorento in its latest guise: sacrifices that impact adversely at the rugged extremes of its possible use have made it a far better machine the rest of the time.

Upgrades reduce Sorento's off-road appeal
At a Glance

Kia Sorento R Premium AWD

For: Improved accessibility and enhanced on-road dynamics.
Against:
Firm ride and reduced ground clearance impact on back-block versatility.
Verdict: Better in ways that will benefit 95% of people 95% of the time.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (as tested): $66,190.

Engine
2199cc four-cylinder 16-valve turbo-diesel
Max power 145kW@3800rpm
Mmax torque 436Nm@1800-2500rpm.

Transmission
Six-speed automatic, variable four-wheel drive.

Brakes and stability systems
Disc brakes, EBD, EBA, ESC.

Safety
Five-star European NCAP.

Wheels, tyres
Alloy wheels, 235/55 R19 tyres.

Fuel and economy
7.3 litres per 100km on standard cycle, capacity 70 litres.

Dimensions
Length 4685mm
Width 1885mm
Height 1735mm.