Test Drive

2016 Kia Sorento SXL Review: We Almost Thought It Was A Luxury Car

It looks and costs as much, but is that enough to fight Lexus?

There are many doors in this life that can be opened with a tinge of madness and a large helping of confidence. The problem is, when starting at the very bottom, cultivating a high level of confidence is no easy task. It takes plenty of time and effort, and still worse, it necessitates convincing others that their outdated perceptions are no longer valid. Kia had that same problem just a decade earlier, so on initial impression, we weren’t too excited when we learned that the Kia Sorento was coming to our office for a week’s worth of testing.

While the public still views Kia as the cheap subpar bargain brand, that is simply no longer the case. Luckily, we were able to learn that first hand a few months prior. Shock rang around the CarBuzz offices last April when we were given a Kia Optima spec’d out with more features than you could get in a base BMW 5 Series. The price? Not a dime over $36,615, or low enough that you could buy your Optima with its 5 Series aspirations and still have enough for a base Kia Rio before you hit the Bimmer’s base price. This incognito luxury car had a small chrome badge that read, “SXL,” Kia’s way of telling the world that this is no poor man’s ride. We enjoyed the Optima SXL so much that not long after, Kia sent the Sorento SXL you see here.

This one had a sticker price that was $10,000 more than the Optima we tested, but that's to be expected of a larger vehicle. With the name of a picturesque coastal Italian town, and with the expectations earned after our rendezvous with the Optima, we had high hopes for the Sorento SXL. Cloaked in Platinum Graphite Black, the Sorento was certainly dressed to impress. Outside, the only thing robbing the Sorento of its handsome finish was the Kia badge itself. Any issues with the exterior aesthetics could immediately be quelled by stepping inside. Ivory Nappa Leather seats and trim with a contrasting black interior only highlighted just how far Kia was punching above its weight class.

I had plenty of those cliche instances where passengers would get inside and ask, “Damn, is this really a Kia?” It wasn’t just the interior attire that drew out those claims, with the SXL package, the Sorento had all of the makings to confirm that this was a legitimate luxury vehicle. Above, a panoramic roof with an automatically retracting shade drew our ooohs and aaahs as it converted the sun into a spotlight for the dapper interior. If darkness was required, one could simply close the panoramic roof and raise the shades embedded in the rear passenger doors. Occupants in the back could also expect to be treated to heated rear seats to go along with the sizable amounts of legroom and headroom.

I felt so at home in the back that one day I decided to drive down to the beach and write in the back seat, essentially converting the Sorento into a mobile office. The main metric used to analyze a luxury car is to see how it makes one feel. By that logic, the Kia uses its visual superiority and assembly of features to oust many true luxury cars. Just like the Optima, the luxury appeal came not only from the visually appealing interior but from the level of automation that made the Sorento feel like a butler. Things like the automatic rear lift gate that stops at an appropriate level if it senses a low garage roof, auto brake hold feature, and 360 degree camera helped alleviate some of the headaches associated with driving.

Those last two features are part of the SXL technology package, which is worth the extra $2,500 because the Korean automaker throws in a lane departure warning system, forward collision warning system, and a smart cruise control system that makes highway driving fairly painless. None of those, however, compared with the unexpected grunt of the engine on our AWD tester. With 3.3 liters of naturally aspirated V6 sending 290 horsepower to the six-speed automatic, the Sorento hustles off the line quickly and makes highway passing a breeze. That’s another check on the list of luxury criteria, this one calling for enough power to assert aggressive emotions in the left lane of the freeway.

Unfortunately, the fun I had wielding that power helped my average mpg to fall below the EPA’s estimated 19 mpg (17 city, 23 highway) to a dismal 14 mpg. Still, it was worth it to pull away from a turn and get away in a huff. The only reason that any flirting with the accelerator happened after the corners was because of the Sorento’s hefty body roll. Not that I expected much out of a tall heavy crossover, but as an enthusiast I’ll try and milk the fun out of any car just to see what happens. The drive itself, from the somewhat grainy feel of a harsh acceleration to the faux luxury feel of the interior helped to whittle away at the seemingly perfect character we were initially greeted with.

The Kia Sorento is by no means a bad car, it manages to keep ahead of plenty of rivals in a highly competitive segment, but it lacks a handful of characteristics that fully bridge the gap between standard run of the mill people carrier and luxury machine. On most luxury cars, the doors have cushioned yet assured way of closing that ends in a satisfying “frump!” In the Kia, the doors clunk shut like in any other car. The buttons, while solid, don’t feel as though someone spent hours refining how they clicked. Picky as it may seem to list these complaints on an otherwise great car, they’re part of what makes it so that you know you’re not in a true luxury car, just a very well dressed passenger hauler.

Like a teenager going to prom, it’s easy to sense the youth and excitement of the opportunities in the Kia. As spruced up as the prom outfit may look, the suit was probably cheap. A true luxury car wears its expensive suit with experience. And that’s the one problem with the Sorento SXL. With its $46,495 price, you can actually buy a real luxury car. For just $3,000 more, a well-equipped Lexus RX complete with AWD and a 3.5-liter V6 pushing 295 horsepower is available. And for that, you get the looks and feel of a luxury car, a face without a Kia badge, and doors that “frump” when closed. We like the direction Kia is taking, especially with such an attractive package, but it’s not quite ready to compete with the big dogs if it insists on charging full price.

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