OPINION: Kia's well-regarded Sorento has just been facelifted, a mere couple of months before the brand's sibling company, Hyundai, launches a new version of the same SUV, the Santa Fe. Rob Maetzig backgrounds.
When two model brands are owned by the same company and share the same vehicle platforms, it's a hard fact that when it comes to the timing of product launches, one will always run second to the other.
Such is the case with Kia, which is owned by fellow South Korean brand Hyundai.
Both brands operate to five-year model cycles, and they usually give their vehicles a mid-career facelift in the middle of these cycles.
Hyundai is the dominant partner in the joint operation, which means that with any vehicles that are the same but different - as in the Hyundai ix35/Kia Sportage, Hyundai i45/Kia Optima, or Hyundai i20/Kia Rio - the Hyundai will always be launched before the equivalent Kia. This explains why at a time when Hyundai New Zealand is busy preparing for a planned January national launch of a brand-new Santa Fe SUV, Kia New Zealand has only just received a facelifted version of its equivalent, the Sorento R.
There is a good news/bad news scenario surrounding this.
The bad news is that if the two brands indulged in games of one-upmanship, Kia must be frustrated that in terms of timing it has to play second-fiddle to the volume selling Hyundai.
But the good news is that facelifts almost invariably result in improved product and real value for the consumer, and this is certainly the case with this latest Kia.
Prices for the coming Santa Fe are yet to be announced, but it is understood that they will be substantially more than what they are now.
Meanwhile, the facelifted Sorento R comes on to the market with lowered prices but improved dynamics and specification.
"We think our new Sorentos are extremely competitive given their increases in specification across the range," said Kia NZ general manager Todd McDonald at a media conference recently.
Pricing ranges from $46,990 for the entry petrol-powered front-driven model to $66,190 for the top turbodiesel-engined all-wheel-drive Premium version and, in almost every case, their prices have been reduced by up to $1000.
Last week's media conference was in many respects noteworthy for Kia NZ's constant reference to this refreshed Sorento as a new fourth-generation model. It's not, even though it has undergone significant change that includes a completely new chassis, enhanced powertrains for better economy, and revised suspension. But this Sorento is still a facelifted version of the current third-generation model, and that explains why its exterior look hasn't undergone a lot of change at all. So much so, in fact, that two journalists attending last week's launch drove all the way from Auckland to a lunch stop near Cambridge before they realised they were in a pre-facelift version.
For the record, the vehicle has new headlights with LED daytime running lights, a new tailgate with changed combination lamps, new bumpers with vertical fog lights, and an expanded choice of wheels that include larger 19-inch alloys.
The interior gets more tactile surfaces, a new LCD instrument cluster, new centre stack with 7-inch display screen, and a new centre console that features a straight-gate gear selector. Specification levels in all models are high, with perhaps the only thing missing being satellite navigation in even the most expensive models.
A feature of the range is introduction of a new Premium model which is very luxurious, with standard features including a two-part panoramic sunroof and powered blind that runs almost the length of the roof, heated and ventilated front seats, and adaptive headlights that point in the same direction as the vehicle when it is turning.
Both the Premium and Limited models also now get Smart Park Assist that automatically parallel-parks the Sorento R.
The most significant change to the Sorento R is that while its length, width and wheelbase remain the same, the facelifted vehicle is built on a brand-new platform that uses a lot more high tensile steel and is therefore 18 per cent more rigid than before.
The new platform also features a reshaped floor which while reducing ground clearance to a car-like 185mm, has also resulted in 30mm and 9mm more legroom for passengers in the second and third rows of seats. During last week's media event I spent a considerable amount of time riding in the back seat, and I was impressed with the amount of leg room back there.
I was also impressed at the Kia's level of refinement while out on the open road. The new platform has reduced vibrations through the cabin floor by 5 per cent and through the steering wheel by 4 per cent.
Cabin noise at highway speeds has also been considerably reduced, making the Sorento R one of the quietest vehicles in its class.
There have been some key changes made to the suspension system, including new sub-frame mountings, larger bushes, higher-performance dampers and the replacement of the hydraulic power steering with a motor driven system with stronger mountings. All of these combine to help offer excellent on-road ride and handling.
Although the handling bias has shifted towards on-road motoring, this latest model is still capable off the road, particularly the all-wheel-drive versions. The launch event included a foray into a forestry area near Putaruru and, while it was hardly challenging, it did show that the Sorento R can take on the rougher stuff.
The introduction of the new platform has helped shave up to 96 kilograms off the kerb weight of the Sorento R, and this has in turn reduced average fuel consumption with both the petrol and turbodiesel models.
Two entry LX models - one all-wheel-drive and the other two-wheel-drive - continue to be powered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that delivers 130kW of power and 227Nm of torque.
All the rest of the eight-model are powered by Hyundai/Kia's acclaimed R-Series 2.2-litre turbodiesel, which develops 145kW of power and a healthy 436Nm of torque from 1800rpm.
All powertrains are now mated to a six-speed automatic with sequential manual shift, and fuel economy has been improved partly through what is known as Neutral Control that automatically shifts the transmission from drive to neutral when the vehicle is stopped for more than a few seconds, reducing engine load.
Kia Sorento R is one of the best SUVs on the market and, although it remains an old model with not much cosmetic change at all, this latest facelift does represent a major step forwards for the vehicle because there is a lot that is different underneath its familiar bodyshell.
In this respect, I agree with Todd McDonald, who said that the best way to appreciate the new Sorento R is to get behind the wheel and take it for a long drive, because only that way will it become apparent that ride, handling and road-holding have all been improved.
There was nothing wrong with the pre-facelift Sorento, but it is true that this new version is much better.
It presents Kia New Zealand with an ideal vehicle to keep sales of its biggest SUV going until the real fourth-generation version comes on stream in 2014.
KIA SORENTO R
POWER PLANT: 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder Theta II petrol engine, 130kW at 6000rpm, 227Nm at 3750rpm. 2.2-litre in-line four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine, 145kW at 3800rpm, 436Nm at 1800-2500rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Two models are front-wheel-drive, remaining models have on-demand all-wheel drive. Six-speed automatic transmission with sequential manual mode. MacPherston strut front suspension, multi-link setup at the rear. Electric power-assisted steering.
HOW BIG: Length 4685mm, width 1885mm, height 1700mm, wheebase 2700mm. Ground clearance 185mm.
HOW MUCH: Prices range from $46,490 for FWD LX petrol, to $66,190 for AWD Premium diesel.
WHAT'S GOOD: Excellent interior room, lovely drive, diesel one of the best on the market. WHAT'S NOT: Cosmetic part of the facelift is quite modest.
OUR VERDICT: The best part of this facelift is that it has improved the ability of the Sorento R.
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