Pros: Powerful 4-cylinder engine; excellent fuel economy; low price; impressive standard equipment list; IIHS Top Safety Pick

Cons: Side curtain airbags don't cover the third row; no radar-based backup warning or blind spot warning device; low-key exterior styling

There are dozens of family-friendly crossover SUVs on the market, and most of them are pretty darn good. So why pick the 2012 Kia Sorento over a Ford Edge or a Toyota Highlander? There are a number of good reasons, starting with value. Kia packs a lot of cutting-edge technology into the Sorento, such as its gasoline direct injection (GDI) engine and a bevy of electronic information, entertainment and communication systems. Furthermore, to alleviate fears that new technology can sometimes bring, Kia backs the Sorento with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain and a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty.

The Sorento's exterior exudes a conservative sense of style that may not be as radical as Kia's Soul and Optima but should find wider appeal. The Sorento's interior, on the other hand, outshines the competition with an elegant design, rich materials and fabric choices such as white on ebony leather-features usually reserved for more expensive luxury models.

In addition to its ability to carry seven passengers, the Sorento's fuel economy and horsepower are near the top of its class, while its pricing undercuts just about everything comparable. For those who feel strongly about buying American, it will come as welcome news that the Sorento is now built in Kia's West Point, Georgia, plant.

Comfort & Utility

Kia packs a lot of utility into the Sorento, giving it an available third-row seat and 60/40 split folding second row seats. Although the third-row seat expands passenger occupancy to seven, it is really only suitable for young children. And, with the third-row seat in the up position, the Sorento's generous 37 cubic feet of cargo space dwindles to around 9.1 cubic feet.

On the comfort side of the equation, the Sorento exceeds expectations. Base models are nicely equipped with such standard features as a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, USB interface and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity. The EX trim adds dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver's seat, foglamps and a backup camera. Move to the top-of-the line SX, and you'll get full leather seating, Kia's navigation radio and a 10-speaker, 550-watt Infinity audio system. Options for the Sorento include all-wheel drive, heated front seats, an air-cooled driver's seat, power folding side mirrors and a panoramic glass moonroof.

Technology

Designed for Kia by Microsoft, the UVO information and entertainment system allows voice control of a Bluetooth enabled cell phone as well as a portable music source such as an iPod or iPhone. Add the available navigation system, and you'll enjoy SiriusXM Traffic free for three months (after that, you'll need to pay the subscription price). Traffic uses the navigation system to alert you to approaching traffic conditions. If there's an accident, the navigation can be used to calculate a new route around the jam.

Under the hood, the Sorento's 2.4-liter engine can be equipped with gasoline direct injection (GDI) technology that helps improve horsepower and fuel economy over the standard 2.4-liter engine.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Sorento's standard engine is a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder good for 174 horsepower and 169 lb-ft of torque. Available only on the LX, this engine may help the Sorento achieve a low starting price, but it won't do much to help move it along when fully loaded. A better choice is the 2.4-liter GDI 4-cylinder (optional on the Sorento LX, standard on the EX), which bumps horsepower to 191 and torque to 181 lb-ft. Fuel economy for the 2.4-liter is rated at 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway (FWD) and 21/27 mpg (AWD). The GDI changes those figures to 21/30 mpg and 20/26, mpg, respectively.

The Sorento's 3.5-liter V6 is available on the LX, EX and SX models. It's the best choice, even though it will definitely add to the Sorento's bottom line. With 276 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, this engine has the muscle to move a loaded Sorento with ease. Yet its fuel economy figures of 20 mpg city/26 mpg highway are not far from the 4-cylinder's figures. The AWD model attains slightly lower marks of 18/24 mpg.

No matter which engine you choose, it will be connected to Kia's electronically controlled Sportmatic six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. Those who opt for the AWD option will get a full-time on-demand system with a lockable center differential that is useful when driving slowly through heavy snow or light off-road duty.

Safety

The 2012 Kia Sorento offers a full complement of standard safety equipment including electronic traction and stability control, 4-wheel ABS, front seat side-impact airbags, first- and second-row side curtain airbags (the third-row seat is not protected) and Hill Start Assist to keep the vehicle from rolling backward when pulling away on a steep grade. The 2012 Kia Sorento is also an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, getting top marks in the frontal offset, side impact and roof strength crash tests.

Driving Impressions

Despite its size, the Sorento rides and drives like a mid-size sedan. With its wide track and independent front and rear suspension, the Sorento delivers a smooth, controlled ride. Excessive body lean was observed only during extreme hard cornering maneuvers. The Sorento's unobtrusive stability control allows for somewhat sporty driving. When the road becomes rough, however, we noticed more noise and impact harshness than in comparable SUVs. We also observed that the Sorento's steering wheel feels a bit heavy to turn, and its suspension favors the softer side of the spectrum. If you're looking for an SUV with a firmer suspension and a sportier attitude, we suggest the Ford Edge or the Mazda CX-7.

We're not big fans of the standard 2.4-liter's performance, but we very much like the GDI version, which offers much better off-the-line acceleration and passing power. The Sorento's 3.5-liter V6 not only ups performance, it increases the maximum tow rating from 1,650 to 3,500 pounds.

Other Cars to Consider

Toyota Highlander - The Highlander holds its value better than the Sorento, but a comparably equipped model costs a bit more and doesn't offer as good a warranty.

Ford Edge - The Ford Edge has a more buttoned-down feel to it, with a sportier ride and an available turbocharged engine. However, the Edge doesn't offer a third-row seat option, and its pricing starts well above that of the Sorento.

Dodge Journey - The Journey offers more room for its third-row occupants and can match the Sorento's feature and content offerings. But the Sorento gets better fuel economy and has a more powerful 4-cylinder engine.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd pass on the V6 and opt for the LX or EX with the 2.4-liter GDI engine. Unless you don't need the ability to tow 3,500 pounds (or desire the top-of-the-line SX trim), the 2.4 GDI is more than capable, delivering good low-end power and excellent fuel economy. We think the Sorento EX is actually quite reasonably priced, costing thousands less than comparably equipped models from Ford, Dodge or Toyota. Unless you regularly encounter heavy snow, the front-wheel-drive model with electronic traction control should suit most drivers' needs even in winter.

In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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