Timing is everything in business. Unfortunately for Kia, last August was a bad time to introduce its first big, bulky, 7-passenger sport-utility vehicle built for the North American marketplace, the 2009 Borrego. Gas was up over $4 a gallon, and consumers were scurrying to trade in their gas-guzzling sport utes for smaller, more fuel-efficient crossovers faster than rats abandoning a sinking ship.
Fact is, when Kia began designing the Borrego several years ago, gas was two bucks a gallon and SUV sales were strong. That was certainly not the case last summer.
While Kia's timing might have been off, it still built a solid truck. If you need to haul seven passengers, like all-wheel drive and plan to tow up to 7,500 pounds, the Borrego offers some good reasons to add it to your shopping list.
The Borrego covers all of the bases with its trim offerings: an entry-level LX, the up-level EX and the top-of-the-line Limited, with its leather interior and plenty of bells and whistles. It's available with either two- or four-wheel drive; a V6 engine is standard and a V8 is optional.
The Borrego won't turn heads with breakthrough styling. Instead, Kia designers have stuck to the traditional SUV design conventions with an upright, two-box design and a wide stance.
Below the chiseled hood, a large, upright grille is flanked by flared-back headlights. Slightly bulging fenders wrap around standard 17-inch wheels or optional 18 inchers projecting a masculine look without being macho.
Kia believes the Borrego's offerings, styling and features can hold their own against traditional midsize competitors such as the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner, as well as crossover SUVs such as the Honda Pilot, Chevy Traverse, Ford Flex and Mazda CX-9.
Under the Hood
A powerful V8 engine isn't the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Kia, but the Borrego has a dandy one. It's a version of the V8 that powers the Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan and features variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshafts.
The 4.6-liter eight puts out a lusty 337 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm. Coupled to a 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode, V8-equipped Borregos can tow an impressive 7,500 pounds.
If you don't need the V8, the V6 engine is no slouch. Producing 276 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque, the 3.8-liter powerplant is capable of towing 5,000 lbs. Power is managed by a 5-speed automatic, also with a manual shift mode.
Surprisingly, there isn't much difference in fuel economy between the two engines. The V6 4WD versions are rated at 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway, while V8 4WD trims return 15/20 mpg.
The off-road universe is represented here by Borg Warner's excellent Torque-on-Demand four-wheel-drive system. It's easy to operate, with a "set-and-forget" full-time 4WD mode, 4-Hi for added traction and stability in muddy or snowy conditions, and 4-Lo providing control for crawling over rocks or down slick hillsides.
Kia bills the Borrego as a luxury SUV, but that's a bit of a stretch. For example, while Bluetooth connectivity is becoming standard on cars under $20,000, it's an option on the LX and EX trims. Want both a navigation system and rear-seat entertainment? You can have only one. Want a power tailgate? Not available.
That said, the Borrego is a very pleasant place to be seated, no matter how long the drive. While materials don't visually earn luxury status, they're not far off; fabric and leather surfaces have a quality feel with stitching sewn to near perfection.
Gauges are done up in a crisp, readable white on black, and the controls are easily reached. The switch gear feels substantial and operates with a smooth deliberateness.
There is ample headroom and legroom in the front and second-row seats for the over-6-foot crowd. However, like most 7-passenger SUVs in this class, the only adult you would likely direct to the third row is the brother-in-law you don't like.
Cargo space behind the third row is a more-than-adequate 12.4 cubic feet. If more space is needed, the rear seats easily fold flat to open up to nearly 98 cubic feet of hauling space behind the front cabin.
Standard convenience features are competitive: air conditioning; cruise control; tilt steering wheel; keyless entry; power locks, windows and mirrors; AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius 6-speaker audio system; and a USB input jack. Unlike its competitors, the Borrego offers a standard trailer hitch and electric harness.
Moving up to the EX adds power adjustable seats for the driver and front passenger, dual-zone automatic climate control, steering-wheel audio controls, a trip computer, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
Arriving soon, the Limited edition has all of the above, plus 18-inch wheels, leather interior, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated front and rear seats and a backup camera.
On the Road
Since Kia expects about 85 percent of buyers to choose the 6-cylinder engine, we requested a V6-powered EX 4WD for a weeklong test drive. This is a strong engine, and it pulls the 4,460-pound Borrego with conviction. It is quite refined and quiet, and responds quickly to the right foot.
The only time we wished for the extra two cylinders was climbing steep hills while pulling a 3,700-pound boat and trailer.
The 5-speed automatic is a good match to the six and delivers near-seamless gear changes.
For all its modern amenities, the Borrego is old-school at heart. It's built on a sturdy truck chassis, with beefy hydroformed steel rails. Unlike crossover SUVs, which are built on car unibodies, its default drive wheels are in the rear.
Body-on-frame construction tends to introduce trucklike ride and handling qualities, which Kia has countered fairly well with a 4-wheel independent suspension. Overall, this design provides a mostly compliant ride. Hit some broken pavement or railroad tracks, however, and the Borrego reveals its bones.
Steering is responsive and accurate but a little less certain at center. Pushing hard through a corner produces predictable but controlled body lean and, thanks to a stability control system that will arrest most skids, overenthusiastic drivers receive a certain amount of latitude.
Off pavement, the Borrego is equal to anything in its class. The 8.5-inch ground clearance, along with good approach and departure angles, easily handled one of our favorite, and fairly difficult, off-road trails.
Right for You?
Available now, the Borrego 2WD LX with a V6 engine has a base price of $26,995, including destination charges; the 2WD EX with the V6 starts at $28,745. All-wheel drive adds $2,000, and a V8 adds $4,750 to the LX and $3,000 to the EX. The Limited, equipped only with a V8, starts at $39,995.
If space for seven folks and towing are important, the Borrego is a well-built, capable, midsize SUV. It offers competitive pricing along with a five-star U.S. government safety rating and a five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
On the other hand, if towing isn't a need and an occasional jolt over rough pavement is something to be avoided, a crossover SUV would be a better choice.
Larry Hall is the editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance journalist based in Olympia, Wash. For more than 20 years, he's covered the automotive industry for numerous trade journals, newspapers and business publications.