It actually looks a bit more polished than a Lexus. A chunky lower body topped off by a sleek front end and prominent sloping C-pillar – it must be either a Lexus or Merc. This could well be the conversation between two company car drivers but they'd both be wrong.
The car is a Kia Sorento – a new departure for the South Korean manufacturer normally associated with budget cars, and hoping to win sales from the premium and volume end of the sport utility vehicle spectrum.
The Sorento is close in size to cars like the M-class and RX300, but on price it will be comparable with the Nissan X-Trail and Land Rover Freelander.
Kia has some work to do in trying to establish itself as a credible alternative to the mainstream – for years it sold revamped Mazdas in the UK. But, with its recent tie-up with Hyundai Motor in Korea, Kia is working on expanding its range into niche areas and wants to move away from the low-price entry-level cars with which it has become associated.
It will launch a revised Carens compact-MPV later this year with a diesel option and recently launched models – like the Rio and Magentis – will gain a facelift next year. There will be also be new small car.
Kia has already made a success of the Sedona – its large MPV – by matching the practicality of mainstream MPVs like the Ford Galaxy and Renault Espace with ultra-keen pricing. Kia's common rail diesel engine is still the most powerful in the MPV sector and is one of the few manufacturers to offer it in conjunction with an automatic transmission.
Kia believes it will win over new drivers through offering an auto box with the 2.5-litre common rail diesel on the Sorento – diesel autos are the exception rather than the rule at the lower end of the SUV sector, too.
The Sorento will go on sale at the end of this year in 2.5 CRDi guise, with sales of the 3.5-litre V6 beginning early in 2003.
Kia expects the petrol version to make up a maximum of 10% of Sorento sales in the UK, believing, with good reason, that the diesel is refined enough to appeal to a broad range of drivers and with improved economy over the petrol it should also provide acceptable running costs.
There is also a four-cylinder 2.4-litre petrol model on sale in other markets, but this will not be available in the UK, at least in the short term. Unlike many sport utility vehicles, the Sorento has been designed as a separate frame on a ladder chassis rather than a 'unibody' chassis and frame.
This is more in the mould of a traditional off-roader, where the ladder chassis absorbs all the flexing and twisting when being put through its paces off road while the body remains undisturbed. Kia says the expense of developing and building a unibody vehicle strong enough to resist the demands of off-road driving would have been too high.
However, in a few years, the technology is expected to become cheaper.
In the meantime, the ladder chassis also has benefits for towing, giving it a greater maximum towing capacity than unibody vehicles like the BMW X5, Lexus RX300 and Nissan X-Trail.
More good news for off-road drivers is a solid beam axle at the rear – much better for wheel travel and protecting the rear differential casing on rough terrain – and a low-ratio transfer case.
Kia is keen to ensure the brand is competing in the market sector where it is likely to gain maximum exposure. The SUV sector was the second-fastest growing segment in 2001 and is continuing in the same vein in 2002. Likewise the revised Carens competes in the compact MPV segment which was the fastest growing last year and still is in 2002.
Kia cars managing director Mark Quinn said: 'The Sorento is an exceptionally capable all-round vehicle, which can deliver in the expanding 4x4 market what the Sedona has achieved for Kia in the large MPV market.
'Three years since our Sedona MPV was launched it is taking up to 10% of the large MPV market ahead of long established competitors. The Sorento has all the ingredients to succeed in that image-conscious market.'
Behind the wheel
WHAT does the Kia Sorento have in common with the Porsche Cayenne? Porsche was involved in tuning the suspension of both cars, although the controversially styled Cayenne seems to have drawn the short straw in the looks department.
Kia's designers really have turned out a smart looking vehicle, and although it might not have the badge to be accepted at the premium end of the sector alongside the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover, the styling certainly has the appearance of a premium vehicle.
All UK cars will have the chunky lower body moulding, alloy wheels, roof rails and front fog lamps.
Entry-level and mid-specification models will have part-time four-wheel drive, while top models come with permanent four-wheel drive. For the part-timers, four-wheel drive can be selected by means of a dashboard switch at up to 50mph and the same switch is used to select low ratio mode.
The Sorento interior is not as elegant as the exterior, the main let down being the tasteless wood-effect plastic. Otherwise the cloth trim on the entry models feels a little hard wearing, and some of the switches are not as pleasant to the touch as those in a Freelander or an X-Trail.
However, it was nice to have the indicator stalks on the left (every Kia I have driven up to now has had indicators on the right leading to sudden attacks of windscreen wipers as I approached junctions).
The Sorento also has a roomy interior, with space for five adults, and luggage space is also ample with a split tailgate for added convenience.
The 2.5-litre common rail diesel engine uses the latest (second generation) technology and, with balancer shafts and noise insulation, gets close to the level of refinement and quietness offered by the Land Rover Freelander Td4.
It doesn't feel like it punches its weight, however. I really expected better performance at lower revs than the Sorento offered.
It feels fine driving normally, but tackling hairpin bends in second gear while scaling Sicilian mountain roads became a chore and sometimes needed a change down to first gear.
I suspect that gearing it long with a bias towards motorway driving, at which it seems to excel, has resulted in low speed performance suffering.
Although 138bhp and 236lb-ft of torque would seem more than adequate in a car the size of a Freelander or an X-Trail, the larger Sorento sometimes struggles when the roads are more challenging.
But the steering is well weighted, and doesn't suffer from the same vagueness as a Jeep Cherokee, the gearchange is smooth and light, and the brakes do a good job of bringing this big car to a stop.
The Sorento handles like a typical off-roader, with lots of body roll when attacking corners in an overzealous fashion, while the ride is a bit lumpy when the road surface is less than perfect.
THE Sorento is a fine effort at producing a SUV with broad appeal and attractive styling. As a workhorse it would appear to cope well with rough terrain (although there was no way of putting it to any serious test on the European launch event) while it provides many of the creature comforts found on rival options lists as standard. However, Kia will have a tough job in building its brand image to be accepted as an alternative to Land Rover, Jeep and the rest.