2021 Kia Sorento HEV First Drive Review | A happy hybrid medium

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Various versions of the Kia Sorento have come through the Autoblog fleet a few times now, and while they haven't been mind-blowing in any particular way, they offer an appealing blend of generally good features and pricing to make it a "just right" SUV for a lot of people. It's an SUV with a lot of variety not just in trim levels, but in powertrains. So is there a "just right" version of the "just right" SUV? Yes, there is, and it's the 2021 Kia Sorento HEV (and the just-arriving 2022 model), which finds a happy medium in the lineup, and even the broader SUV market in regards to pricing, driving experience and fuel economy that make it a must-see for buyers.

A quick note, this review will focus primarily on the Sorento hybrid's powertrain and how it relates to the driving experience. For additional information on all the other aspects, check out our comprehensive 2022 Kia Sorento review.

What mainly differentiates the Sorento HEV is, of course, its hybrid powertrain. It combines a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with an electric motor. Combined output comes to 227 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It's connected to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission and your choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Those numbers put it smack dab between the 191-horsepower base Sorento, and the 281-horsepower turbo inline-four fitted to all the previous Sorentos we've tested. The HEV is also more powerful than any of the smaller two-row hybrids such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota's RAV4 and Venza, though a bit less than the larger three-row Toyota Highlander Hybrid. There's also the Ford Explorer Hybrid, but it's exclusive to pricey upper trim levels and oddly prioritizes performance at the expense of fuel economy.

Though the Sorento hybrid is in the middle of its non-electrified siblings for power, its fuel economy is unquestionably superior. The front-wheel-drive version is the most frugal with 37 mpg combined, and all-wheel drive drops the rating to 35 mpg. That's a roughly 10 mpg improvement over any of the other Sorento models, and could save you as much as $650 per year on fuel, according to the EPA. It is slightly behind the smaller hybrid competition, which range from 38 to 41 mpg (CR-V and Ford Escape), but is right on par with the Highlander Hybrid, and about 10 mpg ahead of the Ford Explorer.

As for the actual driving experience, the turbo hybrid engine is lovely in just about all daily driving situations. When setting off from a light, you'll find that the hybrid system eliminates the usual delay that results from an auto start/stop system restarting the engine. The electric motor gets you going the moment you press the throttle pedal and when the engine does kick in, it does so extremely quietly and smoothly.

Around town, the Sorento hybrid is relaxed and happy. You barely have to use any revs to zip around thanks to the one-two torque punch of electric motor and turbo engine. It's also very quiet and the electric assistance helps with responsiveness. We also appreciate Kia's use of a traditional six-speed automatic in its hybrid powertrains since it results in more "normal" acceleration featuring a build up of revs followed by gear changes. This avoids the droning and unusual revving of the usual hybrid e-CVT.

It's when you need or want an extra boost of acceleration when the Sorento hybrid shows its efficiency comes with a tradeoff. Under a heavy foot, you get a bassy thrum from under the hood, and it shows that the top end is a bit weak. The transmission, though smooth and generally more agreeable than a CVT, is mighty slow to shift, which is particularly evident if you try using the paddles. Sport mode basically just holds gears longer and makes the steering heavier.

The Sorento is also plenty comfortable. Bumps aren't harsh, and it's fairly quiet. It is a bit springier than we'd like when it does hit bumps, but it's not much of a problem. Steering is accurate and nicely weighted, though there's a fair bit of body roll and not much eagerness to turn-in. Brake feel is spongey, but easy enough to modulate.

And as we've said before, the Sorento's interior is spacious and stylish. Most notable is the fact that the third row is usable by adults. It's still not great for long trips, but it works. It's also impressive considering that the Highlander isn't much better, despite its larger exterior size. The dashboard is modern and has nice little details, even if the plastics are a bit cheap. The infotainment is also great to use, and most 2022 models get the upgraded 10.25-inch touchscreen standard. The base LX and some leftover 2021 models get the older, lower-resolution 8-inch system, but it's still similarly easy to use.

So what will you spend to get a Sorento hybrid? That depends a little bit on the model year. The 2021 models started at $34,765, and 2022 examples start at $35,165. Move up from the S to the EX, and you'll spend $37,765, but slightly less on a 2022 at $36,965 on a 2022. The only notable changes to the 2022 model are the aforementioned touchscreen and the addition of optional all-wheel drive to both trims. Both trims are also well equipped. One disappointing aspect is that you can't get the highest SX or rugged-looking X-Line trims with the regular hybrid. While X-Line is strictly gas only, at least the SX is available on the new 2022 Sorento PHEV. In fact, it's the only trim available. Of course, that means it's pricey, starting at around $45,000. At least it comes with a tax rebate and it does have the ability to run in full electric mode, potentially saving even more in fuel costs.

The Sorento hybrid's prices ultimately put it very close to the more powerful non-hybrid turbo model, but considering the fact the Sorento isn't a sporty drive, we'd much prefer the massive fuel economy boost to the extra power. Pricing also puts this small-ish three-row between smaller two-rows and larger three-rows. At the high end of the two-row hybrid set is the CR-V Hybrid with a price of $32,165. At the low end of the big three-rows is the Highlander Hybrid with a $40,070 base price. Certainly if you can do without a third row, you can save a good bit of money, but otherwise, the Sorento is a superb value that should be on your short list of three-row SUVs. It's stylish, spacious and efficient without sacrificing practicality or performance relative the competition.

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