Mountain Wheels: Is Kia’s 2016 Sorento the great leap forward, at last? |

Mountain Wheels: Is Kia’s 2016 Sorento the great leap forward, at last?

2016 Kia Sorento

MSRP: $24,900-$41,300, plus $895 destination; $1,800 for AWD

Powertrains: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 3.3-liter V-6; six-speed automatic; AWD as option

TRUCKEE, Calif. — After one particularly weird week of news about the power and influence of North Korea (who knew, right?), it’s probably a fitting time to officially welcome South Korea’s car makers to the 21st, or maybe 22nd, century.

The automotive press came to Northstar California Resort in Lake Tahoe for a fairly auspicious event, that being the launch of the all-new Kia Sorento.

And the 2016 Sorento promises to significantly change American opinions on the positive qualities of new Korean automobiles — as Sorento is a pretty classy machine.

The problem, as Kia’s operatives admit, is that while the company has certainly made a quantum leap over its two decades in the U.S., even its very expensive media campaign (that now includes LeBron James, in addition to those dancing hamsters) isn’t quite enough to erase most car buyers’ mental image of Kia’s early days.

I’d encourage naysayers who are in the market for a vehicle the size and status of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or a Toyota Highlander to check out the new, seven-passenger Sorento when it appears early next year — and see the great leap forward for themselves.

For this is a vehicle that really does embody Japanese-inspired technology along with American ruggedness and people-hauling capacity, but is priced well below its primary competitors (starting at $24,900, actually). It’s also made in Georgia, if that helps seal the deal at all.

To start with, the new Sorento is quite attractive, with a chrome-edged, futuristic look that includes attractively sculpted flanks and those distinctive four-lens foglamps — creating a body style that’s reminiscent of the larger Toyota SUVs, but unique in its own way.

Inside, the hard plastics of the old days have been replaced by soft-touch materials, and the thoroughly modern cabin is designed very much like a huge version of the new Kia Soul — with a broad dash broken up in the middle by an oversized pod containing the navigation and audio head unit.

Depending on the model, you get glossy highlights on the steering wheel, very comfortable ventilated and heated leather seating (even in the second row), the standard litany of electronic safety features and an absolutely gigantic rear section, meaning significant and very comfortable room in the second row and decent short-trip space in the third.

To spice things up for 2016, Sorento now includes three engine choices, a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 290-HP 3.3-liter V-6, as well as a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, providing 240 horses and middle-of-the-range fuel economy.

What does that mean on the road? It’s absolutely quiet on the inside, and the precise feel of the steering and the muted balance of the suspension really do make it feel like a whole new deal for Kia. They’ve blended the driving mode switches so you now get both a sportier steering feel and transmission response, rather than having two systems handling those aspects.

Size is up overall — about 3 inches longer, and a 3-inch-longer wheelbase — and by dropping the floorpan about 2 inches, the whole vehicle has become roomier. You can outfit the whole cabin in top-quality Nappa leather, as well.

They’ve also done wonders with the car’s overall air flow — there’s a series of underbody panels to help quietly slipstream the Sorento as it rolls along, plus a rear spoiler.

Some new touches are more subtle than others — like the carpeted walls of the rear cargo area, making it a more secure spot for carrying all of your goodies.

And a few parts are just plain-old cutting edge. Set it to do so and the rear liftgate will magically open when you approach the car — no foot-sweeping or button-pressing required. There’s also an optional 630-watt Infinity stereo with a compression system to make your MP3s and satellite radio signal sound much, much better.

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