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News alert for station-wagon fans: The once-dominant family haulers aren't coming back. At least that's the impression buyers get by visiting any new-car dealership these days.
Long gone are the times when a station wagon would meet the needs of buyers who had large families to haul around. Instead, modern new-car buyers can find a variety of crossover vehicles with minivan-like seating and quasi-SUV off-road capabilities.
Kia Motors wasn't even selling cars in Canada when the sports-utility-vehicle craze was running rampant in the '90s (initiated by the Ford Explorer), yet today the Korean brand offers one of the more capable offerings in the mid-size, three-row, crossover class: the 2014 Sorento SX.
More than likely, you're familiar with the Sorento. Kia's been selling it in Canada since 2002. For the 2011 model year, the second-generation model became more relevant in the marketplace, moving from its predecessor's body-on-frame chassis to a more modern unibody chassis. And for 2014, the Sorento receives a slight styling update, an upgraded cabin and a new, more powerful V6 engine. Plus, Kia says the Sorento's ride quality and steering feel have also been improved, as has Kia's UVO voice activation system.
You can get into a 2014 Sorento LX for $28,390 (all prices include freight and pre-delivery inspection fees). But it's powered by a 191-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine, has seats for only five people and has front-wheel drive. My tester, however, was a top-line, $43,460 Sorento SX with traction at all four wheels, third-row seating for up to seven passengers and plenty of goodies normally associated with a six-figure German luxury sedan, as in cooled front seats, navigation system, panoramic sunroof, 10-speaker Infinity sound system and blind-spot detection -- among other niceties. One of the upgrades you'll appreciate is the Sorento SX's new six-cylinder gas engine. It's the same 3.3-litre, direct-injected mill and six-speed automatic transmission combo found in the Kia's Hyundai Santa Fe platform-mate (another mid-size crossover that station wagon buyers should put on their short list).
With 290 hp and 252 pound-feet of torque, the Hyundai/Kia V6 is right at the top of the class in power ratings. But with less weight to haul around (1,906 kilograms versus 1,968), the Sorento SX only takes 7.2 seconds to go from zero to 100 kilometres per hour -- a half-second quicker than the $44,959 Santa Fe XL Limited. Even with five on board and a week's worth of groceries and kids' sports paraphernalia, the Sorento and its V6 never felt laboured.
The Sorento SX's fuel economy is average for its class. Estimated at 11.9 litres per 100 km in the city and 8.4 on the highway, I saw an average of 12.8 from mainly urban driving.
When it comes to hauling duties, the Sorento's 100-millimetre shorter wheelbase means it's less practical than the longer Santa Fe XL. In the Hyundai, rear-seat passengers will definitely be happier than in the cosier Kia. As well, the Hyundai offers a maximum of 2,265 litres of cargo space, compared to the Kia's 2,052 rating and can tow up to 2,268 kilograms, versus the Sorento SX's 1,588.
Although the Hyundai obviously offers more cabin space, keen drivers will prefer the design and functionality of the Kia's driver-oriented cockpit. The Sorento SX's digital graphics found in front of the driver and on the large central console screen are sharp, clean and easy to read. The Kia's driving position also feels more like a car than an SUV (you don't sit too tall in the saddle), and its seats do a better job holding the driver in place.
Once on the move, the Kia continues to please. Kia engineers deserve kudos for the Sorento's sporty road manners. Combined with a more rigid body, new front subframe and upper brace, and a subframe-mounted multi-link rear suspension, as well as revised shocks, springs, and bushings, the Sorento SX is much more athletic to drive than its heavier and longer Santa Fe XL rival. It's no sports compact, but the Kia resists rolling in corners more, without any untoward motions when cornering hard. And like the Hyundai, the Kia comes with a new three-mode (Comfort, Normal, Sport) electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. But the setup in the Kia offers more accuracy and off-centre heft.
Overall, the Kia can't match how quiet and refined the Hyundai feels when you're not driving it like a sport wagon. With the Santa Fe XL's longer wheelbase, that SUV delivers a much smoother ride than the sportier Sorento SX. But if you like to drive, and your cargo/passenger/towing requirements aren't at the top of your buying list, the 2014 Kia Sorento SX -- if not a true station wagon -- is a sweet-riding family machine.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014