Introduction

It seems like just yesterday that Kia was fielding quirky offerings like, well, the previous-generation Sorento, a traditional body-on-frame SUV that never really caught on in America. But this company learns quickly. The all-new 2011 Kia Sorento boasts the carlike unibody construction (and the subsequent carlike ride) that Americans crave, and it's got most of the other bases covered, too. Perhaps most impressively, it starts at around $20,000, pitting it squarely against perennial compact-crossover all-stars like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

The Sorento's most obvious advantage over these models is its near-midsize dimensions. Longer than both rivals, the Sorento capitalizes with an optional third-row seat that's actually inhabitable by adults for short trips; the RAV4's third row, conversely, is strictly for kids, and the CR-V doesn't even offer one. The Sorento also features a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines, just like the Toyota, while the Honda is four-cylinder only.

The base four-cylinder, however, is merely adequate, which isn't surprising given that its 175 horses are tasked with moving more than 3,600 pounds of crossover. It's punchy enough around town, but sounds somewhat strained at higher rpm, and it's not as good on gas as the thriftiest fours in this segment. Another mild demerit goes to the second-row seat, which doesn't slide fore and aft like those of the Sorento's main competitors.

Overall, though, the Sorento is a highly impressive effort. Whereas past Kias have tended to be purchased primarily because of value, the Sorento is a legitimate contender that just happens to have an affordable price. In addition to the aforementioned Honda and Toyota, we'd recommend the Chevrolet Equinox, Mazda CX-7 and Subaru Forester, as well as Kia's smaller Sportage. But we wouldn't hesitate to recommend the 2011 Kia Sorento. It's a rolling exhibit of how far this automaker has come in recent years.

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