The 2021 Kia Sorento came and conquered the top dog Toyota Highlander, at least in one respect.
The all-new Sorento is available with the model’s first hybrid powertrain, which has been rated at 37 mpg combined compared to the Highlander’s measly 36 mpg.
OK, the difference is really neither here nor there, but as that aficionado of fuel-efficient cars, Dominic Torretto, so eloquently said, “it don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.”
Those numbers are for the front-wheel-drive versions of both vehicles, because the Sorento Hybrid isn’t available with all-wheel drive, so the Highlander Hybrid can continue to rest on its all-season laurels.
The 2021 Sorento is a little larger than the outgoing model and has a more premium look and feel outside and in. It’s not quite as plush as the larger Kia Telluride, which won pretty much every award possible last year, but is well-equipped and presents nicely at its $34,765 starting price.
Six-passenger seating is standard with sliding second-row captain’s chairs and a third row that can accommodate folks up to around six-foot before headroom becomes an issue. Fold the third row down and there’s up to 45 cubic feet of cargo space, but only 12.5 cubic feet behind it if you don’t. Both are less than you get in the Highlander, which starts at $39,685.
The Sorento comes with an impressive suite of active safety features, including pedestrian-detecting automatic emergency brakes and a Lane Following Assist system that keeps the vehicle dead center between highway lines as long as it can see them and you’re touching the wheel.
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Stepping up to the $37,760 EX trim upgrades the automatic brakes to detect cyclists and better handle intersections and adds adaptive cruise control, a wireless charging pad, panoramic sunroof, power tailgate and front parking sensors.
The infotainment system doesn’t offer built-in navigation and the touchscreen is a little laggy, but there is wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto smartphone integration to make the most of it.
The powertrain combines a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with an electric motor to put out a combined 227 hp. Unlike many hybrids, including the 243 hp Highlander, the Sorento relies on a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a shiftless CVT.
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It delivers the power to the wheels as smoothly as can be expected and the powertrain isn’t at all rough. The Sorrento is no tire burner, but with 248 lb-ft of torque it doesn’t have any trouble getting out of its own way and the ride quality is spot-on. Better yet, in real-world testing I saw 37 mpg without going out of my way to drive efficiently.
The Highlander’s fuel economy rating is also hones, and while it offers a little more room and refinement at its higher price, the fact that the Sorento is even getting mentioned with it, let alone a legitimate competitor, is another big win for the Kia.
2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid
Base price: $34,765
Type: 4-door, 6-passenger SUV
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with electric motor assist
Power: 227 hp, 258 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 39 city/35 hwy