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2003 Kia Sorento

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SAN FRANCISCO: The women's magazines my wife enjoys frequently run articles that teach canny shoppers how to get the Saks Fifth Avenue look on a K-Mart budget. The $300 purse is replicated for $39.95, the $5,000 dress for $199. It is much the same for the attractive new Kia Sorento midsize sport utility vehicle.

The new Sorento looks a lot like an Acura MDX or a Lexus RX300, yet a fully loaded Sorento sells for a price about $10,000 less than those worthy vehicles. And compared to the SUVs in the Sorento's price range, it is a very tempting package.

Kia is no newcomer to the SUV market. The Kia Sportage practically founded the small SUV segment nearly 10 years ago. However, the Sportage, despite its cuteness and apparent ruggedness, felt less refined than the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 that followed it. Now, the Sportage takes a well-earned rest for the 2003 model year, leaving the larger Sorento to itself in the SUV section of the Kia showroom until the 2004 Sportage arrives.

I found my test Sorento parked next to an RX300 and was astounded at the design similarities. The sweep of the fenders, sharply defined headlight area, and high tail and greenhouse make the cars look like brothers. The door handles are almost identical. Kia has truly made it to the majors.

That doesn't mean that the Kia and Lexus are identical, but it was hard to find anything about the Kia to pick on. The body takes a little risk at the rear with its upturned lower taillamp line, but everything else is a pleasing blend of rounded forms with today's trendy edges. The effect is one of substantial luxury, a quality not historically associated with the Kia brand.

The interior offers some surprises. The matte finish surfaces look anything but cheap, and the brushed metal trim on the steering wheel and shifter base is a delight to the hand and eye. The black and chrome Kia logo on the steering wheel is perfect. The metallic circles inside the gauge needles convey Audi successfully. The metal threshold plates add elegance to the doorways and should wear well.

Kia's petroleum-based wood has improved substantially, but it's still not the real thing. But do you ever get genuine timber in a $20,000 car?

In back, the window shade-style cargo cover moves in tracks, a welcome change from some others that are difficult to close quickly or evenly. There is a handy storage compartment under the back floor. A sturdy handle on the rear hatch makes pulling it down easy.

The Sorento gets a full 3.5 liters worth of V6 engine under the hood for motivation. Despite being 15 percent larger in displacement than the Lexus' 3.0-liter V6, it puts out a modest 192 horsepower to the Lexus' 220. The Acura MDX gets an eye-opening 260 horsepower from its 3.5-liter engine. I found that the 192 horses were plenty for all occasions, but the RX300 beat it in fuel economy, with 19 city, 23 highway versus 15 city, 20 highway for the Kia.

On the road, the Sorento glides along with fluidity and confidence. In four-wheel-drive models, Kia provides a choice of a full-service torque-on-demand system with a two-speed transfer case or completely automatic four-wheel-drive, like the Lexus and Acura. Two-wheel-drive is standard and perfectly fine for normal driving.

Like Honda, Kia offers its Sorento in two levels, a well equipped (LX) and very well equipped (EX). The base LX model includes automatic transmission, eight-speaker AM/FM/CD system, power windows and locks, cruise control, air conditioning, privacy glass, and more. The upscale EX version adds a long list of extras, such as alloy wheels, fog lights, a power moonroof, an integrated roof rack, a 10-speaker AM/FM/CD/cassette audio system with steering wheel controls, auto-dimming rear view mirror, and keyless entry. In the EX you also get leather on the steering wheel, the Homelink system, a power driver's seat, and a two-tone exterior.

To take the uplevel EX even higher, a Luxury Package adds a list starting with heated seats, automatic headlamps, and automatic climate control. Pricing for the Sorento runs from the base 4x2 LX at just $19,500 to $24,100 for the EX and about $26,000 for the EX with the Luxury package. That's the loaded condition I found myself in with my test unit, and I liked it.

One feature with which the Kia simply towers over its rivals is its warranty plan: 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, five-year or 60,000-mile limited basic warranty, and five-year or 100,000-mile anti-perforation warranty. You also get a five-year unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan.

Since it first started selling cars under its own name in America in 1994, Kia has grown from the subcompact Sephia sedan and spunky Sportage to a full line of vehicles, including the economical Rio, midsize Optima, and Sedona minivan. With their full rosters of equipment, good looks, and true value pricing, it's not only the look for less, it's the look that gets looked at. By Steve Schaefer AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

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Byline:  Syndicated content provided by Tony Leopardo AutoWire.Net
Column Name:  An attractive new midsize sport utility vehicle
Topic:  2003 Kia Sorento
Word Count:   902
Photo Caption:  The Kia Sorento
Photo Credits:  Kia Internet Media
Series #:   2002 - 34

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