If there was a turning point when Korean cars were not just thought of as cheap but started to earn respect as worthy in engineering and quality, I'd nominate the introduction of the Kia Sorento in February 2003.
Now, the latest edition Sorento advances that, to add style, comfort and space into the mix, to create an attractive proposition in the medium-large SUV wagon sector.
In these past seven years, other Korean cars have stood up, too. Kia's own Cerato sedan and Koup being a good look in any driveway, sister brand Hyundai becoming a valid big seller and its i30 a big force in the small-car segment, and brands such as Holden sourcing cars from Korea, such as Captiva and the popular Cruze.
The point being: don't dismiss something because it's Korean. The Kia Sorento is an excellent example of a good thing to own and drive if you can overcome any lingering badge snobbery.
Pricing and drivetrains
Sorento is available from $39,990 in petrol, diesel, manual or automatic (each six-speeds) and two-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive. We've been driving the top of the tree, the Sorento Platinum. It comes only with automatic transmission, AWD and the diesel engine which outguns the petrol unit in power and certainly in torque while using less fuel. And at $48,990 (between the prices of a Holden Commodore Sportwagon V8 and SV6) it's pretty well equipped.
Interior and equipment
For starters (literally), you keep the key in pocket or purse, walk to the car and touch the doorhandle for it to unlock. Still without getting out the key, just push the dashboard start-stop button and you're ready to go.
Sorento Platinum has power front seats, a full seven seats, leather trim (though having a durable look and feel rather than soft luxury), a premium audio system of eight speakers, dual-zone airconditioning for driver and front passenger and headlight washers.
There's an electric sunroof (too much wind noise when open at highway speed). The second row passengers have a non-opening glass sunroof as part of the "panorama" roof. The wagon sits on big alloy wheels and tarmac road-biased hefty tyres, Happily, the spare is full size and kept under the rear of the vehicle. It has a foot-pedal park brake.
Centre-dashboard controls are easy to read and understand. Cruise control switches are on the steering wheel right-hand spoke. The D-pillars are wide but those blind spots are helped overcome by large exterior mirrors, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera that has its almost-9cm colour screen appear in the left of the interior rear view mirror, a perfect spot for it.
Front occupants get good elbow room. Scond row passengers have improved leg room and a reclining back rest, the middle person getting a flat floor for their feet, and the pair of third row seats are just OK for average-sized adults if they keep their heads forward. The third row also gets variable-fan vents.
Luggage space is minimal with the third row seats up (no surprise) but those seats easily fold to a flat floor, as do the 40/60 second trow. Even better for families, Kia Sorento has ESP, spread of airbags and a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.
This latest Sorento is a complete re-design of the earlier model. First the good news: it is more car-like thanks to a monocoque body, it has lower entry and floor level, is sleeker, more modern looking and the new suspension MacPherson strut at front and independent multi-link at the rear gives a far better ride comfort. The lower centre of gravity helps handling.
Now the bad news, at least for 4WD adventurers: it no longer has low-range transmission, its lost 19mm in ground clearance and the front overhang is 105mm longer. It will still take to a bumpy dirt track in quite some comfort but is no longer an off-roader.
A dash button gives all-wheel-drive lock but otherwise it's front-drive and AWD on demand. Technology is some help with a feet-off downhill creep control and traction control, but a limiting factor will be the tyres designed for tarmac, not clay. For 4WD pundits who want to check, it has a 25 degree approach angle, 23 departure and 17 degree rampover with 184mm ground clearance.
The sump "guard" is merely plastic. Exterior mirrors fold in electrically -- just as useful in parking by a bike lane as negotiating bushes and trees.
So consider this an all-wheel-drive SUV luxury wagon and not a bush-basher and it will do the job nicely. The diesel engine is a beauty. A typical rattle on cold start but once warm, barely noticeable, unless 2500-plus rpm is used for sharp overtaking or hillclimbing, when there is a buzz. We did mostly urban driving yet still achieved 8.3 litres/100km economy, this in a 1960kg SUV. It's even better country cruising a whisker under 2000rpm at 110km/h in sixth gear.
Kia Sorento Platinum
Engine: Four-cylinder, diesel, variable geometry turbocharger, 2199cc
Power: 145kW@ @ 3800rpm
Torque: 436Nm @ 1800-2500rpm
Fuel: official 7.4 litres/100km; on test 8.3 litres/100km; tank 70 litres.
Emissions: 194g/km C02
Brakes: Front 231mm ventilated disc, rear 302mm solid disc; ABS.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, sequential shift mode; on-demand all-wheel-drive, AWD lock button.
Wheels/tyres: 18in diameter alloy; 235/60; full-size spare
Dimensions: 4685mm long, 1885mm wide, 1755mm high, 2700mm wheelbase; 1959kg; luggage space (five seats up) 1047 litres
Tows: unbraked 750kg; braked 2000kg
Mitsubishi Challenger LS seven-seat (diesel) $48,890;
Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander (diesel) $48,490;
Toyota Kluger KX-R (4x4 petrol) seven-seat, $48,490.