Kia has sold SUVs in the United States since 1995, when it introduced the Sportage. Since then, Kia has bolstered the reputation of that SUV by successfully racing it in such extreme off-road arenas as the Baja 1000 and the Paris-Dakar Rally. The Sportage established Kia's presence in America, and proved that SUVs with cute styling are capable of handling rough terrain. Kia also showed that it can sell a trailworthy SUV for an affordable price without sacrificing rugged capability.

Kia expanded on its SUV equation with the Sorento, a midsize SUV with both an eye-catching design and off-road prowess. Many of our judges compared the design of the Sorento to that of more expensive SUVs, including the Lexus RX300. One major feature of this sport utility is that its base price is right around $20,000, making it one of the least expensive SUVs offered with a V-6. Unlike many of the sport utilities on the market, the new Kia has a body-on-frame design, which is advantageous off-road. In addition, it has a full ladder frame, and its double-wishbone/five-link coil spring suspension was built to survive the challenges of the trail. It has part-time four-wheel drive with low range, a limited-slip differential, and skidplates. You can be sure these features will be tested in situations similar to the ones that proved the Sportage's worth.

Tackling trails is only part of what the Sorento is about. This sport utility is powered by a 3.5L V-6 engine, marking the first time an engine this large has been available in a Kia SUV. The judges were torn when it came to the engine/transmission combination in this vehicle. Some felt the drivetrain was too slow and throttle response was disappointing, while others felt that the engine provided enough power for a vehicle of its size at this price point. While its ride is a little rough, the Sorento handles both potholes and sharp curves with ease.

The Sorento's interior reflects the budget-minded nature of this vehicle. Even though the interior looks Spartan, it actually holds a number of impressive features. The gauges and controls were extremely easy to use, making climate control and stereo changes very easy to do while on the road. This vehicle came with many surprising amenities at the price, including power rack-and-pinion steering, dual front airbags with seat position sensors, side curtain airbags, cruise control, power locks, power windows, heated power side mirrors, an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system, and a fullsize spare tire. It has a cloth interior that most of the judges did not care for, as well as seats that were considered uncomfortable.

Sure, this is not an Escalade, but it's not trying to be. Kia made the Sorento to be a reliable, good-looking, affordable sport utility that has more interior space and power than the Sportage. Kia succeeded, manufacturing an SUV that is an incredible value for the money. The manufacturer also prioritized off-road capability over a Cadillac-like ride, a decision that some may disagree with. But, think about this - if you want to visit the backcountry and had the choice between buying a Sorento and an Escalade, which one would you be more comfortable with when driving over rocks? Which one is better suited to the dirt?

Base Price: $21,300
Price As Tested: $22,435
Engine: 3.5L DOHC V-6
Horsepower: 192 hp at 5,500 rpm
Torque: 217 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm
Suspension: Double-wishbone, coil springs, struts (front); five-link, coil springs (rear)
Brakes: Four-wheel disc
4WD/Transmission: Part-time two-speed 4WD with limited-slip differential/electronically controlled four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 106.7 in
Length: 179.8 in
Width: 73.3 in
Height: 68.1 in
Curb Weight: 4,255 lb
Towing Capacity: 3,500 lb
Fuel Economy (city/highway): 15/18 mpg