There are plenty of posher diesel 4x4s that cost a lot more. So how does a budget Eastern lad of an off-roader cut the mustard in terrain that would test the toughest of its more up-market rivals? Sue Baker climbed the Atlas mountains and went camping in the Sahara to find out
Dawn has just outlined the ragged crests of the Atlas mountains and I’m off for an early morning walk. When you’ve spent the night in a Berber tent on the edge of the Sahara desert, sleep tends to evaporate rather earlier than usual, especially when your shoes need checking for any scorpions that could have crept in and curled up in them overnight
So here I am, wandering in a landscape unchanged for millennia, when I turn a rocky corner and find I’ve stepped back four thousand years. Camels and donkeys are drinking at an oasis, men wearing clothes from Biblical illustrations are scurrying about. It could be 2,000 BC. Hang on a minute, though. There are some rather intense arc-lights illuminating the scene, and a bustle of activity around a clutch of very modern-looking lorries. It turns out I’ve strolled onto the set of “The Curse of the Mummy”, a blockbuster set in ancient Egypt and being shot for release in I-Max cinemas next year. This isn’t Egypt, though. It’s southern Morocco, a location so popular with film companies that there’s a large studio complex plonked in the middle of the desert near here.
The more intrepid car companies love it too. It’s just been Land Rover’s choice for the international launch of the new Freelander 2, but I’m here with Kia to explore the ruggedness of the latest Sorento. The second generation Sorento makes a good fist of being a down-town boy muscling in on up-town company. But its image is much more Peckham Tractor than seriously capable off-roader, and Kia’s Moroccan foray is all about showing us that it’s tougher than we think. Yes, well… maybe. The sun is now high in the sky and I’ve spent hours in a cement mixer full of granite. At least that’s what it feels like, after having driven along a vicious rocky track clinging precipitously to the side of a deep ravine. It’s best not to look down from the driver’s side window for fear of inducing extreme vertigo.
But the car is doing surprisingly well at scrabbling along in low ratio four-wheeldrive, one of a convoy of dusty Sorentos on a brutal journey. They include a couple of support cars carrying 15 spares to cope with anticipated punctures on what feels like a tyreshredding trek. Remarkably, only two are needed. They’re not special tyres, either. Just regular road tyres coping with a year’s worth of flexing, pounding and friction in an extreme couple of days. Our 45 mile rock safari lasted the whole of the first day and was a punishing trial for the Sorento that verified the toughness of its traditional ladder chassis and dual-frame body construction with solid beam rear axle.
This is the recently revised Sorento, given a facelift and fresh engines back in the summer, and now some four years on from its original launch. It’s 20mm longer with new bumpers, lights, wheels, wheel arches, body mouldings and an interior upgrade. Right now the interior of our car is coated with the ultra-fine dust of Saharan sand that blows in whenever a window or door is opened. It’s like talcum powder with a sandpaper finish to it. Day two of our Moroccan adventure is a stark contrast to yesterday’s rocky ravage. Now comes the chance to let the 2.5 litre double overhead camshaft CRDi engine, with its electrically actuated, variable geometry turbocharger, stretch its legs. And what good legs it’s got with 170PS to play with, and peak torque of 289lb ft at 2,000 rpm.
We cross the High Atlas mountain range on surprisingly smooth, fast roads originally built by the French during their occupation of Morocco. Even with the altitude sapping the power, the Sorento feels perky enough, long-legged and refined. It rides better than we traditionally expect of Korean-built cars, which undoubtedly has much to do with Porsche’s involvement in tuning the suspension during the car’s original development. Our destination is the sand dunes at Tagounite, where Kia courageously – are they mad? – invite us to go dune-bashing in our Sorentos. First the tyres must be deflated from their 42psi road pressure to 20psi to cope with the soft sand. Then it’s a brutal technique of taking a run at a dune and maintaining enough momentum to scramble up one side and thump down over the brow.
It’s the most enormous fun but carcrackingly rough on the machinery. A couple of cars lose wheel-arch trims in our session, and one suffers a ruptured radiator. But it says much for the Sorento’s rugged construction that any survived at all, let alone remained capable of the long drive back over the mountains to Ouarzazate. I was healthily sceptical about the wisdom of all this. Did our Saharan safari really prove the Sorento tougher than we’d imagined? It did. And it’s hardly a coincidence that Kia chose to make the point in the same bit of north Africa that Land Rover chose for showing off the new Freelander 2.
Kia Sorento 2.5 CRDi (170PS) XE 5dr
- Price: £19,995 (2.5 CRDi XE 5 door)
- Engine: 2497cc 4-cyl 16-valves, common-rail injection, turbo
- Max Power: 168 bhp at 3800rpm
- Max Torque: 289lb ft
- Combined Consumption:35.8mpg
- CO2 Emissions (taxband): 209g/km (F)
- 0-62mph: 11.6secs
- Max speed: 113mph
ESP stability control
ABS and EBD
Anti-whiplash active head restraints
Front seatbelt pre-tensioners
Twin front and full-length curtain airbags
Dual-zone air conditioning
JVC CD player with MP3 compatible stereo system
Trip computer / Front fog lamps
16 inch alloys
ISOFIX anchor points
Thatcham approved immobiliser
Electric front and rear windows
Power assisted steering with engine speed sensitive effort
Remote central locking
Leather-covered steering wheel and gearknob
Three 12-volt power outlets
Overhead console with storage and map lamps
60/40 split-folding rear seat
Cargo underfloor storage compartment
Independent flip-up tailgate glass
Electrically adjustable, heated and folding door mirrors
Heated front seats
Front wiper de-icers
Civilised on-road and surprisingly tough in vicious offroad conditions. Lots of standard equipment and excellent value for money
Gearbox could be tauter, meagre door stowage, high boot floor