Richard Dredge comes up with the ultimate tow test – two weeks and more than 3,000 miles across Europe, taking in every type of terrain. Is the Kia Sorento up to the job?
I had a phone call at the end of last year, asking me if I fancied driving down to Italy this summer, for a couple of weeks of hot air ballooning, soaking up the sun and enjoying some great food. It was a tough choice to make, bearing in mind that my West Midlands home has felt more like it’s based in the Arctic for the last three non-summers.
My friend was Howard, the event was a ballooning festival in Todi (more than half-way down Italy) and the trip would cover over 3,000 miles. The plan was to share the driving with him and his wife Marion, taking his Land Rover Discovery 3 TDV6. When I suggested we could take my Kia Sportage long-termer, Howard’s eyes lit up, but there was a hitch – or more precisely, there wasn’t, so we wouldn’t be able to tow the trailer. But a call to Kia soon sorted things; I could take my pick from tow bar-equipped Sportages or Sorentos.
Four-wheel drive is essential for retrieving hot-air balloons, as is a decent amount of low-down torque plus ample ground clearance; many is the time we’ve had to retrieve the balloon from a muddy hillside field. My long-term Sportage has front-wheel drive only and not really the necessary torque; the Sorento 2.2 CRDi offered was just the job though, especially as it came equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission.
We allowed three days for the 1,300-mile drive from Worcester to Todi, driving down through France before crossing over into Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel. In ambient temperatures of over 30 degrees we sat in climate-controlled comfort at 75 to 80mph. Unsurprisingly, at those speeds the fuel consumption was pretty heavy; Howard’s balloon trailer is the world’s least aerodynamic, so it’s no surprise that we averaged just 22mpg on the run down, compared with Kia’s claimed average of 38.2mpg (the manual is pegged at 42.2mpg). For the return journey we kept the cruise control set to 100kph (62mph), allowing an extra day to get home. The result of our restraint was a decrease in fuel consumption to around 29mpg; pretty good considering the overall weight and lack of aerodynamics for the Kia and trailer ensemble.
With the return journey, plus a fair bit of sightseeing and flying while in Italy – the latter meaning having to be shadowed by the Kia with its trailer – the overall mileage was around 3,300 miles. Not much of it was done at slow speeds, while the climate control was on permanently, reducing the cabin temperatures by at least ten degrees. Unsurprisingly, the Kia took everything in its stride. Comfort levels proved impressive, although a longish five-up stint showed that whoever has to sit in the middle of the rear seat will soon be complaining about the hard ride. And while the Sorento comes with a third row of pop-up seats in the boot, this isn’t really a car for seven adults – or even large kids, if the trip is most of the way across Europe.
The huge array of standard kit fitted to the Sorento also proved very welcome; this is a car that wants for nothing, although a height-adjustable passenger seat would have been welcome along with an extra 12-volt socket or two. Especially useful was the rear parking camera; thanks to the lens looking down from the top of the tailgate, it made the driver’s life much easier when it came to lining up the car with the trailer’s tow hitch each time we set off.
So, comfort, equipment and space all get the thumbs up, but what about performance? Because we rarely get the chance to tow anything with our test cars, it’s easy to forget that these large SUVs are ideally suited to the task in theory – if not necessarily in practice. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you can easily pull anything up to the manufacturer’s nominated limit, but things are never that simple. It’s best to pull nothing that weighs more than 85 per cent of the car’s kerb weight, for fear of the tail wagging the dog in the event of a sudden manoeuvre.
In automatic form the Kia’s towing limit is 2,000kg, but it’s 2,500kg in manual guise. With our trailer weighing just under a tonne, in theory we should have barely noticed it attached. But while vehicles like the VW Touareg, Toyota Land Cruiser and Jeep Grand Cherokee have all made light work of Howard’s trailer thanks to their 3.0-litre engines, the 2.2–litre Sorento (unsurprisingly) had to work harder. The revs had to be used more on hills, and while the car didn’t struggle at all, when extended the four-pot gets quite raucous. There was also sometimes a reluctance to change down when ascending hills, but thanks to the sequential manual option, a lower ratio could easily be engaged to keep those revs up. On the motorway the relatively small engine wasn’t an issue at all – especially once the cruise control was set to 60mph instead of 75. The Sorento made light work of towing at speed, with things helped by our boxy trailer’s relatively low weight. And while even a hefty twin-axled caravan is unlikely to faze the Sorento on a trans-European jaunt, if you’re tackling twisty and hilly A-roads the auto box might prove wearing after a while because of its occasional reluctance to kick down. A manual transmission (or over-riding the auto) would help here, as you can then control the revs more easily.
Where the Sorento really scored on our trip was when retrieving in hilly off-road situations – Howard likes to land well off the beaten track where possible. After all, why make it easy for his retrieve crew? There was no grounding, struggling for grip or complaints from the Kia at all – it just dealt with whatever we threw at it.
The key issue though is that at a smidgeon under £33,500, this range-topping Sorento is rubbing shoulders with some pretty talented rivals, such as the Land Discovery 4 and Toyota Land Cruiser, both equipped with 3.0-litre engines. As a result they’re torquier and smoother, although at this money you’d have to settle for an entry-level model, so it’s a question of trading kit for power. Alternatively you could opt for a 3.2-litre Mitsubishi Shogun which gives you pulling power and kit, although the overall package feels dated – but it excels in off-road situations. Chevrolet’s new Captiva already feels underwhelming, but there’s a decent warranty and plenty of standard equipment. Even better, a range-topping seven-seater auto weighs in at around £1,500 less than the Kia, but you’ll still feel like you’ve been short-changed. You’d also be daft to overlook the Sorento’s Hyundai Sante Fe cousin, which offers a lot for the money, but it’s getting on now, although it’s very competitively priced at almost £6k less than the Sorento. As a result, while the Captiva, Shogun and Santa Fe are all on-paper rivals for the Sorento, none of them quite manages to offer the all-round talents of the Kia. And that’s definitely not a load of hot air.