In a relatively few years, Kia has transformed itself from an auto company that couldn’t make it to first base with buyers to one that keeps coming up with hit after hit.

In auto industry years, the transformation has been as swift as a Josh Beckett or Joba Chamberlain fastball. Kia didn’t start selling vehicles in the U.S. under its own brand name until 1994. It had one model at that time — the Sephia — and the only place you could buy it was at one of Kia’s four dealerships, all of which were located in Portland, Oregon.

Despite expansion of its dealer network and the introduction of its popular Sportage compact SUV, Kia stumbled rounding first base. It declared bankruptcy in 1997, and was bailed out a year later when fellow Korean automaker Hyundai purchased a controlling interest in the company.

But within eight years Kia had regained control of its own destiny and broken ground for its first U.S. manufacturing plant, a state-of-the-art, $1-billion facility in West Point, Ga.

The 2011 Kia Sorento that I recently tested is the first model produced at that plant. My week-long evaluation suggests that it is one of the most promising debuts since the Red Sox’s Fred Lynn was named both American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1975.

Technically, the Sorento isn’t a rookie because it has been around since the 2003 model year. But the 2011 model and its predecessors have about as much in common as Yankees and Red Sox fans.

The term “all-new” is used too freely by many automakers. But it is aptly applied to the Sorento, which is so different from its predecessors one wonders why Kia kept the model name.

The old Sorento was a somewhat cumbersome SUV built on a truck-type, full-frame chassis. The 2011 Sorento is new from the tires up, featuring lighter yet more rigid car-like unibody construction.

As a result, the Sorento zips right toward the head of the small-to-midsize crossover class in terms of refinement, performance, comfort and versatility. Add to the mix Kia’s celebrated value and a wide choice of configurations and options, and you’ve got a vehicle that can step right up to the plate to face the likes of other stars such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Typical of Kia’s marketing strategy, the Sorento generally provides more goodies per dollar than its competitors.

Even the least expensive model is equipped with power windows, mirrors and door locks; a tilt/telescope steering wheel with audio controls; Bluetooth connectivity; satellite radio; auxiliary and USB inputs; and alloy wheels.

Safety equipment includes stability and traction control systems, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and an array of front, side and side-curtain air bags.

A Sorento EX such as the one tested includes a long list of upgrades. The list includes a six-speed automatic transmission, dual-zone auto climate control, remote keyless entry with pushbutton starting, backup camera and warning system and an eight-way power driver’s seat.

The EX starts at $24,595 with front-wheel drive and a 175-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. Upgrading to an EX with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, all-wheel drive and third-row seating costs another $4,300.

You get a lot of goodies for $28,895, but Kia didn’t stop there on the test vehicle. My Sorento had just about every option package offered by Kia, including a terrific navigation system, rear entertainment system, and a panoramic moonroof. That pushed its asking price past $35,000.

That’s definitely getting up there for vehicles in the Sorento’s class. But let’s not kid ourselves; you don’t have to sign a free-agent contract with the Yankees to afford a fully loaded Sorento.

What you’re getting for the money — aside from just about every creature comfort and safety feature offered in the small-to-midsize crossover class — is a vehicle that is powerful, versatile, fun to drive and comfortable.

That’s not comfortable as in cushy soft. Look elsewhere if you want your crossover to ride like a 1989 Oldsmobile. The 2011 Sorento’s ride is comfortable but firm — similar to that of European touring sedans.

But the test car’s ride was never jarring, and its handling seemed to benefit from its firm suspension tuning. I could dive into a sharp corner without worrying about struggling to hold my line due to lack of grip or too much body lean.

Instead, the Sorento seems to enjoy spirited driving, feeling much more like a sporty car than a truck on twisting back roads.

Its nicely weighted and responsive steering helps make it fun to drive in those situations. Yet get it out on the interstate and the Sorento is cruises comfortably at 75 mph without wandering left or right from the weight of the driver’s hand on the steering wheel

The Sorento’s accommodating cabin contributes to its comfortable highway cruising. Kia has done a terrific job of keeping the cabin quiet. Wind, road and mechanical noises are so well muted that the Sorento again feels more like a European touring sedan than a typical compact crossover.

Its potent 3.5-liter V-6 contributes to that impression. This engine is a legitimate power-hitter, delivering the kind of punch any team wants in the heart of its lineup. Whether accelerating from a dead stop or passing on the highway, the Sorento moves out with the kind of zip not often found in its class.

Yet it still manages to get pretty good fuel economy. The EPA rating of 19 city/25 highway miles per gallon for a roomy and powerful all-wheel drive crossover with seven-passenger seating puts the Sorento near the top of the standings in its league.

And the real-world fuel economy this lead-footed tester got is even more impressive. I averaged over 21 mpg during a week of driving, which gives the Sorento World Series potential.

If I were taking my family out to the ballgame, I can’t think of many crossovers in this class I’d rather be driving than Kia’s 2011 Sorento.

 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Maine Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

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