Monday, March 30, 2015

Kia Sorento: Luxury isn’t always measured in dollars

Kia Motors Corp. of South Korea is determined to redefine automotive luxury, and to do it by jettisoning the notion of exclusion. It is nothing short of a revolution in which Kia is using technology as a battering ram.

I have written or alluded to something similar in previous columns. Now, having driven the 2016 Kia Sorento SX crossover-utility vehicle with all-wheel drive, I am convinced I am right. Kia is democratizing luxury and, in the process, threatening to upset business models based on exorbitant exclusionary pricing.

Traditionalists will laugh or scoff at this assessment, or roll out arguments in defense of prestige or what they deem to be superior product quality. Let them. Empires have fallen and businesses have gone bankrupt because of less severe miscalculations.

The proof of what I am saying is in the product. To be fair, I drove the most expensive sample — the midsize, all-wheel-drive Sorento SX with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine. It starts at $39,700, with a dealer’s invoice price of $37,328. The model I drove came with an additional $2,440 in options — advanced electronic safety equipment and 19-inch wheels.

There is an $895 factory-to-dealer shipment charge. Total price as tested was $43,035, with a dealer’s invoice price of $40,239.

Traditionalists will argue that that is a lot of money — perhaps too much money — for something called Kia. I counter that what is offered is a lot of Kia for the money, a far better overall value than anything similar offered by many European, Japanese or American automobile manufacturers.

Prestige? The 2016 Sorento — that’s right, the 2016 models are already entering the market — has none of that, certainly nothing comparable with BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Lexus. But it is a beautiful, high-quality, fairly priced product that comes loaded with common sense. There is a strong market worldwide for that sort of thing.

In truth, I don’t know how Kia and its South Korean partner, Hyundai Motor Co., which owns 33.8 percent of Kia, manage to offer so very much for so very little. I have visited the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala., where nonunion U.S automotive workers are paid less than their unionized counterparts in Detroit and elsewhere. I intend to visit Kia Motors Manufacturing in West Point, Ga., where the new Sorento is made, this summer.

But I suspect I’ll find in Georgia what I discovered in Alabama — workers who are so proud of where they work, what they make and how they make it, that many of them wear their factory uniforms to work and home from the job. Folks at Kia are doing something right, and a lot of them seriously care about what they are doing.

Look at the new Sorento. Build quality is excellent throughout. The vehicle feels tight, safe. You look at it and want to drive it. My sample came with side-view mirrors that automatically folded when I turned off the engine and left the vehicle and that extended automatically when I approached it with its electronic key. It also had optional “welcome” and puddle lights.

Cabin comfort, enhanced by seats covered in supple Napa leather, was as good as anything I’ve experienced in several European and Japanese models at nearly three times the cost of the 2016 Sorento SX. Advanced electronic safety equipment — surround-view monitor, lane-departure warning system, blind-spot monitoring, advanced smart cruise control — all worked perfectly. The Sorento SX with all-wheel drive was easy to drive, and it handled beautifully in snowy, icy weather. I left this one strongly questioning why I or anyone else should spend more for an automobile — if the primary objective in buying is to find a car that works reliably, safely, perfectly.