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AUTO REVIEW: At last, Kia has arrived. But will respect follow?

Kia is a brand that gets no respect. The company's value image and low-rent cars have made it the perfect punch line in late-night monologues; it's the Rodney Dangerfield of the automotive world.

Kia is a brand that gets no respect. The company's value image and low-rent cars have made it the perfect punch line in late-night monologues; it's the Rodney Dangerfield of the automotive world.

Back in 2003, when I reviewed the first Sorento, I wrote the following: "Some of my most unpleasant automotive experiences have been behind the wheel of Kias."

But that's no longer the case. Kia's products are rapidly improving, so much so that perhaps it's time to find a different automotive punching bag.

Hyundai bought Kia out of bankruptcy back in 1997, and Kia's product lineup has turned a corner thanks to former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, who's shaping the sheetmetal for the Korean automaker.

First came the 2009 Kia Soul, the first Kia to really possess any. Next came the 2009 Forte, a solid compact sedan whose value message is underlined by solid design.

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Now, the 2011 Sorento (there is no 2010 model) takes aim at the "cute ute" class, that segment of the market populated by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape -- and the Sorento competes without any apologies.

In trading the trailer park for the cul-de-sac, the Sorento also traded some off-road ability for some on-road comfort. The vehicle is no longer built like a true truck, using a separate body mounted to a frame. Instead, the Sorento uses unibody construction, like a car. While it's no longer a true off-road vehicle, it's better suited for inclement weather, tromping over a freshly-mowed field or running over the azalea at the end of the driveway.

Since most SUV buyers never take their vehicles off-road, there's little loss here. What the Sorento gains in return is an incredible dose of civility.

Thanks should go to parent company Hyundai, for the Sorento's design rests atop a platform shared with the Hyundai Santa Fe, which was all new for 2009.

That means the drivetrains come from -- you guessed it -- Hyundai.

Trim levels include base, LX and EX. Engine choices include a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 273-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. Four-cylinder drivers can choose between a six-speed manual or Kia-designed six-speed automatic that can be shifted manually; the V6 comes only with automatic. Front-wheel- or four-wheel-drive configurations are offered with either engine.

After driving a variety of models from Atlanta to Kia's plant in West Point, Ga., and back, I can safely offer this advice: Skip the four and go with the six. There's a mere one-mile-per-gallon difference in fuel economy between the two engines. Besides, the four feels like it's working hard in this vehicle, which explains its rather low fuel economy ratings. By comparison, the V6 moves this vehicle with ease.

The automatic transmission shifts promptly and unobtrusively when left alone. When shifted manually, the transmission is slow to respond. Don't bother.

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Braking is OK, but most of stopping assist comes at the end of pedal travel. All models feature the expected safety features, such as stability control and numerous air bags. In addition, all models feature downhill brake assist and hill assist control.

After my return to Atlanta, Kia Motors lent me an EX all-wheel-drive V6 for my drive back to Hampton Roads.

While the cute ute class wouldn't be called sporty, the Sorento is fairly responsive. The power steering is hydraulic, not electric as in a number of newer models. While still somewhat light in feel, the steering is quick and has a pleasing feel.

It's not sporty, but it's not the tedium you might otherwise expect from the class.

The ride is where the Sorento sees its biggest improvement. The old model pounded over bumps, while its soft springs made the body rock and roll. The new one is steady while traversing America's crumbling infrastructure, absorbing all but the very worst that the interstates have to dish out. You will notice what's going on, but you won't feel much of it. There's a little tire and road noise, but not enough to be bothersome.

It's a surprisingly quiet place to pass the miles, so it's apt that the Sorento's equipped with satellite radio and an easy-to-use navigation system. Other creature comforts include a panoramic sunroof, leather seating surfaces with seat heaters, push-button ignition, voice-activated navigation, rear back-up cameras, auxiliary and USB jacks for MP3 players, Bluetooth connectivity, air ionization purification and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel.

The Sorento comes with three rows of seats, although that last row is best used for occasional emergencies. Better to fold them down to expand the otherwise meager cargo space. The second row has good leg room, although the seat cushion is a little low. Front-seaters have a commendable amount of room.

While not opulent, the Sorento felt nicely made. The ebonized wood trim warms the interior with a modern edge.

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Kia says the 2011 Sorento will start at less than $20,000 when it goes on sale in January. A fully-loaded sample like the test vehicle shouldn't break $30k.

On the way home from Atlanta, I stopped at Hilton Head Island. When I checked out of the hotel, a valet named Bill brought the Kia around. Getting out of the vehicle, he was impressed. "I need a new SUV, and I wasn't thinking of buying a Kia. But after driving this, I'm going to consider one."

You'll feel the same way.

___

What we say: Trades the trailer park for the cul-de-sac

Pro: Dramatically more refined

Con: Doesn't garner respect

No respect? Guess again

- Consumer Reports ranked Kia 14th of 33 nameplates for reliability.

-The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the Kia Soul a top safety pick.

Stats:

Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC V6

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Length: 183.9 inches

Weight: 3,935 pounds

Cargo space: 9.1-72.5 cubic feet

Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds

EPA rating: (city/highway) 19/27 mpg

Fuel economy: 23.9 mpg

Fuel type: Regular unleaded

Base price: Not available

As tested: Not available

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