The Terrific, Underrated 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX

kia logo new 2021Kia is one of those carmakers that keeps improving its product year over year, without the car buying public necessarily realizing it’s happening. One of my buddies is a big fan of both Kia and Hyundai, both Korean-based car manufacturers, so I hear all about the latest improvements and model releases. As a result, I was definitely interested when Kia offered me the chance to drive the 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX and was appreciative when the “Runway Red” vehicle showed up in my driveway. It’s a solid SUV choice.

Quick aside: They refer to the Hybrid EX model as an “HEV”, which led me to believe it was a plug-in hybrid EV. It’s not. The Hybrid EX is, in fact, a standard hybrid drivetrain, which means it’s reasonably peppy with its 1.6L turbocharged GDI hybrid powertrain and 6-speed automatic (not the more common CVT gearing system). From a stop it definitely had that hesitation that’s so common in ICE (internal combustion engines) cars, but once you’re up to speed, the Sorento is very responsive.

But let’s start with an exterior shot. It’s a very pretty car:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - exterior front

The sleek lines, nicely designed wheels that give you an impression of forward motion even when it’s parked, and, of course, that gorgeous red. What is it with red nowadays anyway? All the car companies now have stunning reds in a way that just wasn’t available a decade ago. Of course, like everyone else, Kia also charges a premium for this color: Runway Red is an additional $445 on the price tag. More coats? A special overcoat?

Let’s jump inside the vehicle…

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - interior front dash

A straightforward design and layout that would have a new driver up to speed (so to speak!) quite quickly. Many manufacturers are slapping faux wood finishes on the dash and other details to create a premium package, but I’d rather save $10K or more on my vehicle purchase and have something a bit more utilitarian. Not that it doesn’t feel upscale, but this is a three-row SUV with terrific fuel efficiency and sleek looks that prices out at well under $40K, something you can’t say about most other manufacturer offerings.

There are also lots of excellent touches that show Kia’s terrific attention to detail. Consider the below:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - hvac infotainment

You can’t quite see it because of the sun glare, but the AUTO button on the climate controls area has three tiny indicator lights because it allows you to change the fan level while retaining the rest of the automatic controls. I used this constantly, cranking up the fan with AUTO to cool down the car, then moving to a lower fan level so I could converse with passengers. This is definitely something I wish I had on my personal vehicle but as is typical, if you want to change fan speed, you depart auto entirely, which is just poor design.

On the right side of the Sorento climate control section are two buttons labeled FRONT and BACK. No puzzling over cryptic icons to figure out which is going to help defrost or defog the front windshield; Kia’s added words to take away the confusion. Again, smart design.

The infotainment system with its relatively modest 8-inch screen offered all the basic functionality, including wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Between that and Sirius XM, I didn’t listen to the AM/FM radio for a single minute in the week I drove the vehicle. Indeed, I wonder how many people listen to AM/FM radio at all with the extraordinary wealth of options available through our mobile devices. Oh, and there’s this feature:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - anc active noise cancelling

Kia has built-in an active noise canceling feature just like ANC headphones. It doesn’t remove all road and ambient noise, which would be bad: ya still need to hear emergency vehicles, but it was a pretty quiet ride, which I attribute to this particular feature. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the Dodge design of piping engine sounds into the cabin for people that want to enjoy that deep, throaty rumble of their Challenger Hellcat. No, the Kia most assuredly does not have that same engine sound. 🙂

While we’re looking at the dashboard, here’s the main gauge area:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - main gauge

The vehicle’s rated 39/35 so that 38.4 mpg is right on target for fuel efficiency. And let me say that approx. 40mpg is very good for a vehicle of this size and capacity! Of course, I have no idea why the designers decided that a 3D bar made sense for the visual display of instantaneous fuel efficiency, but that’s another story.

Now to one of the features I did not actually like very much: The gear change system.

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - center console gear shift knob

Located between the front seats, gears are shifted from R-N-D by spinning the big knob in the appropriate direction. To move into Park the driver pushes the “P” button in the middle of the shifter knob. More than once, however, I found myself in reverse when I thought I had moved into park. Driver error, I know, but why did Kia opt for this control versus a more traditional shifter? The vehicle has an automatic parking brake feature which I found a bit frustrating too; once enabled you had to push on the gas pedal to disengage it, even if you were on a hill and wanted to roll to pull out of a driveway or parking spot.

Worse, with full-on nanny mode, the vehicle won’t let you shift from park into drive and go without having your seat belt fastened. I wear my seatbelt consistently, but if I’m backing up the Sorento Hybrid EX a foot or two to allow access to my garage, it seemed a bit much to have it beeping and displaying an error on the gauge display. This is probably something you can disable in Setup, but I didn’t check.

Okay, stepping outside, the vehicle has okay legroom for the second row passengers:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - rear leg room

Again, being less of a high-end luxury vehicle, the Sorento doesn’t have headrest-mounted displays for the kids, just a basic rear passenger experience. Every row does have USB charging ports, however, so at least the kids can charge their devices while they stare at ’em with rapt attention.

The third row? You can get a sense of it and the overall cargo capacity from this photo:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - rear cargo third row seats

If you’re analyzing the angles in your head, you’re right. The third row has very little legroom, and there’s not much cargo space if you do have the third row of seats up. Then again, tilt them down and you’ll find there’s plenty of storage space, though since the middle seats don’t fold down entirely flat, it’s not an optional flat space all the way to the driver’s seat.

And, finally, the rear exterior, hatch closed:

2021 kia sorento hybrid ex - rear exterior

All in all, There’s a lot to like with this six passenger hybrid SUV. It’s got the look, has a safe, solid feel, and space for your kids to bring their friends home from school (or you to load up your drumset for the next gig). The array of smart safety features are solid too, from smart cruise control to blindside warnings, lane keep assist, forward collision avoidance, even a rear occupant alert with ultrasonic sensors. This is definitely one to add to your shortlist if you’re in the market for a family SUV or just like the idea of being in a bigger vehicle while still getting very good fuel efficiency, all at a reasonable price.

CONFIGURATION: 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX in Runway Red with Gray interior. 1.6L turbo GDI Hybrid Powertrain, 227hp, 6-speed automatic. MSRP: $36,590. AS DRIVEN: surcharge for Runway Red ($445). $38,205.00.

Disclosure: Kia loaned me the Sorento Hybrid EX for a week in return for this writeup. Thanks, Kia!

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