CLE ELUM, Washington - At a time when many automakers are searching for ways to divest themselves of larger SUVs, in favor of small fuel-efficient vehicles, Kia is taking another tack for 2009. After building its reputation on moderately-priced compact and midsize models, the South Korean automaker is introducing a brand-new SUV. Unlike the current Sportage and Sorento, this one is built with traditional body-on-frame construction and offers a choice of V-6 or V-8 power.
Seven-passenger (three-row) seating is standard in the 2009 Borrego, which is based on the Mesa concept vehicle that was seen at 2005 auto shows. Roomier than the Sorento, it's considered a premium midsize SUV by Kia.
Not only does the second-row seat recline, but it leans forward to provide a "walk-in" for third-row access. Depending on engine, the Borrego can tow as much as 7,500 pounds.
Primary midsize competitors include the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Toyota 4Runner. Kia's main target audience is domestic SUV owners who are looking for an upgrade.
Kia's 3.8-liter V-6 develops 276 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. Borrowed from the Genesis (newly introduced by Hyundai, which is Kia's corporate parent), the 4.6-liter Tau V-8 generates 337 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 323 pound-feet at 3500 rpm. Both engines use regular fuel. Kia's first six-speed automatic transmission, a ZF unit, goes into V-8 models, while the V-6 mates with a five-speed automatic. Full-time four-wheel drive is available.
Six airbags and Electronic Stability Control are standard. So is a Brake Assist System, to enhance braking in emergency stops. Kia isn't pushing the Borrego's off-road capabilities, and provided no such course during the media preview drive. Downhill Brake Control and Hill Start Assist, however, should ease operation if an owner decides to leave the pavement.
LED turn signals are incorporated into outside mirrors - a Kia first. A backup warning is standard, and a rearview camera with a 3.5-inch viewing screen is available. So are a navigation system and power-adjustable pedals.
Performance with the V-6 is generally adequate, but stepping on the gas at 60 mph or so produces tepid response. Acceleration to pass/merge with the V-8 engine is very smooth, but not so much swifter than the V-6, considering the amount of available horsepower and torque. Automatic-transmission shifts with the V-8's six-speed often go unnoticed. At other times, the gear changes are curt but smooth.
Easy to drive, the Borrego feels almost carlike at times, but occasionally becomes just a tad unsure of itself in curves. Steering with a moderately light touch, the Borrego isn't quite as precise as some SUVs - close, but not entirely there. Just a bit more attention may be needed to stay on course.
Ride comfort varies with the territory. Expect a lovely ride experience on truly smooth surfaces. When the pavement reveals some imperfections, the Borrego's suspension can turn a trifle harsh. Sometimes, more than a trifle. On even mildly uneven surfaces, considerable jittery reactions may occur, though recovery from each jolt is quick and positive, suffering no extra rebounding.
Front seats have long-enough bottoms, noticeable bolsters, and good support, though the driver's leg may rest a little close to the center console. A large, easy-to-read white-on-black speedometer sits in the center of the instrument panel, with a good-sized tachometer to its left. Kia's navigation screen (if installed) is clear, but rather small in size. USB and Auxiliary connectors sit next to the gearshift, beneath a handy cover, and the glovebox is good-sized.
Backseat occupants get plenty of head and leg room on the side, but toe space isn't quite suitable. As in most vehicles nowadays, the center position is hard, but it's depressed below the side cushions rather than the customary built-higher perch. Getting into the Borrego requires a bit of a climb, and the running board isn't as helpful as some.
Kia promises "class-leading" highway fuel economy with the Borrego. With the V-6 engine and two-wheel drive, the Borrego gets an estimate of 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. The city figure drops to 16 mpg with four-wheel drive. The 2WD V-8 model actually does slightly better on the highway, earning a 15/22 mpg estimates. With 4WD, the V-8 Borrego gets an estimate of 15/20 mpg.
Prices start at $26,995 (including destination charge) for a Borrego LX with the V-6 and two-wheel drive. An EX with V-6 and 2WD stickers for $1,000 more. Four-wheel drive boosts the price, of course, and checking off a few options can easily send the total toward $40,000. Later this fall, a Limited model - black inside and out - will go on sale, adding such features as heated second-row seats.
Despite sagging auto-industry sales, "our business is actually up" for the first half of 2008, said sales vice-president Tom Loveless. In his view, the mid-SUV segment is likely to see sales boosts in 2009 and 2010, while full-size SUVs continue to decline. Borrego is expected to bring more affluent customers to the Kia brand.
Kia anticipates a busy time ahead. According to Loveless, 18 months from now, Borrego will be the oldest Kia product in the U.S. market. Next up will be the Soul, which aims at "generation Y" customers. Scheduled for unveiling at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, the Soul goes on sale in spring 2009. Kia's new Georgia factory is expected to begin "Job One" in late 2009. A diesel-engine Borrego could arrive as early as 2010, but a hybrid powertrain is not in Kia's plans for the U.S. market.
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