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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Kia Sorento
Kia Sorento SUV

You could say Kia Sorento is the Yin to Hyundai Santa Fe's Yang. Or vice versa.

Though related by ownership (Hyundai group in Korea is the boss here), functions of these two small SUVs appear to branch off in different directions. While Santa Fe takes the automotive high road, Sorento -- despite its high-reach styling -- fills the more rugged, functional gap due to basics below.

Sorento actually has a truck frame and tow capability underneath its smoothly appealing good looks. That could make it less predictable in road manners, but very predictable in its sense of riding high with plenty of visibility and a capability of going where most car-based SUVs would fear to tread.

Sizewise, it's more compact than the midsize SUVs it has taken aim at, for a bit more nimbleness on the road. That, plus an equally compact base price (under $19,000 if you keep your shopping cart away from the options) puts this five-seater in the cute ute category where its tighter interior dimensions reflect that space-grabbing truck heritage.

Despite its claim of needing few changes after scooping up a ton of "best in class" awards following its '03 debut, Kia apparently has listened to some suggestions for Sorento. Newly available is a five-speed manual that joins the existing, electronically-controlled four speed automatic mated with a 3.5 liter V-6 engine that burps out about 192 horsepower and 217 pound feet of thrust-boosting torque. That's a little more oomph to maneuver this vehicle built on a heavier, ladder-type truck frame with a real low-range included in its four-wheel-drive system.

In base model iteration, four-wheel drive is a part time thing. With the upgraded automatic, full-time system (what Kia calls torque-on-demand), you just set and forget.

Also new is the eye-catching sport package (stick shift included). Think the usual amenities such as side step bars to avoid that long haul to the ground for the petite, fog lights, smart-looking alloy wheels, roof rack and leather-wrapped steering wheel, and more.

You could say Kia's claim to fame -- and a probable reason it won so many awards as well as collecting owner accolades-- is that entry-level pricetag, something that would be history fast if one started to add on all the available goodies that lend it a luxury vehicle panache. It's best to forget the discount price if one goes that route.

Figure that the five-star crash rating it won last year (only one of three new SUVs to rate it for side impacts) is thanks in part to its more rugged truckiness. The availability of side curtain airbags is a major plus. Add in Kia's astonishingly lengthy warranty (10 years/100,000 miles) as a sure way for winning American buyers' attention after some earlier bumps in the road.