When Kia chose Lake Tahoe as the site to introduce the new 2016 Kia Sorento, it had everything to do with the picturesque location and status-climbing intent of this midsize crossover SUV. However, the mountains unleashed a winter storm that gave us a hint of how the nearby Donner Pass gained its infamy, and we wound up driving the new Sorento in snow and rain blown sideways by winds literally strong enough to kick up surfable waves on Lake Tahoe. In other words, it was perfect for testing an all-wheel drive family hauler with virtually every modern safety technology you could imagine. Thanks to the tech -- not to mention seat and steering wheel heaters -- new Kia Sorento never missed a beat.

Introduced in 2002 as a traditional body-on-frame, off-road ready SUV, the Sorento has evolved and matured into a very modern and classy looking car-based crossover SUV. It has also morphed into a tentpole for the brand, becoming the first Kia to sell more than 100,000 units in a single year, and consistently remains one of the strongest sellers for the company. It's so important to the U.S. market that it's the vehicle Kia chose to spearhead its U.S. manufacturing venture in Georgia.  

Segment straddler

Now, with Kia celebrating its 20th anniversary of U.S. sales, Kia faced a dilemma when designing the 2016 Kia Sorento midsize SUV. On one hand, the market was demanding a bigger vehicle, one with the size and technology to match the newest Toyota Highlander and Jeep Grand Cherokee. On the other, the Sorento's smaller size was one of its selling points, offering an in-between option for those who wanted a 7-passenger family hauler, but maybe didn't need something quite so bulky.

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The resulting vehicle straddles that line surprisingly well. It grows in size, but only a little, just enough to offer second-row and third-row passengers a bit more legroom. The new interior and exterior styling look great, and the selection of materials inside, judicious use of chrome outside, and emphasis on quiet on the road give the impression that this mid-priced Kia is punching above its class and price. This is, of course, what Kia hopes you'll think.

Three powertrain choices

Under the hood are two familiar engines, plus one new one for the Sorento. The 185-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder is still the base engine, and the 290-horsepwoer 3.3-liter V6 also returns for duty. New is a 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, an in-between option for those who want a little added power, but don't want to take the fuel economy hit of the V6. The 2016 Kia Sorento gets an updated all-wheel drive system called Dynamax that uses a torque-vectoring control system to help maintain secure cornering. It also includes a "lock" mode, which distributes the power 50/50 to the front and rear for really slippery situations.

The new Kia Sorento also gets a serious electronics upgrade. Active cruise control, lane keeping monitor, blind spot monitor, and a plethora of other active and passive safety systems are all available this year. The audio system also has a new feature known as Clari-Fi that supplier Infinity says helps restore lost fidelity to the highly compressed audio files most people listen to these days. It worked on the static demo Kia had set up for us, and the audio system definitely sounded good, but we'd have to independently test it to see if it meets the manufacturer's claims. 

The Drive Home

The words "Donner Pass" and "snowstorm" are not to be taken lightly, even in this day of Interstates and snowplows.  Yet even though my drive home along Interstate 80 would take me across the Pass through some fairly nasty weather -- well, nasty for an Angeleno raised under perpetually sunny skies -- I knew that the new Sorento was easily up to the threatening skies and gently falling flakes. 

The all-wheel drive of the 2016 Kia Sorento SX-L meant I could ignore the chains requirement over the Donner Pass, and at a steady 30 mph, the vehicle's all-wheel drive system made short work of the slick roads. I didn't need to engage the all-wheel drive lock mode, and even had time to take in the stunning scenery. Later, when the roads cleared and I was back to highway speeds, the V6 engine provided plenty of power when it came time to pass semis, or when accelerating back onto the highway after fuel stops. The V6 delivers its power smoothly compared to the new turbocharged engine, but part of the lag in its delivery was likely because of the altitude. Fuel economy averaged about 25 mpg or so during the drive, right on the EPA target. The suspension and steering were both good, with the former offering good control and comfort without too much body lean in corners, and the latter a huge leap forward compared to the old Sorento. 

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On the more mind-numbing stretches of Interstate 5 I simply set the adaptive cruise control at a flow-of-traffic speed and rarely had to actually touch the brake pedal during the long stretches. However, while the Sorento had no problem slowing for traffic, it occasionally required a tap of the "resume" button to get back up to speed. It wasn't the only glitch; the UVO navigation system -- along with audio functions -- ceased to work a couple of times, and during the heavy weather the previous day many drivers reported that their blind spot detection stopped working altogether. Kia was quick to point out that these were pre-production models, and some last-minute bug-squashing may have been going on.

Competitive with Toyota Highlander

By the time I got home to Los Angeles the 2016 Kia Sorento had made a good impression. Loading up the kids showed it's a good family hauler, with a decently sized second row, and a larger -- but not class-leading -- third row that's easier to access. The new Toyota Highlander offers a roomier interior, most notably in the third row, but Kia definitely closed the gap while retaining a smaller overall package. With prices starting at about $26,000 and extending all the way up to around $46,000 for an all-wheel drive SX-L, it undercuts the Highlander at the low end, but catches up on the higher end. 

With a compelling array of features, style, and creature comforts, it's a safe bet the new Sorento's status as a Kia tentpole remains secure. 

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