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  • 2004 Kia Sorento LX

    By Jim Woodman

    2004 Kia Sorento

    2004 Kia Sorento

    As an automobile journalist, I remember being invited to a Kia press dinner in 1997. You’d think a stone crab dinner at one of Miami’s finest restaurants would have attracted a few journalists.

    I was the only writer that showed.

    Asides from being embarrassed by my fellow South Florida journalists and feeling bad for the Kia executives who’d traveled from California, I had the unique opportunity to learn what a largely unknown South Korean auto manufacturer had planned for the United States.

    Back then, the idea of a South Korean manufacturer making a significant impact against the big Japanese automakers seemed as unlikely as peace in Iraq.

    Today, asides from still turning a few heads on price, Kia has made huge headway on quality. Not only do their latest models dial you into all the creature comforts you’d find on any Toyota, Honda or Nissan, but they do so for thousands of dollars less.

    Sorento LX

    In August 2004, I had another unique opportunity to test drive a 2004 Kia Sorento LX during a two-week vacation with my wife and two young boys. The Sorento is Kia’s SUV offering and significant upgrade to their first SUV model, the Sportage. It clearly falls into the mid-size SUV class at compact-size pricing.

    The idea was to drive from San Diego to Aspen, Colo. with an extended one-week stay in Sedona, Ariz. on the way back.

    I would also bring a bicycle, hiking gear and enough distractions for 5- and 3-year-old boys to stay entertained during days with as much as five or six hours of driving.

    Our Sorento came equipped with a 3.5 liter V6, 5-speed manual transmission that packed a surprising amount of pep, largely due to its 217 foot pounds of torque and very adequate 192 horses. In fact, even with the car fully-loaded, there was always plenty of power for highway passing, though this was largely due to the manual transmission and my ability to downshift when needing a mid-range acceleration.

    The biggest difference I’ve noticed from the Kia models of the late ’90s is how much they’ve closed the gap on what I’ll call the Toyota standard. If you didn’t know you were in a Kia, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in quality and materials.

    Make no mistake about it. This is a good-looking SUV. It sort of has a Mercedes Benz M-Class look from the front and a distinct wide-bodied look from behind. My boys loved the alpine gray color and were excited to ride in the “Kia” as they affectionately referred to it.

    Solid feel all the way around

    The Sorento felt solid all the way around. No rattling when you shut a door or rode over bumps. Dash controls, knobs and window levers all felt sturdy instead of cheap and plastic-like.

    And even though I had a 2-wheel drive model, I got to compare driving off-road with an H2 Hummer through Sedona’s canyon roads. No question the Hummer is a better off-road vehicle, but on the exact same road supposedly only for 4-wheel drive vehicles, the Sorento had no trouble navigating the rocks and bumps and is very capable of off-road jaunts.

    The Sorento gets excellent approach and departure angles because of its short front and rear overhangs, which makes sorting your way through rugged terrain possible without scraping. I also appreciated the narrow 36.4-foot turning radius, making it very easy to turn around on narrow roads or tight parking lots.

    The Sorento is definitely not a sedan. It’s basically a mid-sized SUV on a truck body and — no surprise here — it rides like a truck. But when you consider what you get size and style-wise for what you’d pay for other compact SUVs, it’s easy to see why the Sorento is probably the most appealing vehicle made by the Koreans.

    Absorb this for a few seconds and guess what you’d pay for an SUV outfitted with the same features: power windows and locks, dual front and side curtain air bags, heated outside mirrors, cruise control, remote keyless entry, AM/FM CD with 8-speakers, 8-way driver’s seat with lumbar support, illuminated vanity mirrors, alloy wheels, Michelin tires, roof rack, fog lamps, side step bars, three 12-volt power outlets, first aid kit, leather wrapped steering wheel, rear window defroster and wiper.

    I doubt many in today’s world of $30K SUVs would believe you can score the Sorento with the above features for $20K and change. Plus when you factor in a 10-year 100-mile powertrain warranty, it’s easy to see why this may be the most compelling purchase for any vehicle just over $20,000.

    Fuel economy sub par

    Fuel economy is probably my only major gripe as the Sorento guzzles gas much as if it were an 8-cylinder. At an estimated 16 city mpg, and 19 highway, I can attest that we weren’t faring much better. Plus the fact I’m definitely one to take advantage of the 75 mph posted speed limits in Arizona and hover in the low 80s, makes it even harder to get decent mileage.

    That said, the Sorento can easily cruise at 80 mph with no stress.
    My only other gripe is that cargo capacity is a little tight when you’re hauling a family of four, with car seats, bikes and luggage. But the fact we could get everything we needed in this car for two weeks on the road shows it’s very doable. With the rear seat raised, there’s 31.4 cubic feet of cargo room.

    If the rear seats, which can be folded down separately in a 60/40 configuration, are both down, you get 66.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity – plenty to lie a full-sized road or mountain bike on its side.

    There are rumors of a 3-row, 7-adult seating configuration coming from Kia in 2006, either as a new model or new Sorento. This should definitely turn heads, especially within offices of the big three Japanese manufacturers.

    Towing Capacity

    The Kia can tow 3,500 pounds on a good day, which just barely gets it into the ALV (Active Lifestyle Vehicle) towing capability minimum. This isn’t the SUV you’ll want if you’re towing any decent kind of load.

    Speaking of towing, our Sorento was also outfitted with a towing hitch, which allowed me to easily place a hitch-mount bicycle rack on the back. Great thing about the hitch-mount racks is that they easily swing out and allow you access to the rear tailgate.

    The Sorento’s tailgate, which folded down when opened, also allowed us to lower the rear window separately by inserting the key.

    From a safety perspective, my wife was very pleased with the fact the Sorento had standard side curtain air bags in addition to the front passenger ones. Amazing for a car at this price, we thought. Installing child car seats was a snap and the safety latches were conveniently located and easy to latch.

    Anti-lock brakes an option

    The only surprise was the fact anti-lock brakes are a $595 option on both trim levels. I would definitely add this option if I were buying the vehicle as you’re much better off in an emergency braking situation if your car is less susceptible to an uncontrollable skid.

    When I think back to that dinner in Miami with the Kia executives, I’ll never forget their foreshadowing statements. While I don’t remember their exact words, the gist of their conversation was that while they may not be there today, they had a total commitment to building cars every bit as good as the Japanese.

    And they would market these cars for thousands less. After two weeks in the Sorento, I would say Kia has almost delivered on that promise. I say almost because I wouldn’t put them at Toyota quality level quite yet.
    But quality is so close, that my decision in choosing between similar models, such as the Toyota Highlander, would probably sway my decision towards Kia.

    The 2004 Kia Sorento is available in two trim levels: LX ($18,995) and EX ($23,050), also available in LX 4WD ($20,800) and EX 4WD ($24,850).

    Quick Facts:

    Base price: $18,965
    Price as tested: $20,930
    Horsepower: 192 @ 5,500
    Torque: 217 ft lbs @ 3,000
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Option
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: Yes
    Towing: No
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 16 city / 19 hwy

  • 2004 BMW 325xi Sports Wagon

    By Nina Russin

    2004 BMW 325xi

    2004 BMW 325xi

    The 325xi is BMW’s smallest all-wheel drive vehicle, based on the best-selling 3 Series platform. Its compact size and all-terrain capability make the 325xi an excellent choice for car owners with active lifestyles who live in congested urban areas. The all-wheel drive system makes navigating through snow and rain a non-issue, and also provides extra traction for driving on unpaved roads.

    The wagon’s cargo area, while small, can be configured to stow a bicycle or camping gear. The glass window and tailgate open separately to making loading easier. Straps on the cargo floor secure odd-shaped items and keep them from shifting.

    The second-row seats fold flat to increase the length of the cargo floor if necessary. Roof rails are standard, making it easy to install a roof-mounted bike or cargo rack. A vertical cargo net that separates the cargo area from the rear seat keeps the family pooch from leaping forward, without cutting him off from the air conditioner and heater.

    The standard inline six-cylinder engine, mated to a five-speed manual transmission, provides spirited performance without sacrificing fuel economy (19/26 m.p.g., city/highway). The 325xi wants to race around corners.

    Dynamic stability control maintains traction by automatically reducing engine torque and applying the brakes at any wheel that starts to slip. Standard antilock braking prevents the wheels from locking up on slick or ice-covered roads to help the driver maintain directional control.

    On a test drive along the Apache trail east of Phoenix, the wagon barreled through hairpin turns in complete control. Its relatively large wheels and tires maintain a large contact patch with the ground.

    Like all BMWs, the 3 Series cars have a soft tip-off that can be deceptive. While the cars don’t jump off the line like rabbits, they can out-accelerate most of what they come up against. The manual transmission gears have enough range so that the driver doesn’t have to shift constantly in urban traffic. On winding roads, downshifting through the turns keeps the engine in its sweet spot, and makes the ride to the trailhead an adventure of its own.

    The suspension is heavy on aluminum components to reduce the amount of unsprung weight. Speed-sensitive steering makes the wagon easy to maneuver into a tight parking spot at slow speeds, while maintaining good response during high-speed driving.

    Those who want to venture off the beaten path will appreciate the wagon’s standard hill descent control system: electronic controls maintain a slow engine speed on steep descents, without applying the brakes.

    An optional cold weather package adds heated front seats, retractable headlight washers and a ski bag. Rain-sensing front windshield wipers and a rear wiper are standard. Xenon headlights that provide brighter illumination than standard halogen bulbs are optional.

    The eight-way power adjustable front seats are well-designed from an ergonomic standpoint. The standard tilt steering wheel makes it easier to get in and out of the car. The vehicle’s large rear pillars and the vertical cargo net limit visibility out the back slightly. An obstacle detection system that warns drivers about objects in the blind spots to the rear is available as an option.

    Side pockets in the front doors are large and functional. Cupholders in the center console are adequate for small bottles. Controls on the instrument panel are easy to reach and figure out. Redundant audio, accessory and telephone controls on the steering wheel enable the driver to change settings without taking his eyes off the road.

    The 325xi is loaded with standard safety features, including standard side curtain airbags, and a head protection system for the driver and front passenger. In the event of a collision, an inflatable cushion in the windshield pillar and roof deploys to protect the occupants. Side impact airbags are optional for the rear seats.

    The battery is in the rear of the car under the cargo floor where it is protected from frontal and offset impacts. Remote terminals allow the driver to jump the battery from the engine bay. In the event of a collision, the connection between the battery and starter automatically severs to prevent a fire.

    Standard comfort features on the 325xi include automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, heated power outside mirrors, and a 10-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system. Buyers can opt to upgrade to a Harman-Kardon sound system ($675).

    Base price for the 2004 model is $32,550, plus a $695 destination charge.

    Quick Facts:

    Base price: $33,245
    Price as tested: $40,045
    Horsepower: 184
    Torque: 175 ft-lbs
    0 to 60: 7.8 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: No
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 19 city/ 26 highway
    Comments: Standard safety equipment includes BMW’s head protection system: a tubular airbag that deploys to protect the occupants’ heads in a side-impact or multi-directional collision. Bi-xenon headlamps and rain-sensing windshield wipers are also standard. An optional cold weather package adds heated front seats, retractable headlight washers and a ski bag.