2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid Review: Largely Likable, but Lightly Lacking

Hybrids aren’t our primary focus here, as they’re often not very… performance-oriented. You know the drill. Pair a drone-y, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder to a continuously-variable transmission and some dorky “I’m so different” eco-virtue-signaling styling and you don’t really get a heart-pumping recipe. Kia, thankfully, took a different approach with the 2021 Sorento Hybrid. While I found it lacking in a few areas, there’s also quite a bit to like.

Kia introduced the all-new 2021 Sorento a few months ago, and the model that got me most interested was the loaded-up “SX Prestige” variant. The 2021 Sorento SX Prestige is powered by a turbocharged four that makes 311 lb-ft of torque (and 288 horsepower), sent through a dual-clutch transmission to lockable 50/50 all-wheel drive. Sounds like a good recipe for moderate shenanigans both on-road and off, right? It looks great, too, with some fantastic “jewel-tone” paint colors, a variety of seat materials and colors, and even open-pore wood trim on the dash.

While we asked Kia to sample a 2021 Sorento, the model first made available to us was the Hybrid. It’s not quite as spicy as the SX Prestige, though it excels in one specific category – fuel economy.

What Is It?

This is a 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid. She’s a cool mom, not like all those other moms – at least on paper. Compared to the predictable, appliance-y hybrids I mentioned above, the Sorento Hybrid stands out with its drivetrain. Kia started with the 1.6 liter turbocharged four from the 2020 Kia K5, bolted a six-speed torque-converter automatic to it, and stuck an electric motor between the two. While the electric motor pushes out just sixty horsepower, it’s good for 195 lb-ft of torque. The gasoline “Smartstream” engine is good for about the same torque figure, with 177 horsepower on tap. Total system output is rated at 227 horsepower and 258 lb-ft.

Kia’s Smartstream engine is also technically interesting, utilizing continuously-variable valve duration as a way to keep the valves open longer, regardless of timing and lift. It means the gas engine can produce a bit more power, while improving both fuel economy and emissions on its own.

All of this interesting-on-paper motivation is routed to the ground through the front wheels only, as Kia is not building an all-wheel drive Sorento Hybrid. If you value the ability to spin all four wheels, you’ll be buying a gas-powered Sorento or have to wait for the plug-in hybrid later this year.

My test vehicle was a Sorento EX Hybrid, which is the higher of the two trim levels offered in Hybrid form. Notable options over the Sorento S Hybrid include a large panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, wireless charging pad, and extra driver assistance goodies. The only extra-cost standalone option was the Runway Red paint for $445. MSRP of my 2021 Sorento Hybrid EX came in at $38,205.

2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid EX rear

Seamless Hybrid Operation Shines

Kia has done a great job with the hybridization of the 2021 Sorento, full stop. Transitions between full-battery operation and hybrid operation were seamless, no matter the driving conditions, with a green “EV” light appearing when the Sorento was moving along exclusively on battery power. The torque peak of the electric motor (0 to 1,600 RPM) provides a lovely crossover to the torque peak of the gasoline engine (1,500 to 4,500 RPM), which helps with the generally-invisible handoff.

I enjoyed playing the “how long can I keep the EV light on” game, perhaps to the chagrin of drivers behind me at times. The answer to that game is “longer than you’d think.” The Sorento Hybrid will shut the gasoline engine off entirely even at highway speeds, which is a strange and very cool sensation.

Though the Sorento Hybrid has a traditional torque-converter automatic (thankfully), Kia replaced the tachometer with a gauge to show charging and power-application of the whole hybrid drivetrain. It makes total sense, but was strange to hear the gasoline engine swelling toward redline before each gear change down an on-ramp as a large needle was pegged at “100% POWER.” In less exuberant driving, you’ll never miss the tach. In both cases, you’ll appreciate the normalcy of changing gears compared to seemingly-endless CVT drone.

Regenerative braking was impressive, with good pedal feel and no marked transition between regenerative and service brakes as in some hybrids.

Fuel economy is claimed to be 39 miles per gallon in city driving, 35 MPG at highway speeds, and 37 combined. I wasn’t quite able to reach those numbers over a week of driving in mid-20°F temperatures. I still broke in to the low-mid-30s, with my best calculation indicating about 34 miles per gallon. Not bad at all, for a six-passenger crossover tipping the scales around 3,800 pounds.

Car & Driver kicked off their review of the Sorento Hybrid with a comparison to Volkswagen’s GTI. Both vehicles make nearly identical power and torque figures, an idea they claim will “subliminally internalize the idea that the Sorento hybrid is actually kind of fun.” The folks at C&D must have an interesting definition of “fun” because the Sorento Hybrid… isn’t. It’ll wheel-hop a bit if you unload the inside tire under hard acceleration, but the paddle shifters don’t let you hold gears longer than a few seconds and the drivetrain, while technically interesting, doesn’t encourage very spirited driving. “Fun” is not the Sorento Hybrid’s mission on this planet – Kia isn’t claiming that it is. Leave it in Eco mode and set your expectations accordingly.

Hybrid Options are Curiously Limited

Plenty of automakers build the same car in a variety of factories around the world. Kia is no exception, building the gas-only Sorento in Georgia (the state) and the Sorento Hybrid in Korea. Normally, I’d give this very little thought, but the gas-only Sorento offers some key options that the Hybrid simply… doesn’t.

All those beautiful jewel-tone paint colors I mentioned? Not on the hybrid. It’s red, blue, or a sea of monotones. No burnt-orange leather, either. Hope you like black or light-gray SynTex. The open-pore wood? Unavailable, just a “metal texture inlay” on the hybrid.

Further, while the EX Hybrid comes with a huge, rattle-free panoramic sunroof (kudos, Kia, far more expensive brands can’t keep theirs quiet), there’s no audio upgrade available for the just-okay sound system. Nor is the larger 10.25″ infotainment screen available – just an eight-inch unit with slightly-dull color saturation. On the flip side, the Sorento Hybrid gets wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto. Gas-only models with the larger screen require a USB cord. These options I’m whining about are part of Kia’s higher trim levels, SX and SX Prestige – which are not available on the Sorento Hybrid.

Drive wheels, like I mentioned above, are front-only.

I’m only making such a big deal about the lack of options and colors and such because Kia does “affordable premium” really, really well. With the Sorento Hybrid, it feels as though Kia is pushing some buyers toward the gas-only Sorento. It’s a shame, because the hybrid drivetrain is compelling to the right buyer, who may then feel penalized for choosing the most efficient Sorento. Many of the options, colors, and textiles that aren’t offered would go a long way to making the Sorento Hybrid feel like a standout – and I’m wondering if Kia is leaving those top-tier offerings for the plug-in hybrid variant instead.

It’ll all (hopefully) make sense six months from now, but in the meantime, the Sorento lineup feels decidedly unfinished should you be that dedicated high-MPG hybrid shopper.

Final Thoughts

Lest I come across as a manager-demanding crossover driver here – the 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid is an impressive vehicle, and not just “for a hybrid.” The drivetrain is good in a way that many hybrids aren’t, and produces fuel economy that will appeal to many buyers. Interior packaging is clever, with cupholders and cubbies and USB ports all over the place. Second row seats slide and recline, giving plenty of space for a road trip. The third row is tight for six-footers, but will work in a pinch.

Options-wise, everything on the Sorento Hybrid EX is fine unless you get nit-picky as I did. It’s not bad, at all, though the lack of all-wheel drive will be off-putting to folks conditioned to believe they need it for the half-inch of snow that falls once a decade. Kia has put together a combination of options that will work for the majority of buyers. Paint and interior colors will appeal to the same majority.

It’s just such a tease to know the SX and SX Prestige exist at the expense of fuel economy – at least, for now.

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