FIRST DRIVE: Kia Sorento

SUVS that ‘drive like a car’ are now all the rage. Manufacturers are going out of their way to develop vehicles without the old-style 4x4 compromises: dinghy-in-a-storm ride, slushy suspension and a reluctance to change direction.

Kia, a car maker on the up, has made significant inroads in the affordable SUV market sector with its first generation Sorento. It was, though, very much an old-school design; the body on frame construction lacked the refinement of a regular car. Still, from a utili-tarian point of view it was spot on if you ventured off road or towed trailers or caravans on a regular basis.

Refinement is king these days and with some buyers making the switch from regular cars to SUVs, they don’t expect compromise to be on the list of standard equipment.

Kia’s solution has been to reinvent the Sorento; the body on frame approach has been replaced by a car-like chassis. The benefits are many-fold, with a reduction in weight, increase in refinement, noise reduction and on-road agility the main talking points.

That weight reduction – about 250kg – also helps keep emissions and fuel consumption down to sensible levels, as well as improve the car’s road manners. It’s also allowed Kia’s engineers to develop a seven-seat model alongside the conventional five-seater, giving the SUV a much-needed boost when being compared to similar sized rivals. And with more families turning to SUVs to replace the estate car or MPV that they have out-grown, that third row of seats is a useful addition to the Sorento’s kit list.

Elsewhere, the Sorento’s cabin gets a top-to-toe makeover. The end result is a noticea-bly more upmarket ambience thanks to better quality plastics and upholstery materials, while the list of equipment is longer than before. From electric everything to a high qual-ity audio system complete with the now expected MP3 and iPod input options, air-con, a cabin full of airbags and enough storage space for a family’s worth of clutter, it’s hard to find fault with the car’s classy interior.

Another classy element is the exterior, which is also all new. It, along with the refreshed Cee’d, is the first to display the new Kia corporate face. In general the restyle has done much to elevate the Sorento’s image from budget lifestyle 4x4 to premium-looking SUV. Corners have been rounded, sparkly trim has been added and it manages to pull off the trick of not looking outsize or out of place when parked in an urban environment.

The final piece in the new Sorento jigsaw concerns the car’s powertrain. Aside form the petrol motor there’s a new 2.2-litre diesel unit, which offers a power spread of 174-197 horsepower depending on the application. A 2.0-litre unit is expected to follow later. There’s also a new six-speed auto gearbox to make life even easier.

That 2.2-litre lump is a fine engine, though. In 197 horsepower trim it is smooth, frugal and willing to pull at low revs and it’s the ideal companion for a mid-size SUV. It comes into its own when connected to a four-wheel drive system, and should prove more than adequate when tasked to haul the Sorento out of a muddy field.

But what if you don’t need all-wheel drive? Simple, you opt for the two-wheel drive model. As with an increasing number of manufacturers, Kia has taken the pragmatic plunge and will sell you a front-drive Sorento.

You sacrifice nothing in terms of the driving experience if you’ll never take to the hills in it, while the potential economy and financial savings while running what is essentially a very large family hatch should become apparent during the ownership period.

There’s no shame in owning an SUV that isn’t actually an SUV. People buy these cars for all sorts of reasons, and hitting the muddy trail might not be one of them. If that’s the case, why haul around a four-wheel drive system you’re never going to use?

The Sorento isn’t a one dimensional SUV. It can be many things to many people; whether you use it as a family car, load-lugger or simply prefer the lofty driving position, its purchase won’t require an awkward, hand-wringing justification.

Two or four-wheel drive, this second generation Sorento is a mature evolution of Kia’s popular mid size SUV. The notable highlights - improved refinement and comfort, a clever mix of engine and transmission options, attractive styling - are proof that this is not a car to be hastily dismissed just because some will perceive it doesn’t have the ‘right’ badge.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Kia Sorento, from £tbc. On sale February 2010.

Engine: 2.2-litre diesel unit developing 197bhp.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission, driving all four wheels.

Performance: Maximum speed 118mph, 0-62mph 10.0 seconds.

Economy: 38.1mpg.

CO2 Rating: 194g/km.