The new 2021 Kia Sorento hybrid doesn’t make a big deal of itself, despite being the first electrically assisted version of Kia’s mid-size crossover. It’s got a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and it drives like you’d expect—except that the little four feels like it has about 25 percent more displacement than it actually does. In fact, the Sorento hybrid’s combined output—227 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque—nearly matches that of the 2020 Volkswagen GTI. Like a GTI, the front-wheel-drive-only Sorento torments its front tires with torque. Unlike the compact GTI, though, it has three rows of seats and an EPA combined estimate of 37 mpg. Thus concludes our references to the Volkswagen GTI, but we hope the comparisons helped you subliminally internalize the idea that the Sorento hybrid is actually kind of fun.
To get the Sorento hybrid’s 227 horses out of a 1.6-liter turbo-four, you’d generally have to boost the bejesus out of it. Kia didn’t do that. But it did pair the engine with a sizable electric motor and a 1.5-kWh lithium battery that enables some neat tricks. Such as producing an abundance of torque off the line and sailing along at highway speeds with the engine off. And yes, achieving solid fuel-economy ratings of 39 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway.
Kia’s highly specific spec sheet lists the 1.6-liter as making 177.2 horsepower and 195.4 pound-feet of torque from 1500 to 4500 rpm. The electric motor generates a claimed 60.1 horses and 194.7 pound-feet from zero up to 1600 revs. Notice that those two torque figures are both almost the same and happen at low revs, which helps explain why the hybrid’s low-end grunt feels diesel-like in strength. It’s simply a smooth, prodigious shove that’s out of proportion to the gas engine’s displacement.
The 1.6 does sometimes lug at low rpm, particularly when climbing grades, as the transmission holds a tall gear and leans on the electric motor for help. But that’s a common hybrid trait. As dealership sales reps like to say: They all do that. And, as we tend we say: At least it’s not a CVT (continuously variable automatic transmission). Should you desire a lower gear from the Sorento hybrid’s conventional automatic, there are paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel.
The Sorento hybrid offers no dedicated electric-only mode, but nonetheless it relies on electric power surprisingly often and at high speeds. Light on the throttle, downhill, you’ll see the green EV indicator light come on at 80 mph. While its relatively tiny battery means you won’t ever go far on electricity alone, this Sorento is good at seamlessly juggling its propulsion options without calling attention to the machinations happening beyond the firewall.
Priced at $34,760 to start for the base S trim, the hybrid costs $1700 more than a non-hybrid Sorento S, which employs a 191-hp naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder and an eight-speed automatic. That model is only rated for 26 mpg combined, and the EPA figures that over five years, the hybrid will save you $1750 in fuel. Your mileage may vary, of course, but you’ll notice that those estimated savings neatly erase the hybrid’s price premium. It looks as if a half-decade is your financial break-even point, if that’s a motivating factor. But the hybrid also is the significantly more powerful option, and that’s a worthy upgrade on its own. Just don’t expect it to outpace the nonhybrid Sorento’s optional 281-hp 2.5-liter turbo-four that we’ve already driven.
In terms of drawbacks, the Sorento hybrid has a couple. It’s only available as a front-driver, so if all-wheel drive is nonnegotiable you’ll need to look elsewhere—or wait for the upcoming plug-in hybrid variant that drives all four of its wheels with a combined 261 horses and a significantly larger battery. The hybrid also shouldn’t be your pick if you expect to tow much with it, as its 1654-pound tow rating lags behind the nonhybrid models’ 3500-pound max. But if neither of those factors is an issue, you may as well spring for the hybrid over the standard Sorento. Think of it as a five-year investment in free horsepower.
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