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Special project vehicles: Kia Soul and Sorento

6 July 2016

The office phone rang. It was the man from Kia Motors SA. He wanted to know if we would be interested in giving a Kia Soul and Sorento a bit of a makeover for the Nampo Show in the Free State. Sure, we said. However, it soon became clear that it wouldn’t just be a case of adding a wheel here and a sticker there. This is what happened…

I’LL have to find out and get back to you.” We soon realised this was the standard reply in our quest to find off-the-shelf accessories for the Kia Sorento and Soul project cars. Thing is, there’s plenty of kit available for mainstream 4×4s and SUVs. Toyota Fortuner?

No problem… you can have any roof rack you like, and numerous combinations of wheels and tyres, too. Ditto with a Ranger and Land Cruiser and a Land Rover. But a new Kia Sorento and Soul… not so much.  And we only had a few weeks to transform two stock standard Kia vehicles into something out of the ordinary.

Some soul searching…
The Soul is the top petrol derivative, the 2.0 Smart automatic, which retails for R360 000. Its two-litre 16V engine delivers 116kW of power and 192Nm of torque, and the power is transferred to the front wheels via a very slick six-speed automatic gearbox.

This powertrain, combined with a tare mass of only 1 340kg, ensures surprisingly brisk performance. Handling is also sporty, so overall the Soul certainly has some hot-hatch zip about it.

In the US market, where Kia is said to sell about 50 000 cars per month, the Soul is marketed as a cool crossover that is loaded with standard kit. The Soul is available only as a front-wheel drive, but it features an elevated driving position and more interior space and versatility than many other compact crossovers.

It has a quirky edge to it too and the unconventional styling certainly has a tendency to polarise views – it seems people either love or hate its unique lines. The Soul is obviously not a hardcore 4×4 for overland trips to Timbuktu. Instead, it’s marketed more as a lifestyle accessory for individualists who lead an active, outdoors lifestyle. Like mountain biking, hiking and so on. So with the project vehicle we aimed to enhance the cool Soul’s outdoor lifestyle appeal by adding versatility, practicality and some extra ‘sport’.

Sorento – to the next level
The original Kia Sorento, launched here in 2003, featured a rugged ladder frame chassis and a transfer case. It was a surprisingly capable off-roader, and we know of a few examples that are still used today as overland 4×4s, kitted out with tents and fridge/freezers and all the other gizmos. The original 3.8-litre V6 petrol model also earned a solid reputation as a tow vehicle.

The latest Kia Sorento is a different kettle of 4×4. Based on the same platform as the Kia Sedona people carrier, the new Sorento features acres of interior space (seven seats in the 2.2CRDi SX model) and is longer and wider than the second generation Sorento, which was on sale between 2010 and 2015. At the same time, the roof is lower, so in stock trim it appears a bit more MPV than SUV. Our project vehicle is the range-topping 2.2CRDi AWD SX model, which retails for a not-so-cheap-anymore R691 000. Yes, that is a lot of money for a Kia.

However, interior quality and driving refinement is on a level that some German manufacturers will envy – it is quite entertaining letting someone who is not familiar with the modern Kia brand drive this vehicle (and the Soul for that matter), and hearing and seeing their surprised reactions. The all-wheel-drive system is called Dynamax, and the computer-controlled unit adjusts the torque between the front and rear axles as required by the available grip. You can also lock the drive in a 50/50 split between the axles at lower speeds, but the modern Sorento is no longer a pukka off-roader that has a liking for dongas, river crossings and the odd grade four 4×4 obstacle. The new Sorento has long overhangs and limited ground clearance.

What this Sorento is very good at is covering long distances with consummate ease. The 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine has 147kW and 440Nm at 1 750r/min on tap, and combined with a smooth six-speed automatic gearbox, it’s an excellent long-distance tourer. The AWD system further augments this part of its armoury. That’s why we’ve decided to go the overland camper route with the Sorento, and not hardcore 4×4. This is how the vehicles turned out.

Wheels and tyres
Tyres are a vital part of any set-up, and you need the right stuff for the right job. In the case of the Soul, it is more a case of fashion over function. The high-end 2.0 Smart version comes standard with very cool 18-inch rims and 235/45 R18 Kumho tyres.

We experimented with a few tyre options, even fitting a 16-inch Racing Hart Concepts off-road rim and Mickey Thompson STZ all-terrain tyre (235/60 R16). But the rim was too wide, and the tyre’s circumference just a dab too much for the Soul’s front wheel arches. So in the end we decided to stick to the original tyres but swap the rims for a set of sporty 18-inch Racing Hart Concepts (RHC) TD120 items.

The rim is developed locally by RHC, a company that was established in 1995 and that also imports and distributes a vast range of wheels. The company supplies mainly Tiger Wheel & Tyre, and also develops and supplies wheels to local car manufacturers for limited edition vehicles, both in the passenger and SUV arenas.

The top Sorento is fitted with 19-inch rims and 235/35 R19 tyres. Those numbers indicate a problem if this Kia is to be used as a rough-road overlander: that thin strip of rubber between the rim and the road surface will, inevitably, cause problems. So we had to upgrade the rims and tyres. RHC supplied a set of beautiful 17-inch XD Rockstar2 off-road rims, imported from the US. The XD Series hails from Wheelpros USA, one of the world’s biggest aftermarket alloy wheel companies. The Rockstar2 is a popular choice in the 4×4 segment. Sure, they’re not cheap, but you know what they say about the good things in life…

We really wanted to go big and bulky in the tyre so we got hold of Mickey Thompson Baja STZ all-terrain 17-inch tyres (245/70 R17). However, these tyres, the smallest in the brand’s 17-inch range, proved just too bulky for the Sorento, and we had to go smaller. We did this with Pirelli Scorpion ATR all-terrains in the size 235/65 R17.

Although the Pirellis are not quite as bulky as the Mickey Thompsons, they still offer a heck of a lot more protection against rocks and other off-road hazards than the original 19-inch items. In fact, they offer a great compromise between on-road handling and grip and off-road ability and protection.

Roof solutions
We partnered with Midrand-based company Front Runner to find some roof solutions for the Soul and Sorento. For the Soul, Front Runner opted for a track-system, which was fitted to the car’s original gutters. This made it relatively easy to fit the Slimline II aluminium rack onto this rail. Interesting to note is the height of the unit – it was mounted as low as possible to the Soul’s roof to reduce drag. This was made possible because no aluminium table, which would normally slide into a tray underneath the rack, was needed.

In line with the Soul’s lifestyle focus we added a Front Runner roof-rack bike carrier, as well as an extra-large transit bag, which is water and dust proof. This solution means mountain bikers can transport their bike and all the gear on the roof, leaving the spacious interior free. The Kia’s Slimline II roof rack was a much more intricate business. Since this rack was due to carry a two-person tent and various other accessories, it needed a more sturdy mounting system so Front Runner’s engineers developed brand-new mounts for the Sorento. So now the rack can easily carry all the extra weight with nary a worry.

The rack is also fitted with a host of Front Runner accessories, including that all-important potjie and mount, a gas bottle and holder and a Front Runner Feather-lite roof-top tent. Another handy overland addition is the massive 40-inch Front Runner LED light bar, which can turn night into day on a remote track in the gramadoelas.

And the last bits
To further enhance the Sorento’s overlanding skills, Front Runner fitted one of its drawer systems in the Kia’s vast boot. The drawer system adds plenty of storage options to this rough-road overlander package.

So there you have it. One Soul that is ready to head off to that next mountain-bike race in comfort and with a healthy dose of suave individualism and ‘sport.’  And one Kia Sorento that is ready to head off on an overland adventure. One with the ability to handle any gravel road you can throw its way, thanks to the AWD drivetrain, the tougher all-terrain tyres and the Kia’s standard and very well sorted independent suspension set-up. And one that can also cruise at 120km/h while the cabin is quiet and refined. Both these Kias are very impressive in stock trim. Now, after their mini makeovers, they are pretty cool with loads of practical features added to the deal, too.

Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Deon van der Walt  and Front Runner