Setting the record straight

Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst

My first encounter with Kia was in 1999. It was the original Rio hatch, and it was decidedly horrible. In fact, the only positive aspect about it was an enticing asking price. Quality, refinement, safety, performance – it all seemed very absent from the deal.

Now, more than 10 years later, as we were heading north on the N1 toll road towards Mokopong in the latest Kia Sorento R2.2 CRDi 4×4 AT, that first taste of Kia seemed like a hallucination, a bad dream.

Indeed, it is now succinctly clear: comparing the new Sorento to that old Rio would be like comparing Lance Armstrong to the primary school lad who holds the record for the longest wheelie on his BMX bike. They are simply worlds apart.

Quality, refinement, performance, safety, luxury and capability. It’s even good looking. This Kia seemingly has it all.

But maybe we were jumping the gun on this Korean. Up till that stage we had only driven it on the rather straight and flat highway. Would its bubble be burst when we hit the twisties, the dirt, and the 4×4?

In the Sorento’s cabin, with the 146 kW/440 Nm turbodiesel engine and the six-speed automatic gearbox combination providing a effortless and remarkably refined cruising ability, the Forest Gump movie became a subject of discussion.

In the movie the affable Forest Gump, played by actor Tom Hanks, one day decides to start running – and doesn’t stop running for years on end.

We ended up with Forest after pondering the reason why Jolandie Rust, a 25-year-old adventurer and musician from Melville, Johannesburg, would want to circumnavigate South Africa.
On a bicycle. By herself.

Without any back-up crew, or GPS unit.

Very Forest Gump-y, it seemed.

Arriving at Polokwane we pointed the Kia in the direction of Tzaneen and Magoebaskloof, on the R71. Soon we were heading into the twisty mountain sections. Surely this would be where the Kia would fall out of the bus, so to speak?

On the contrary. The seven-seater 4×4 tackled this section with such gusto and supreme ability that we began to wonder about this Kia. Had its designers not possibly taken a modern SUV from one of the Big Name German manufacturers and just added a Kia badge to the deal?

Apparently not, as head designer Peter Schreyer would attest to. Schreyer was the brain behind the original Audi TT, an award-winning design that set the ball rolling for the modern breed of Audi. He left the Volkswagen/Audi group three years ago to join Kia, and was involved in the design of the latest Sorento from the very early stages.

The new design and development direction of the latest Sorento is part of what is termed “Kia’s revolution”. A new wave of vehicles, designed by some of the best international talent in the world, for the international market. The Sorento, for one, spent a lot of time being fine-tuned in Kia’s design studio’s in California in the United States – where the most Sorentos are sold.

Delve a bit deeper into the Sorento philosophy and it is also clear that Kia took a firm decision on the future of this vehicle: it would no longer be a pukka 4×4 with low-range, but rather a modern crossover vehicle with the added benefit of four-wheel drive traction.

Hence no low range, and no great-shakes ground clearance. And hence also a more accomplished on-road drive, thanks to a new monocoque chassis, instead of the previous generation’s body-on-frame structure. This different construction method brought about a weight saving of up to 215kg over the previous model – a massive and highly impressive margin, since the latest model gets more technical, safety and comfort features, which aren’t light.

Sure, says Kia, there may be some prospective owners in especially South Africa and Australia that may be disappointed that the Sorento has lost its 4×4-ility, but modern sale trends and world economics demanded a new breed of Sorento.

But back to the R71, and the stunning Magoebaskloof area. Besides the beautiful scenery, this road provides one of the most rewarding driving experiences in South Africa. Switchback after switchback, up and down, left and right? and the absence of large trucks, which are not allowed to drive here.

This was where the new 2,2-litre turbodiesel “R” engine and its six-speed automatic companion really stepped up to the plate. Featuring a third-generation common-rail fuel system with piezo-electric injectors that deliver diesel at 1800bar, and complying with Euro4 emission standards, this refined oilburner offers a heck of a lot of grunt and refinement, in one smooth package.

The motor delivers 147 kW of power at 3800 r/min and 436 Nm of torque between 1800 and 2500 r/min. That’s a whole lot more than the previous 2,5-litre turbodiesel’s 104 kW and 350 Nm. But maybe an even bigger highlight is the new six-speed automatic gearbox, which must count amongst the smoothest in the business. Hit the go-faster pedal, and the ‘box responds immediately, without hesitation. Up and down shifts are smooth, and mostly imperceptible.

And this is a Kia? Yikes.

Meanwhile we were on the look-out for a cyclist on this beautifully winding road. Jolandie Rust was pedalling from Polokwane to Tzaneen, on a gruelling 92km leg of her 6000km solo trip circumnavigating South Africa.

We found her at a look-out point, in the company of the “Elvis Presley of Magoebaskloof”, a local entrepreneur with the limited repertoire of one song, and the well-known use of two cords on his guitar. Jolandie was taking a welcome breather after what she termed as one of the toughest days on her odyssey up to that stage. It was all those uphills, which we barely recognised in the Kia Sorento’s climate controlled and leather-clad interior.

Together we headed for the nearby Debengeni waterfalls.

Whenever Jolandie gets the opportunity, she likes to explore the areas she visits, taking some detours on her bike where possible. Although she was tired, she mentioned that she missed the Augrabies waterfall in the Northern Cape due to time constraints. This then, would be her waterfall visit.

On the slow drive there (Jolandie averages about 20-30 km/h), we had some time to discuss another matter at hand: the Kia’s interior.

And again it seemed as if the Koreans had blatantly used the same high quality materials as some Big Name German manufacturers? the Sorento’s interior is a quality affair. A luxurious affair. And a highly versatile and practical one too.

The last row of pews in the top seven-seater model folds flat into the floor when not needed, ensuring ample luggage space and versatility. Adding more versatility to the game is 60/40 split second row of seats, and a 50/50 split for the last row. You also get power steering, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and cruise control, a Keyless Entry system with “Start” button (on the top model), the black leather seats, dual-zone climate control, radio and CD sound system with MP3/AUX/USB/iPod connectivity, six speakers and a built-in amplifier, an interior chrome package, as well as a reverse camera mounted in the rear-view mirror. Electric windows and side mirrors are also standard, of course.

But fancy kit is one thing. It’s also the tactile feel of the material, the standard of fitment and a new aura of quality that impressed in the new Sorento’s cabin.

A rough-ish dirt road led the way to the spectacular waterfall, and the discussion turned 4×4. No matter how one looks at it, the latest Sorento is no longer a real 4×4. Period.

An electronically controlled single (high) ratio system delivers 100% of the available torque to the front wheels during normal road driving, and the system will send power to the rear wheels if wheel slip is detected up front. Alternatively, the system can be locked in a 50/50 split at speeds of up to 30km/h. Additional safety is provided by electronic traction control, electronic stability control, ABS brakes, Downhill Brake Control (DBC) and Hill-start Assist Control (HAC).

But the biggest factor in this department that robs the Sorento of go-more-places ability is the 184mm ground clearance – clearly not enough for any kind of 4×4 obstacle. On the dirt road, the Kia felt composed but, again like some other famous Bavarian SUV, it felt as if it was yearning for the twisty tar sections, instead of rocks, dongas and other similar ruffian tests.

Much later, as we rolled into Tzaneen, with the lonely and brave figure of Jolandie Rust in the rear-view mirror, we concurred that the latest Kia Sorento is now a very, very realistic option in the CUV class. Providing excellent performance and economy, excellent value for money, excellent features, a big dollop of space and versatility, and even very trendy looks, this Kia is a very, very good overall package.

And it’s so far removed from that old Rio hatch, it seemed like, after all, I may have experienced a bad dream driving that rubbish little car in 1999.

The woman
After growing up in Kempton Park, Jolandie Rust spent six months in Israel after completing high school. There she and her boyfriend were introduced to exploration by bicycle – and she loved it, even though the cycling was done in blistering heat.

Back in South Africa she settled in Melville, where her singing prowess and love for music landed her several singing gigs.

But when her boyfriend tragically passed away a few years ago, Jolandie Rust decided life is too short not to live to its fullest. So she announced to friends and family that she was going to ride a bicycle from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

“Everyone told me I was completely insane,” laughs Jolandie. “So I climbed on the bike, and left, without much forethought or any planning, mostly to prove the point that I could actually do it. I completed the trip in just over two weeks.”

A new dream was soon hatched: to set a new world record by becoming the first woman to cycle solo around Africa. This remains her goal.

“But to raise the necessary awareness and to show potential sponsors that I have the ability to do the two-year long Africa trip, I came up with the 6000km circumnavigation trip of South Africa. It also serves as a test run for the Africa trip, and good practice,” she said.

But what on earth makes her want to ride so far, so alone?

“Part of it is the challenge of proving to myself and to everyone else that I can do it, and can do it solo. I also love meeting new people, and seeing new places. In my travels I’ve come across some interesting ones!

Every morning when I set out I only know which town I’m heading for, and how far I have to ride. As soon as I arrive in the destination town, I contact my support team in Johannesburg, who sends me the details of the establishment where I sleep that night. So every day brings new surprises, as well as new challenges on the road,” explained Jolandie.

She and Luna, her very special mountain bike which hails from Europe, have had a few close calls on the road, she admitted.

“At one time in Mpumalanga I was driving on a narrow road when one truck decided to overtake another. I happened to be in its way, but that didn’t stop him. So I careened off the road, into the bushes, falling hard.

My police escort was immediately at hand, and after they were satisfied that I was okay-ish, they set off after the overzealous truck driver,” laughed Jolandie.

“Near Durban I was accosted by a group of young men, who decided to ‘keep me’ for about four hours. I just played it cool, and eventually they let me go. A friend also insisted I carry a can of pepper spray with me? hopefully I will never have to use it!” she said.

Indeed, this is one very brave young lady, with the keenest kind of sense of adventure. She is already hard at work planning all the elements for her solo Around Africa trip.

And any Forest Gump-y moments on this trip, we wondered.

Joelandi laughed.

“Well, there was one stage where I met up with people in the Nothern Cape who wanted to join me, much like the people joined Forest in the movie. But it never materialised,” she said.

She sits and stares at a map of Africa, forlorn in thought. Then she adds:

“Although it can be lonely at times, in a way I’m kind of happy it worked out that way too.”

For more information:

Blocks with pointers on DPS spread:
Nose: The latest Sorento was designed by German Peter Schreyer, who was also responsible for the original, trend-setting Audi TT. Out is the Oriental almost-there style of past Kias, and in is a very contemporary, good-looking and stylish new look. In this top-spec version you get xenon headlights, 18-inch alloys and a self-levelling rear suspension, all standard.

Bonnet: Our Kia was powered by the clean-burning R2.2 turbodiesel engine that delivers a whopping 146 kW of power and 436 Nm of torque from 1800 r/min. It only drinks 50ppm diesel though, so if you’re planning to head to some neighbouring countries where this quality diesel is not readily available, you may have to cart along some 50ppm. If you’re not into oilburners, a new 3,5-litre V6 will also become available in 2010. The engine features dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT), four valves per cylinder, and three-stage Variable Intake system (VIS). It delivers a handy 207 kW of power at 6300 r/min and 335 Nm of torque at 5000 r/min.

Interior: The Kia Sorento’s interior is loaded with standard kit, yet it is lighter than the model it replaces. This is mostly thanks to the new monocoque construction, combined with various other modern weight-saving features.

Roof: The new Sorento is 95mm longer than the model it replaces, yet is also 15mm lower. Both the front and rear tracks have been increased, while the wheelbase has been reduced by 10mm. The result is one spacious and highly versatile CUV, which comes in both five or seven-seat configuration.

Wheels: The Sorento is available in both front-wheel-drive only or “permanent” four-wheel-drive configurations. During normal driving the electronic 4×4 system delivers 100% torque to the front wheels, but can send power to the rear wheels if slip is detected. “Lock mode” splits the torque 50/50 between the front and rear wheels, at speeds up to 30 km/h. You also get traction and stability control, ABS, Downhill Brake Control and Hill-start Assist Control. But no low-range, and only 184mm ground clearance.

Kia Sorento 2.2CRDi 4×4 AT 7-seat
Engine: 2199cc, four-cylinder, turbodiesel,
Power: 147 kW @ 3800 r/min
Torque: 436 Nm @ 1800-2500 r/min
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
4×4 system: Electronic, with 50/50 “lock mode” for speeds under 30 km/h
Driving aids: ABS, EBD, traction and stability control, DBC and HAC
Ground clearance: 184mm
Approach angle: 25 degress
Departure angle: 23 degrees
Fuel capacity: 70 litres
Actual consumption on trip: 9,2 litres/100km
Range per tank: About 700km
Price: R399 995 (includes a five-year/100 000km maintenance plan)