On Autos: Pair of crossovers seat seven without extra bulk

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The newly updated 2019 Kia Sorento midsize crossover combines tidy dimensions and seven-passenger seating. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

For most of the country, the best three-row crossover is the one with the most room for your family and their stuff. There’s space to stretch out and carry everyone’s luggage.  

But many of the roomiest three-row crossovers are also the biggest on the outside. If you park on the street or need to navigate a tight alley, driveway, or parking garage, maybe you want the smallest vehicle that can squeeze everyone in.

That may be the 2019 Kia Sorento, the freshly updated version of a midsize crossover that combines unexpected luxury with three-row utility since its last redesign in the 2016 model year.

The Sorento, which costs $26,890, features Kia’s European-inspired exterior design. Soft curves fall gracefully away from a front-and-center chromed grille, eschewing the harder edges and creases that are common from today’s Asian vehicles — including Hyundai, Kia’s sister brand.

Inside, the cabin uses high-grade materials. And the dashboard is classy and user-friendly. This lends the Sorento a more upscale feel than some all-business family cars like the Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse. The front seats are comfortable and supportive. And the tested SXL model included rich-looking “Terracotta” brown leather upholstery.

The driving experience isn’t quite as special, particularly considering the tested car’s price tag of more than $48,000. This year brings a new eight-speed automatic transmission for the 3.3-liter V6 engine that comes on all but the base trims. And while it improves fuel economy to a respectable 21 mpg in mixed driving with the tested all-wheel-drive system (or 22 mpg with front-wheel-drive), it doesn’t always shift smoothly.

Despite the Sorento’s relatively diminutive size, it’s not as agreeably agile as the larger Mazda CX-9 or Volkswagen Atlas. Ride and handling are fine but nothing special for the class. However, the Sorento’s 37.4-foot turning radius is an asset for city-dwellers. And you’ll notice its tidier dimensions. At just 189 inches long, it’s more than a foot shorter than a Chevrolet Traverse.

Just keep in mind that Kia’s wizardry can only go so far. That is to say, don’t expect extra-generous passenger or cargo space. This is a smallish vehicle that squeezes in seven-passenger seating. And there’s not with much room to spare.

There’s little cargo room with the third-row seat in use. And although the second-row seat adjusts fore-aft to give more legroom either to the second or the third row, there’s not much to go around for either. Even with the third row folded, the Sorento isn’t as accommodating for five passengers as the average compact crossover, much less its midsize competitors.

The Sorento doesn’t give you much cargo space with all three rows of seats in use, but you can easily fold the third row flat to get more room. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

If it’s big enough for you, Kia’s affordable pricing helps the Sorento undercut comparably equipped competitors. For 2019, Kia boosted the Sorento’s value by adding a safety gear to lower trim levels than before. This means you no longer need the most expensive version to get the best safety technology.

However, if you need a little more room than the Sorento offers, you might be well-served by Hyundai’s counterpart to the Sorento. While a few inches bigger than the Sorento, it’s also smaller than most competitors. But it’s roomier than the Kia. This model, the 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe, uses the same V6 engine as the Sorento — albeit with last year’s six-speed automatic transmission, which results in higher fuel consumption.

(Don’t confuse the 2018 Santa Fe, which dates back to the 2013 model year, with the newly released 2019 Santa Fe that seats only five passengers. For 2019, the three-row Santa Fe is scheduled to be renamed as the Santa Fe XL.)

You’d never mistake the Sorento and Santa Fe visually. The Hyundai is more angular, but the Sorento is curvy. But few could consider it overdone. Inside, though, the Santa Fe lacks the Sorento’s stylistic verve. Everything is functional and high-quality, but there’s nothing to dazzle you.

Both crossovers have cozy front seating that offers plenty of room without feeling intimidatingly vast. The Santa Fe backs that up on the road with capable handling and an even tighter turning radius (37.0 feet) than the Sorento. The ride quality can be a little bumpy, though.

The Santa Fe doesn’t match the biggest crossovers for passenger space. But five passengers can fit without a fuss. And two more can squeeze in with above-average comfort. Cargo space behind the third row remains tight, though.

Santa Fe pricing starts at $31,830, with more standard equipment than the Sorento. The two models have roughly equivalent sticker prices when comparably equipped. And the Santa Fe also tends to have bigger discounts. The main value disadvantage: Safety technology such as automatic emergency braking is only available on fully loaded models.

The 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe dates back to 2013, but it remains an appealingly priced and space-efficient midsize crossover. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

If exterior size matters more than maximum interior space, both the posher Sorento and the roomier Santa Fe are leading options among three-row crossovers. Do also consider if some of the class leaders — notably the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Volkswagen Atlas, and the promising new Subaru Ascent — would fit your life as well despite being a little bigger and more expensive.

Meanwhile, to get the smallest possible seven-passenger vehicle, look to the compact Mitsubishi Outlander. Its third row is only designed for small children, but the Outlander is compact and affordable.

Visit tinyurl.com/sorento-current to see more photos of the tested 2019 Kia Sorento and 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe.