The other day I was talking with one of my neighbors, and he said he'd soon be looking to replace one of his family's vehicles'”a Honda CR-V'”with another small to medium crossover. He's the kind of guy I consider a mainstream buyer'”his other vehicle is a Ford F-150'”and I had him pegged for either another CR-V or a Blue Oval product of some sort. But it turns out that he has his eye on a certain South Korean product, which actually makes sense: Now that the Kia Sorento has cracked the 100,000-unit mark for the year, you have to consider this vehicle an established member of the mainstream crossover market.
Sorento: Kia's Sonata?
The brief on the 2011 Sorento reads like something out of a movie. Last year, the aging, old-school model scored a total of 24,460 sales, a drop of 17.6 percent compared to 2008. Those figures made it the seventh-best seller for Kia in 2009, a few thousand units behind even the Kia Sedona. The company then put the Sorento through its complete-makeover machine, and it came out the other side as the automaker's most popular vehicle'”a title it's held for each of the 11 months since it was introduced in January.
In a way, then, you could say it's Kia's counterpart to the Hyundai Sonata, as both represent ye olde tip of the spear in their respective brands' first successful efforts to start reaping mainstream-style, high-volume sales numbers. (Something the Kia Forte didn't quite manage.)
The Sonata, of course, is now a regular member of the U.S. top-20 sellers, having spent a fair number of months up among the top 10 and topping its non-Honda/non-Toyota segment rivals on a number of occasions. The Sorento hasn't seen quite that level of success, but part of that goes back to the fact that the crossover competition isn't quite so standardized as that for mid-size sedans. This is something I touched on in my recent story about the Dodge Journey, but it bears repeating in this context.
What Size is the Right Size?
Many people understandably consider the Sorento to be a "small" crossover: It stretches 183.9 inches in length, a few inches longer than the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which are the smallest crossovers from Toyota and Honda, and the Kia also is a few inches shorter than the Chevrolet Equinox, the smallest rivals from the General. In this crowd, the Sorento's sales numbers would leave it in fourth place, well off the numbers from the RAV4, CR-V and Equinox, but well ahead of the Terrain and other crossovers above a theoretical 180-inch benchmark.
That's not bad, but it gets a lot better if you spin things a bit differently. There's a significant number of shoppers (and auto observers) who group all of each manufacturer's smallest crossovers into one segment regardless of the vehicles' actual sizes. Thus, you get people cross-shopping the CR-V and the Equinox, even though there is more than a foot difference in their lengths.
Taking this approach, the "small" crossover segment would include the aforementioned Honda and Chevy, along with the RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage, leaving the Sorento to go against the most makers' second-biggest crossovers, like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano and Hyundai Santa Fe, the longest of which, the Pilot, is 190.9 inches. And from among this crew, it's the Kia that tops the sales list.
The Family Plan
Let's wrap up by putting this into the context of another common Krome on Cars theme: The dwindling number of brands that aren't trying to head upscale. This hits particularly close to home for Kia, since its corporate sibling, Hyundai, is among those with new-found premium pretensions. Plus, not only is Hyundai taking sharper aim at the luxe segments, it also appears to be doing so primarily on the car side. Once the all-new Hyundai Elantra starts gaining traction, the automaker will be fielding that and the Sonata to go with a soon-to-be-new Hyundai Azera, the full-on luxury of the Hyundai Equus and a renewed focus on the Hyundai Genesis.
Which means Kia has to face less competition and more opportunities to gain further customers with family-friendly crossovers like the Sorento.