When this reviewer compared the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander GT to the 2011 Kia Sorento SX, this reviewer praised the Mitsubishi's sporty-for-its-size driving dynamics but didn't have many kind words for the car's interior.
The Outlander, a crossover SUV slotted in size between the compact and midsize classes, had one of the market's cheapest interiors and a rickety third-row seat that was nothing more than thin fabric stretched across a metal frame. Fix those issues, the review stated, and then you've got something.
For the 2014 model year, Mitsubishi has at long last set about doing exactly that. It's not a clean-sheet redesign, with many components dating all the way back to 2007, but the Outlander features all-new styling inside and out, and a healthy dose of refinement. It would have been certainly quite impressive back in 2011, when this reviewer compared it to the competing Kia Sorento.
But the Sorento, too, has just gotten a 2014-model update – taking largely the opposite approach to Mitsubishi. Most of the Kia's changes are under the skin, leaving a tweaked but familiar-looking body and interior. A 2014 Sorento recently spent two weeks with the Cars Examiner, and King Mitsubishi provided some seat time in a new Outlander during that period.
The drives reveal that there remain clear advantages to the Sorento: It has a bit more interior room, slicker interior tech, a zestier V6 engine that uses regular gas instead of the Mitsubishi's premium, and a wider dealer network.
But the Outlander is now a credible contender. The interior hasn't become outstanding, but it's no longer a reason to stay away from the car. It also is a rare crossover to earn a top score in the demanding Insurance Institute for Highway Safety small-overlap offset frontal crash test – an evaluation that badly crumpled all but one competitor. And it undercuts the Kia's price tag by several thousand dollars.
(The Outlander should not be confused with the Outlander Sport, a much smaller and much more unpleasant crossover.)
The previous Outlander had sporty handling but a stiff and noisy ride. The latest model is more mainstream – smoother and quieter, but with less zest. The steering is still decently weighted and responsive, but it no longer has a particularly eager feel. It drives more like other crossovers its size, for better or for worse.
The 2014 Sorento's character changed less compared to its predecessor's. The ride used to be rather bumpy; now it's less bumpy. Handling used to be decently agile; it's still at roughly that mark, with decently weighted steering that unfortunately provides little feedback.
Where the Kia did change is the engine – most notably, that the standard four-cylinder has been almost entirely purged from the lineup in favor of a smoother and more powerful V6 that returns similar fuel economy. The 2014 Sorento's 3.3-liter 290-horsepower unit replaces a 276-hp 3.5-liter that was optional on the 2011-2013 model.
The Sorento's fuel economy ratings didn't change in the redesign, remaining a decent 18 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, with an EPA-estimated overall rating of 20 mpg. This reviewer observed 21.5 mpg in two weeks of mixed driving. The Sorento can have an “econ” mode activated that has little obvious impact on either driving or fuel economy.
Oddly, the tested Sorento's transmission became confused during gentle-to-moderate acceleration a couple of times during the two-week test, picking too low of a gear and revving wildly for a few seconds before getting back into place. The transmission shifts smoothly enough that this was unobtrusive except for the extra noise, at least.
Most Outlanders have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that has not been praised for its zip, but which is rated for excellent fuel economy. For the best comparison to the Sorento, though, this reviewer sampled the line-topping Outlander GT, which has a 226-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. The engine is smooth and quiet and gives the car decent zip – especially because it's relatively light, 300 pounds shy of the Kia and 200 pounds less even than the previous Outlander.
The weight also helps the Outlander handily beat the Sorento's fuel economy ratings, with an impressive 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, or 23 mpg overall. Unfortunately, Mitsubishi recommends premium fuel – a rare and costly bit of pickiness for a mainstream vehicle with a straightforward naturally-aspirated engine.
But the Sorento's extra power over the Outlander is still apparent, and the Kia's fuel economy deficit is offset by its willingness to drink regular.
Inside the cabin
The Sorento has a well-finished cabin with a sensible design, comfortable seats and a lot of room for its size. Half a size between, for instance, a Honda CR-V and Honda Pilot, it lacks the latter's adult-friendly third-row seat, but adults can fit in a tight pinch – knees up and head slightly bowed if you're tall. It's also a tight squeeze to get in and out of the third row, and only the passenger-side section of the middle row slides forward (somewhat) out of the way.
A highlight of the 2014 update is Kia's Uvo system, which has a large, attractive and user-friendly touch screen for the navigation system and audio controls, along with some other functions. The screen is responsive, and an intuitive array of physical knobs and buttons surround it. Many automakers end up sacrificing simple ergonomics when they try to squeeze a growing number of functions into their cars; the Sorento proves that's not necessary. Uvo also includes some voice-activated controls.
One Sorento weak point is that its leather feels more sturdy than plush. It's not an inexpensive car when you add options, so it's fair to expect more.
The Outlander has a straightforward interior design with materials that don't usually feel luxurious but, at last, avoid feeling junky. Woodgrain interior trim helps break up the dash and door panels, but some my find this styling cue to be dated.
Its instrument panel has a clean, uncluttered look, with only one physical button – a small power button that doubles as a volume knob – dedicated to the audio controls. The rest are part of a touch screen. While attractive, this isn't nearly as user-friendly as the Sorento, requiring more time and attention to make certain adjustments. Climate controls are fuss-free.
Both the Outlander and Sorento have very comfortable front and second-row seats, though the Sorento doesn't have a lot of excess knee space. Neither crossover has a roomy third row, but adults can be wedged in there when needed – more easily in the Kia than the Mitsubishi. The Outlander does at last boast a true third row, making it competitive with the Sorento, just not quite as good. Oversize third-row head restraints block rear visibility when they're in use.
Neither has much space behind the third row, and the 2014 Outlander has a higher cargo floor than its predecessor. The previous generation's third row seat flipped backward into a cargo well, minivan-style, and a two-piece back hatch included a handy flip-down tailgate. The new model is now more like the competition – the third row folds forward flat, yielding a higher cargo floor than before and less total space. The Mitsubishi's third row now folds in two pieces instead of just one, boosting flexibility and matching the competition.
The Sorento's middle-row seat also folds down, though it doesn't lie flat. The Outlander achieves a flat cargo floor, but only via a fussy process of tumbling the rear seat forward.
Expect to keep the third rows of both crossovers folded except for emergencies, because only a couple of flexible grocery bags will fit behind them. The Outlander has 10.3 cubic feet of cargo space; the Sorento, 9.1. (The previous Outlander, with its cargo well, had 14.9 cubic feet behind the third row – which would have been handy if its third row were actually usable.)
The third-row seat is standard on the Outlander and is an option that typically runs $1,000 on the Sorento, but it's always unobtrusive when it's folded.
Start folding the seats, and the the Kia picks up a cargo space advantage over the Mitsubishi. The Sorento has 37 cubic feet of cargo room compared to the Outlander's 34 behind the rear seat, and maximum cargo capacity behind the front seats is 72 cubes for the Kia versus a rather skimpy 63 in the Mitsubishi. Both crossovers provide a high level of utility in a decently compact vehicle.
The Outlander is priced comparably to a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 – not bad for a vehicle with seating for seven. That means a base price of $22,995 for an ES, with a four-cylinder engine basic convenience features like power windows, locks, and mirrors, but not much extra.
The most popular version will likely be the SE, which adds 18-inch alloy wheels, the touch-screen radio and rearview camera, automatic climate control, heated front seats, and a proximity key system – at a premium of just $800. Add $2,000 for all-wheel-drive (not available on the ES), and then $2,000 more for the AWD-only V6 GT.
A $2,800 Premium Package on the GT, included on the tested car, buys leather seats, a sunroof, a power driver's seat and tailgate, and an upgraded sound system. The tested car also included the $1,695 DVD entertainment system, $295 rear parking sensors, and a couple of small items that pushed its tested price to $33,555.
Buyers can also opt for the $6,100 Touring Package, which includes the “Premium Package” features plus a navigation system and such rare-at-this-price features as adaptive cruise control, which automatically slows and resumes the car's cruising speed upon approaching and then overtaking a slower car; a lane departure warning system; and forward crash mitigation, which senses an impending collision and automatically applies the brakes.
Meanwhile, the Kia Sorento starts at $24,100 in the LX trim with the four-cylinder engine and $25,700 with the V6, equipped comparably to the Outlander ES – except that a third-row seat is only available on the V6, and as an option (generally around $1,000) at that. All Sorentos do have alloy wheels.
The next Sorento grade is the EX, which starts at $30,000 with the standard V6. It's equipped generally comparably to the Outlander GT with the Premium Package, with heated leather seats, a power driver's seat, proximity key, and Uvo, along with such safety features as a backup camera, reverse sensing system, and blind-spot detection system.
But the price increases quickly. You can only get a sunroof – though it's panoramic – in the $4,400 Touring Package, which also includes a power liftgate and passenger's seat, navigation system, ventilated front seats, and power-folding exterior mirrors.
The SX, with essentially the same equipment standard instead of optional, starts at $35,000. With the optional all-wheel-drive and third-row seat, the tested car stickered at $38,550. The most comparable Outlander GT would be $35,015.
The GT is the priciest Outlander; there is also an SX Limited version of the Sorento that brings larger wheels and a higher grade of leather, but it's a tough sell at a $3,300 price premium over the standard SX.
The Outlander works best as a roomier, slightly fancier alternative to a similarly priced compact crossover. Its third-row seat isn't spacious by any stretch, but it can get the job done if it's occasionally needed. And its outstanding safety scores provide another reason to give it a look.
The Sorento, meanwhile, is more of a compact alternative to a bigger crossover, with a fancier interior, more luxury features, and a roomier cabin than the Mitsubishi. Its higher price tag and highly restricted four-cylinder availability also make it less comparable to the Honda CR-V class.
Neither is perfect. Outlander buyers must choose between a relatively low-powered four-cylinder and a V6 that wants premium fuel, and don't get outstanding cargo space; they also face the potential difficulties of Mitsubishi's dwindling dealer network. And Sorento buyers might well demand a cushier ride, higher grade of leather, and a lower price.
But unlike the last time this reviewer compared them, either is a credible choice.
Prospective Sorento buyers, take note: The mechanically related Hyundai Santa Fe offers more room, nicer leather, and a smoother ride for roughly the same price, with few drawbacks of note. If you like the Sorento, also shop the Santa Fe. (A full review of the Santa Fe is coming soon.)
Photos of the 2014 Outlander and Sorento
Comparison review: Nine compact crossovers
Review: 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander GT vs. 2011 Kia Sorento SX
Review: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE
Review: 2013 Kia Sportage EX
Review: 2013 Kia Optima SX-L
Vehicles tested: 2014 Kia Sorento / 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander
Vehicle base prices (MSRP): $24,100 / $22,995
Versions tested: SX AWD / GT
Version base prices (MSRP): $36,700 / $27,795
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $38,550 / $33,555
Vehicle prices as comparable (MSRP)*: $38,550 / $35,015
Estimated transaction prices as comparable**: $35,336 / $32,536
Test vehicles provided by: Kia Motors America / King Mitsubishi; Gaithersburg, Md.
Key specifications: (Sorento / Outlander)
Length: 184.6 inches / 183.3 inches
Width: 74.2 inches / 70.9 inches
Height: 66.9 inches / 66.1 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches / 105.1 inches
Weight: 3,894 pounds / 3,571 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: 9.1 / 10.3 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind second-row seat: 36.9 / 34.2 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 72.5 / 63.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet / 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 3.3-liter V6, 290 hp / 3.0-liter V6, 224 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic / 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 18 mpg / 20 mpg
EPA highway mileage: 24 mpg / 28 mpg
EPA combined mileage: 20 mpg / 23 mpg
Observed mileage during test: 21.5 mpg / N/A
Assembly location: Georgia / Japan
For more information: Kia website / Mitsubishi website