Automotive nameplates set the stage for how people perceive the brand. That can work for a brand — Toyotas have a reputation for being bulletproof and having excellent resale value — but in Kia’s case, the nameplate has been an absolute millstone around its neck. Many years ago, the South Korean manufacturer acquired a reputation for producing cheap, unreliable cars; even as build quality improved markedly year after year and heavy-hitting endorsers like LeBron James coming on board, that reputation has been slow to erode.
Consider the new Telluride Kia’s latest bold bid to recast its reputation from perilous budget brand to discerning buyer’s value brand. And the company has succeeded by doing the nearly-impossible: making a three-row family SUV that stands out of the crowd.
The Good: The Telluride brings A-grade style, with an upscale exterior and a spacious, luxurious interior (yes, that’s Nappa leather in there). It’s striking, and not just for a Kia.
The Telluride also backs up that style with substance, serving as a practical, capable and reasonably fun-to-drive family hauler. Unlike much of the three-row crossover field, you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing for your family. Instead, you feel like you’re being rewarded — even pampered.
Who It’s For: There’s no dancing around it: the Telluride is a car for moms and dads, built to accommodate children and their devices. But the Telluride is sophisticated enough to transition from school bus to office-ready commuter or date night ride.
Not surprisingly, the Telluride is reeling in value-minded buyers rather than budget-minded ones. The average transaction price on a Telluride is north of $40,000.
Watch Out For: Kia dotted the Is, crossed the Ts, and found most of the dangling modifiers with the Telluride. While it has imperfections, there are no Telluride pitfalls to be concerned about…unless you push it too far off the beaten trail and encounter real ones. It’s not a Land Cruiser, just adept at tasks people use a Land Cruiser for.
Alternatives: There are many in this crowded segment. Foreign three-row SUVs aiming for the same not-quite-luxury buyer include the Subaru Ascent ($31,995), the Honda Pilot ($31,550), the Volkswagen Atlas ($30,895),and the Mazda CX-9 ($32,280).
Review: The Telluride is striking to behold, and not just for a Kia. It captivated me at the Detroit Auto Show when it was unveiled, even as Toyota unveiled the Supra and Ford dropped a Shelby GT500 down from the rafters. I liked it even better when one showed up in my driveway in Everlasting Silver paint. I thought this affection might be a bizarre aberration. (Parenting does weird things to you.) Typically, I pay Kias no mind and deride midsize three-row SUVs as “minivans on stilts.”
But it wasn’t just me. Friends, family and acquaintances all asked me about the Telluride, even unprompted. My wife adored it. My two-year-old demanded to drive it. My younger brother, a young, single person, is considering swapping his Stinger GT for a Telluride when his lease runs out.
Fortunately for Kia, the appearance is just the jumping-off point for discussing the Telluride.
My wife described the Telluride as “the perfect car for going up north”– the Michigander equivalent of heading out to the Hamptons — and that was an apt description. It’s a resolute and comfortable family cruiser, one that makes that everyday parenting grind feel that little bit less grinding.
Everything with the Telluride is easy. There are wide doors for easy entry, egress and car-seat placement. You can access the third row via one-touch folding seats. There’s a spacious cabin or, if so inclined, 87 cubic feet of potential cargo space. The touchscreen is intuitive and generously sized. There are two USB ports — for each row. The things you want to control using buttons (volume, seat warmers) have buttons to control them with. It even had what appeared to be a glasses case holder in the center console.
Besides being attractive and practical, the Telluride completes the good-car hat trick by driving well. It steers precisely for an SUV, with just the right amount of weight to the wheel, and ht has torque vectoring to help with cornering. At times, the Telluride felt like a much smaller car; I misjudged a couple of curbs, presuming too much of the agile car I was piloting. Grappling with the car’s actual dimensions during parking was a bit of an adjustment.
The Telluride drives smoothly and quietly. Acoustic glass filters out much of the noise, and the suspension dampens pockmarked Detroit roads with aplomb. It felt unerringly pleasant during my time with it; I kept having to stop myself from settling back into a self-satisfied “dad lean” with one hand on the wheel.
Complaints? There aren’t many. I could be that car guy and whine about the 3.8-liter V6 not being that thrilling of an engine. But that’s the trade-off you make in this price range and category. The Telluride’s plant has more vigor than the VW Atlas’s V6, and it sounds more civilized than the Ascent’s turbocharged boxer-four. If you’re determined, you can push the car out of its comfort zone; it’s not meant for brisk highway acceleration, divebombing into corners like Daniel Ricciardo or plowing through an off-road obstacle course.
Also, style seldom comes without sacrifices. The Telluride makes one that’s common for SUVs: rear visibility. The roof’s pillars are chunky, and the back mirror doesn’t offer much of a view. You do get large side mirrors and multiple camera view when reversing to help make up for that, however.
The Telluride’s fuel economy was mediocre, at least in my experience. According to the EPA, the all-wheel-drive Telluride gets about 21 mpg combined. My tester got about 19 mpg in real-world driving over a week, including multiple highway trips. That’s not abnormal for a three-row SUV, but it may put off some more environmentally-conscious families.
Verdict: The Telluride redefines the Kia brand, not to mention the three-row family SUV segment. The top-level SX trim offers luxury amenities at an affordable price tag. It’s more polished than most of its competition from respected value brands in the price range. Unless you have a fat wad of cash to buy a Navigator or a serious overlanding itch, the Telluride should be on your three-row shortlist.
2020 Kia Telluride Key Specs
Price as Tested: $46,860
Horsepower: 291 hp
Torque: 262 lb-ft
Towing Capacity: 5,000 lbs
Fuel Economy: 19/24/21 mpg (AWD model)
Kia provided this product for review.
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