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First Drive: 2009 Kia Borrego

Nicely Developed, Designed, and Executed, but Can Kia Overcome Bad Timing?
In the midst of a shaky economy and frenzy over high fuel costs that hasn’t quite died down, Kia’s new Borrego appears to be the wrong product at the wrong time. Borrego isn’t alone in facing an uphill battle this fall, as the Dodge Challenger muscle car, Cadillac CTS-V performance sport sedan, Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram pickups, and king of any hill Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 are just a few of the other thirsty, function-oriented entries this year.

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Yet Kia may pull some success out of an apparently difficult situation. First, Borrego is well done, competitive, and has nothing to apologize for. Second, Borrego is supported by a significant marketing program, advertising mid-size SUVs when no one else dares; this is the one segment with comparatively little ad clutter today and with the chance to grab some buyers feeling guilty about their suburban jungle Expeditions, or looking to shave a bit off the monthly payment to compensate for increased fuel costs. Third, the model is sold in South Korea as well and Kia could offer a lower-content version for some emerging markets if they chose. Finally, if sales don’t take off as expected, the economy is the easy the fall guy. If sales beat (likely readjusted) targets, then they’ve got a success to report back home.
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Ford and Dodge will go against one another harder than McCain vs Obama as they’ve both redone their iconic full-size pickups this year, but Kia’s Borrego has little new segment competition this year. The mid-size tow-capable SUV market might find opportunity for grabbing some buyers dropping out of the full-size SUV market not yet ready for a Toyota Yaris. Borrego’s 7500-pound V8 towing capacity is strong enough for most family recreational towing needs, and many full-size SUV buyers chose vehicles with more capability than they needed. Entries like Borrego give a fuel-economy break versus the larger SUV and allow for most family and recreational needs.

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Still, it’s a tough time to introduce a standard 276HP V6- or 337HP V8-powered, three-row, seven- or eight-seat mid-size SUV offering 17/21 (2WD V6) or 15/22 (2WD V8) mpg. Both engines are optimized for regular fuel. Throwing out bad timing, the biggest issue for Kia’s Borrego is that it is nice, but not special.
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But What About the SUV?
Kia clearly and faithfully targeted the Ford Explorer. And why not? Explorer dominated the segment and American driveways for years. Borrego is about the same size, with about the same power, the same seating, and many of the same features. Going up against the Explorer, Honda Pilot, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder, the Borrego has more interior room and plenty of convenience features. The powertrain is smooth and confident, V6 or V8, and NVH keeps the inside quiet enough for kids to watch DVDs or you to listen to NPR on the standard SIRIUS radio and neither miss a beat. Conversations first to second row, minus audio system distractions, is easy and comfortable.
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The interior is nicely laid out with materials that have a high-quality, if not quite luxury, feel. The instrument cluster layout is clear and uncluttered, in keeping with a no-nonsense attitude of a utility-focused SUV. There are steering-wheel-mounted controls; a floor-mounted shifter that blocks only the lower of the two storage cubbies in park; and buttons that are easy to reach, read, and use. The steering wheel controls don’t include the ability to change fan or temp, like some at Ford, though they also don’t have an easy-to-bump Off button for the cruise there, either. The metal-look trim is in tune with the Borrego’s intentions and optional leather of decent quality with a tailored design.
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Second and third row access is easy, as is passenger space for the third row. Seatbacks for the rear two rows are hard plastic, enabling a cargo area easy to clean out no matter what goes in. Seats were comfortable for our roughly half-day drive time.
As in other areas, Borrego offers a solid safety package, with lots of airbags (including full-length three-row curtains) and electronic driving aids. Being a full-on SUV with respectable off-road capability, it includes hill-start and downhill braking control systems.
Borrego’s equipment list checks the boxes you expect. Power windows, doors, and locks are standard, along with air conditioning, USB/auxiliary jack and CD player, keyless entry, ultrasonic parking sensors, and cruise control. The EX adds voice-activated navigation, single-screen rear-seat entertainment, power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, the steering-wheel controls, Homelink, and a trip computer. Additional packages including heated front seats, rear air conditioning (an excellent system, with its own compressor), rear-parking camera, running boards, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and sunroof. A special edition joining the range in fall, the Limited gets pushbutton start/smart key, monotone black exterior and interior, chrome accents on door handles, Bluetooth, heated second-row seats, and a specific gauge cluster.
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Borrego’s looks suit its nature. It carries a purposeful, stylish persona. There are LED turn indicators, highly designed headlights, and chrome trim pieces, but it looks formulaic from any view. There is the requisite upright grille, chiseled hood, straight sides, and stiff D-pillar. The tailgate offers plenty of glass for visibility, though the rear is the most derivative view. Kia applied the standard SUV formula well, even improving on Subaru’s Tribeca nose. Borrego is stylish and predictable, but they missed the mark for distinctive.
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Why Choose Borrego?
We don’t see Borrego buyers being disappointed with their choice. It is well done, responsive and comfortable on the road and with abilities some buyers still prioritize as needs versus wants. But the question of “why?” remains. Why Borrego over Explorer? Or over a Saturn Outlook? Or a Mazda CX-9? Or a Nissan Xterra? Or Honda Pilot? Pricing is nice, but this is a Kia product that should be good enough to not have to rely on low pricing to attract buyers. Its problem is that, here in the first iteration, it does not bring something unique to the formula. But, as Kia reminded us, Borrego is all incremental. With each one sold comes the chance to spread the word and please ever more customers, hopefully creating loyal buyers. The Borrego is up to that challenge.
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