During my early days at MotorTrend, there was a running joke in the office that our long-term Kia Borrego was abandoned. Long-term test vehicles typically stay for a year, but our burnt orange Borrego was a fixture in #MTGarage for almost twice as long before it finally went back to Kia. Coincidentally, just as we were saying bye to the Borrego, so was the rest of the U.S.—Kia discontinued the SUV after just one model year on the market after it fell short of sales targets.
It wasn’t because it was a bad SUV. In fact, the notes in our logbook were generally positive. But ultimately we thought its worst feature was timing. With high gas prices a not-too-distant memory and a recession on buyers’ minds, there had been better times to launch a full-size, body-on-frame SUV.
It was an admirable risk for Kia but apparently not one worth taking again. Almost a decade after the Borrego’s demise, the new 2020 Kia Telluride debuts on a more practical front-drive-based unibody platform aimed directly at big sellers like the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota Highlander.
The Telluride makes a strong first impression based on styling alone, especially compared to the aforementioned competitors. Sure, it has a simple and boxy silhouette, but Americans can’t seem to get enough of boxes on wheels (see Mercedes G-Class). Exterior brightwork is also restrained, with a few interesting touches like the upward kink at the bottom of the B-pillar. The taillights—which Kia describes as an “inverted L”—are the most polarizing design element, but they fit well on the Telluride and look sharp lit up at night.
The 2020 Telluride’s size also contributes to its eye-catching looks. It stretches 196.9 inches long and stands 78.3 inches wide, making the Telluride almost 8 inches longer and 4 inches wider than the Sorento while sharing similar dimensions as the Volkswagen Atlas, Pathfinder, and Pilot. It’s big inside, too—Kia claims total interior volume is a cavernous 178.1 cubic feet, and that the 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row of seats is the best in its segment.
Kia’s largest crossover is estimated to weigh between 4,100 and 4,500 pounds, and the sole powertrain available to lug around that weight is a 3.8-liter V-6 rated at 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. That’s mated to an eight-speed auto that sends power to the front wheels. All-wheel drive is optional. Four drive modes adjust powertrain and steering behavior (Smart, Eco, Comfort, and Sport); AWD models get additional Snow and AWD Lock modes, the latter of which evenly distributes power to all four wheels. Smart and Eco drive the front wheels; Comfort and Snow mode send up to 20 percent of power to the rear wheels. That number jumps to 35 percent in Sport mode. A rear air suspension setup is available to keep the Telluride’s ride height at optimal levels.
For our first stint at the wheel, Kia handed us keys to a Telluride AWD with its navigation set to take us through the winding roads and majestic canyons starting in Gateway, Colorado, and ending at the crossover’s namesake town of Telluride. Would we have liked more power, especially at highway passing speeds? Absolutely. But the powertrain is adequate for small ski towns with low speed limits and feels on par for the segment. We’ll be eager to see how the Telluride performs with a cabin full of passengers and gear, and against its competitors like the upcoming Ford Explorer with its tempting array of turbo engines, including a base turbo-four pumping out 300 hp and 310 lb-ft.
Suspension tuning hasn’t always been one of Kia’s strengths, which is why we were a tad surprised by how well the Telluride handles. The crossover is satisfyingly planted through fast sweepers at speeds that most owners likely won’t explore, and the ride feels taut yet smooth while cruising. It’s quiet, too. Colorado’s roads are relatively well maintained, so we’ll see how the Telluride handles the more challenging road surfaces back home in Los Angeles. But overall the Telluride feels solid and well put together—we noted little to no squeaks or rattles during a light off-road excursion.
That feeling of solidity carries on inside. Material quality and ergonomics are good, and so is overall visibility. Sitting high on the dashboard is a responsive and intuitive touchscreen infotainment system. Value has always been a strong point for Kia, and it’s no different with the Telluride. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trim levels, as are push-button start, five USB ports, and satellite radio. Higher trim levels get a large 10.3-inch infotainment screen (8.0-inch is standard), wireless phone charging, Bluetooth connectivity for two phones, and a total of six USB ports (two for each row). We drove a fully loaded SX model with the Prestige package that adds more goodies including a head-up display, Nappa leather, and a suede-like headliner.
The as-tested price for our top-of-the line Telluride AWD (including the $2,000 Prestige Package) was $46,860, which is about $2,200 less than a loaded Pilot Elite AWD. The base model Telluride LX starts at $32,735 and is competitive with Highlander ($32,425) and Pilot ($32,495), while the midlevel S and EX models start at $35,035 and $38,135, respectively. Kia predicts Telluride S and EX will make up 66 percent of total sales.
Other notable features include Driver Talk and Quiet Mode, which are standard on EX and SX. The former features a microphone that allows the driver to communicate with second- and third-row passengers. Quiet Mode cuts audio for both rear rows, allowing kids to sleep or play Nintendo Switch without enduring their parents’ boring podcasts or talk radio shows. An eight-passenger setup with a middle-row bench is standard, while a pair of second-row captain chairs (heated and ventilated on the SX with the Prestige package) is optional. Access to the third row is easy: Simply press a button on the upper edge of the second-row seat. Back-row seating should be comfortable for two average-sized adults or three kids, but taller folks will likely have to get creative to avoid hitting the headliner.
Kia is confident the Telluride will earn top safety marks from the NHTSA and IIHS, and buyers should feel good about the long list of drive assist systems including Lane Keep Assist, Blind Spot Collision Avoidance, and Lane Follow Assist (which essentially combines LKA and adaptive cruise). Telluride EX and SX get Highway Drive Assist, which Kia considers Level 2 semi-autonomous capability due to its ability to handle most highway steering and adjust to speed limits.
When it comes to efficiency, the EPA rates the FWD Telluride at 20/26 mpg city/highway, 19/24 for AWD. Those numbers are on par with Pilot and Highlander and slightly better than Atlas and the Chevrolet Traverse.
And with that, Toyota, Honda, and Ford have another serious contender in the crowded field of large three-row crossovers. With handsome looks and a well-rounded package, the new Telluride should have no worries about being abandoned.
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