- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

As a noun, a desert refers to an arid, hostile environment. As a verb, it means to abandon or forsake someone or something.

Kia’s all-new 2009 Borrego is named for a desert in Southern California. It arrives at a time when both meanings describe the climate that greets it.

The Borrego is a mid-size, body-on-frame, seven-passenger SUV with V6 or V8 power, a type of vehicle that only recently was wildly popular. But with gas prices stuck around $4 per gallon, it faces a forbidding environment, with buyers deserting these vehicles in droves.

It’s unfortunate because the South Korean manufacturer has produced an exceptional first effort in a segment in which it has not competed. The company views that as a reason for optimism because each sale is a plus it would not have otherwise.

“Kia has never been in this segment before,” said Tom Loveless, the marketing vice president. “We used to be always the second car in the driveway. This gives us a chance to be the first.”

As a body-on-frame SUV, the Borrego competes with truck-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Grand Cherokee. It also targets the Honda Pilot, which is a unit-body crossover utility vehicle.

Generally speaking, truck-based SUVs are more rugged, have more power, better towing capability and, with four-wheel drive, more suited to off-road adventures. Crossovers, on the other hand, usually deliver better handling and fuel economy, and have all-wheel drive mainly for adverse on-road conditions.

Despite its underpinnings, the Kia Borrego does not have a truck-like feel.

The impression is more crossover than SUV, not unlike that of the Hyundai Veracruz or Toyota Highlander. It cruises serenely on the highway, with confident handling and little intrusion of wind, mechanical or road noise.

However, despite a good ride on smooth surfaces, the suspension system is harsh, transmitting road shocks to the passengers’ behinds when the going gets choppy.

But the Borrego has all the attributes, including its available V8 engine, regarded as important by customers who tow boats and trailers, and take their vehicles off-road.

With the 337-horsepower V8, an all-new design that, with different tuning and transmission gearing also powers the new Hyundai Genesis, the Borrego can tow up to 7,200 pounds.

Moreover, with four-wheel drive (a $2,000 option), the Borrego can be shifted with a dash-mounted switch from on-road all-wheel drive to high- or low-range four-wheel drive for adventures into the wilderness.

The Borrego has three rows of seats with a surprising amount of flexibility for passengers and cargo. The third-row seat actually can accommodate two people up to six-feet tall in reasonable comfort, though it takes some agility to get back there.

The second row seats, divided two-thirds and one-third, can be adjusted fore and aft. There’s about a foot of travel with four locked positions to divvy up the space among the three rows. The seatbacks also recline.

There’s more than adequate room in the second row for three adults, with a nearly flat floor, although the center position is shortchanged on cushion comfort and the intrusion of the center console.

Kia touts the fuel economy as best in the class. On the V6 with rear drive, the city/highway EPA rating is 17/21 miles per gallon. The V8 model actually does slightly better on the highway side, at 15/22, owing to its newer design and the use of a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the five-speed automatic on the V6 model. With four-wheel drive, the V6 rating is 16/21 and the V8 gets a 15/20 rating.

Buyers have come to expect a lot of stuff for the bucks from South Korean manufacturers, and the Borrego is no exception. The base Borrego LX two-wheel drive model starts at $26,995, which is about what some compact two-row crossover SUVs cost.

Standard equipment includes a full complement of safety equipment: electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, side airbags and side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, backup warning system, and, for off-road duty, downhill brake control, hill start assist, tow hooks and underbody skid plates.

Also standard are air conditioning, an audio system with satellite radio, 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, remote locking, and power windows and mirrors. The upholstery is a comfortable, sturdy cloth and the supportive front seats are adjustable for height.

An unusual item of standard equipment is a power closing system for the tailgate, not unlike those featured on luxury cars that snub down the trunk lid. When the tailgate makes contact, the mechanism pulls it tightly closed.

The test Borrego was a V8 model with four-wheel drive. It had a base price of $33,745 and, with options, topped out at $39,295.

That included leather upholstery on the first two rows of seats (the third row has a vinyl covering), a motorized sunroof, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear air conditioning, running boards, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a memory system for the seats, mirrors and steering wheel, and an upgraded audio system.

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