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2020 Kia Telluride First Drive Review | The cool dad of crossovers

TELLURIDE, Colo. — We're going to be talking a lot here about practicality and value, but inevitably, the main appeal of the 2020 Kia Telluride comes down to its styling. People dig it. It's boxy, rugged and has a whiff of Range Rover premium cool. In a three-row crossover segment dominated by non-descript family haulers, the Telluride stands out by subtly flying its family flag. It's the cool dad in a leather jacket and Ray Ban Wayfarers standing next to the shlub in wrinkled khakis.

The visual attraction carries inside. There is a style present in even low trim levels that you just won't get in the Honda Pilots and Subaru Ascents of this world, which prioritize simple functionality. The risk to that approach is that it makes it especially difficult on upper trims to make them look and feel like vehicles that warrant price tags approaching $50,000. The Telluride has no such issue, as the range-topping SX trim level we tested boasts a cabin worthy of such a luxury-nearing price tag. There's convincing wood trim, soft leather and leather-like surfaces everywhere, and feature content that's second to none in the segment. Better yet, the volume-selling EX trim level one rung down the ladder has pretty much the same look, but with fewer high-lux features slathered on.

While the Telluride's mechanically related cousin, the Hyundai Palisade, has generated plenty of interest since its introduction, the big Kia feels like it has captured actual buzz. Still, the two are awfully similar on paper. The wheelbase is identical, as is the 3.8-liter V6, eight-speed automatic and 5,000-pound towing capacity. The Kia's is a mere 0.8 inch longer and 0.4 inches taller, but there's 1.8-inch greater third-row headroom, and three more cubic feet of space behind the third row — perhaps its most significant difference.

The Telluride's cabin is also bigger and more spacious than popular entries like the Pilot, Ascent and Toyota Highlander. Only the 2020 Ford Explorer and gargantuan Chevrolet Traverse enjoy a size advantage among three-row crossovers.



Importantly, however, the Telluride's big enough inside that shoppers should be able to easily distinguish it from the Sorento, despite both having three rows of seats. Simply, the Sorento is for people who might use the third row on occasion for short distances and/or with short people. The Telluride's third row can be used by anyone on a regular basis. Indeed, at 6-foot-3, I was able to fit quite comfortably in the third-row despite the driver- and sliding second-row seats being similarly set for myself. There is a notable abundance of headroom, the seat reclines, and importantly for anyone of any size, the large three-quarter windows eliminate the claustrophobic feel that's common for the cheap seats.

As for the second-row, there's a choice of a 60/40-split bench that allows for eight-passenger seating, and comfortable second-row captain's chairs (standard on the SX) that slide forward at the touch of a button and offer optional ventilation, a feature unusual in any SUV at any price. Those in back also enjoy an abundance of power, with two USB ports in each rear row — those for the second are uniquely located in the front seat backs, shortening the distance between port and device. There's a trio of ports up front for a grand total of seven in most trim levels. Even the base LX has five.

The LX, which starts at $32,735 including destination, also comes standard with an eight-inch touchscreen that serves as the upgrade in other Kias. In the Telluride, however, it is supplanted by a new 10.25-inch widescreen model in the EX ($38,135) and SX ($42,535) that increases functionality by allowing for a split-screen mode (navigation on the left, for instance, with audio information on the left). It also looks pretty cool. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio are included on every trim, while the EX gains wireless charging, integrated navigation and the Driver Talk function that broadcasts the voices of those up front to those in the back. Honda and Toyota offer a similar feature. A Harman Kardon audio system is added to the SX. (Read a complete breakdown of its features in our 2020 Telluride Review and Buying Guide)


Telluride LX (left) and SX (right)

Indeed, these infotainment features, which impress in their volume as well as their functionality, are just the tip of the iceberg for a vehicle that provides an abundance of content for the money. That includes standard automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and other accident avoidance tech. Our absolutely loaded test vehicle may have crossed $46,000, but nothing in the segment comes close to its content. Some even top out with a heftier price tag.

Behind the wheel, the Telluride doesn't offer the sharp, fun handling of the Stinger or other sporty Kias. There's lots of body roll, but it's well-controlled, as the suspension sets itself nicely through a corner while maintaining composure over big bumps and undulations. A self-leveling rear suspension is available with the optional tow package, but our test vehicle was not so-equipped. Despite the big dimensions and boxy look, the Telluride doesn't have the sort of heavyweight feel to its ride and driving experience one gets with big luxury models or even a Volkswagen Atlas. Part of that is chassis tuning, but the other is that the Telluride is one of the lighter vehicles in the segment, starting at 4,112 pounds. Only the Pilot is more svelte on the scales.

The steering, as in other Kias, offers a choice of Comfort, Sport and Smart settings, which in my experience, generally lives up to its name by correctly identifying how much steering effort to dial in — at least for my personal tastes. It's hard to know how Smart it might be for you. Sport seems to have a smidge more effort and comes with sharper throttle and transmission responses, while Comfort is too numb and allows too much play at speed. In any event, the Telluride demonstrated impressive straight-line stability despite strong crosswinds during our test drive in a winter storm.



In terms of ride quality, opting for the big 20-inch wheels can create some choppy reactions to certain road imperfections, but in general, we spent about five hours behind the wheel on rural highways and found the ride to be perfectly pleasant. Really, the Telluride strikes a good balance between comfort and driver confidence that should be perfect for many. It doesn't drive like the big, boxy, truck-ish thing it tries to visually emulate.

As for the 3.8-liter V6, it's good for a seemingly healthy 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet, but we were driving between 4,500 and 8,000 feet in Colorado, fittingly near the actual town of Telluride. It was therefore tough to tell if felt less-than-robust due to elevation or just a general lack of gusto driven in part by running the Atkinson combustion cycle — typically a benefit to fuel economy at the expense of power density. Torque underwhelmed, and its power really didn't come on strong until a lofty 5,200 rpm. Another drive closer to sea level is in order, but if you live in a place like Telluride and plan to load your three-row SUV up with people and stuff, a turbocharged rival like the Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent or especially the 300-horsepower 2020 Explorer may be a better call.

For everyone else at lower altitudes, it's hard to consider the 2020 Kia Telluride as anything but one of the best choices in the three-row crossover segment. It provides the practicality and comfort families require, the value and lengthy warranty that makes sense for their budget, and the feature content that'll entertain, coddle and protect them. The fact that the Telluride looks more like a tough-guy SUV than a wagon that's gone on a high carb diet is basically a bonus — even if it's the primary point of attraction.

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