2021 Kia Sorento X-Line AWD: Three rows of fun?

Price: $44,285 as tested. X-Line Rust Interior Package, $200; floor mats, $210; cargo mat, $115.

Marketer’s pitch: “Let the adventures begin.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “diverse selection of power trains, handsome exterior and upscale interior, satisfying ride and handling,” but not that the “third row isn’t exactly adult-friendly, larger touchscreen lacks wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, small cargo area with the third row up.”

Reality: Two rows of fun and one of claustrophobia.

Catching up: Last week we tried out the Mazda CX-9 three-row SUV.

This week, we have the all-new Sorento. It now borrows design cues from handsome big brother, the Telluride. It gets farther off the ground, more power, and a hybrid engine option.

» READ MORE: 2021 Mazda CX-9: An SUV without surprises

Up to speed: Don’t challenge this Kia Sorento to a race, folks. This fairly big SUV pulls 281 horsepower from its 2.5-liter turbo four, and it gets to 60 mph in a rocking 6.5 seconds, according to Consumer Reports.

The key here is dialing up Sport mode. But not too soon; when cold, it can be a little rough. The default Eco mode, though, is really sloooooow. Soon, I learned to start in Smart mode, then switch to Sport when it’s fun time.

On the road: On country roads, the Sorento is plenty fun in Sport mode for a seven-passenger SUV, though. Handling is sharp and responsive, and bouncy country roads just have an added kick.

But the modes are so drastically different that you need to pay attention to which one you’re in. The handling gets much more lethargic in Smart mode, and I felt as if I were losing it on several curves until I caught on.

Comfortable highway driving could be found, but it took some fiddling, and I forgot to note my final choice there.

Shifty: The 8-speed dual-clutch transmission also leaves a bit to be desired. In automatic mode, it could be far too late to downshift for hill climbing or adding power outside of Sport mode, while it could linger in gears forever in Sport mode.

If you’re a real fan of shifting or if my complaints don’t bother you, you’ll be fine.

This transmission type has been a problem for Kia, but I found the Sorento’s worked nicely otherwise.

Driver’s Seat: In previous years, I always felt as if the Sorento seat didn’t quite align with the steering wheel, so I would sit a bit off center, with one shoulder against the seat back and one off. The new model has improved driving position drastically. The seat is a little on the firm side but not at all bad on longer drives.

Friends and stuff: The middle row captain’s chairs offer some comfort, as well, although they are also a little on the thin side, Sturgis Kid 4.0 reports.

The Sorento will seat two rows in comfort, but a third row means discomfort. The rear row is tight and low, and you will become familiar with your own knees. But at least the middle row slides out of your way for reasonably easy access.

Cargo space is 75.5 cubic feet with all the seats folded but just 12.6 behind the last row. That luggage compartment is really tight — barely even room for a couple large, loose items from the warehouse store, and the seats don’t fold down without moving the middle row forward.

» READ MORE: For 50K, Lexus NX 300h offers luxury, economy and some fun

Play some tunes: Mr. Driver’s Seat didn’t expect such clear sound reproduction, but the Sorento really showed its stuff. I heard pieces of songs that usually come through only in my ear buds, but with actual fidelity. This is an A.

Control of the system remains direct and simple. Ebony buttons outside the screen allow for source selection, and dials control volume and tuning.

Keeping warm and cool: The Sorento HVAC features pluses and minuses. Handsome silver toggles control the temperature and seat heating and cooling. These are easy to feel for and operate without much eyes off the road.

But if you need to change the air source or fan speed, it requires touchpad-type buttons with no sensory response and not much sensitivity. “Wait, did that work?” Looks. “Nope.” Looks again. Swerve. Crash, I fear.

Fuel economy: All that power comes as a cost. I averaged in the 17s while taking the Sorento on a lot of highway trips. Disappointing.

Where it’s built: West Point, Ga.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Sorento reliability to be a 3 out of 5.

In the end: In the last three weeks, I had trouble deciding among the RAV4 Prime, the NX 300h and the CX-9. The Sorento came in late and stole the show. Performance and comfort are impressive, but I’d be disappointed about the fuel consumption. A hybrid test beckons. But even the X-Line beats the CX-9 on price.

In the category, though, the Highlander Hybrid actually does it all — but for another 8 grand — economy, comfort, performance, more space, and even some handling.