When we see the debut of a new car model, it may be “new” to us, but to the people who toil in the auto industry, a new model has been around in various development stages for at least a couple of years. That’s what makes planning so tough for designers and engineers creating new vehicles; they have to try to predict tastes and trends a long time in advance.
For the 2009 model year, Kia has rolled out its largest model yet, the husky Borrego SUV. Not a crossover based on a car chassis, but a true body-on-frame truck-type sport utility with the option of true four wheel drive. It has three rows of seats, an optional V8 engine, and it dwarfs the other Kia models in the showroom. Just what American buyers need right now…or not.
You can’t really blame Kia for this ill-timed product launch. When the Borrego was approved for production, the record high gas prices of mid-2008 were still a year or two away. And like other brands trying to grow their market share, Kia Motors America and its dealers wanted to broaden the variety of models offered to the public.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of head scratching among the automotive press and the public when the Borrego landed in an auto market where everyone was talking fuel economy and smaller vehicles. Five years ago it might have made a pretty significant splash, with an athletic design and the bargain price tag that Kia has been known for. Add in the impressive power train warranty (10 years / 100,000 miles) and it could have been a pretty big hit.
But today, the larger SUVs have become automotive pariahs. Sure, there are still a handful of people who like them and will continue to buy them, but generally, their time has passed. The name of the game now is efficiency, and most every car company is working hard to develop lighter, friendlier crossover SUVs that ride and handle like cars. Even though Kia calls the Borrego “mid-size,” it’s still pretty big and heavy.
The Borrego isn’t a bad vehicle; it’s just out of step with the times. Build quality is high, the V8 engine has gobs of smooth power, and it’s fitted with all the amenities that have become commonplace in new vehicles. But the Borrego breaks no new ground at all, feeling pretty much like a brand new 1999 Ford Explorer. In fashion, styles seem to recycle every generation or so, with older designs brought around again for a new audience. With new cars, older designs don’t really cut it.
But if you are in the market for a traditional SUV, Kia has the right formula. Overall exterior size isn’t overly excessive, and there’s plenty of room inside. A V6 engine is standard, as is two wheel drive for a reasonable starting price of $26,245 (for the base LX model). Stepping all the way up to the most expensive Limited model, with the V8 and four wheel drive, you’ll pay just a tick under $40,000. That’s quite a bargain.
Aside from a pretty good price, Kia also got the styling right. The front end has a kind of “hmm…I’ve seen that somewhere before” look to it, with a wide chrome grill and nicely done light clusters. The rear gets a little bit of style too, with a familial resemblance to Kia’s smaller Sportage and even some of the Hyundai models that come from the same parent company.
Inside, we slip back into that 1999 time warp. Nothing really stands out, save for the brushed metal trim swath across the width of the dash that’s become commonplace today. The gauges look very generic, and only the optional navigation screen and the floor console shift lever for the 6-speed automatic transmission suggest a modern vehicle. Again, not horrible, but nothing that inspires automotive lust.
Thankfully, Kia’s launch hubbub for the Borrego was short-lived, as they’ve now focused their marketing efforts on a vehicle much more attuned with what buyers want. Debuting at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November and due to go on sale this spring, the Kia Soul is a compact, fuel efficient and funky car with all kinds of personalization options. The Soul will bring the Korean brand boldly into 2009. Young drivers want style and value, and the new small car will likely deliver both.
But if you yearn for a return to 1999, you can revisit a time of booming technology stocks, low gasoline prices, and fewer worries about terrorism. It wasn’t a great time for SUVs by comparison, but some folks don’t really care about fashion all that much. For them, the new Borrego is a comfortable suit of clothes that works just fine, no matter what fashion critics may think.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net