Kia's first attempt at giving the American marked a three-row SUV didn't work so well. The thirsty Borrego arrived as gas prices began to soar during the recession, making the V-8 truck mostly dead on arrival. It was a total miss for the market at the time.
But Kia's a lot savvier than it was 12 years ago. The Korean company has mastered the American market. The proof is in the Telluride, Kia's second try at cracking the three-row SUV market. It's not just the best car in its class, it's one of the best SUVs on sale.
The formula for making a good family crossover is simple. Make it big, make it comfortable, give it a lot of equipment and sell it for an accessible price. The Telluride does all of that and more, excelling beyond class standards to the point that it embarrasses some luxury SUVs.
On equipment, for instance, our $47,260 tester had almost every option you could ever need. Not only were the front seats heated and cooled, but so were the captain's chairs in the second row. There was a head-up display, a Harman Kardon stereo, a 360-degree parking camera and a semi-autonomous driving system that outclasses similar tech in Volvos and Lexuses. Even $70,000 Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs we've tested often omitted features that come on the top-trim Telluride.
And it's not just about equipment. The Kia also feels like a premium product through and through. Every surface was luxuriously appointed, with creamy leather and metal-effect plastics covering most touchpoints. A bevy of well-placed buttons helped handle core functions, while a quick and easy-to-use infotainment display took care of the rest. Everything about using the Telluride is easy.
The seats, for instance, are easy to fold flat or slide forward. The cargo area is cavernous, the seats are all fit for human adults, six USB ports charge up every device and cupholders abound. While minivans still typically beat crossovers on practicality, the Telluride can definitely handle pretty much any family's needs.
Plus, it doesn't look like a minivan. The chunky, squared-off design with its amber daytime running lights and bladed taillights is a welcome reprieve from the dull designs that dominate the family crossover space. We love the design, but even those that don't have to admit that the Telluride is at least something different.
On the road, the Telluride feels like $20,000 more expensive than it is. The big SUV soaks up undulations without ever revealing its mass, smoothing over even the most knobbly city streets without complaint. Handling, too, is impressive for the Telluride's size. It never feels overburdened or bloated around bends, shrinking around you as you drive.
Its phenomenal manners, thick noise insulation, superb cabin and driving assists make long road trips a breeze, while all-wheel drive and active terrain response systems ensure that it can handle bad weather and slippery conditions. In any situation, the Telluride feels like the competent and well-thought-out crossover it is.
The only area where the Kia doesn't feel like a luxury SUV is in the powertrain department. The pedestrian 3.8-liter V-6 produces 291 horsepower. That's fine for the segment — again Kia is punching above its weight here — but it's the only part that betrays the Kia's mainstream roots. Mat the pedal for a short-onramp merge, for instance, and you'll hear a lot of groaning from under the hood.
That's mainly worth noting because, according to Kia, people are trading in Range Rovers and BMWs to get top-trim Tellurides. If you're used to the low-end oomph of a turbocharged engine or a V-8, don't expect a Telluride to feel as effortless. We'd love a more premium engine option to make the Kia indistinguishable from a true luxury SUV, but that may be Genesis territory.
And if after seeing all of the glowing reviews you do want a top-trim Telluride, there's one more bit of bad news. Demand for the top-trim Telluride SX Prestige has massively exceeded Kia's expectations, meaning it can be hard to get your hands on one. Some buyers are paying over sticker price, but we never recommend doing so on a mass-produced product.
Finally, note that the Hyundai Palisade is essentially the same SUV underneath. We haven't driven the Palisade yet, but buyers who prefer that car's looks and interior design will likely be just as impressed.
There's a reason the SX Prestige has a waiting list. It's the best spec, offering an insane amount of equipment for the price. And unless you want the towing package or an extra-cost color, there's no other boxes to check. The total price is $47,260 with destination charges.
The Kia Telluride is not revolutionary because it does anything new. It's revolutionary because of how holistic its dominance is. In every metric, the Kia either matches the rest of the segment or beats. The powertrain, space, and passenger comfort are all just as good as the segment leaders. And when it comes to overall quality, technology, value, refinement, interior design and styling, the Kia utterly embarrasses everything else in its class.
There is no "but." If you need a three-row family crossover, the Telluride — and, presumably, its Hyundai sibling — is so far ahead of everything else that it's not really worth the comparison. It's a segment transcending-vehicle, an SUV so thoughtful that it makes competitors feel irrelevant. Forget Highlanders, Explorers and Traverses; the Telluride is hot on the heels of Lexus RXs and Mercedes GLEs. We highly recommend it.
Driving Experience: 4.5
Price as tested: $47,260
*Ratings out of 5.