Reaching for the sky: Traversing rugged mountain passes in Kia's Sorento


  • Kia launched its new Sorento along with the Carnival people-mover earlier in 2022.
  • The Sorento is more of a people mover than a rugged SUV and would not usually be used for mountain adventures.
  • We put the Sorento to the test on a short mid-week road trip through steep gravel mountain passes.

The latest Kia Sorento, introduced here at the beginning of 2022, is not a vehicle that immediately springs to mind when it comes to tackling some of the highest gravel-road mountain passes in South Africa. This, of course, was the whole point of the Sorento Adventure from Kia's perspective; to demonstrate that this rather Americanesque-looking SUV is not just a pretty face when it comes to getting down and dirty.

Our route for the two-day trip began at Pietermaritzburg Airport, where three Sorentos in EX+ trim awaited us, two people per vehicle. We set out in convoy, connected by radio, which was a great idea as Kia's route planner led the way, leaving myself and my co-driver for the trip, journalist Nikki Furniss, free to enjoy the vehicle without having to constantly focus on the route guides or GPS systems to stay with the programme.

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First stop for coffee in Boston, KZN.
First stop for coffee in Boston, KZN.

A happy place

The first stop was for coffee and a snack in the little village of Boston, southwest of Maritzburg. Our route over the next few days would see us traverse the back roads – mainly gravel - in KZN and the Eastern Cape, running just outside the eastern and northern borders of Lesotho, with our final destination being Bloemfontein in the Free State.

The Kia Sorento AWD (All-Wheel-Drive) is a happy place to be for this route-less-travelled. I was particularly glad we were in the EX+-spec vehicle, fitted with 18-inch wheels with 235/60R18 rubber. If you opt for the more expensive SX and SLX models in the Sorento range, you get 19-inch wheels with lower-profile rubber. And where we were heading, with potholes already a factor on the early tar sections of the trip, you want as much rubber sidewall height as possible. Nevertheless, it was good to know that the Sorento has a full-sized spare wheel.

Sleek with slight American overtones, the latest K
Sleek with slight American overtones, the latest Kia Sorento in profile.

The Kia Sorento is a large SUV capable of carrying seven people, although, with the third row of seats erected, there is precious little luggage space. But used as a five-seater, there is a cavernous luggage room in the load area.

The latest Sorento grew by 10mm in width and is 10 mm longer than the previous model, these being tiny increases in size. But importantly, the overhangs are now shorter, and the wheelbase grew by 35mm, to free up plenty of leg room. It looks sleeker than the previous model, and the American styling influences (Kia has a design studio in California) are mainly seen in the taillight shapes, the pronounced rear spoiler, and the sharp tailgate edge at the rear.

READ | New Sorento, Carnival are hot new SUVs, but how has Kia become one of the biggest car brands in SA?

Traversing steep mountain passes 

Inside and on the move, an aspect I at once enjoyed about the Sorento is that the crucial functions for climate control are accessed by switchgear rather than by delving into the infotainment pod menu. 

The centre console contains switchgear for power delivery modes, from economy, through "normal" to sports settings. And the AWD model we were driving has rotary switches to select modes for mud, sand and snow. There is no low-range operation on this all-wheel-drive model, but being fitted with an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, a very low first-gear ratio is available for hauling up particularly steep mountain passes.

Bleak weather added to the atmosphere. Up on Naude
Bleak weather added to the atmosphere. Up on Naude's Nek, temperatures can drop 15 degrees or more in a matter of minutes.

And, let it be stressed, traversing steep mountain passes was to be the prime reason for us being in this remote part of the world. After reaching Matatiele, we headed off towards Mount Fletcher and then on towards Naude's Nek, one of the three highest gravel road passes in South Africa. We stopped off first for lunch at the Naude farm, still owned by the original family that built the pass between Maclear and the tiny village of Rhodes in the 1890s.

The way the pass has been constructed, it doesn't have very steep sections, despite the peak altitude of 2 587 metres above sea level. The Kia made short work of it, but apparently, in bad weather, its surface can become treacherous, and it's best to consult with local farmers before attempting it, as the weather can turn from piping hot to freezing in minutes rather than hours.

On top of the nek, the Tenahead Spa and Lodge offe
On top of the nek, the Tenahead Spa and Lodge offers a unique overnight experience.

On the mountain top

We overnighted at the charming lodge, Tenahead, run by an equally charming couple who told us many tales of adventures they had experienced operating this establishment over the past few years. That afternoon we had been in short sleeves on the mountain top; it was a case of electric blankets and a fire in each room!

The Kia's ground clearance was put to the test the next day when we traversed the much more challenging Lundean's Neck, still boasting a pretty breathless 2 170m altitude. The thing here was deep ruts that cross the entire width of the road and potholes that left you choosing the best one out of three. At 176mm, the Sorento's ground clearance falls a bit short of serious off-roading levels, and over serious ruts and ridges, one also had to take into account the longish wheelbase of 2 815mm.

Lundean's Nek on Day Two presented even more of a
Lundean's Nek on Day Two presented even more of a challenge.

Again, I was happy we were in the model fitted with 60-series high-profile tyres. If posing for pics in Melrose Arch is your thing, go for the SX and SXL models. But for real driving out in the middle of absolutely nowhere (or everywhere!), opt for the EX+ and those fatter tyre sidewall profiles.

Under these conditions, I appreciated the tractability of the 2.5-litre turbo-diesel engine, which boasts 440Nm of torque, enabling you to tackle serious obstacles at a very low speed. Traction via the all-wheel-drive system was excellent and definitely recommended for a pass of this nature.

Big mountains, in Big Sky country.
Big mountains, in Big Sky country.

Back on tar road 

Towards lunchtime, we ran right alongside the Lesotho border, and then it was on to Zastron for lunch at the charming Ons Hotel. This hostelry had been built in 1902 in cooperation between the Boers and the British, only months after the Anglo-Boer War had ended!

Back on tar road, it was time to enjoy the solid 148kW performance of the Sorento in a relative comfort zone, but still watching out for potholes. I realised at this point that the Sorento has an extremely comfortable ride, as far as suspension is concerned, and the seats provide first-class support, both in the lumbar regions and laterally. On the open road, the Sorento is capable of acceptably brisk cruising, and the turbo-diesel power delivery, coupled with the very efficient gearbox, makes overtaking easy.

Cruising through the village of Rhodes, at the sta
Cruising through the village of Rhodes, at the start of Day Two.

By the time we arrived in Bloemfontein, effectively the end of our Sorento Adventure, we were proud to note that all three vehicles had survived the trip without so much as a scratch on a wheel rim! Even more noteworthy, perhaps, was that Kia reported that the average fuel consumption between the three vehicles was 7.4 litres/100km. In fact, the car that Nikki and I shared registered an overall figure of around 6.6 litres/100km, according to the trip meter, possibly because ours was the lightest of the three vehicles on the trip.

Bordering Lesotho on Lundean's Nek.
Bordering Lesotho on Lundean's Nek.

A delightful excursion

I told the other drivers it was because we drove with such sensitivity to throttle inputs, carefully modulated braking, and expertly-judged overtaking manoeuvres. Of course, I said that just to irritate them!

All in all, a delightful excursion into little-known territory, and one that saw the Sorento earn lots of respect as a soft-roader that can offer you a real driving adventure, as long as you remain aware that it is not a hard-core 4X4 machine.

The price for the Kia Sorento 2.2 CRDi EX+ AWD 8DCT (to give its full acronym-heavy title) is R853 995.

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