Kia is still in the process of deciding whether it wants to be a design-driven premium car company or a hamster-driven kids-oriented car company (or both), but what’s clear is that its products keep getting better. A lot better.

With the 2016 Kia Sorento, the South Korean car company shows us that it’s rapidly filling its lineup with vehicles that are catching up to its ambitions. For the restyled, revised and enlarged new Sorento, the new watchword is “capable.” And to drive home the point, we’re driving this new crossover-utility in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, where Kia wants to show us that it can reel in luxury-oriented families with active lifestyles.

Wearing the latest in outdoor chic

If the 2016 Kia Sorento is capable of anything, it’s blending in with the premium crowd. To begin with, the revised Sorento’s larger size proves to be a successful canvas for Kia’s sleek design language. The platform’s wheelbase has been stretched 3.1 inches to 109.4 inches, delivering a useful increase in cargo volume behind the third-row seat from 9.1 cubic feet to 11.0 cubic feet, although it’s accompanied by only a negligible increase in passenger room.

Overall the new exterior look is broader and more substantial, and the quad LED foglights up front on SX-L models make the Sorento seem even more tastefully modern. The story is the same inside the 2016 Kia Sorento. Its clean interior layout is trimmed with soft Nappa leather, handsome aluminum and dramatic black plastic, and there’s loads of advanced electronics, both hardware and software.

Better bones beneath

The 2016 Sorento drives considerably more capably than the old model. It begins with a more rigid platform meant to meet the latest federal crash standards, but what you’ll notice most is the new steering system. The electric-assist hardware is now mounted on the steering rack itself instead of the steering column, and the result is a clean, nicely weighted feel from the steering wheel in the corners, although it’s slightly dead on-center. Meanwhile, an updated suspension with improved dampers helps make the Sorento easy to wrangle, as we discovered on the winding road around Lake Tahoe during a windy rainstorm that ambushed us. And as an added bonus, the crossover is immune to wearisome road and wind noise.

Powering the 2016 Kia Sorento is the brand’s familiar 290-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 engine, which carries over from the last Sorento. It delivers a broad powerband and can be had in the Sorento LX starting at $29,195. But we were drawn to the new 240-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four, which offers better fuel economy than the V-6 and more than enough performance. This engine with its punchy, eager personality can be had in the Sorento EX at $31,995. The V-6 might be rated to tow 5,000 pounds, but the turbo-four can still tow 3,500 pounds, which seems more than enough for most anyone looking at a Kia.

Of course, one other crucial difference when you make your engine choice is that third-row seating is available with the V-6 and not the turbo four. If you want best fuel economy with three rows of seats, choose the third seat as an option for the entry-level Sorento L with its 185-hp 2.4-liter four at $25,795. Every version of the 2016 Kia Sorento comes with a six-speed automatic transmission and standard front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive can be had for all trim levels -- except the base L trim -- as a $1,800 option.

Premium is now the new normal

Even with all of the improvements since the last Sorento, the 2016 Kia Sorento doesn’t exactly blow us away. It’s a significant step forward in looks, quality, and performance, yet this category of premium crossovers is already full of great choices. As before, the Sorento’s prime advantage against the competition still lies in its price. We’ll see if customers notice that the new Sorento gives them more for their money when the crossover hits showrooms in January 2015.

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