Review: 2021 Kia Telluride SX V6 AWD

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Modern-day Kia is no stranger to building good cars, but its sights are trained on building great cars. Like the luxurious K900, premium Cadenza, and sporty Stinger liftback before it, the Telluride SUV is a vehicle that seeks to rewrite everything American buyers think they know about the Korean automaker. With its handsome styling, functional yet upscale personality, and strong value proposition, the Telluride is not so much a wade into the middle-class buying pool as it is a military-grade depth charge.

Where Kia’s sedans made ripples, the Telluride has set off seismic waves. The three-row SUV launched for the 2019 model year, surpassing every expectation from critics, dealers, and customers. In its inaugural model year, the Telluride sold 58,609 units: Nothing like the Forte, Soul, or Sorento—which each sold nearly 100,000 units—but more than the K900, the Cadenza, the Stinger, and the Sedona minivan put together. Recasting the company known for rental-lot budget compacts as a maker of luxurious haulers? That’s a tall order, and the brand’s recent logo update is a wise step, but the Telluride is the first Kia that well-to-do families are confidently parking in their driveways.

In pandemic-plagued 2020, the Telluride improved its numbers with 75,129 units sold, becoming one of the three best-selling vehicles in Kia’s lineup. If you’re in the market for a luxurious, three-row family vehicle under $50K, and if Ryan Reynolds himself couldn’t sell you a Kia Carnival minivan, the Telluride is a damn good deal.

2021 Telluride Nightfall Edition Black
Kia/Paul Maggetti

For the 2021 model year, the manufacturer hasn’t changed much, because it hasn’t needed to. The arrival of the $1295 Nightfall Package, which adds black plastic everywhere an edgy millennial couple could possibly want it, is the most significant update. Our otherwise-loaded, $48,720 SX tester did not sport the Nightfall’s shadowy trim, but the standard chrome looks sufficiently upscale.

The Telluride distinguishes itself from Hyundai’s Palisade, with which it shares its mechanical underpinnings and much of its interior tech, by taking a more neutral approach to exterior styling. The Kia’s boxy-but-rounded-at-the-corners aesthetic errs on the side of boring, but the Telluride doesn’t try too hard and is more winning because of it. (Take a hint, Toyota Highlander.) A few understated details—like the amber DRLs and the varying-width chrome trim around the greenhouse—lend an air of tasteful luxury.

The Telluride’s interior is similarly unfussy, accented with pleasingly subtle details. Our top-of-the-line SX tester sported the $2300 Prestige Package, which added a “premium cloth” headliner—it felt, but did not smell, like suede—and Nappa leather. The cabin’s clean lines, plus the minimalist, brushed-metal accents and grey-toned wood trim, are vaguely reminiscent of an IKEA kitchen: homey, in a chilly, elegant sort of way, and more expensive-looking than it really is. Cupholder count, however, is disappointing: six for the seven-passenger configuration—we aren’t counting the water-bottle holders in each door, because they’re Dasani-sized and thus minimally useful for sippy cups, Hydroflasks, and Yetis—and eight for eight-passenger models. (For those counting, the 2021 Odyssey has 15 cupholders; the Sienna, 14.)

The front seats, though heated and ventilated and 12-way adjustable, were underwhelming. They felt wide and flat to your five-foot-six author but, if you plan to share the vehicle with a spouse of a larger frame, Kia may have struck the perfect compromise. We were surprised to find that the third row, though you can lower it from the trunk by pulling on two straps, must be manually yanked upright; each second-row captain’s chair, more conveniently, can be dropped with with a lever on the side or with a button on the shoulder.

2020 Kia Telluride engine
Kia

The sole powertrain across the Telluride lineup—and the Palisade’s, for that matter—is a naturally aspirated 3.8-liter V-6 that makes 291 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque and pairs to an eight-speed automatic. Spec the $795 towing package and you’ll get self-leveling rear suspension, a hitch, and an official tow rating of 5000 pounds. All-wheel drive is available for $1900 on any of the four trim levels, though it costs just $100 if you’re speccing a top-tier SX model.

2021 Kia Telluride rolling
Kia

Despite its size and heft, the Telluride made acclimation easy. Credit good forward visibility, light (and very artificial) steering, and the live-feed from the blind-spot monitor cameras that populates the center of the instrument cluster when either turn indicator is activated. The SUV balks a bit at aggressive highway maneuvering as, for instance, one might employ during rush hour in Portland, Oregon: Turn on your blinker to preemptively signal a lane change when the vehicle alongside you hasn’t quite cleared your front bumper, and the blind-spot software beeps in manner that suggests outright fear for your life. The eight-speed automatic is similarly hesitant to condone athletic insertion into traffic, though power once it arrives is perfectly adequate and, given a moment to catch its breath, the Telluride will heave back on an onramp and haul itself up to the speed limit with urgency. Noise insulation is decent but not excellent; the SX’s glossy black, 20-inch wheels, clad in 245/50 all-season rubber, don’t help.

The Telluride manages to undercut the Palisade for price at all four trim levels, and even in Kia’s highest trim level (the SX) the infotainment system disappoints compared to what you get in the top-tier Hyundais. The top two Palisade trims boast a 12.3-inch, fully-digital instrument cluster that’s visually integrated with the 10.25-inch touchscreen; the Telluride makes do with two analog gauges and a 7-inch LCD display sandwiched between them. Its main screen, though the same size as the Palisade’s, perches by itself atop the dash.

2021 Kia Telluride interior
Kia

Aesthetics aside, we had only minor frustrations with the Telluride’s infotainment system. Resolution was satisfyingly high and response times intuitive. Navigation input was clunky compared to the familiar interface of Google Maps or Apple Maps, which we opted to display via CarPlay. The SX-exclusive 10-speaker, 630-watt Harman/Kardon audio system was impressive for a trim that starts at $42,000, and appropriately luxurious in a vehicle specced close to $50K. Our chief complaint was the over-eager Sounds of Nature program, which automatically played whenever we pressed the “Media” button on the dash to connect our phones via Bluetooth to stream music. (Calm Sea Waves and Lively Forest were relatively inoffensive. Warm Fireplace was a bit more disturbing.) Both Hyundai and Kia offer this aural invasion of nature sounds across much of their lineups, and, according to online forums dedicated to each automaker, it’s aggravated many a customer. We bypassed the issue by grabbing a USB-Lightning cord and plugging our iPhone directly into the vehicle, which also addressed our preference for navigation via CarPlay.

2020 Kia Telluride grille
Kia

The Telluride’s value proposition, in short, is excellent: Like the Palisade, it’s a spacious, high-riding kid-hauler that treats parents to an upscale, tech-heavy driving experience. Most customers cross-shopping the Telluride with the Palisade will be best guided by their aesthetic preferences: Sure, the Telluride is cleaner-cut, but it has a less-interesting range of interior textures from which to choose. If you’re willing to settle for fake leather, the Telluride is far easier and cheaper to spec with a spill-resistant seat material: Cloth isn’t even an option. The Palisade offers only cloth and top-tier Nappa leather, with no middle-of-the-road choice. That said, higher trims of Palisade (Limited and Calligraphy) come standard with more options, so don’t be deceived by the near $8000 difference between the Telluride EX and the Palisade Limited; you’ll likely close that gap once you start adding options.

Dare we say it? Customers who care purely about function won’t buy a Telluride or a Palisade. Function fiends will buy a minivan, like the Carnival, whose lower lift-over height and sliding doors make it more friendly to grocery-getting, luggage-stuffing, and kid-loading. Of course, fashion is an essential part of the buying equation, and, as an SUV, the Telluride offers more of a rough-and-tumble personality. By that same token, this isn’t an also-ran entering hot market segment at the right time. The Telluride is a deserved smash success that could pave the way for a whole new Kia.

2021 Kia Telluride SX V6 AWD

Base price / as tested: $33,360 / $48,720

Highs: Handsome styling, high-quality interior materials, robust suite of safety and driver-assist tech, solid value proposition. Helps that it’s not a minivan.

Lows: Underwhelming front seats, limited choice of interior colors, fussy Sounds of Nature. Not a minivan.

Summary: The top-tier Telluride is a satisfying bargain, but you’ll feel too cosseted to use the word.

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