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KIA's Borrego: Right Vehicle, Wrong Time?

No matter how good the engineering, high gas prices and a soft economy are tough hurdles for any SUV to overcome.

Four years ago, when gasoline was $2 per gallon, a vehicle like the Borrego made a lot of sense.

Four years ago, when gasoline was $2 per gallon, a vehicle like the Borrego made a lot of sense. SUVs were still flying off the shelves, and nearly every automaker (even Ferrari was rumored to be working on a high-performance SUV) either had one on the market or were planning to add one to their fleets. Profits for these vehicles stood well above those of smaller cars, and buyers from more affluent backgrounds drove them. It was the perfect opportunity for a brand like Kia to make an impact on buyers it might otherwise never reach. All that began to change, however, as gas prices started a relentless charge toward record highs, though this has lessened a bit in recent months. Nevertheless, a shell-shocked consumer has reined in spending, dropping annual vehicle sales in the U.S. from 16 to 17 million units per year to approximately 14.5-million. SUVs are as hard to sell as ice to an Eskimo in winter, and no one knows whether light truck sales will return as gas prices ease.

"Forecasts are showing a strengthening in the mid-size SUV segment in 2009-2010 as full-size SUV buyers that still want the space, utility, and capability of their big trucks seek out opportunities in the mid-size segment," says Tom Loveless, v.p. Sales, Kia Motor America. It is to these buyers that the Borrego is aimed, and one reason why the similarly body-on-frame constructed mid-sized Sorento SUV is rumored to be shifting to a unibody structure to catch buyers who otherwise might flee the segment all together. Unfortunately for Kia, the market shift has, for the time being, killed the planned Mojave pickup truck that was to be built alongside the Borrego at Kia's West Point, GA, facility.

 

Chassis

In place of a fully boxed frame welded up from separate sections, the Borrego uses hydroformed frame rails joined by eight cross members. Kia claims greater build precision and durability, as well as a lower weight from this process. And, since the Borrego comes in just one size, it doesn't need the flexibility of hybrid frames that combine hydroformed and welded steel sections to increase/decrease the frame's length, making investment in this somewhat costlier construction method easier to handle. To it is attached a fully independent double wishbone front suspension and a multi-link independent rear suspension. Each includes, coil springs and an anti-roll bar. In addition, the body (64% high-strength steel) is isolated from the chassis via eight large pucks that work in concert with the suspension's bushing and damping rates to isolate passengers from the road without hurting handling. Used to great effect on the more rudimentary Sorento, this combination does not trade-off wheel control for body control or leave unpleasant ride motions on rough roads-like head toss-unchecked. 

 

Powertrain

Powertrains for the Borrego are about what you'd expect from an SUV, but not from Kia. There is a choice of a 3.8-liter V6 with 276 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 267 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm or the Tau V8 Kia shares with Hyundai. This 4.2-liter dual overhead cam engine runs on regular and produces 337 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 323 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm. Both have a 10.4:1 compression ratio. Unlike the V6, which is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, the V8 is coupled to a ZF six-speed. Both are electronically controlled and carry the same 3.357:1 final drive ratio. Four-wheel-drive models are fitted with the second generation of BorgWarner's Torque-On-Demand system that utilizes a two-speed transfer case and chain drive. Rumors persist that the Borrego eventually will be fitted with a clean diesel being developed by Kia engineers in Korea, though the company claims class-leading mileage for the V8 with EPA ratings of 15 city/22 highway for the two-wheel-drive version and 15/20 for four-wheel-drive models. The V6 has ratings of 17/21 (2WD) and 16/21 (4WD). The base weight for the 2WD and 4WD versions run from 4,248 to 4,460 lb. for the V6 to 4,405 to 4,621 lb. for the V8.

 

Design

Though the Borrego exhibits many of the same design hallmarks found on other SUVs-there are only so many ways to a adorn a box-its greater width and more sheer surfaces liberate interior room and give it a more substantial look. The first production design out of Kia's U.S. design studio in Irvine, CA, the Borrego doesn't scrimp on extras. The upper portion of the instrument panel is a padded slush molding that is separated by the harder plastic lower section by a bright trim strip. On upper-level models, that strip is covered in a metallic foil that has a slight prismatic effect in direct sunlight.

Whether the Borrego's features and its 5,000 lb. (V6) or 7,500 lb. (V8) towing capacity is enough to convince full-size SUV buyers to move down one notch and mid-size buyers to upgrade is anyone's guess at this point. Having missed the light truck's heyday, Kia now has to play the hand it has dealt. Aggressive pricing (Prices start at $26,245 for a V6 LX 2WD, and rise to $30,995 for a V8 EX 2WD) may help draw some customers to the fold, but it probably won't be enough to erase the suspicion that this is the right vehicle at the wrong time.

As can be seen from the figures, Ford’s Explorer was the benchmark for Kia engineers:
(Measurements in inches)Ford KiaKia Borrego
Overall length193.4192.3
Overall width 73.7 75.4
Overall height 72.8 71.3
Wheelbase113.7114.0