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What we’re driving: 2020 Kia Telluride

Kia perfectly reads the big-SUV market with the award-winning but mechanically conventional Telluride.

The 2020 Kia Telluride is one of the classic lightning-in-a-bottle models an automaker enjoys maybe once every couple of decades. Assertive-but-not-obnoxious styling combine with a vast cabin trimmed conspicuously above its price point (now a watchword for most products from the Hyundai-Kia group). The result is an utterly capable and smooth-riding 3-row SUV that’s won a lot of awards and generated a similar degree of soccer-family street cred.

In its tested line-topping SX trim, the Telluride’s value is undeniable. Even with all-wheel drive (perhaps sagely, not standard) and the amenities-laden Prestige Package, its sticker was comfortably less than $50,000. All Tellurides are fitted with Kia’s “Lambda II” 3.8-L direct-injected, dual-cam V6 and an 8-speed planetary automatic transmission.

The V6 has a 13:1 compression ratio, but at 291 hp/262 lb-ft (217 kW/355 Nm), the output seems docile when GM is getting 310 hp/266 ft-lb from 3.6L and Ford’s new Explorer is gunning with 365 hp/380 lb-ft from its turbocharged 3.0-L V6. In fact, the Explorer’s base engine, a turbocharged 2.3-L 4-cyl. (300 hp/310 lb-ft) is a healthy stretch ahead of Kia’s V6, so despite its out-of-the-gate success, Kia may find some trouble convincing specs-conscious buyers.

We weren’t overly fond of the Telluride’s lush ride (no adaptive damping here), although cornering responses are not shabby for a vehicle that’s 9.5 feet (2901 mm) between axles and 16.4 feet (5001 mm) long. The AWD system offers settings that uniquely allow a couple of choices for fixed apportionment of torque between front and rear axles. But we didn’t care for some of the transmission calibrations. For the stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, the shortest following distance was laughably conservative at highway speeds. This highlights once again how lacking even “baseline” advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) functionality is, in approximating naturalistic driving behavior.

It’s easy to see why the Telluride is winning families, though. The cabin is huge, the instrumentation and center stack are effective and pleasing to the eye. The head-up display (HUD) in the optional Prestige Package is a model of digital clarity, making a case for HUD as a genuine safety benefit for all vehicles. And the clever “Driver Talk” microphone augments speech from the front row to the rearward seating area – a feature teens are certain to abhor. 

The 2020 Telluride is testimony to perfectly reading the market and, more tellingly, brilliantly executing on that analysis. It’s not the most personality-laden vehicle (what 3-row crossover is?), but the Telluride’s success is the telltale of a product-development/engineering organization hitting on all cylinders. That should worry mainstream and premium-brand competitors alike.

2020 Kia Telluride SX

Base price:      $43,490
As tested:        $47,255
Highs:              Massive cabin; expensive-looking trim and instruments; decent dynamics; value
Lows:               Ho-hum powertrain; transmission calibration; annoying ACC
Takeaway:       Lots of size, refinement and features for the money 

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