I drove a $47,000 Kia Telluride - and the verdict is that this upstart SUV is the best on the market

Kia Telluride

It was déjÀ vu all over again - in a Kia!

About two years ago, I buckled into a Kia Stinger and when I unbuckled, I told my colleagues I'd just driven Business Insider's Car of the Year. Eleven months later, the Stinger did indeed take the prize.Advertisement

Lightning strikes twice. I just unbuckled from a 2020 Kia Telluride and I'm here to tell you ... it's a contender.

We have a year to go before we name a 2020 Car of the Year, but I'm pretty sure the Telluride will be near the top of my list.

For now, I'll simply say that this is the best three-row SUV not-a-lot of money can buy.
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Here are the details:

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The Kia Telluride I tested was a 2020 model year of the new three-row SUV, outfitted in "Everlasting Silver."

The Kia Telluride I tested was a 2020 model year of the new three-row SUV, outfitted in "Everlasting Silver."

The Telluride is Kia's largest vehicle, and a necessary addition to the lineup in the SUV-mad USA.

My tester was crammed with technology and, in the SX trim, was the most premium offering, interior-wise, that Kia sells. But the platform is pretty straightforward: three-rows, a naturally aspirated V6 making 291 ponies, and a smooth, brisk eight-speed transmission.

Get a load of those groovy orange fog lamps in the headlight clusters, by the way!

The Telluride is a handsome SUV that wears its size well. I also rather liked the 20-inch alloy wheels, in black, which filled the wheel-arches and gave the impression of larger spinners.

The Telluride is a handsome SUV that wears its size well. I also rather liked the 20-inch alloy wheels, in black, which filled the wheel-arches and gave the impression of larger spinners.

With few exceptions, nobody buys an SUV for looks. Even if one does, its because that person wants a rugged Jeep or Land Rover Defender or Mercedes G-Wagon or some-such.

Otherwise, SUVs are big boxes with four wheels, four doors, and giant hatchbacks.

The Kia Telluride handles the constraints of this limited form as well as it can. The vehicle is sharp, but it isn't flamboyant or weird. It fits right into the suburban fleet.

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The weakest part of any SUV design is .. . the rear end. But that's not the designer's fault. There's only so much one can do with an upswinging barn door.

The weakest part of any SUV design is .. . the rear end. But that's not the designer's fault. There's only so much one can do with an upswinging barn door.

Telluride is, of course, an upscale ski town in Colorado. It was a bold decision for Kia to co-opt the implicit branding — but the vehicle comes through!

Telluride is, of course, an upscale ski town in Colorado. It was a bold decision for Kia to co-opt the implicit branding — but the vehicle comes through!
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The Telluride's interior isn't luxurious, but it isn't mass-market. For most consumers, it's pure Goldilocks: Just right.

The Telluride's interior isn't luxurious, but it isn't mass-market. For most consumers, it's pure Goldilocks: Just right.

The multifunction steering wheel provides access to Kia's semi-self-driving system, which adds autosteer to adaptive cruise control and a suite of driver-assist features.

I sampled the "Smart" cruise control and found it to be just as good as everything else on the market, including 90% of Tesla Autopliot. The Telluride smoothly steered itself into freeways curves and, while certainly not a hands-free technology, relieved some stress on my 200-mile roundtrip journey.

The black interior featured brushed metal details and expanses of beautiful, grained wood trim.

The black interior featured brushed metal details and expanses of beautiful, grained wood trim.
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Three-row SUVs are, on one level, an alternative to minivans. As a former minivan owner, I get it and I don't. Minivans do everything better. But the Telluride does three rows as well as I've seen in an SUV.

Three-row SUVs are, on one level, an alternative to minivans. As a former minivan owner, I get it and I don't. Minivans do everything better. But the Telluride does three rows as well as I've seen in an SUV.

With the third-row deployed, the Telluride has 21 cubic feet of cargo space. That's OK, but as with most three-row SUVs, a bit meager given the passenger-to-luggage-to-cargo-space ratio that this type of vehicle usually confronts.

The maximum cargo capacity, however, is almost 90 cubic feet.

The dual moonroof is becoming a standard thing on the higher trim levels of SUVs. For a vehicle as big as the Telluride, they prevent the cabin from taking on a cave-like gloom.

The dual moonroof is becoming a standard thing on the higher trim levels of SUVs. For a vehicle as big as the Telluride, they prevent the cabin from taking on a cave-like gloom.
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The all-motor (No turbos!) V6 communicated blissfully with the eight-speed automatic and the all-wheel-drive system.

The all-motor (No turbos!) V6 communicated blissfully with the eight-speed automatic and the all-wheel-drive system.

The drive modes are Comfort, Eco, Sport, and Smart. I used Smart the most, but also Sport, which extracts more instantaneous pep from the V6.

A word about that V6. Naturally aspirated motors are vanishing, as manufacturers look to combine performance and fuel economy with punchy turbo fours.

But I love me a V6! The power delivery is direct and always engaging, and combined with the Telluride's compliant ride (for an SUV), noise isolation, and overall comfort, makes for a delightful freeway experience.

Fuel economy was also pretty decent, if not remarkable: 19 mpg city/24 highway/21 combined.

Kia is currently selling what I consider to be one of the top infotainment systems on the market. The 10-inch central touchscreen is nearly perfect, and the use of old-school buttons, knobs, and switches is welcome.

Kia is currently selling what I consider to be one of the top infotainment systems on the market. The 10-inch central touchscreen is nearly perfect, and the use of old-school buttons, knobs, and switches is welcome.

The system integrates device-pairing, Bluetooth, and navigation. It also offers a dedicated charging port (distinct from the USB data interface), as well as wireless inductive charging.

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The verdict is that I can't think of a single good reason to tell you NOT to run right out and buy a Kia Telluride if you need three rows and don't want a minivan.

The verdict is that I can't think of a single good reason to tell you NOT to run right out and buy a Kia Telluride if you need three rows and don't want a minivan.

If you want to go barebones, the Kia Telluride can be had for about $32,000.

That still gets you AWD and the V6, so therefore a monumental bargain.

My test vehicle was the top SX trim level and consequently optioned to within an inch of its automotive life. The uptick in price was $15,000. Much of which was worth it, although the only extras offered for this trim were stuff like Nappa leather seat trim and a head-up display, as well as second-row seats that were heated and cooled. The damage? $2,000.

This SUV was as close to perfect at its price point as it's possible to get, if you ask me. I noticed but one "problem" — a bit of buzz from the 291-horsepower engine under hard acceleration in Sport mode. But just a bit. And went away once the Telluride's transmission automatically snicked into the overdrive gears.

I'll just say it: When Hyundai and Kia first arrived in the US market, they didn't make a Japanese impression. The Japanese brands gained instant cred decades ago when their well-built and fuel-efficient cars put Detroit on notice. The South Koreans entered the fray after the Japanese impact had been felt, leaving price as the only real avenue to competition.

So, first impressions were that the cars were cheap, sticker-wise and quality-wise. Heavy-duty, 10-year/100,000-mile warranties took the fear away from buyers.

But now Kia (and Hyundai and the premium Genesis brand) have shown the ability to offer insane value alongside wonderful quality. The Telluride, with the Stinger sports sedan, is the pinnacle of this. The Kia SUV is every bit as good and in some ways superior to the Honda Pilot.

The real test of such vehicles is the road trip, with family and gear and perhaps a pet or two. I didn't have any of those things handy, but I did undertake a nearly 200-mile roundtrip jaunt in the Telluride from suburban New Jersey to a small town in Pennsylvania to visit the C.M Martin & Co. guitar factory, and while I didn't load up the cargo area with guitars, I did get to spend quality time with the Telluride on a variety of roadways, with a nasty storm coming in from the west.

By the end of it, I was ready to march over to a Kia dealership and buy one of these things.

OK, I don't HAVE to do that. But the Telluride put me in that mindset, just as the Stinger did a while back.

Kia, I gotta hand it to ya — you're killing it, and the Telluride is the latest victory.