REVIEW: The $47,000 Kia Telluride is perfect for buyers craving a luxurious 3-row SUV without the luxury price tag

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
  • The Telluride is Kia’s three-row SUV that competes with the Hyundai Palisade, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer, and Chevrolet Traverse.
  • It’s enormously popular, no doubt thanks to the fact that its starting price is lower than a lot of the competition.
  • With the Telluride, you get a comfortable ride and an interior that feels like it belongs in a far more expensive vehicle.
  • My top-trim loaner started at $43,490 — but after options, it came out to a $47,310 MSRP.

If you're in the market for a big, cushy, three-row SUV, you have a lot to choose from. You've got options from Ford, Honda, Subaru, Toyota, Chevrolet — and Kia. Hell yeah, Kia!

"Kia?" you might think, and rightfully so. The company hasn't had the brightest history with three-row family haulers in the US, but it's here to set that reputation straight — and everyone else better watch out.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
It wasn't that long ago that the South Korean company was the underdog, its reputation roughly in the same hole that Japanese automakers were forced to live in during the 1950s and 1960s: its products distrusted and dismissed as shoddy junk. Advertisement

But now it's 2020 and the Telluride is so popular that Kia can't build them fast enough to meet demand. In my testing of the SUV, there was a clear reason for that: The Telluride is not only comfortable enough for the whole family, but it's also punching way above its weight in terms of value.

No wonder people love these things.

The 2020 Kia Telluride: It doesn't look like any other SUV on the road

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
The Telluride is Kia's new midsize SUV that debuted last year as a 2020 model. With a third row that can fit three passengers, the car can be configured to seat either seven or eight in total. Aside from the Sedona minivan, it is the biggest car Kia currently offers.

Visually, the Telluride is perhaps the most striking Kia this side of the new K5 sedan. With vertically focused design language and square, orange daytime running lights, the Telluride has a face that doesn't just blur into the rest of the crowd. It gets your attention.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
The styling gets a little busy around back, but the Telluride still doesn't look like any other SUV on the road. And it certainly doesn't look bargain-bin.

Details and safety ratings: Only one powertrain to choose from

The Telluride, mechanically, is a twin to the Hyundai Palisade. The two share a platform, engine, and transmission. The big difference comes in the exterior looks — and the fact that the Palisade's starting price is slightly higher at $32,525.Advertisement

Only one powertrain is offered on the Telluride: a 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated V6 that produces a claimed 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That's hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and the Telluride comes with a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

You can get the SUV in either front- or all-wheel drive, and curb weights range from about 4,100 pounds to about 4,500 pounds.

Behind the third row, the trunk has a cargo capacity of 21 cubic feet, which is more than the Honda Pilot's 18.5 cubic feet. With the third row folded down, the Telluride's cargo capacity behind the second row grows to 46 cubic feet, whereas the Pilot's is a slightly bigger 55.9 cubic feet.Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Telluride an overall five-star safety rating.

The car earned four stars for the overall front crash rating, five stars for the overall side crash rating, and four stars for the rollover safety rating. The agency noted that the Telluride has a 14.3% rollover risk.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

What stands out: Upmarket interior

The last time I was in a Kia, it was early 2018 and it was the Stinger GT. The car looked great from the outside, but the inside still had a little bit of that economy, plasticky-feel.

The Telluride does not. Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Obviously, Kia gave me the most optioned out Telluride it could muster (the top-of-the-line SX AWD version with Nappa leather seat trim), but the things that the automaker couldn't option up were quite nice to the touch.

There's some nice wood — or wood-like — trim throughout the cabin, all the metals have the appearance of brushed aluminum, and the buttons and switches all feel nice and solid to the touch.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Because, yes! There are buttons and switches. And dials. Obviously, there's a screen for the infotainment, but there are buttons for the climate so you can rely on your muscle memory to change it. This is great and I hope it never goes away, because putting every control onto a touchscreen isn't for everyone. Advertisement

There's also plenty of room to stretch out, even in the third row. The Kia doesn't suffer from the same streamlined (see also: pinched) design ailment that plagues cars such as the BMW X7 SUV, which despite its massive girth, only seats two in its third row.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
The second-row captain's chairs offer ample legroom and device-charging capabilities: USB ports can be found conveniently within reach on the backs of the front seats. The floors for the second and third row are flat and make it easy to move around the cabin, and the second row folds down quickly to ease access to the third row. It's an airy and upscale interior, without a doubt. So it was no surprise to me when I learned that the Telluride landed itself on WardsAuto's "10 Best Interiors List" of 2020.Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

Despite being similar in size to the Lincoln Aviator, the Telluride handles more solidly during driving. There's less bounce in the suspension, less lean when you're in the corners, and the steering overall is heavier, which gives you a bit more confidence as to where the car's nose is pointing. Visibility out of the big windows is great.

Highway cruising is smooth and quiet. The engine is adequate for what is required of it, which is occasional bursts of speed for passing and merging. Otherwise, it settles into a quiet murmur while the eight-speed transmission keeps the revs low during cruising.

This is not an engine that'll blow your hair back with its awesome acceleration; but then again, is that what you'd look for in a Telluride?Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

This is a car you could drive across the country effortlessly with — well, if the estimated gas mileage was better.

What falls short: The estimated gas mileage is meh

The Telluride's estimated gas mileage returns aren't stellar.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the front-drive Telluride to return 20 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway, and 23 combined. The all-wheel drive Telluride is estimated to return 19 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway, and 21 combined. Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Compared to the non-hybrid Toyota Highlander models, these estimates are pretty evenly matched, but the Highlander also comes as a hybrid. The Telluride does not. This was one of the times where I wished there were a turbocharged four-cylinder or a hybrid option in addition to the naturally aspirated V6.

But! Estimates are estimates for a reason. In the days I had the car, the trip counter reported that I was getting an average of 27.4 mpg.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Kia thoughtfully provided lane-changing assists in the form of rear-facing cameras that peer down the length of the car. They are activated by flipping on the turn signal. Advertisement

It's a useful feature, but slightly distracting because the image is brought up on the driver's instrument cluster. You're not supposed to be looking so far down when you're about to make a turn or change lanes, you're supposed to be looking up out the windows. Having the image down that low encourages you to take your eyes off the road.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

How the Telluride compares to its competitors: The best bang-for-your-buck option

With a starting price of $31,990, the Telluride gives you a lot of car for the money. A lot. And it's cheaper than most of its competition. Close competitors include the Ford Explorer (starting price of $32,765), Subaru Ascent (starting price of $32,295), Toyota Highlander (starting price of $34,600), Honda Pilot (starting price of $32,250), and Chevrolet Traverse (starting price of $29,800).Advertisement

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider

The Kia is so popular, in fact, Automobile Magazine reported that the SUV had been internally nicknamed it the Kia "Sell-u-ride." The story noted that in March 2019 — the first full month of Telluride sales — Kia sold 5,080 of the things. In January 2020, Kia sold 4,919 Tellurides.

After also reporting that Toyota sold 17,009 Highlanders in January 2020, Automobile reminds us that Kia is still a relatively small automaker. But it also said that Kia has increased annual Telluride production to 100,000 units in order to meet demand.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
While I docked the Telluride for not offering a hybrid, it seems like a lot of folks aren't doing the same. Advertisement

Our impressions: Luxury automakers have another thing coming

In terms of getting the best bang for your buck, I can't really see how you can go wrong with the Telluride. It's got an interior that not only blows the unfair Kia reputation out of the water, but also one that feels far more upmarket than it is. It's spacious, roomy, and quiet.

Aside from my wishing that it came as a hybrid and getting better gas mileage, I really couldn't find anything glaringly at fault.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
My loaner had a starting price of $43,490, but after its Prestige Package, some interior lighting, and carpeted floor mats, the total price came to $47,310 MSRP. That's basically a fully loaded, AWD, three-row SUV for under $50,000. That should make the luxury automakers very nervous. Advertisement

During a conversation on how to buy a car during the COVID-19 pandemic with car-buying expert Tom McParland, who owns a company called Automatch Consulting that helps folks buy cars, he said the Telluride is "Kia's hottest seller right now. Availability is low and deals are minimal."

If you're thinking about buying a Telluride right now, the search for one might not be the easiest thing.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Inventory stresses aside, Kia is clearly doing something right here. It's given people a midsize SUV option that's handsome, has a great interior, and is aggressively priced. Advertisement

To those of you feeling hesitant merely because the Telluride wears a Kia badge, put that aside. Go sit in a Telluride. Nothing in there would indicate it's the Kia you once turned up your nose at — whether fairly or not.

2020 Kia Telluride.Kristen Lee/Business Insider
Kia is carving out a permanent space for itself in the market. And it brought a giant, Telluride-sized shovel for the job.