The fact that Kia is building a large seven/eight-seater SUV is about as surprising as discovering that the Twinkie you’ve just bitten into contains an interior chamber, filled with a white, sweet, creamery substance. It’s a move so safe that I’d tell it my bank card PIN, if it asked. People will buy these, because, it seems, that’s all they want to buy anymore. Happily, Kia’s jump on this particular bandwagon is a jump well executed. I can say this because not only did I take the 2020 Kia Telluride on a little road trip, but I slept in it overnight, too, because that’s how you really get to know a car.
(Full disclosure: Kia lent me a 2020 Telluride with a full tank of gas for a week so I could review it. I did not need it for transportation as I already own several ridiculous cars but I used it for that anyway. They made me swear not to sleep in it or let my kid lie on the dashboard and I’m proud to have honored that promise.)
Also, if a car is haunted and left to you in the will of your strange uncle who lives in a creepy castle, sleeping one night in the car is often how you get to own it.
I used the Kia Telluride to take my 8-year-old son Otto and I on a road trip to Washington, D.C., where we greedily inspected every air-and-spacecraft in the big Air and Space Museum outside of town, and then heckled some animals at the National Zoo. It was a good time, and it was a good time made possible via the Telluride, though, to be fair, it likely would have worked as well with any number of large SUVs on the market today, and would likely have been even better in a minivan, but that’s another argument.
The Telluride is Kia taking direct aim at large SUVs, once the near-exclusive domain of American vehicles like the Ford Explorer and the Chevy Suburban. In a way, that hasn’t really changed, because even though Kia is a South Korean company, the Telluride is as American as cholesterol and a disinterest in the sport of Cricket, being built in West Point, Georgia.
Oh, come on. You know exactly what this thing is—it’s a big SUV, an overgrown station wagon on big tires with more ground clearance than you’ll likely need, and enough excess height to give you that “command” seating position way up high that for some reason everyone decided they needed after the year 2000.
The Telluride is built on the same platform as the Kia Sorrento SUV, but, unlike the Sorrento, isn’t an instantly-forgettable blob of vehicular anonymity, thanks to its bold and handsome styling.
The Telluride has one engine option, Hyundai/Kia’s 3.8-liter Lambda II V6 GDi, which makes a respectable 291 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. Those horses and foot-pounds are transferred to the tires, and then the Earth’s crust, via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
But let’s get to what really matters, here.
Call me shallow, but the Telluride’s looks I think are the most significant part of this SUV. That’s because, if we’re brutally honest, its features and capabilities and dimensions are pretty much on par, give or take, with the whole field of competing large SUVs like the Volkswagen Atlas or the Ford Explorer or the Honda Pilot. But what does make the Telluride stand out, I think, is some notably handsome styling from Kia’s Tom Kearns-led design team.
The crisp, straightforward good looks I think are most noticeable when you compare the Telluride with its sibling, the Hyundai Palisade, both built on the same platform and effectively the same basic vehicles, save for styling:
The Hyundai definitely fits more in with mainstream SUV design as it exists today: prominent, complicated grille, confusing lighting design and placement with an emphasis on an aggressive overall look, lots of curves and cutouts and body contours and compound curves and creases and just...stuff.
I think it’s pretty ugly, honestly, and looks like it’s pissed at you and it just drank a shot of vinegar, all at once. Who wants to look at that sour face all the time?
The Kia, though, is a much cleaner, arguably more classic design. It’s unashamedly boxier, which also helps maximize interior volume, and it’s not afraid to allow large body panels to just exist, untortured by excess creases or folds or cutouts or whatever.
The grille is large and prominent, but is also a much simpler shape, mostly rectangular, with an elongated beehive texture inside. Other air intakes are similarly simpler shapes, and are nearly all real and functional.
This is unusual today, but look at this—even those lower vertical air intakes under the lights are real:
I’m not entirely certain if those are brake-cooling vents or if there’s some sort of oil or transmission cooler behind there, but it’s a real air intake, complete with an outlet in the wheel well behind it.
The lighting design is also really well handled on the Telluride. The main headlight units suggest the stacked lights of many old American trucks and SUVs, like mid-’80s Chevy K5 Blazers, but at the same time feel quite modern.
I’d also like to applaud Kia for taking the fairly uncommon approach to daytime running lamps (DRLs) and using the amber turn indicator for the DRL, which I think makes a striking and distinctive light signature for the car.
The rear lighting is distinctive as well, and the dramatic bend-and-droop is unexpected, but I think works.
There’s some chrome detailing on the Telluride, but it’s fairly restrained, with the most interesting detail being the slight kick-up at the B-pillar in the chrome window surround trim.
The overall look of the car is significantly more elegant than most SUVs on the market today, and has a look of dapper restraint. It’s a handsome car, and unlike so many cars of its bulk, doesn’t look like a big sloppy behemoth. I think the Telluride’s looks will prove to be its biggest draw.
Kia must have spent a lot of time talking to people about what they want in an SUV interiors, because the place is fairly jam-packed with cupholders and storage cubbies and reading lights and all the kinds of things you can imagine people asking for around a table full of strangers with bottles of water in front of them.
The result is really quite good—it’s roomy in there, with plenty of places to stash stuff, and, at least on the higher-spec SX edition I had, the materials used are pretty nice, with upholstery that was thankfully not all-black (the seats were a sort of Nutella brown, with interesting stitch patterns) and some inlaid wood that gave the dashboard the appealing warmth of a 1979 Magnavox console television set.
Even with the third row seats up, there was still a good amount of cargo room in the back, something by no means guaranteed on a three-row SUV.
There was even a pretty roomy compartment underneath the load floor, in case you need to stash a briefcase full of krugerrands or Thin Mints out of sight.
It’s also worth mentioning that the third row is not a miserable little pain-seat. It’s smaller than the middle row, sure, but it has decent legroom and doesn’t require a pelvis made of cartilage to access it. It’s got its own drink holders and USB outlets and reading lights, so it doesn’t seem like an afterthought, either.
The Telluride SX also comes with twin sunroofs, which provide some very welcome visibility. The front one is smaller, more like the traditional sunroofs we’ve known in cars for decades, while the rear one is one of those vast panoramic roof-windows that have become more and more common in recent years.
Plus, if you’re a giant, the bar between the two sunroofs looks like it’ll make an excellent handle to lift the Telluride like a suitcase.
The ceiling also takes a cue from van interiors by providing HVAC vents for the back seat in the roof there, which actually works very well, better than the knee-level vents many other SUVs offer.
You know what, not too bad! The two rear rows fold down to form a fairly level load floor, which, properly padded with sleeping bags, makes a decent enough bed, roughly the size of a double bed, I’d say.
The many cubbies and pockets and cupholders provided plenty of places to stash things in easy-reaching distance from the “bed” area, and USB outlets for the third row made it easy to keep your phone charged so you can watch Netflix in bed, like every citizen has a right to.
The interior was roomy enough to sit up in bed, and to even get changed with relative ease. Then again, I’m not a large-scale person, and Otto’s a kid, so normal-sized humans may have a bit more difficulty, but if you’re sample-sized like I am, it’s no problem at all.
The Telluride is no camper, but it can pretend to be one pretty effectively, at least for a night or two. The load floor, while carpeted, is hard and has some gaps, so be sure to use some padding to be comfortable.
The Telluride is as crammed with electronics and driver’s aids and all of the stuff we’ve been spoiled to expect from modern cars: heated and cooled seats, dual-zone climate control, back-up cameras, lane keeping, dynamic cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and so on. It does have a few unique attributes as well, though, that are worth pointing out.
One of the most immediately obvious features is the Blind Spot View Monitor (BVM), which gives a camera feed of your blind spot right in the instrument cluster whenever you activate the turn indicator.
I found this a surprisingly useful feature, not just for confirming that my blind spot was clear, but to help maneuver through tight spots, since the BVM gives a good clear image of what’s directly alongside the vehicle. Want to see if you’re in a parking space’s lines? Use your turn signal stalk to see! How close are you to that drive-through window? It’s easy to check (see above)!
One important thing that the Telluride does not skimp on are power ports. They’re all over the car, and there’s multiple kinds. USB ports are the most plentiful, which is the right move, with pretty much every seat having access to USB power, including some clever placement of them on the front seat backs for the second row.
There’s also multiple 12V cigarette lighter-style power ports, and one centrally-located 120V wall-type outlet as well. Easy access to power outlets is actually a very big deal for a car like this, and Kia’s pulled it off well.
You know what’s something Kia/Hyundai does user interface-wise that almost no other carmaker does? This:
They display, visually, the current setting of the wiper stalk when you move it. I find this incredibly helpful, as I feel like in most cars I never I know where the wiper stalk is set to or what it’s doing. This display makes the process easy and confusion-free and I have no idea why it’s not more common.
I do have one significant complaint about the Telluride’s compu-cybertech stuff, though, related to the driver assist system. The Telluride has the now-common combination of dynamic cruise control and lane keeping that, when used together, forms a near Level 2 sort of semi-autonomy system; let’s call it Level 1.5 Semi-Autonomy.
It’s not quite at the level of an Autopilot or SuperCruise, but on a highway it can handle a good chunk of the basic mechanics of driving, following the lanes and road curves and keeping a safe distance from the car in front of you.
And while it normally works OK, multiple times I found the lane keeping to be inaccurate and over-agressive, leading to almost fighting with it to get control back. On several occasions I felt it was hugging a lane too close to the center line, and while trying to correct it, the wheel resisted too much, on at least one occasion causing an unpleasant and potentially dangerous oscillation that took some effort to get back under control.
I’m not yet certain if Hyundai/Kia’s system is configured differently for the Telluride, but I think if I owned one of these I’d turn the lane-keeping feature off.
I think the Telluride is a well-executed and capable big SUV, and has a good number of advantages over its competition, but I have to admit the actual business of driving it is pretty unremarkable. In this segment, I think that’s not a bad thing.
Unremarkable means the power was enough to do whatever I asked of it, its brakes were capable and gave me enough confidence to rarely think about them, the transmission shifted without making me wonder if it was actually a CVT, and I wasn’t always constantly reminded that I’m piloting a huge 4,200 pound box around town.
It wasn’t an engaging driving experience by any means, but there’s hardly anything in this segment that actually is. It’s forgettable, and when the alternative is something memorable because of how bulky it feels or how difficult it is to maneuver, I’ll be a willing amnesiac and take forgettable any day.
The one real advantage I can think of that the Telluride has over the similar SUVs I’ve driven is that the extra camera features, like the Blind Spot View thing, actually do make parking and maneuvering in tight areas significantly easier, and I think that’s an important factor in living with a large SUV.
The Telluride version I tested, laden with all the candies and goodies, comes in at just over $41,000. That’s a good chunk of money. The SUV does feel like a premium vehicle, though, and I don’t see any major advantage to a more “premium” and similarly-scaled seven/eight passenger SUV like a Lexus LX, which is about double the price, at $91,230 for the three-row version.
Sure, the Lexus has about 100 horsepower more and can tow 2,000 more pounds (7,000 vs. 5,000) but is that actually worth twice the price? For most people, I doubt that very much. I don’t find the interior that much better in the Lexus, and I think the Kia is vastly and dramatically better looking than the Predator-faced Lexus.
So, compared to the more upmarket big SUVs, I think the Kia Telluride is a hell of a deal. It’s better-looking than most, and if your mind isn’t poisoned by the idiocy of brand snobbery, you can save yourself a good $40,000 and still be happy with your big SUV life.
The base-spec Telluride LX starts at about $31,000, which makes it just about the same base price as a Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Atlas, Ford Explorer, and a good bit cheaper than the base Chevy Tahoe.
While I think this whole segment is pretty evenly matched with few real standouts, I do think the handsome look of the Telluride sets it apart a bit, and is certainly as good a choice as any of them, really.
So, while the base one is a good choice, I think the real value of the Telluride is deciding to get the top-spec one instead of a much more expensive SUV from a more premium manufacturer. I think you’ll look as good or better, accomplish the same things, pay less for parts and repair, and find more fun things to spend your now-surplus tens of thousands of dollars on. Like an old car that’s actually fun to drive.
If it makes you feel better, you can spend a couple hundred on badges from a Mercedes or Land Rover or Gordon-Keeble or whatever.