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The 2020 Kia Telluride Is a Nearly Flawless Three-Row SUV

Road & Track logo Road & Track 6/19/2020 Kyle Kinard
a car parked on the side of a road: The Telluride meets 95 percent of American families’ needs. But what about that fifth percentile? © Kia The Telluride meets 95 percent of American families’ needs. But what about that fifth percentile?

At the exact moment I wheeled the 2020 Telluride into my in-laws’ Eastern Washington driveway, the trip odometer read 2858.4 miles. The four-day drive spanned the continent, from Brooklyn, New York to Washington state’s far-flung farm country, with more than 45 hours of wheels-on-pavement drive time. The trip was a real white-knuckler, tinged with the urgency and paranoia only a pandemic could bring.

You can read all about that trip and its myriad foibles in the June, 2020 issue of Road & Track (which should have arrived in your mailbox by now). More specifically, I want to talk about the machine that conveyed me, my wife, and our cat and across the country safely: the 2020 Kia Telluride.

The Telluride is a three-row, unibody SUV that will cause Lexus shoppers fits. Its interior quality matches the midsize luxury SUVs from Japan (and most of the Germans), and betters them all when price is factored. Our top-of-the-line tester begs $46,860 from your wallet. Every penny felt defensible from the Telluride’s cockpit. The driver’s seat is supple, trimmed in soft leather, infinitely adjustable. A crisp ten-inch touchscreen anchors a simple, logical infotainment suite. Physical buttons flourish along the compact console. Materials lining the cabin feel upscale. There’s wireless phone charging, heated and ventilated front seats, acoustic glass to cut road noise, and probably a dozen USB ports. If the Stinger was a shot over the bow of Japanese luxury, the Telluride is something far greater: a direct hit.

a car parked in front of a mountain: kia telluride © Kia kia telluride

On the first morning of our trip, I wheeled the Telluride out of Brooklyn and picked up Interstate 80 at the Pennsylvania border. The Telluride settled into an easy gallop, having conquered New York's cracked pavement in sublime comfort. The SUV’s 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated V-6 hummed along the interstate, nearly silent, aided by a seamless 8-speed automatic. While the engine produces just 291 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 262 lb-ft at 5200 rpm (not huge grunt for a 4300-lb ute by 2020 standards), it’s a reminder of the playful joys of natural aspiration.

The Telluride shined on America’s interstates, with easy road manners and that smooth, quiet, efficient V-6 mill. By the end of our trip, I calculated 23.8 mpg. For a crossover with a curb weight cresting two tons, equipped with a luxurious and isolated cabin, that’s impressive.

Other high points: The captain’s chairs in our top-of-the-line Telluride SX were brilliant. I can’t think of another time I’ve written about a second or third row in a review, unless the seats filling those rows were rigid as The Iron Throne. I’m a tall-ish human, but the Kia’s second row is a happy place to be. Headroom, legroom, knee room—the Telluride’s first two rows have clearance and comfort in spades.

And we did more than drive the thing cross-country; my wife and cat and I slept in the Telluride’s cargo area on the trip (avoiding contact, social distancing, long story). The third row seats fold flat. The second row chairs do, too, but you’ll need some luggage to fill out the gaps between the seats and create a seamless surface. Arranged thusly, there’s room for a queen-sized memory-foam mattress pad, some food, and luggage. That allows comfort and isolation from the elements. If your version of camping leans toward #vanlife, this is a great option. (Consider a roof rack though, so the front seats don’t double as food storage).

a close up of a car: kia telluride © Kia kia telluride

But my favorite of the Telluride’s myriad features was “Glenda.” Let me explain. Some cocktail of relief and fatigue gripped our minds on the interstate just outside NYC. I set the Kia’s cruise control to cut the edge off the journey and noticed the steering wheel constantly nudging our Telluride back to the lane’s center.

This cruise control wizardry is described by Kia in alphabet soup acronyms, but their net effect is miraculous: autonomous driving you actually want to use. My wife and I named Kia’s invisible hand Glenda. It’s catchier than Highway Collision Assistant or Blind-Spot Collision-Avoidance, and the name rolled off our tongues like a song when spoken with phony Oklahoma drawls. (I blame the accent on repeated viewings of The Tiger King.)

Glenda is damned good at her job. But not perfect. Especially approaching off-ramps, which she’ll dive toward if left unattended. This caused clenching incidents of… a severity. We rebuked Glenda’s indiscretions loudly, full drawl: Gall dar-nit Glenda! Stay off the edge of the lane! When she straddled the center line for a quarter mile: Was that whiskey in your coffee this morning, Glenda? Or when she dove toward yet another off-ramp: WELL SHOOT GLENDA ARE YOU TRYIN’TA GET US KILLED?!

a plane sitting on top of a car: kia telluride © Kia kia telluride

But ultimately, Glenda Take the Wheel became the journey’s giddy refrain. For all the joking, Glenda freed up valuable mental bandwidth. My eyes searched the horizon for deer more often and scanned through corners for stalled cars, freed from the need to constantly consult the asphalt under my nose. We felt relaxed under Glenda’s watchful eye. I’d say 90 percent or more of our 3000-mile trip was driven by Glenda. Of the autonomous driving suites I’ve tried—and I've tried them all—I trust this one the most. Bless your silicon heart, Glenda.

In Car and Driver’s review of the Telluride, they cite just one complaint: the Kia’s so good, there’s almost nothing to complain about. That’s mostly true. For most Americans’ use cases—commuting, family hauling, grocery-getting—the Telluride will fit the bill perfectly and do it better than any other midsize SUV. But if you’re looking beyond nine-to-five duties, I have just a couple caveats to the praise.

The first is power. On Idaho’s Fourth of July pass, the final physical hurdle to our Washington safe haven, the Telluride’s drivetrain strained against incline and altitude. The transmission seemed unwilling to hang in a lower gear up the mountain pass unless you stomped the fast pedal waaaaaay down. Then the engine alternated between high-rev shout and relaxed burble, but never settled on either. It was one of the few times on our trip the powertrain felt out of sorts. The compromise here is longevity versus power—we expect Kia’s V-6 to be very reliable in the long haul. But when the transmission is hesitant to downshift when you need a lower gear, or hold that gears when it finally does, you start to question that tradeoff, and often pine for a wallop of turbocharged torque.

a close up of a motorcycle: kia telluride © Kia kia telluride

Swapping the Telluride into Sport mode seemed to help the transmission hold gears longer, but ultimately didn’t cure the drivetrain’s indecision or effort. Power lives high up along the Telluride's tachometer, where the engine sounds and feels least refined. If you’re hauling kiddos up to a ski slope regularly, or commuting in a mountainous city, this might be enough of an annoyance to aim your dollars elsewhere. That lack of grunt also had me questioning the Telluride’s claimed towing capacity. Kia says its SUV is good to tow 5000 lbs. I wouldn’t push the limits of that figure if you're heading into the mountains.

Which brings me to my second niggle with the Telluride. This crossover is heavily marketed as an SUV. At auto shows, the Telluride pranced around on off-road sets to show off its theoretical prowess. That label comes with expectations of capability. Now I won’t go into huge detail (again, read the June 2020 magazine piece), but I got the Telluride stuck in silt in North Dakota during some light off-roading. It was my fault. I didn’t steer around some ruts when I should have, plain and simple.

But the experience opened my eyes. As versatile as mid- and full-size CUVs have become, they still lack the robust functionality of a true body-on-frame SUV. Firstly, any body-on-frame SUV would have had an easy spot to hook a tow rope. The Telluride has none.

a car parked on the side of a road: kia telluride © Kia kia telluride

When I got the Telluride buried up to its rockers in mud, I had to crawl on my belly and dig out a path for the tow strap to loop around the lower control arm once help arrived. I was covered in wet silt for the next hour as the sun went down. I’m still digging the dried clay out of the pockets of my jacket nearly two months later. Really. A single removable panel on the Telluride's front or rear bumper, and a threaded hole to attach a tow eyelet, would have done the trick.

Would any other midsize CUV have done better to dig out of the silt? Maybe not. I suppose the lesson was cautionary: If you head off-road in one of these things, either bring better tires, a better driver, or a tow company on speed dial. Maybe all three, if you can. Because the Telluride’s locking center differential did nothing to help free me from the mud. It simply allowed one-tire fire from both ends of the vehicle. Neither did the Kia's tires help. They tiptoed through a couple inches of wet snow in Livingston, Montana, but otherwise seem aimed at a life lived entirely on pavement. I'll always remember those tires whizzing against the North Dakota mud: the sound of disappointment.

The whole point of the SUV moniker is Utility. Many Americans actually utilize their SUVs. What does a Telluride owner do if they slide into a snow bank? There’s no locking front or rear differentials to save you. Unfortunately, an expensive tow may be your only option. Do you have cell service on the mountain? This lack of ultimate capability would be fine if Kia didn’t bank on off-road imagery to garner credibility. (Remember this Super Bowl commercial where the Telluride, fitted with an aftermarket snorkel, fords water up to the waist?)

Still, these are less major complaints and more warnings. Buy the right tires for your Telluride. Assess trail risks better than I did. Go with God. The Telluride is still a versatile, comfortable, value-packed CUV. And an honest triumph for Kia.

It’s handsome, too. After four days of nonstop use covering 2858 miles, wreathed in a layer of cracked mud like a crown, the Telluride had never looked better. I thought about why, even after being stuck in that North Dakota hellscape, I still liked the Telluride so damned much. No component on the thing is revolutionary. The engine is conventional and effective. The car’s packaging, proportions, and design don’t speak to the cutting edge. But this CUV is exceptional. Because there’s a confidence about the Telluride. It’s the first Kia product that, to me, stands solely on its own identity. There’s no wide Audi-chasing grille. No Tesla-esque tablet dominating the center console. Instead, the Telluride wraps a plush, intelligent, feature-dense cabin in confident, masculine sheet metal. It’s not just the best midsize SUV on sale today—it has us wondering why the German and Japanese luxury equivalents cost so damned much. Whenever this pandemic mess ends, Kia should sell a million of the things.


Gallery: View Photos of the 2020 Toyota 4Runner Venture (Car and Driver)

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