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Old values crumble before a great car at right price
2011 Kia Sorento

By Warren Brown
Sunday, November 22, 2009

MOSCOW Commercial globalism thrives on the idea that consumers everywhere want the same things -- quality, affordability, safety and convenience.

It is why every major automobile manufacturer, tire company, electronics company -- every major everything, including the Chicago confection giant Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., are doing business here.

With 13 million residents, Russia's capital is also the nation's largest metropolitan area. And those Muscovites increasingly are taking to the road, creating a rich emerging market for global car companies, including Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche and Volkswagen.

It's a slugfest reminiscent of what has taken place in the United States over the past three decades. It is why American automobile manufacturers have been struggling to hold on to relatively modest shares of a home market they once dominated, and it's why they are aggressively pursuing new markets, trying to do here and elsewhere what was done to them on their own turf.

And, perhaps, it's really why the grand old United Auto Workers union has fallen on hard times. It's difficult to sell "solidarity forever," even in a socialist state, when consumers are going for the best deal. Buyer self-interest, under the circumstance, trumps ideology.

Consider, for example, this week's subject vehicle, the 2011 Kia Sorento, an all-wheel-drive crossover utility wagon that its South Korean manufacturer, Kia Motors, insists on marketing as a sport-utility model.

Forget the tougher-than-thou sales pitch.

The truth is that the 2011 Sorento, which I drove in Virginia and which goes on sale in the United States in the fall of 2010, is one of the best family haulers offered by any car company anywhere. If it comes in at the projected base price of $22,000, it also will be the overall best deal offered on a crossover utility vehicle -- a.k.a. wagon, minivan, SUV -- in America.

The 2011 Sorento is being built at Kia's new plant in West Point, Ga. It is a nonunion plant. Here's betting that consumers won't care and that they will make the 2011 Sorento a best-seller. Here's why:

-- Fit and finish are excellent, equal to anything from putative automotive quality leaders Honda and Toyota.

-- Interior ergonomics -- convenient placement of dials and gauges, comfort of seats and surroundings -- are among best in class.

-- Infotainment electronics -- satellite radio, Bluetooth wireless phone data link, MP3 player and USB connectivity -- are competitive with more expensive models.

-- Safety -- four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear), electronic stability and traction control, eight air bags -- is among best in class.

-- It's a driver. I put 620 happy miles on the EX version of the 2011 Sorento, which has a few more spiffs than what is offered on the base model. But it uses the same 3.5-liter, 273-horsepower V-6 engine. Acceleration was smooth, instant, easily highway competent. Yet I still got 27 miles per gallon on the highway -- and sometimes two miles better than that when I held strictly to legal speed limits.

So, sitting here in my hotel room in Moscow, where I'm attending an international conference on traffic safety, I'm wondering: Can we have unions today, nationalistic bodies such as the United Auto Workers in the United States and the Canadian Auto Workers -- in a world where consumers readily jettison borders and ideology in pursuit of the best deal? Is there anything such as "safe market share," such as the type once enjoyed by GM and Ford in America, in a global economy where a company such as Kia can introduce a winner such as the 2011 Sorento?

-- Special to The Washington Post

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