Payne: Kia Telluride is luxe and loaded

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Telluride. Posh ski resort. Beautiful people. Rugged western landscape.

You know what the Kia Telluride is trying to evoke even before you see this handsome, chiseled SUV.

That’s right — Kia. Like Volkswagen and Mazda, the Korean brand is separating itself from its mainstream competitors with premium-looking vehicles that are $20,000 less than similarly equipped luxury chariots. But where VW names its cars after winds (Golf, Passat) and Mazda goes with technical alphanumerics (CX-9, MX-5), Kia aims for the American heart.

There’s the Sedona (cowboy!) and the Soul (man!) and the Sportage (dude!).

But Kia really hit the bullseye last year with the $39,000 all-wheel drive Stinger. The slinky, hatchback sport sedan is an Audi A7 without the price tag — but the name is all-American muscle car like Super Bee or Hornet before it. As is its Ford Mustang-like color palette of yellow, red and blue.

With athletic handling, a sleek bod, mod interior and 365-horsepower twin-turbo V-6, the Stinger halo car sets Kia up as a desirable brand. Stinger makes your heart go thump.

Now comes the Telluride, and it is an affordable Cadillac XT6: vertical design cues, body chiseled from stone.

This first-gen Kia is aimed right at that most American of segments — the three-row SUV — and Detroit icons like the Ford Explorer and Chevy Traverse. The Telluride was designed in Kia’s Los Angeles design studio and is built in Georgia.

I first saw it at the Detroit auto show where Kia built an indoor off-road track (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and offered bruising rides in Tellurides specially equipped to take on the Baja peninsula.

It was a four-wheeled stallion in a rodeo corral and had the features to prove it: all-wheel drive with multiple terrain modes; a chassis that adapts its ride height depending on the terrain; two “oh-crap” handles on the center console like dual horns on a saddle. It was cowboy tough on the outside, hospitable as a Telluride ranch house inside.

To accentuate the 2020 Kia Telluride's off-road ambitions, the big ute comes with two "oh,crap!" handles so the passenger (and driver) can stabilize themselves when (if) the going gets rough.

Like Japanese transplant Honda, Kia has done its homework. The interior is made for long, comfortable American road trips. The center console sports a deep trough, perfect for holding phones, keys or French fry boxes. The seats are comfortable, the control knobs right where they should be. I turned to Mrs. Payne to ask if she had found her favorite things — seat heaters, easy-touch overhead lights, USB charger — but she was way ahead of me and ready to ride.

The back two rows are just as accommodating even for ex-basketball centers like me. Detroit competitor Chevy Traverse is made in Middle America and knows how to accommodate big, middle-American families with a third row that’s a livable place to be with cup holders, food holders, good legroom and panoramic roof for sunlight.

The made-in-Georgia Telluride doesn’t forget third-row passengers, either. Back-seaters get their own USB ports. And like the Traverse and another one of my class favorites, the Honda Pilot, the Kia allows third-row access with the simple push of a button. There are no multiple-step heaves to get into the back seat. Even little kids can do it.

Once back there, the second-row captains chairs (to keep peace between the kiddies) don’t just flop on your feet — they are slidable. The result is you can adjust first- and second-row seats to make everyone comfortable. In fact, I could not only sit behind myself in the second row — I could sit behind myself sitting behind myself in the third row!

This attention to detail is followed in every corner of the cabin — including thoughtful ideas like a front chime that alerts you if you left a child or pet in the back seat, and a microphone so you can talk to kids in the third row ZIP code.

Then there are standard features no $30,000 vehicle these days should do without.

Tops on my list is adaptive cruise-control, an important assistant for oft-distracted families on long road trips. Set adaptive-cruise and the big ute will keep its distance from vehicles ahead of you if you get distracted by — ahem — those second-row, fighting siblings. Kia matches segment pioneers like Honda and Toyota by making adaptive cruise-control standard and shames others — looking at you, Traverse — that don’t make it available until you’ve shelled out more than $45,000.

Telluride is one of the best values in the segment. For example, an all-wheel-drive S trim with 20-inch wheels and leather can be had for under $40,000.

And then the Kia goes a step further by wrapping value in a premium wrapper.

Its Asian competitors Honda and Toyota and Hyundai look like mainstream competitors (perhaps, in part, because they have luxury brands above them). But the Telluride looks like it belongs in the luxury class with Acura, Lexus and Genesis.

It’s been to Cadillac charm school, one of the most distinctive designs in the industry. Check out those vertical headlights pushed to the corners and highlighted by an orange LED signature. The inverted L-shaped taillights use bold red LED bulbs and might as well be taken right off the XT6.

Cadillac is worth dwelling on to hammer home one of my hobbyhorses: the narrowing gap between mainstream and luxury. My Kia tester looks like the XT6 and Range Rover had a baby. Its front-wheel drive-based, all-wheel drive system is similar to Caddy, as is its 291-horse, 3.8-liter engine (the Caddy’s 3.6-liter V-6 makes 310 horses).

All glammed up, the Telluride rides out the door at $45,000. The XT6 starts at $53,000.

Badge matters, no doubt. But with the $20,000 you save by going Kia, you could buy a terrific, used Cadillac ATS.

Telluride is not the only mainstream manufacturer to push upscale in the three-row space. The Mazda CX-9 is the best-looking three-row ute in autodom — mainstream or luxe — and has the dance moves of a 4,200-pound Miata. If handling is your thing, get the Mazda. The Telluride’s V-6 is plenty powerful, but the tranny is lackluster and it won’t inspire you in the twisties.

The upcoming rear-wheel drive-based (just like a Bimmer!) Ford Explorer will shame many luxury models with its tech-smarts — think of the one-button, self-park feature. But for best all-around game, the Telluride is Blake Griffin on wheels — big, smooth and multi-talented.

Come to think of it, Griffin was once a Kia spokesman. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was picking one up this spring.

The 2020 Kia Telluride sports elegant, vertical taillights with tube LEDs that might have come off a Caddy XT6.

2020 Kia Telluride

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, seven- or eight-passenger SUV

Price: Base price $32,735, including $1,045 destination charge ($48,100 AWD SX model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.8-liter V-6

Power: 291 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque 

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 sec. (Car and Driver); maximum towing, 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,482 pounds as tested

Fuel economy: EPA: 19 city/24 highway/21 combined (AWD as tested)

Report card

Highs: Caddy-like good looks; three rows of comfort

Lows: No athlete; transmission can be balky when pushed hard

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.