It's a tough market out there. And that point is one that is not lost on Kia Motors America. In the midst of a recession in the United States, and with oil prices at an all-time high, Kia brings to market a flagship SUV that it hopes will redefine its portfolio of cars and Sport/Crossover Utility Vehicles. Placing the Borrego in a vacuum, away from tales of economic woe, and petroleum infused heartache, it does show how far the Korean automaker has come.

What is it?

A mid-sized, body on frame, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle. It shows off the new Kia DNA that, like the offerings from parent company Hyundai, displays the new design sensibilities of the automaker.

It is also one of the first designs to come from the Kia design studios in Irvine, California.

What's It Up Against?

With the introduction of the Borrego, Kia now has a player in the premium mid-size category, while its siblings, the Sorento and Sportage, toil in the mid-size and compact categories respectively.

As described by Tim Chaney, KMA's director of marketing, the Borrego's competitive set includes such established models as the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Honda Pilot.

Ki's hope is that as full-sized SUVs are falling out of favor due to outlandish fuel prices, consumers will turn to the mid-sized market for needs such as seven-passenger seating and 7,500-pound towing capacity. And Kia just happens to have a vehicle that will fit those needs perfectly.

Any Breakthroughs?

The new Borrego features a combination of premium power and fuel efficiency combined with luxury appointments that are not typical for a mid-priced, mid-sized ride from any manufacturer, much less from Kia.

Kia is proud of their class-leading performance in fuel efficiency, but it is a dwindling class at that. Ki's Chaney: "the Borrego is not a strategic move into the luxury market, but the company wants to attract more and different types of customers into the showroom."

How Does It Look?

Like a stylish mid-sized, two box design. The Borrego features crisp sidelines, bulging fenders and lots of chrome to impart a feeling of luxury. A muscular front end makes for a bold entrance, crowned by a large chrome grille that reminds viewers of certain Chrysler products. Contemporary headlight surrounds show that Kia is serious about their recent design changes.

A two-tone body configuration dresses up the sheet metal, while big, bold 18-inch chrome six-spoke wheels dress up what would sometimes be just another boring set of wheels on a vehicle which does nothing to enhance the outer appearance. Other enhancements include turn indicator-equipped side-view mirrors, chrome roof racks, and flush-mounted fog and brake lights mounted in the front and rear bumpers.

And Inside?

The Borrego hits the ground running with a higher quality interior than we have seen from this automaker in the past. Perforated leather seats with single-stitch tailoring throughout sets the scene, which leads into the leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant controls. A look to the heavens is only a slider switch away through the optional moonroof.

If anything, the instrument panel is where the Borrego falls short. It just looks rather, uh, plain. The rest of the interior manages to go the extra distance but it falls short in the place that will probably get looked at the most; the gauge cluster.

Nearby, a new aluminum-like strip helps to break the cockpit into two levels. Unexpected but added features include dual-memory seat controls and front seat heaters, a dial to control the four-wheel-drive system, hill descent control and an optional adjustable foot pedal control that insures that virtually everyone will be able to find a comfortable driving position.

Our test Borrego was equipped with a center stack-mounted navigation system and Infinity audio system with Sirius Satellite radio. Dual zone climate control keeps things cool while passengers in the middle row have their own set of controls as well. Front seats were comfortable during a long day of driving, while the seats in the "way back" were inhabitable for a reasonable amount of time.

The Kia engineers deserve an extra week of vacation for the job they did in helping to isolate noise, vibration, and harshness from the cabin. The interior displayed a quiet tone throughout all but the roughest of roads. The Hankook all-season tires that equip the Borrego were fairly well-behaved on smooth roads but managed to transmit mild road noise on others.

But Does It Go?

The Borrego comes with two engine choices. As standard, it is powered by Ki's 3.8-liter, 276-horsepower, 267 lb-ft of torque V6 engine, a derivative of the one used in the Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe.

The real pride and joy of the Borrego is the new 4.6-liter V8 engine, which puts out 337-horsepower and 323 lb-ft of torque. Essentially the same powerplant as that in the Hyundai Genesis, it is a powerful performer capable of pulling up to 7,500 pounds with the attached class-4 receiver hitch. Coupled with an electronically controlled ZF six-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, the Borrego displayed smooth pulling power through a variety of surfaces in our test drives through the mountains near Cle Elum, Washington.

With the four-wheel-drive system, the 4.6-liter still manages to eke out 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Not too bad for a vehicle that gingerly tips the scales at 4,621 lbs. ABS braking with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) help to keep things under control when it's time to rein in those ponies.

Ride quality was very good considering this was a body-on-frame vehicle as opposed to the current rash of unibody crossover vehicles now plying the nation's highways. Steering was direct and responsive, thanks to the double wishbone setup up front and the multi-link suspension in the rear.

Our Kia Borrego 4.6 EX carried an as-tested price tag of $35,795, which includes a $750 transportation fee. Retail sales will begin at the end of July.

Why You Would Buy It

The Suburban sitting in your drive is putting a huge dent in your wallet. You are now ready for a medium-sized dent instead, to go along with your 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

Why You Wouldn't

Payments for the Kia Sportage are more in line with what you had in mind.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.