2020 Kia Telluride Review: Making You Rethink Toyota Ownership for Good
It's cliché to say how good Kia is now. But there's no getting around the fact that this SUV is stellar.
Back in the year 2000—remember when we used to say the year 2000?—my father purchased a brand-new Kia Sephia.
I still remember rejoicing over the fact that he had purchased a sensible four-door compact sedan for much less money than anything Japanese or American at the time. The Sephia would serve as his daily driver while his 1993 Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo rested warmly in the garage and his Chrysler LeBaron Turbo coupe sat on blocks in the driveway as he desperately tried to rebuild the latter’s God-awful three-speed automatic transmission for the second time.
Yes, my dad was going through his midlife crisis.
Yet his Sephia ended up being the absolute worst automobile he ever purchased, worse even than his K-car-derived sports coupe. Starter issues, alternator problems, manual windows suddenly dropping at highway speeds, defective rear defroster, defective radio, glove box door suddenly remaining in your hands as you opened it; his Kia had all the issues you can imagine.
He hated his car so much that two years later he attempted to exchange it for a second-hand Isuzu Rodeo at a used car dealer, where he got $2,000 for his Certified Piece of Shit Sephia.
“Korean brands. Never again!”, he still tells me today.
My dad’s experience with Kia stayed with me throughout my young adult life and into my career as an automotive journalist. But as the company evolved, dishing out better, more capable, more reliable and more high-tech cars and SUVs over time, I eventually had to accept the cold hard facts: Kia is no longer the crappy alternative to a second-hand car that screwed my dad of his hard-earned money.
For the sake of this review, I promised myself (and my editors) I wouldn’t go down the “Kia is no longer an awful brand” narrative. It’s too played out; that’s been the case for a decade now. But reminiscing about my dad’s experience really does prove the Telluride is as good as everyone says.
The 2020 Kia Telluride, By the Numbers
- Base Price: $31,890
- Powertrain: Naturally aspirated 3.8-liter V6 | 8-speed automatic | front-wheel or all-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 291 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm
- Torque: 262 pound-feet of torque @ 5,200 rpm
- Passenger Capacity: 8
- Curb Weight: 4,211 pounds (FWD) / 4,354 (AWD)
- The Promise: A lot of crossover for your dollar.
- The Delivery: Something that will make you rethink Toyota and Honda ownership for good.
What’s a Telluride?
In case you haven’t been following, three-row crossovers and SUVs (Those terms are now interchangeable to all but the purists) are what medium- to high-income families are now buying instead of midsize sedans and minivans.
Every mainstream carmaker doing serious business in North America currently has one of these contraptions in its lineup. Some of the more popular ones, like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, are sales juggernauts. The latter sold nearly 240,000 units in the U.S. alone last year. The Telluride, and its corporate cousin the Hyundai Palisade (which I’ll get back to in a bit), is how the Hyundai Motor Group conglomerate plans on penetrating this highly lucrative segment.
Mind you, it’s not the first time Kia takes a stab at this kind of vehicle. It tried with the three-row Borrego back in 2009, which failed miserably at making an actual ripple in the segment. The Borrego was a big and rugged body-on-frame SUV that was released during an economic recession. It also wore a badge that consumers still didn’t trust at the time, let alone a name that meant “sheep” in Spanish.
The Telluride, therefore, represents a second take for Kia, one that arrives during an era when consumers can’t get enough SUVs, but also a time when Korean brands are finally trusted due to their increasing reliability ratings and often superior tech to Japanese competitors. The introduction of desirable vehicles like the Stinger and the entire Genesis brand also helped a lot.
Standing tall, long, wide and properly boxy, the Telluride looks the part, appearing like a Korean interpretation of a Chevy Tahoe. I personally love its adventure-ready yellow daylight running lights. Yellow!
While the front fascia is all Kia, the rear section elegantly tapers down to vertical LED taillights that borrow cues from more expensive vehicles, allowing this family hauler to come through as a unique and desirable product. In a world where all three-row “mallfinders” look the same, the Telluride is the one you want your kids to brag about after dropping them off at school.
Perhaps more important is how the Telluride doesn’t borrow any styling cues from the mechanically identical Palisade. And it ended up looking much better, too.
As a matter of fact, the differences with its Hyundai sibling go further than styling. While riding on the same wheelbase, the Telluride is a tad longer by approximately one inch overall, half an inch wider and slightly taller. The result is not only an SUV that has a generally more dominating presence on the road but also a trunk that’s larger by 18 cubic feet. Overall cargo space when all seats are lowered to the floor is also a tad higher at 87 cubic feet vs 86 cubic feet.
Available with front or all-wheel-drive (Canada only gets AWD), the Telluride is powered by a naturally aspirated 3.8-liter V6 good for a claimed 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. All of it is sent to the ground via an eight-speed automatic gearbox, which allows this behemoth to sprint to 60 mph from a standstill in about seven seconds flat.
Furthermore, the Telluride will tow up to 5,000 pounds, which puts it right smack at the core of competing vehicles like the Honda Pilot, Volkswagen Atlas, Chevrolet Traverse and Subaru Ascent, just to name a few.
Its starting price is a very reasonable $31,890 and it tops out at $41,790 before options for an all-wheel-drive Telluride SX like the one you see here.
Why It’s Better Than a Hyundai Palisade
I had the chance to drive the Palisade over in South Korea during its global launch last year. Back then, I was genuinely impressed by the amount of refinement and technology the darn thing offered for the price. I also remember being generally satisfied by how it did everything well—something my colleague Jonathon Klein highlights rather well here.
So, when the Telluride arrived, I figured it would be a copy and paste act. Turns out it’s not.
The first impression when strapping yourself inside a Telluride is that it feels less premium than a Palisade, but just as well put together. For instance, it doesn’t get the Palisade’s plush cabin materials, nor an expensive-looking headliner, but material quality is still above average for this segment. The fake wood trim that spans the dashboard does a bang-up job of appearing real.
The Telluride has basically has a more mainstream and laid-back vibe than a Palisade, and that’s fine if you ask me. It hosts conventional analog gauges and a good old fashioned gear lever instead of Hyundai's annoying push-button gear selector.
Even the infotainment system is the same straightforward, simple interface as in a compact Forte. But it gets points for simply working. Its presentation may be a tad rudimentary compared to some more premium offerings, but the large colorful icons, quick-reacting screen and redundant physical buttons are totally fine.
It also feels slower off the line than a Palisade, which probably has something to do with the transmission’s programming. As a matter of fact, the folks over at Car and Driver clocked slightly quicker acceleration and quarter-mile times in instrumented testing with the Palisade.
And while the Telluride’s structure is rock solid, its suspension remains soft and spongy, even in its most dynamic Sport mode. In that respect I found the Palisade to feel livelier and more athletic, both in the way it accelerated and took on a corner.
Then again, the target clientele most probably won’t bring their family shuttle to the Nürburgring, so it’s perfectly acceptable for the Telluride to be on the slow and soft side. It doesn’t apologize for what it is.
While demonstrating less vigor than a Pilot, a Highlander or even a Chevrolet Traverse when applying full throttle, the Telluride’s naturally aspirated V6 is immensely smooth, quiet and adequately tuned for its intended purpose. There’s enough power for the task here. It’s the same story for the eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s no Porsche PDK, but it does what it was designed to do more than well. I’ve seen much worse from Honda, Volkswagen, Nissan and even Ford.
Desperately Looking for Flaws
The first thing an automotive journalist does when they enter a new car is dig for flaws. Who cares if the engine sounds like a Messerschmitt at full throttle if the cup holder won’t hold my coffee properly, right?
Yet, in the Telluride, no matter how hard I tried, I had a very hard time finding issues. Its seats are tremendously comfortable front and rear, the seating position is bang on, and the entire thing rides so smooth on beaten spring roads you quickly wonder why some German vehicles costing twice the price don’t offer this kind of ride quality.
Rear head and legroom are ample, and the USB ports that are conveniently nestled into the front seatbacks are neat and handy. That said, while access to the third row is relatively easy, sitting back there feels weird when you’re an adult. The issue is with the floor being positioned too high, leading to your knees rubbing your forehead. I suggest keeping that bench for the kids.
Finally, the Telluride hosts an impressive array of semi-autonomous technology. These come standard with blind-spot collision avoidance, rear parking sensors and rear-cross traffic collision avoidance assist, further fortifying their value proposition. But I found some of it to be far too intrusive at times. It’s an issue when your SUV beeps violently at you when you drive close to a tree branch in your driveway.
You can turn most of these toys off, thankfully, but the proximity sensors will turn themselves back on their own the moment you drive too close to the next tree. Annoying.
That said, it’s hard to argue against the amount of SUV you’ll be getting for your money here. And any lingering reliability fears from the old days can likely be put to rest for now. We also know Kia’s been sitting at the top of J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study for a while. I also happen to know plenty of Kia owners—partly due to a friend who owns a Kia dealership, but also from people who comment on my own website—who have had no notable issues with their cars and SUVs.
So I’d say that yes, a Kia Telluride is worth a shot, even if it still hasn’t fostered the indestructible reputation of a Toyota Highlander. It's a tad more "truckish" than a Palisade, a bit roomier and looks cooler too. Just don’t tell my dad I said that. He's still not a believer, but I think I'm making him come around.
I went over to pay him a visit while I had the Telluride. (This was all before the COVID-19 mess happened, of course.)
As I pulled up in his driveway, all I could spot was his white flock of hair sticking out from underneath the hood of his always broken 2002 Land Rover Discovery, his poor old back bent over as he bravely attempted to understand how to replace the head gasket on his ridiculously unreliable British SUV.
I pulled my head out the window of the big Telluride: “Hey dad, how about a Kia now?”
(Kia Canada loaned me a 2020 Telluride for an entire week for me to review. The car was delivered clean with a full tank of gas.)
All photos credit Guillaume Fournier.