World exclusive drive Kia Sorento

* New 2.2-litre diesel and six-speed auto * More car-like ride and handling * On sale late 2009...

World exclusive drive  Kia Sorento

What Car? has been for an exclusive early drive of next year's new Kia Sorento at Kia's research and development centre in Nam Yang, South Korea.

The new 4x4 won't be unveiled for some months yet and should be on sale in the UK at the end of 2009. However, the early signs from the heavily disguised prototype we drove are good.

The biggest news is the new 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine, replacing the old-hat 2.5-litre unit.

The new engine offers much improved performance with 187bhp (up from 168) and 304lb ft of torque (an increase of 15lb ft).

The most important part of that torque figure is how it's delivered, with peak pulling power arriving at just 2000rpm. On the road, that means brisk performance from a standstill, with the engine pulling strongly through the revs.

Under full acceleration, our prototype car was still quite noisy, but at a steady 70mph the engine was smooth and refined. The new car is generally much quieter than the old model, with much less wind and road noise, too.

Also new to the Sorento is a six-speed automatic gearbox, which worked smoothly under full acceleration, and was equally docile at a gentler pace.

Unlike the old car, which features a separate body and chassis like traditional 4x4s, the new car has a car-like monocoque structure.

Although our drive was restricted to the test track, handling felt less wayward than before, while ride quality is also improved. Kia promises that the new Sorento will still be able to handle itself off-road and when towing.

The Sorento is 80mm longer than the old model, but about the same height and width, so interior space is only marginally better than before. Although not hugely generous in the back, theres plenty of space for adults to sit comfortably.

However, the revamped interior looks to be a massive improvement over the current car's. Kia is on a big quality push and the cabin looks much more upmarket than before.

The car we drove was an early prototype, but an attractive dash layout featured some higher quality materials than were used to from Kia.

New Sorentos should arrive in the UK late next year. It will be offered with either five or seven-seat seats and a choice of 2.4 petrol or 2.2 and 2.0 diesel engines.

Starting prices should be just above £18,000.