Our 2020 Kia Telluride Never Lost Its Luster

Daniel Pund, Eric Tingwall
·22 min read

From the April 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

40,000-Mile Wrap-Up

"I'm impressed by this Kia's damping," said no one ever.

Then the Kia Telluride came along, and those words appeared on the very first page of our long-termer's logbook. Does anyone reading this remember us ever complimenting the way a Kia's shock absorbers soak up imperfections in the road? Because we don't. That logbook comment signaled that the Telluride was rewriting how we write about Kias.

Since the early 2000s, new Kias have earned our respect with stylish designs, long lists of amenities, and low prices. But praise was often delivered with a caveat: The vehicles were missing the dynamic excellence of their best competitors. Kia consistently came up short in the suspension tuning or the power-steering calibration or the transmission programming—the engineering details that separate the good vehicles from the great.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

From our first experience with the Telluride, we recognized that Kia had done something different with its new three-row mid-size SUV. It wasn't just a good value; it was good to drive. Shortly after the launch, we took delivery of a Dark Moss example for a 40,000-mile test, curious whether the initial hype could last. Our top-trim SX model was fitted with all-wheel drive, a $795 towing kit, $210 carpeted floor mats, and the $2000 SX Prestige package, which added a nicer headliner, nappa-leather seat trim, an AC power outlet, heated and ventilated second-row captain's chairs, a head-up display, and rain-sensing wipers. True to Kia tradition, our long-termer felt more expensive than its $47,540 price—so much so that some staffers drew comparisons to Range Rovers.

The Telluride makes a striking first impression with its handsome exterior, the detailing of those leather-trimmed seats, and faux-wood accents that are modern and tasteful, even if they don't look convincingly real. The seats in all three rows are comfortable, and Kia's wonderful no-nonsense infotainment system uses a simple touchscreen and a full complement of physical controls. The fit and finish indicates that this SUV was built with care, and the materials proved durable too. We loaded it with lumber, let our kids snack in the back, and drove our filthy dogs home from the park in the passenger's seat, yet the Telluride looked nearly showroom fresh at the end of our test.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The mid-size-SUV class is split between turbocharged four-cylinders and naturally aspirated V-6 engines. Kia kicks it old school with a 291-hp 3.8-liter V-6 that perfectly matches this SUV's personality. The Telluride is relaxed in daily driving but reveals an impressive depth of capability when pushed. Similarly, the engine is smooth and unobtrusive in traffic and lively at the top of the tachometer. The eight-speed automatic picks the right gear at the right time, switching between a low-rpm loaf and a high-rpm charge with grace and haste. Stomp on the throttle and the V-6 unwinds in a satisfying linear swell with enough refinement that it never feels stressed. Delusions of Range Rover grandeur occasionally had our drivers yearning for a turbocharged V-6 with another 100 horsepower, but with a 6.9-second run to 60, this 4507-pound ute is plenty quick. Over the course of our test, we averaged 21 mpg, which matches the Telluride's EPA combined estimate and beats the averages of our departed Subaru Ascent and Volks­wagen Atlas long-termers. The Mazda CX-9 and the Honda Pilot that we ran for 40,000 miles both managed 22 mpg.

What really makes the Telluride stand out is what usually makes a Kia fall behind the leaders. As that early logbook comment noted, the ride is seriously impressive, particularly for something rolling on 20-inch wheels. The expert damping perfectly complements the springs and anti-roll bars to keep the cabin calm over rough roads and body roll in check during dynamic maneuvers. The steering is accurate and well weighted, and the brake pedal feels firm underfoot. Together these chassis-tuning victories make this big SUV drive like it's a size smaller.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The irony is that Kia's first dynamic home run comes in a class where buyers are generally indifferent to chassis dynamics. Honda sells more than four dull Pilots for every crisp-handling CX-9 that Mazda moves. Before the Telluride arrived, the Mazda was our pick in this segment, but we have always acknowledged that it is compromised, with less-than-typical rear passenger space and cargo room. With the Kia, buyers finally have a choice that gives the kids a chance to spread out without punishing the driver. It's the rare SUV that feels smaller than it is from behind the wheel and larger than it is from the second and third rows. Cargo room is ample, and the wayback seats are easy to access and spacious enough for adults to be comfortable.

All of these attributes made the Telluride a staff favorite for long trips with family in tow. Even with the pandemic slowing our pace, we piled on miles going to Tennessee, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina. The Telluride came close to running a flawless long-term test. The scheduled maintenance at every 7500 miles cost between $120 and $161, plus we visited the dealer for a Bluetooth update and a recall requiring a seatbelt inspection (our vehicle checked out fine). At the end of our 40,000 miles, all we had to show for our hard use was a set of warped brake rotors and a receipt for a replacement windshield. We had the same brake issue with our long-term Kia Stinger GT, which is a reflection of our driving as much as anything. (Kia did run a customer satisfaction campaign to replace cracked windshields for free on early-build Tellurides, but we got ours through a third-party glass shop.)

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Soon after our long-termer arrived in August 2019, the Telluride won Kia's first 10Best award. More impressive, it repeated its 10Best win for 2021. A second accolade says a lot about a vehicle's enduring appeal; it's earned after the luster has worn off, newer competitors have debuted, and long-term tests have exposed flaws. Typically, enthusiasm wanes and headaches arise with time, but that didn't happen with the Telluride. We struggled to find serious fault with it. In fact, we're slightly embarrassed to reveal the shallowness of our nitpicks—one editor criticized the way the washer fluid trickles down, rather than sprays, the rear glass. No matter how hard we tried, we never found a shortcoming substantial enough to poke a hole in the Telluride's all-around excellence. It is easily the best vehicle Kia has ever made.

Kia could have built a three-row SUV this attractive 10 years ago, loaded it with just as many features, and priced it as competitively. But it couldn't have built the Telluride back then. The polish of the powertrain calibration and chassis tuning is the result of decades of continuous improvement. After inching forward for years, Kia has finally advanced far enough to create a fully realized vehicle. The Telluride sets a high bar for three-row crossovers and for Kias to come.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Rants and Raves

Kia has figured out that giving customers more car than they expect is an all-conquering formula. —Rich Ceppos

Though it lacks a surplus of horsepower, the Telluride is a joy to drive. —Austin Irwin

This vehicle is so comfortable and desirable. —Joey Capparella

It's great at hauling people without being ungainly to maneuver and park on city streets. —Annie White

There's no good reason to buy any other mid-size SUV. —Eric Tingwall

Has Kia raised the bar too high? How does it get better than this? Adding turbochargers might be the only way. —David Beard

I like it so much, I bought one. —Nathan Schroeder

Other car companies have to be saying, "Holy shit! How'd they do that?" —Rich Ceppos

I've found a flaw: I need a step stool to reach the center of the wiper blades to clear them of ice. —Juli Burke

The Telluride has the space of the Volkswagen Atlas and the style of the Mazda CX-9. —Eric Stafford

View Specs

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

30,000-Mile Update

People typically buy three-row crossovers out of necessity rather than desire. They have a lot of kids or a lot of stuff or a medium amount of kids and a medium amount of stuff, all of which combine to fill an extra-large SUV. No one buys a big family SUV because they're fun to drive because, for the most part, they aren't.

But among the class of capacious three-row utes that includes the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and Honda Pilot, the Kia Telluride is surprisingly and delightfully pleasant to drive. It rides with easygoing suppleness yet corners with better manners than most of its peers. (The Mazda CX-9 is the other impressively mannered outlier in this class.) Our long-term Telluride SX AWD model also appeals to our irrational brains by spoiling its occupants with an interior that feels more expensive than its $47,590 price suggests.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

With more than 30,000 miles on the Telluride's odometer, our staff remains as charmed by the big Kia as we were when we named it to our 10Best list in fall 2019. It is a pragmatic people hauler and a serious value, and its overall dynamics are far better than the competition requires. "The Telluride nails the three-row SUV fundamentals: comfortable, spacious, and as a bonus, far more luxurious than the price suggests," vehicle testing director Dave VanderWerp recently noted in the logbook.

In an age of ubiquitous turbocharged inline-fours, the Telluride's 3.8-liter V-6 is a refreshing, naturally aspirated breath of fresh air. There's ample torque on the low end for sliding through city traffic, and the V-6 feels strong and polished as it spins toward its redline when you pin the accelerator to merge onto the highway. It's a great engine that feels perfect for this application, and yet it's probably one of the few things we would change if we could wave a magic wand and have our way. Our drivers dream of a Telluride that's quicker than its 7.0-second zero-to-60-mph run, which speaks more to how spoiled we are than any shortcoming of this Kia. "Aside from the lack of extra horsepower that nobody actually needs, the Telluride is a joy to drive," summarized staff editor Austin Irwin.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Since our last update, we've run our long-term Telluride through the Car and Driver highway fuel-economy test. Over 200 miles at a consistent 75 mph, the Telluride averaged 27 mpg, beating its EPA highway rating by 3 mpg. Considering this three-row SUV weighs 4507 pounds and has the aerodynamic attributes of a school bus, we're impressed. But when we're not performing our objective tests, we drive harder and faster. The Telluride is averaging 21 mpg to date, in line with what we see among the competition in this class. If you want that 27 mpg, you're going to have to work for it.

At this point in a long-term test, the only thing that could sink a vehicle as universally beloved as the Telluride is a major mechanical failure. It's been another drama-free 10,000 miles since our last update, though. We paid $195 for the scheduled 30,000-mile maintenance, which included an oil change, replacement engine and cabin air filters, and a tire rotation. If that sounds steep, at least the dealer provided us with an invaluable service. During the visit, the technician discovered a nail in the right rear tire and repaired the puncture before it left us sidelined or stuck on the shoulder. Not this time, universe.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The 40,000-mile finish line is now in sight for our Kia Telluride. Going into this test, we were well aware of its value, dynamic virtues, and accommodating interior. Now we know that it's capable of impressive fuel economy and is mechanically robust. The cabin appears to be weathering our use and abuse without undue wear. We fell in love with the Telluride because it won over our hearts. We're thriving in this long-term relationship because it's also a sensible choice.

Months in Fleet: 14 months Current Mileage: 33,715 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Observed Fuel Range: 390 miles
Service: $632 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $1618

20,000-Mile Update

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

If you want an objective measure of a long-term vehicle's popularity with our staff, all you have to do is read the odometer and look at a calendar. In about 10 months of service, our 2020 Kia Telluride SX AWD has racked up 23,953 miles. Averaging more than 500 miles per week puts it firmly in the cool-kid crowd.

We should point out that large SUVs and trucks in our long-term fleet typically accumulate miles more quickly than smaller vehicles. Editors tend to snag the keys to these more-spacious vehicles for road trips when family and Fido (and maybe a boat or a couple snowmobiles) are in tow. The gargantuan Kia has a built-in advantage here, but even among similarly huge vehicles, it's an office favorite.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

With our commutes, our errands, and our vacations waylaid by coronavirus, we—like most Americans—are doing less driving these days. But the Kia has been in demand among editors venturing beyond their local grocery store. Technical editor David Beard towed a side-by-side UTV more than 400 miles round trip to northern Michigan and back. "The Telly pulled the 3000-pound package with no drama," he summarized.

There is room for improvement, though. The factory towing hookup only includes a four-pin electrical connection, so Beard and photo assistant Charley Ladd installed a seven-pin trailer connector and plugged in a Bluetooth trailer-brake controller prior to the trip. The Telluride also lacks a dedicated Trailer Tow mode, and the transmission struggled to hold a gear when cruising at 80 mph. Beard resorted to using the manual shifting mode. He kept the eight-speed automatic locked in seventh gear when cruising and selected sixth or fifth for climbs and descents. His speed and load dropped the 3.8-liter V-6's fuel economy to 13 mpg—not bad but not great, either—compared to our 20-mpg running average.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Beard's girlfriend enjoyed the Telluride's comforts from the second row during the drive, working on her laptop while plugged into the 120-volt outlet. "Nice workspace," she said, but Beard points out that a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot is one of the few items missing from the Telluride SX's long list of features.

Senior editor Joey Capparella folded the Telluride's second and third rows for a trip to neighboring Ohio to retrieve furniture for his new apartment. "I'll be hard-pressed to decorate it as nicely as the Telluride's cabin," Capparella wrote in the logbook. "This vehicle is so comfortable and desirable."

We've long counted on the Korean brands to deliver value-packed cars and crossovers, but the gotta-have-it factor that Capparella alludes to is what makes the Telluride different than every Kia before it. More than halfway through its 40,000-mile test, the Telluride's exterior styling and interior finish can still surprise and impress us the way it did the first time we drove it. "More than any other car company, Kia has figured out that giving customers more car than they expected is an all-conquering formula. The Telluride is proof," said deputy editor Rich Ceppos.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The Telluride continues to impress us with its reliability as well. It remains faultless from a durability standpoint. Since the last update, we've made trips to the dealer at 15,000 and 22,500 miles for oil changes, tire rotations, and new air filters at costs of $120 and $156, respectively. We made an extra stop at the dealer between those service appointments for an infotainment-system update, covered under warranty, that addresses a voice-recognition issue that we didn't experience.

A cracked windshield is the only major bummer we've experienced so far. The upside is that we now have the knowledge to warn owners and potential buyers that a Telluride windshield is really expensive. The replacement and installation cost $1480 at a local glass shop, plus another $138 paid to the dealer to recalibrate the driver-assistance camera that's mounted behind the rearview mirror. It's the only time this Kia hasn't felt like an absolute bargain. We've already forgotten about it.

Months in Fleet: 10 months Current Mileage: 23,953 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 20 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Observed Fuel Range: 370 miles
Service: $437 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $1618

10,000-Mile Update

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

There comes a time in life when you have to acknowledge your shortcomings. And as our 2020 Kia Telluride SX AWD passes the 14,000-mile mark, that time for us is now.

Try as we might, we are unable to find much to criticize about our moss-green Kia long-termer. Maybe that’s not considered a shortcoming in the real world. Other people we’ve met appear perfectly happy to be happy. We are critics, though. It is our job—nay, our nature—to criticize.

Usually, new cars provide plenty of opportunity for complaints. The outward visibility stinks. The engine is weak and sounds like a horse fart. The seat heaters are too slow to warm our buns. When we have nothing big to criticize, we can typically find something minor. If we can’t find something minor, we can usually find something trivial. With the Telluride, though, we are flummoxed.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

So, credit to testing director Dave VanderWerp for gamely having a go at criticizing this 10Best-winning, comparison-test-dominating three-row, family SUV. Everyone else on staff has simply thrown up their hands. And reviews deputy editor Tony Quiroga has sustained a love affair with the Telluride that borders on giddy infatuation.

It’s not for lack of miles, which we’re piling on at a furious rate. The Telluride is in high demand as everything from a lunch-time shuttle to family-road-trip companion. With about 11,000 miles on the clock, VanderWerp loaded the Telluride with his wife and children for a 1300-mile weekend trip to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Here’s what he came up with for complaints:

  1. The rear wiper wash needs a wider spray pattern to help clean the rear glass. Instead, it just shoots a rivulet of fluid down the middle of the backlight.

  2. When you push the rear-climate button, you then have to go to the touchscreen to adjust it. Honda allows the front climate control knobs to control the rear settings in this scenario.

  3. The tailpipes are pushed to one side of the rear, something that with other brands of vehicles indicates that you’ve settled for the base engine. (There is currently only one engine offered in the Telluride).

Not exactly damning stuff there. VanderWerp reverted to praise even while trying to criticize. The average fuel economy on his trip was better than the EPA highway label (25 mpg vs 24 mpg), despite keeping an 80-mph cruising speed. It’s comfortable, quiet, and regally handsome. There’s excellent passenger and cargo space. There are plenty of storage cubbies in the front-seat area. The front seats are supportive enough to remain comfortable after many hours in the saddle. You get the point.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

Nothing has gone wrong with the vehicle, either. So that’s a whole area of potential sniping neutralized. Our only visit to the dealership during this quarter was to get a 7500-mile service. At $161, that service included the typical oil change, tire rotation, cabin-air filter replacement, and routine inspections.

In mid-November with about 10,000 miles on the odometer, we swapped out the original-equipment all-season tires for a set of Continental VikingContact 7 winter tires (yes, they are actually called “VikingContact”). It’s been an unusually mild and dry winter so far, so we haven’t yet had a chance to test the effectiveness of the winter rubber on snow and ice. But—wouldn’t you know it—the winter tires are, in the words of VanderWerp, “admirably quiet for winter tires and don’t feel too squishy on dry roads.”

We have failed. The Telluride has not.

Months in Fleet: 5 months Current Mileage: 14,013 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Observed Fuel Range: 390 miles
Service: $161 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $0

Introduction

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

It was obvious on first glance that the 2020 Kia Telluride was going to be a contender in the hotly contested class of mid-size three-row SUVs. Just sitting on an auto-show stand, the big Kia had presence. The smooth, disciplined lines. The sophisticated detailing. The Chevy- and Volkswagen-shaming interior. The Telluride is an exemplar of the old saw that it is no more expensive to build an attractive vehicle than it is to build an unattractive one.

Our good will toward Kia's latest three-row ute was blunted not a bit when we drove and tested it. And we're not alone. We've heard fear-tinged acknowledgement of the Telluride's excellence from people who work for rival carmakers. The only things we haven't yet confirmed about the Telluride are its reliability and its ability to sustain our affections over the long haul. So, naturally, we ordered one from Kia to run the gauntlet of our 40,000-mile, long-term test.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

We specified a top-of-the-line SX model for our evaluation in part because it comes with effective LED headlamps and taillights, handsome 20-inch wheels, understated satin-chrome body trim, and a variety of interior niceties such as a memory seats, second-row privacy window shades, and heated and ventilated seats. All-wheel drive, which adds $2000 to the cost of any Telluride, was a no-brainer. We also added a $795 Towing package for its hitch and self-leveling rear suspension (all Tellurides are rated to tug up to 5000 pounds).

We topped off the whole thing with the $2000 SX Prestige package, which brings a head-up display, nappa leather upholstery, premium cloth headliner, heated and ventilated second-row seats, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. All of this pushed the SX model, which starts at $44,585, up to a not-unreasonable $47,590. In fact, considering the Telluride's level of features and amenities, that counts as something of a bargain in this class. The Dark Moss green paint choice cost us nothing but makes our Telluride one refined-looking family transporter.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The Telluride—and its mechanical twin, the Hyundai Palisade—is powered by a standard 291-hp 3.8-liter V-6 engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. There is no upgrade engine available. The Kia's V-6 provides less torque than the turbocharged four-cylinders found in competitors such as the Mazda CX-9 and the Ford Explorer. But in real-world driving, the Telluride is just as fuel efficient as its four-banger rivals, and it is happy to sip regular fuel. Our long-termer has so far averaged 21 mpg in mixed driving.

At the test track, our Telluride laid down a 7.0-second zero-to-60-mph run and continued on through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 93 mph. Those are competitive times for the class, and the Telluride's 0.82-g skidpad performance and 177-foot stop from 70 mph are both within the norms as well.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

The Telluride might not slay its competitive set at the track, but its on-road, day-to-day comportment has made it a staff favorite. It's certainly quicker, nicer, and more fuel efficient than the Volkswagen Atlas we also have in our long-term fleet. In fact, print director Tony Quiroga notes that if he had a Porsche Boxster Spyder and a Telluride in his garage, he "wouldn't want for anything more." The writer of this story couldn't agree more. Deputy editor Josh Jacquot sang the praises of the Telluride's impressive ride quality over potholed gravel roads. "I'm impressed with the Telluride's damping," he noted. "It has fantastic individual wheel control, especially for this class and with 20-inch wheels."

Senior editor Joey Capparella wrote, "Honestly, this interior pleases me more than the Range Rover I drove last night." The tasteful, rich-looking cabin also got to chief brand officer Eddie Alterman, who said he keeps debating the highs and lows of the Telluride interior compared with that of the Mercedes GLS-class and then remembering how much more the Mercedes costs.

Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver
Photo credit: Marc Urbano - Car and Driver

It's likely we'll find things about this Kia we do not like. And maybe the Telluride will break often and in infuriating ways over the course of the next 37,000 or so miles. But so far, the Telluride is looking pretty damn good.

Months in Fleet: 1 month Current Mileage: 2842 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 18.8 gal Observed Fuel Range: 390 miles
Service: $0 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0
Damage and Destruction: $0

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