2020 Kia Telluride Review: The New Benchmark for Midsize SUVs


There’s a new sheriff in town: the Kia Telluride midsize SUV, loaded with standard safety tech and driver assists, room for seven or eight, gifted with a smooth ride and the ability to pull to tow a 5,000-pound trailer. This is an amazing vehicle.

The Kia Telluride and its fraternal twin Hyundai Palisade are poised to upend the status quo among the larger midsize mainstream SUVs, as well as challenge the same-size Audi-BMW-Lexus-Lincoln-Mercedes SUVs for cockpit quality and ride comfort, if not handling, for $15,000-$20,000 less. Between the Telluride and Palisade, the front ends look different, and the Telluride includes blind spot detection even on the entry trim line. Mostly they’re more alike than different. On their top trim lines, both have a blind spot system with rear-facing cameras that helps you decide when it’s safe to change lanes. Nobody does anything like it.

Kia Blind-Spot View Monitor: Flip your turn signal and the instrument panel MID (multi-information display) brings up video of your blind spot.

The Cheapest Telluride Is Plenty Safe

Assuming you believe most major midsize SUVs have enough audio speakers, lumbar adjustments, power moonroofs and cupholders to be roughly equivalent, the Telluride stands out because every necessary safety tool and driver assist – every one – is yours on the cheapest Telluride, the front-drive LX, $33,000 with shipping:

Telluride Standard Safety (All Models)

  • Blind spot detection / rear cross traffic alert
  • Adaptive cruise control with stop and go
  • Lake keep assist / lane centering assist (Kia calls it lane following assist)
  • Forward collision warning / forward collision avoidance /pedestrian braking
  • Rear parking sonar
  • Drowsy driver warning
  • Rear occupant alert (for people who forget and leave kids in the car unintentionally)
  • Safe exit assist (warns if you’re parked and try to open a traffic-side door when a car approaches)
  • Telematics with automatic crash notification

That’s on top of the usual stability control, rear backup camera, etcetera safety stuff that the feds require.  That’s at a base price (cheapest Telluride) about $3,000 less than what the average car sells for in the US now.

Kia Blind-Spot View Monitor has a rear-facing camera in each outside mirror covering twice the angle of a flat mirror. When you flick the turn signal, video of that side appears in the instrument panel.

How Blind Spot View Monitor Works

What you need to pay extra for, on higher trims, is the above-and-beyond-safe safety gear: the Blind-Spot View Monitor (BVM), 360-degree surround view monitor, level 2 self-driving (Highway Driving Assist), automatic high beams, front parking sonar, and head-up display (safety because it reduces downward / sideways glances at the instruments).

BVM is a supplement to Kia’s standard blind-spot visual alerts on the mirrors, to the can’t-miss-it-indicator in the head-up display, and to an audible alert. BVM gives the driver an extra measure of confidence. Rear-facing cameras in the outside mirrors show a field nearly 60 degrees wide, about twice as much as a flat-glass mirror shows. The 7-inch instrument panel multi-information display shows the view as soon as you flick the turn signal. BVM is a significant improvement on the Lane Watch system Honda used off and on since 2012. The difference is Honda’s solution was passenger-side only, was offered instead of blind spot detection, and the driver had to judge the closeness of the approaching car relative to three horizontal lines. It also used the center stack display, so the driver had to look down and over.

Both Blind Spot View Monitor and the surround view monitor (an simulated overhead view of the car using four down-facing wide angle cameras and real-time stitching software) are on the top-line SX only. Surround view improves parking accuracy and keeps you from running over tricycles and eager pets as you pull into or out of the driveway.

From a distance, you can tell the Telluide from the Hyundai Palisade (inset below right) by the squarish headlamp frames and the smaller grille.

Hyundai Palisade: same car only different (a little).

Kia Telluride on the Road

I test drove the top of the line Telluride SX, almost $47,000 fully equipped. The Telluride is at its best on the highway or car-pooling 4-5 kids around town. Those missions show off the Telluride’s best features: quiet, roomy, comfortable ride, easy access to the rear seats. This is not the car you’d want for carving a sporty line through canyon roads; no surprise that there’s a lot of body roll in hard turns. At the same time, if you need to make an emergency lane change, the Telluride is up for it, and the brakes are very good at panic stops.

The Kia EX and SX come with Highway Driving Assist, which is Kia’s Level 2 implementation of self-driving. HDA uses GPS to first determine you’re on a limited access roadway, then kicks in. The Telluride paces the car in front or the pre-set cruise-control speed, and keeps the car centered. The driver has to have his hands on the wheel often enough that the car knows the driver is still there and paying attention.

Interestly, all Telluride models come with a sort-of self-driving that works on many more roads than Kia specifies for HDA. Invoke adaptive cruise control, which Kia calls Smart Cruise Control, and then lane center assist, keep your hands mostly on the wheel, and the Telluride follows the road ahead including gentle turns. It will pace the car in front without running up its rear bumper.

The Telluride cockpit should keep Lincoln awake at night. Lincoln does a very good job, for $15-20,000 more.

4 Kia Telluride Models

The 2020 Kia Telluride comes in four model variants, or trim lines. All have a 3.8-liter, 291 hp V6 engine with eight-speed automatic, and an EPA rating of 20 mpg city / 26 highway / 23 combined for front drive, 19 / 24 / 21 for all-wheel-drive (regular fuel). The tow capacity is 5,000 pounds. Kia Uvo entertainment is is at least five USB jacks, an 8-inch or 10.25-inch center stack display with AM, FM, satellite, Bluetooth, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and remote start via smartphone. There are many little touches standard such as diffuser air vents in rows two and three so the air cools or warms yet doesn’t blast the passengers. Details of the four trim lines:

Telluride LX,  $33,060 front-wheel-drive / $35,060 all-wheel-drive, including $1,170 freight. It is indeed very well equipped. The seating is Sofino, another term for leatherette, but the steering wheel is leather-wrapped. Wheels are 18-inch alloy.  The only options are all-wheel-drive,  premium paint, $395, and a tow-hitch with harness, $475. It is an eight-seater.

Telluride S, $35,460 / $37,460. Beyond the LX features, it has six USB jacks (five charge, one media), seven-passenger seating, heated front seats with an eight-way power driver’s seat, a power sunroof, 20-inch wheels, and roof rails (crossbars extra).

This often-used photo of the Telluride kicking up desert sands is exactly how Kia wants the car to be perceived.

Telluride EX, $38,460 / $40,460. Infotainment includes a 10.25-inch display, navigation, and Driver Talk (PA for the rear seats). Highway Driving Assist is standard. It has leather seats, heated / ventilated in front, wireless phone charger, and hands-free power liftgate. The $1,495 premium package has second-row captain’s chairs, machine-finish 20-inch alloys, and low-profile roof rails. The $795 towing package includes a self-leveling rear suspension as well as the tow hitch. (LX and S can tow 5,000 pounds also, but no auto-leveling).

Telluride SX, $42,960 / $44,960. It has the Blind-Spot View Monitor, surround view cameras, LED headlamps and fog lamps, dual sunroofs, 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio, and black 20-inch alloys. Exclusive to the SX and helping explain the $4,500 jump up from EX are the Blind-Spot-View Monitor, surround view monitor, front parking sonar and optional head-up display. Also very nice leather. Options are the towing package, $795, and the Prestige package, $2,300, with AC power, head-up display, heated (and ventilated) second-row seats, nappa leather, and rain-sensing wipers. With all options, it’s $48,450.

(If you try to build your own Telluride on kia.com and can only find the entry LX: Keep hunting and you’ll find the buttons for S, EX and SX, eventually. It’s confusing.)

Third rows on midsize SUVs are typically tight. The Telluride, with 31.5 inches of legroom, is snug but not tight.

Minor Room for Improvement

If if you want any of the additional driver assists and safety features not on the base model, you pretty much have to come up with another ten grand for the top trim line. Would that Kia offered a bundle of all the other safety gear for, say, $2,500: Blind-Spot View Monitor, surround view monitor, the head-up display, and front sonar, and offered it on the mid-level S or EX.

Like every other midsize SUV (<200 inches long), third-row comfort is compromised, although Kia’s 32 inches of third row leg room is less compromise than on competing SUVs. The solution is for the owner to shift gears, swallow your pride (admit you’re a soccer mom or dad), and buy a minivan such as the Kia Sedona, Honda Odyssey, or Chrysler Pacifica. If you want all-wheel-drive, you have one (very good) choice, the Toyota Sienna. You won’t approach third-row minivan comfort until your SUV is 205-210 inches long.

There is only one engine choice and it’s right for the majority of buyers. But that means no turbocharged Telluride ST model, no Telluride hybrid. Figure on 21 mpg for the AWE Telluride, at or just below the midsize SUV average.

We’re not going to ding the Telluride for body lean in sharp turns because: a) it’s a big, husky vehicle not the Kia Stinger and b) you’re going to be punished by your spouse / partner anyway if you pull that stunt.

By year’s end, the Kia Telluride was a top 10 seller among the beefier midsize SUVs (mainstream priced) with three rows of seating (orange bars). Ford Explorer, No. 1 in 2018, saw sales fall 28% last year, while VW Atlas sales jumped 37%. The chart shows Q4 sales (not all-2019) for the most valid comparison because several new models weren’t available for the full year. (Source: goodcarbadcar.net)

What SUV to Buy?

This one’s easy: As of the beginning of 2020, Kia Telluride (and Hyundai Palisade) are the class of the field of midsize, three-row SUVs. Between the Telluride and the closely related Palisade, the two combined at year’s end to outsell every midsize three-row SUV except 1-2 Toyota Highland and Ford Explorer and also except the joint venture that is the Chevrolet Traverse-GMC Acadia-Buick Enclave trio. That’s an impressive launch. Kia sells about a third more Tellurides than Hyundai sells Palisades.

They’ve won or been at the top of a number of year-end awards. Both Telluride and Palisade were chosen among the ExtremeTech 10Best Cars/SUVs for 2020; the Telluride won a Car and Driver 10Best slot. If you read Consumer Reports, you know the Telluride is one of the handful of cars to score more than 90 (of 100) in the overall rating; the Paliside is a few points back.) Last week (Jan. 13), the Telluride was named Utility of the Year in the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) judging by 50 North American journalists, and the Palisade was second, Lincoln Aviator third. Earlier Telluride was named Motor Trend SUV of the Year.

Among competitors, the Subaru Ascent is well-regarded. The Toyota Highlander is new for 2020 and is the current best-seller (based on Q4 sales). The Ford Explorer is almost as new and has useful trailer towing features, but the cockpit is not as nice as Telluride / Palisade. The new Explorer’s production (along with sibling Lincoln Aviator) had been hampered by QC issues at Ford’s Chicago plant. (Ford said it’s fixed now.) We’d say that the Telluride, even more so the Palisade,  matches up nicely against a $70,000 Lincoln Aviator Reserve, not just the Explorer.

The Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia rivals also can’t match Kia’s cockpit; ditto Dodge Durango. The Honda Pilot and Nissan Pathfinder are aging. With the Atlas, VW shifted from spirited driving to comfortable family touring, but its reliability is below average although sales are strong. The sportiest, most fun-to-drive three-row SUV is the Mazda CX-9, but it’s smaller than the others even if specs position it as midsize.

As for Telluride vs. Palisade: Kia’s look says sporty while Hyundai’s says luxurious. Telluride has blind spot detection standard and that allows you to buy the entry model without feeling like you gave up anything much in the way of safety. The Palisade Blind Spot View Monitor uses the left and right speedometer and tachometer houses to show left or right views; the Telluride uses the MID in the middle.  Otherwise, pick one or the other based on how you like the looks outside and in, or based on which local dealer you like better. For what it’s worth, the current sales rate has the Telluride ahead by about 30 percent.

Get one before Kia wises up and adds five grand to the price. They could get away with it. (Some dealers are, jacking up selling prices by $5,000 or more on Telluride and Palisade.) The Telluride is that good. If you had doubts how well Korea Inc. engineers and manufactures cars, it’s resolved.

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