AUSTIN — One of the hardest parts of this admittedly ridiculously easy job is filling out my ballot at the Texas Auto Writers' annual truck rodeo each fall. Not so this year.
Ram brought the TRX and walked away with the first of many truck-of-the-year trophies. Kia brought the Georgia-built Telluride, which asks the question, why do people spend $70,000 for a 7-passenger SUV when, for a third less, they can have one that checks all the boxes, uses less fuel and has a warranty that is twice as good?
Of course, people do not buy cars for the warranty, though they should because companies that offer five-year bumper-to-bumper and 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranties put a lot of pressure on engineers to make sure that things do not break. Yes, Kia and big brother Hyundai took a $760 million, class-action hickey for their theta line of four-cylinder engines, some of which had an annoying habit of cratering and catching fire, but that seems to be in the past.
None of that is a concern with the Telluride, whose only engine option is the new lambda 3.8-L GDI V6 with 291 hp and 262 lb.-ft. of torque. Mated to a silky 8-speed automatic, the driveline is smooth and powerful. Zero-to-60 comes in a respectable 7 seconds.
If Kia's engineers took shortcuts on the Telluride, they are not apparent. Starting at $33,415, the three-row crossover punches above its weight with a luxuriant cabin, graceful dash and switchgear, advanced safety features, a nicely sorted powertrain, and comfortable ride and handling.
If you are in the market for something to haul people and all their devices and stuff, there is not a better value proposition on the market. Period.
A very close second on my ballot was the Hyundai Palisade, but I choose the Telluride because it costs a few hundred dollars less and the Palisade dash is not as nice. Also desirable in this class are the near-luxury Mazda CX-9 and the always dependable Honda Passport and Toyota Highlander.
The last three get slightly better fuel economy than the Telluride. We average close to 24 mpg in the Kia but have attained closer to 26-27 mpg with the other three. Still, you cannot go wrong with any of those choices.
A fine difference
When it came time to pick one for me, the difference is in the driving. On a crowded interstate on a dark night, the experience behind the wheel is akin to playing a well-designed video game, but one that wraps the driver in a sense of safety and comfort.
Our top-of-line tester, a $44,090 SX with a prestige package ($2,300), had a head-up display that told me how fast I was going, the speed limit, the cruise control setting and navigation information. Below, in the dash was a crisp liquid crystal display gauge cluster. To the right was an easily reached row of analog switches that just made perfect sense.
With so many functions pulled out into the open, instead of forcing one to drill down on a screen — that is distracting — the 10.3-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability was uncluttered. It was easy to find navigation information or dial in the 630-watt, 10-speaker Harmon/Kardon sound system that had depth, channel separation and frequency response worthy of a Lexus or Mercedes-Benz.
On a road crowded with speeding big trucks and impatiently driven cars, the Telluride stayed aloof from the madness, safe in a bubble of its own making. I kept a hand on the wheel, but the car kept itself nicely centered in its lane and a safe distance behind traffic ahead. It monitored blind spots left and right. If someone ahead slammed on their brakes, it would quickly and firmly apply its brakes, too.
With nappa leather, front and rear sunroofs, heated and ventilated seats in the first two rows, plush second-row captain's chair, cupholders and cubbyholes everywhere, and a half-dozen USB power ports, the Telluride had the feel of an upscale living room on wheels.
The ride is much better than most truck-based utilities, thanks to a monocoque chassis that is both light and rigid because it extensively employs advanced high-strength steels. With four-wheel independent suspension and automatic load leveling, the Telluride ensures the passenger experience is serene.
The sense of security is not an illusion. The 2021 Telluride earned a five-star crash-test rating from the National Traffic Safety Administration and is a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. A comprehensive suite of driver-assist technologies comes standard.
As mentioned, Kia and Hyundai offer the best warranties in the business and they are transferrable when the vehicle is sold.
Bottom line: I shall resist the very big temptation to conjure up an election joke and just say the 2021 Kia Telluride won this vote fair and square.