Kia's Telluride concept signals revived interest in SUV

Kia calls the Telluride -- crafted at its U.S. design studio in Irvine, Calif. -- as “purely conceptual.” It features 3D-printed interior components and suicide doors that open at 90-degree angles. Photo credit: REUTERS

DETROIT -- A once-burned Kia signaled that it’s thinking of getting back into the SUV business to accelerate its growth in North America.

At the Detroit auto show Monday, the Korean automaker introduced the Telluride, a concept for a hulking utility vehicle with an efficient, plug-in hybrid powertrain and a cushy cabin for rear passengers.

Kia describes the Telluride, crafted at its U.S. design studio in Irvine, Calif., as “purely conceptual,” as evidenced by its 3D-printed interior components and the suicide doors that open at 90-degree angles.

However, the company also said its concept is intended to show its interest in offering a high-end SUV that is larger, more luxurious and more expensive than the Sorento crossover.

“Telluride allows us to envision what a full-size seven-passenger SUV from Kia could look like,” said Tom Kearns, the head of the Irvine studio and designer of the Telluride.

Kia can only hope that such a vehicle would have better luck than its last attempt. Its three-row Borrego SUV went on sale in 2008, just as gasoline prices rose above $4 per gallon, and after disappointing sales, it was pulled from the U.S. a year later -- too soon to capitalize on the subsequent decline in prices.

In the early 2000s, Kia’s corporate sibling, Hyundai, was considering using the Telluride name for an SUV built on a pickup platform, Automotive News reported at the time. Hyundai filed for a trademark on the Telluride name in 2004, but it abandoned the trademark in 2008 as high gas prices made such an SUV impractical.

Now, with gasoline prices under $2 per gallon across most of the U.S., such SUVs are practical again, and Kia dealers have been clamoring for them.

“I’d like to see a little bit larger of an SUV,” Don Hobden, a Kia dealer in Alabama and a former chairman of the brand’s dealer council, said in an interview last year. “I thought the only thing wrong with the Borrego in 2009 was that it was godawful bad timing with the economy.”

Measuring 197 inches long, 71 inches tall and 79 inches wide, the Telluride concept is about 9.5 inches longer than the Sorento. In each dimension, it is within 2 inches of the Ford Explorer, America’s best-selling large crossover.

Kia said the all-wheel-drive Telluride is based on an existing platform. One possibility for a production model is a stretched version of the platform underpinning the Sorento, but a more likely option is the rear-drive platform that Hyundai will use for its Genesis luxury cars.

Genesis plans to launch a large SUV as one of its first six models by 2020.

The Telluride has a plug-in hybrid powertrain, drawing 400 hp from a 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a 130-hp electric motor. Kia said it gets more than 30 mpg on the highway.

The Kia concept also focuses on comfort. The second-row seats are captain’s chairs that recline almost flat like business-class seats on an airplane. Sensors built into the seatbacks monitor the passengers’ vital signs for display on screens inside the vehicle, while a roof-mounted LED panel flashes light patterns that are intended to help with jet-lag symptoms.

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