Kia's new-look 4x4 is pretty tough - just don't try driving it over any sand dunes, says Sean O'Grady

The lengths some car-makers will go to to make a point - Morocco, in fact. The brand in question is Kia, and the point being made is that their cars are, if I may put things in colloquial terms, well hard. So tough are their 4x4s that they will survive being driven across sand dunes in the Sahara by an idiot like me. They were almost right.

Let me explain. The Kia Sorento is a tough old boot. Kia's recently facelifted 4x4 cheerfully suffered the roughest roads in the Maghreb. Across the Atlas Mountains following a mule track for three hours was, in truth, more a test of human than driver. Those of us with a slight tendency to vertigo weren't delighted at the sheer drops from such narrow and badly rutted roads. Mind you, the greatest hazard was the huge volume of tourist traffic that comes in the opposite direction, with precious little room to pass at any point. Radio contact between the various mule-track users is the answer to this particular bottleneck.

I managed to get two punctures in quick succession on this track, which I'd like to think wasn't my fault, as the only way it could be the driver's fault is if he's been going too fast, which I was not (first and second gear all the way). To be fair to Kia, they insisted that the cars we used were virtually identical to the ones you'd drive out of the showroom, so they had standard Hankook road tyres. In which case, maybe it wasn't such a bad performance (none of the other cars had this trouble, I should also add).

Then we made it to the desert. Again this was a surprisingly crowded environment, more like Piccadilly Circus than a scene from Lawrence of Arabia (which, along with most Hollywood Biblical/Mummy/ Laurentian epics, was filmed in southern Morocco). What I took to be charming Tuareg settlements were just that, but planted for the benefit of tourists, as were the camels, the bright tents and the Men in Blue. There isn't that much left in Morocco that can be said to be unexplored and entirely authentic.

It has to be noted as well that those who make their living, mostly from tourism, by the edge of the Sahara tend to drive Land Rover Defenders, with a few favouring the Land Rover's Spanish cousin, the Santana 4x4. You'll see all the usual Japanese SUVs such as the Toyota Land Cruiser on the roads, along with battered old-school Mercs as long-distance taxis and Peugeot 205s and Fiat Unos working hard as petits taxis for the towns: but when it comes to seriously heavy desert duties it would seem that only a Land Rover will do.

Maybe a Land Rover would have survived what happened next. But I doubt it. Emboldened by the 4x4 expertise of my co-driver, I followed his instructions on how to get over a soft sand dune: power up to the crest of the hill and then just slide down the other side. Fine, except when we slid down the other side we had a little too much momentum and the front of the Kia smashed into the ground at the foot of the dune. We dislocated the radiator, though it was still running.

A couple of other Sorentos also had to be taken out of proceedings after similarly careless driving. So I'd agree that the Sorento is a lot tougher than you'd think, and capable of much more abuse than it will encounter in its pampered Western life, but it is not invincible, and I think the Land Rover might have survived it better. When you invite journalists to break cars - and this is the first one I've trashed - then you have to expect a little collateral damage to your reputation.

Having said that, though, I'd like to offer a few words of praise. A decade ago, Kia was, to all intents and purposes, dead in the water. It made mediocre-to-bad cars and went bankrupt. A victim of the great East Asian economic storm of 1998, like the rest of the Korean auto industry, it was flattened. Kia was bought by Hyundai, and then the brand set about renewing itself. It has done so with a certain degree of success, and no one thinks of Kia as a dying brand now.

The best recoveries in the motor industry are "product-led". It's hard to credit now, but Volkswagen was nearly bust by the early Seventies, over-reliant on the Beetle and a series of wacky spin-offs. Then it got serious and built the Passat, Polo and Golf, and, if VW is back in the mire now, it has little to do with the cars. That was the textbook product-led recovery story.

Kia hasn't lived up to that standard, but it has had its share of unexpected hits. There's the Kia Picanto, the one that's been advertised with theanimated characters who spend all their time shopping. The other niche hit was the Sedona, now on its second generation, the big value-for-money seven-seater people-carrier. No Kia was ever the safest nor the most stylish vehicle, and they used to depreciate something rotten, but you always got a lot for your money.

Nowadays Kia wants to nudge its products, and its prices, upmarket. Each successor model seems to be a little bit dearer than its predecessor. It's a little bit better too, but sometimes they still leave something to be desired. The new Magentis, for example, is not going to be much of a challenger even to the Mondeo, let alone the increasingly ubiquitous German prestige makes, and one reason for that is that it's now a little too dear. The same, I think applies to the Sorento, because so few people will pay upwards of £23,000 for a Kia, even if it is a match for the equivalent Toyota, Land Rover or Nissan.

The really important new Kia is the curiously named c'eed. This marks a quantum leap in the firm's ambitions and it is firmly aimed at the centre of the marketplace, up against the Golf, Astra, Focus and Mégane. It's built in Europe (Slovakia), and it's a neat-looking hatch that drives well (full driving impression in our next edition). Crucially, Kia has stopped copying Toyota and started copying Audi: that means quality materials from the same people who supply the big European groups. Sounds great. Just don't take it into a desert.

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