2021 Kia Telluride Review

Liz Kim, Independent Expert | Dec 21, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Kia deals!

The first Kia-badged vehicle sold in America was an SUV. The original Kia Sportage arrived in the mid-1990s with appealing design, rugged capabilities, and a low price, putting Kia on consumer shopping lists as it tapped into the nascent trend toward SUVs.

More than 25 years later, the Kia Telluride capitalizes on that same SUV trend, garnering Kia more consideration by American consumers than it has in its history. A midsize, 3-row crossover that sets up to eight passengers, the Telluride's combination of style, utility, and value has made the Georgia-built SUV such a hot commodity that company spokespeople call it the "Sell-u-Ride." Dealers cannot keep them in stock.

There are four versions of the 2021 Kia Telluride: LX, S, EX, and SX. Each comes with front-wheel drive (FWD), with all-wheel drive (AWD) an available upgrade. Prices start at $31,990, and, depending on the trim level, option packages add extra equipment. 

2021 Kia Telluride SX Gray Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For example, for this review, J.D. Power evaluated a 2021 Telluride SX equipped with AWD and the Nightfall Edition, Prestige, and Towing option packages. Additionally, floor mats, a cargo cover, a cargo net, and a cargo mat brought the price to $50,180, including the $1,170 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Kia deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Kia Telluride, it is helpful to understand who buys this upper midsize SUV and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 54% of Kia Telluride owners are male (vs. 56% for the segment), and the median age of a Telluride owner is 50 years (vs. 55).

Owners say their favorite things about the Telluride are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, interior design, feeling of safety, and driving comfort. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the upper midsize SUV segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Sound of engine/motor
  • Smoothness of engine/motor
  • Vehicle feel when started up

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Telluride are (in descending order) the powertrain, getting in and out, infotainment system, setting up and starting, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the upper midsize SUV segment:

  • Operating vehicle remotely
  • Effectiveness of headlights
  • Using navigation
  • Ease of safely maneuvering the vehicle
  • Safety systems

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Telluride ranked highest out of 13 competitors.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Kia deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides her perceptions about how the 2021 Kia Telluride measures up in each of the ten categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Owners cite styling as their favorite thing about the Telluride. I prefer the more audacious and curvaceous appearance of the Telluride's corporate cousin, the Hyundai Palisade, but it's easy to see how so many people adore the squared-off and more rugged-looking design of the Telluride.

2021 Kia Telluride SX Gray Rear Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The test vehicle had the Nightfall Edition package, which Kia offers with EX and SX trim. This package is a new option for 2021, adding a blacked-out grille and black 20-inch wheels, each with a unique design. Nary a glittering chrome strip dares to brighten up the Telluride Nightfall Edition, which will no doubt prove quite popular.

Interior

Upscale and straightforward, the Telluride's spacious cabin is refreshingly free of gimmicks and unnecessary design flourishes, unless you count the robust grab handles on each side of the center console as such. 

2021 Kia Telluride SX Prestige Front Seats and Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Most materials reflect quality, too, enhanced in the test vehicle by the Prestige option package that equips the SUV with premium Nappa leather with contrast stitching and a microfiber roof liner that looks and feels decadent for the segment. Lower plastic panels could use a coating of some kind to reduce gloss levels and a cheap, slippery feel.

Storage is generous in all three rows of seats and is thoughtfully configured for modern families, all members of which may have personal smartphones in tow.

Getting In and Out

The Kia Telluride looks bigger than it is. Photos make it seem like it's a high-riding full-size SUV. In reality, it's a midsize model sitting closer to the ground, and that makes it easy to enter and exit.

Even accessing the third-row seat is relatively simple. In the test vehicle, a button folded and scooted the second-row seat forward with a single press. Thoughtfully placed grab handles on the roof pillars make it easier to exit the Telluride's rearmost seating area.

Loading cargo is similarly simple, thanks to Kia's smart power tailgate. With the key fob in your pocket or purse, it will automatically open after a few seconds as you stand near the back of the SUV with your arms full. If you'd rather not have this feature, you can turn it off using a setting inside the Telluride.

There is a claimed 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seat. Fold those down, and the SUV supplies 46 cubic feet of space. Fold both second-row seats to maximize cargo volume at 87 cubic feet, which is generous in this class. 

Better yet, buttons in the cargo area allow you to fold the second-row captain's chairs down, so you don't need to walk around the side and open the rear doors to accomplish this task. Also, under the rear cargo floor, you'll find a small but useful bin where you can store the cargo cover when you're not using it.

Setting Up and Starting

Push the Telluride's engine start button, and you're greeted by the pleasing, throaty growl of a V-6 engine. Before driving for the first time, you'll want to set up your personal preferences using the driver information center and the infotainment system. Each is easy to understand and use, but it takes some time because there are so many choices to tailor the SUV the way you want it to work.

Infotainment System

Choose LX or S trim, and the Telluride has an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system display. It includes Bluetooth, UVO Link connected services, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and satellite radio. With EX and SX trim, a more sophisticated 10.25-inch touchscreen adds navigation and wireless smartphone charging. 

Kia allows you to pair two smartphones at once to the infotainment system's Bluetooth, and the voice recognition system is relatively adept at recognizing and responding to unscripted commands such as "Find the nearest hospital." Curiously, though, a Wi-Fi hotspot is unavailable for the Telluride. 

On higher trims, Driver Talk allows the driver to communicate with rear passengers without yelling, and a Quiet Mode shuts off the rear stereo speakers. With SX trim, a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system supplies decent sound.

Keeping You Safe

The Telluride's list of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is lengthy and comprehensive. Kia equips every example of the 2021 Telluride with Drive Wise, a collection of ADAS that includes: adaptive cruise control with a stop-and-go function, forward-collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, active blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning with emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, and lane-centering assistance. 

With the EX and SX trim levels, Highway Drive Assist provides a Level 2 semi-autonomous ADAS, steering, braking, accelerating, and ensuring safe following distances. You have to keep your hands on the wheel and pay attention, but the system is remarkably sophisticated.

What's better, especially for a family vehicle, the Telluride is currently one of only a handful of vehicles with an ultrasonic rear-seat reminder system. Not only does it remind you to check the back seat before leaving the SUV, but its ultrasonic sensor can also detect movement after you've locked the vehicle and left it. If it detects motion, such as that of a child waking from a nap, it will sound the horn, flash the lights, and let you know via text-message and a smartphone app that you need to check the vehicle.

Another unusual safety feature is the Blind-Spot View Monitor technology. It uses cameras that project an image of the SUV's blind spots within the instrumentation. I don't find it useful, but some people might. What's helpful is the head-up display that's a part of the SX Prestige package, and it even shows blind-spot warnings on the windshield and within the driver's line of sight.

For the 2020 calendar year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2021 Telluride a Top Safety Pick designation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assigns the Telluride a 5-star overall rating. This sounds great, and it is, but there is room for improvement in some areas.

Powertrain

Pop open the hood of any Telluride, and you'll find a 291-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, which is a refreshing change from all the turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engines that automakers increasingly install in their heavy crossover SUVs. This V-6 is broad-shouldered enough to deliver smooth and effortless acceleration from a stop or when passing slower vehicles. 

A slick-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission powers the front or all four of the Telluride's wheels, and Kia says the powertrain can tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped. This year, Kia swaps out the previous 4-pin trailering harness connector with a new 7-pin design. 

If you're planning to go off-roading, you can lock the power split evenly between the front and rear wheels, helping you to better leverage the eight inches of ground clearance. Other driving modes include Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Snow. A Smart mode automatically adjusts based on driver behavior, maximizing performance or fuel economy as is desirable.

Fuel Economy

Tellurides with AWD should get about 21 mpg in combined driving, according to the EPA. We got just that, averaging 20.5 mpg on our test loop of various driving conditions. With its 18.8-gallon fuel tank, the Telluride should travel about 385 miles before needing a fill-up, though you'll likely stop for gas before the trip odometer reads 350 miles.

Driving Comfort

With the Telluride SX's 12-way power-adjustable driver's seat, you're sure to find an ideal driving position. Front passengers will be happy, too, thanks to an 8-way power-adjustable seat. The seats are also comfortable, with just the right blend of cushioning and support, and the test vehicle's front chairs offered heating and ventilation.

Kids always seem to prefer second-row captain's chairs, and they're standard with S and SX trim. In the Telluride SX with the Prestige package, they're even heated and ventilated. The test vehicle's retractable rear side window shades help to blot out the sun, while a panoramic dual-panel glass roof lets the outside in, making the Telluride feel even more spacious than it already is.

Third-row passengers will be surprisingly comfortable. Even adults will find this seating area acceptable for shorter trips. Furthermore, the Telluride delivers a quiet and serene ride for the segment.

Driving Feel

From the driver's seat, the Telluride feels big, and while outward visibility is quite good, you'll still want to put the available surround-view camera to work when maneuvering in tight quarters. 

Versions with 20-inch wheels can transmit some harshness from imperfect road surfaces, but Kia deftly tunes the suspension to provide compliance for ride comfort while still supplying a fair amount of road feel. In higher-speed corners, such as those on mountain roads, body roll is evident. Still, the grip is good, and a brake-based torque-vectoring technology assists in the handling department to beneficial effect.

Though it lacks the outright agility that would emphasize the "sport" part of the sport/utility equation, the Telluride is nevertheless one of the more enjoyable midsize SUVs available, offering a ride and handling quality that makes it a perfect and engaging daily driver.

Final Impressions - Find the best Kia deals!

With excellent vehicles like the 2021 Telluride, which combines top-notch functionality, technology, comfort, safety, and drivability, Kia sheds all vestiges of its former reputation as a provider of vehicles that only appeal to your wallet. This approach served the company well a quarter of a century ago, when that first Sportage went on sale, but today Kia is something else entirely.

Having now spent a week driving the Telluride, it's little wonder that Kia's dealers are clamoring for more inventory.

Liz Kim has been writing about cars for more than two decades, involved in road testing, analyzing, marketing, and pondering about all things automotive. But what she enjoys most is poking around the various corners of Southern California in various test vehicles with her family, the way cars are meant to be used.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2022 J.D. Power

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