CHECK OUT THE KIA BORREGO:
There was a time a few years ago when even the notion of a $36,000 Kia would have been ridiculed.
The company made cheap cars that had, well, cheap quality.
Those days are long gone.
The Kia Borrego, just added to the Korean company's lineup for model year 2009, is a wonderful SUV that more than justifies its price tag.
The Borrego joins the Sportage and the Sorento in the Kia SUV fleet.
We have driven the Sportage and given it very high marks, rating it as one of the most fun to drive small SUVs on the market.
We've never tested the larger Sorento, but we can say that it's a nice-looking vehicle.
But it would be hard to imagine that it would be better than the Borrego.
The Borrego's positive attributes start with its terrific engine.
The 3.3-liter V-6 is energetic and very capable of giving the vehicle the strength it needs to accelerate into highway traffic.
But it's also smooth and relatively silent.
It offers admirable fuel economy for a four-wheel-drive vehicle of this size: 16 mpg city, 21 highway.
If you go with the two-wheel-drive version, you get 17 and 22.
Kia also offers the Borrego with a 4.6-liter V-8 engine, the same one used in the new Genesis sedan made by its sister brand, Hyundai.
When we drove both the V-6 Genesis and the eight-banger, we said there was no way you should spend more for the 8; the six is plenty powerful.
We haven't driven the Borrego with the eight yet, but we would still say that the six-cylinder offers more than enough power.
It's hard to imagine that Kia or Hyundai will sell many vehicles with the V-8, the first time they've offered that powerplant, with people still leery of those engines because of the high gas prices they've seen recently.
On the inside, the Borrego is understated luxury.
It's not as blingy as, say, a Cadillac Escalade or even an Audi Q7, but it is full of quality materials that make you feel justified in paying the higher than your typical Kia price tag.
The leather seats, finely arranged dashboard and quality workmanship make for a comfortable environment.
The Borrego is not a crossover - an SUV built on a car platform.
It is the real deal, built on a truck platform.
It has off-road capabilities, but we didn't test them.
Most people probably won't either.
SUVs came into popularity because people liked the idea of being able to go off-road more than they actually did go off-road.
SUVs have fallen from popularity because of the runup in gas prices and all the new crossover choices that let consumers haul people and stuff as they would in an SUV, but without having to lug around such a large, gas-chugging vehicle.
So, maybe Kia's timing in rolling out the Borrego wasn't the greatest.
But it really couldn't have been helped.
Car makers are usually working about three to five years in advance of the time that a vehicle will be ready to hit the market.
So a mid-to large-size SUV in 2003 or 2004 didn't seem like such an awful idea.
Now maybe it does seem like a bad idea.
But if you get past that kind of thinking, and just evaluate this vehicle for what it is,
you see that the Borrego is one special machine that deserves a look for anyone who needs a seven-passenger hauler that offers a little bit of style.