Our first drive of the thoroughly reconceived 2011 Kia Sorento outlined the wholesale scrapping of the first-gen vehicle's Mercedes M-Class wannabe styling and body-on-frame tow-monster architecture in favor of the latest mode of fashion, the carlike crossover. Unit-body construction on the Hyundai Santa Fe's 106.3-inch wheelbase lightens the vehicle up sufficiently to allow a four-cylinder/six-speed drivetrain to make a convincing case for itself, and the gentle stretch (3.7 inches) makes room for the de rigueur optional third-row seating, which in this case is suitable primarily for accommodating someone else's kids on carpool day. (Five-child families should think bigger when choosing their next cross-country family truckster).
Our first drive was restricted only to V-6 Sorentos driven mostly in monsoon weather, and this time out we had a chance to sample the 2.4-liter, 172-horse four, albeit in very limited driving constrained primarily to the freeway. We did, however, get a chance to obtain some acceleration and braking data that helps better place the Sorento among the constellation of crossovers.
Kia identifies the Chevy Equinox, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V as chief four-cylinder rivals, with the Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Toyota Highlander, and Nissan Murano contending against the V-6. They fail to mention the corporate cousin Santa Fe, but naturally it'll be cross-shopped, and it's due for a freshening in 2010 that will have the Sorento's four- and six-cylinder engines replacing the 2.7- and 3.3-liter sixes currently on offer. None of the hard-point dimensions will change much, though, meaning the Santa Fe will remain slightly roomier than its Kia kin in the front seat, with the Sorento managing to eke out 1.9 inches more headroom in the third row to better accommodate those tall-torso/short-legged soccer teammates.
Our front-drive Sorento EX four-cylinder seemed eager to rev, making pleasing sounds along the way that trick the ear into thinking the car is quicker than its 9.6-second 0-60-mph time suggests. Shifts are smooth, gearing in the Kia-designed automatic is ideally spaced so the engine never falls too far out of its powerband when the hammer's down. That performance, however, places it right at the back of the pack among its target peer group, trailing both the front-driven Honda CR-V and Equinox by 0.4 second. The sprightly RAV4 four-banger is almost as quick as the Sorento V-6 -- both with all-wheel drive -- hitting the mile-a-minute mark in just 7.8 seconds. Kia's new Theta II inline-four produces an admirably high specific output (72 horsepower/liter), but our loaded EX burdened it with the worst weight-to-power ratio in the competitive set.