The Sorento moves from body-on-frame to unitized construction shared with its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Santa Fe. Beyond shedding 300-470 pounds in the process, the Sorento gains a more rigid core structure made of 70.4-percent high-strength steel. That solid foundation, plus a quicker steering ratio, a 2.0-inch-lower center of gravity, and a suspension revamp that jettisons control arms and a live rear axle in favor of front struts and a multilink IRS, imparts a more refined and confident character to the new Sorento's ride and handling whether you're cruising down the freeway or pushing the limit on some twisty back road.

Although the 2011 version continues to offer FWD and optional AWD configurations, the latter setup has lost its dual-range transfer case in deference to the great crossover cause. However, this more street-oriented full-time torque-on-demand package can transition from a 100/0-percent front/rear bias to a 50/50 split and features an Intelligent Lock Mode to help it master more challenging bits of on- and off-road rambling.

Final element in the rewritten Sorento formula is a wholesale change to its powertrain menu, which starts with the introduction a four-cylinder engine to the mix. This econo-oriented 172-horse version of Kia's Theta II 2.4-liter inline-four can be backed by a six-speed manual transmission or a new six-speed automatic. The pilot-built EX models we drove were fitted with a new Lambda II version of Kia's 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 273 horses, 11 more than the 3.8-liter six it replaces. This smooth and enthusiastic 3.5 comes only with the new autoshifter and is almost as fuel efficient as the I-4. However, its extra muscle boosts the Sorento's maximum towing capability from 2000 pounds to 3500.

The new Sorento should provide formidable competition for its prime rivals, which Kia sees as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4. Pricing is pegged in the $20,000-$25,000 range when the new Sorento does go on sale in January.

2011 Kia Sorento
Base price range $20,000-$25,000 (est)
Layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 5/7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engines 2.4L/172-hp/166 lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5L/277-hp/247 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Length x width x height 184.4 x 74.2 x 67.3 in
Curb weight 3550-4050 lb (est)
Max towing capacity 2000-3500 lb
0-60 mph 9.0-9.5 sec (est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 19-21/27-29 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.81-0.88 lb/mi
On sale in U.S. January 2010