Also similar to last year's model, but sporting a major engine revision is the Kia Sorento. The exterior gets some mild freshening, but the real improvement is the new 3.8L DOHC V-6 under the hood sporting 262 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque backed by a five-speed automatic transmission. There isn't an off-road package per se, but the good news is that the Kia retains body-on-frame construction and a real two-speed transfer case, with an Auto setting when in 4-Hi for use on the street. Rolling stock consists of P245/70R16 (29.5x9.6 inches) Michelin tires.
Not available in time for last year's FWOTY competition, the FJ Cruiser comes to this year's competition fighting to retain the crown won by its fullsize brother for 2006. Our FJ Cruiser test vehicle came equipped with the 239hp and 278-lb-ft of torque 4.0L DOHC V-6 and five-speed automatic. Ours also arrived with the rear locking differential, and P265/75R16 (31.6x10.4-inch) Dunlop tires, but curiously had running boards installed, instead of the readily available and functional factory rocker protection.
Day One of our weeklong marathon of testing began at our L.A. office where the gear was loaded up and the logbooks passed out to the team. After a brief meeting with the judges, we caravanned out to Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale, to perform our battery of acceleration and braking tests.
There were no records set in this year's testing, but the FJ Cruiser earned the acceleration honors, easily walking away from the field with a 0-60 time of only 8.86 seconds and a quarter-mile time of just 16.92 seconds @ 83.03 mph. Following close behind was the Kia Sorento with a time of 8.99 seconds to 60 mph and 17.11 seconds @ 83.49 mph in the quarter. Rounding out the test was the Wrangler Unlimited with a time of 13.08 seconds to 60 mph and the Hummer H3, eventually covering the quarter mile in 19.31 seconds @ 75.14 mph. Of interest, our improved 2007 H3 was slower to 60 mph and through the quarter (but with a higher trap speed) than our nearly identical 2006 model. We attributed this to a relatively green engine and gusty winds throughout our test.
During the braking test, the FJ once again surprised the judges with near sportscar-like stopping power, managing to haul itself down from 60 mph in only 123.67 feet, once again closely followed by the Kia, which did it in 129.68. Not surprisingly, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and Chevy Suburban used up the longest amount of real estate at 152.43 and 157.48 feet, respectively. Of note is the remarkable change in emergency braking from the TJ to the JK. Panic stops are now drama-free and no longer scarier than running into what you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Overall ImpressionsWith the dragstrip behind us, we headed out to the open road where we could get a feel for these vehicles, constantly swapping drivers for good back-to-back comparisons. Over the course of a week we covered more than 6,000 collective miles on just about every type of road we could find, ranging from arrow-straight blacktop to tight and twisty desert trails.
A common thread throughout the logbooks seemed to be the judges' surprise at the level of quality and refinement that has gone into the Jeeps. While the two-door still possesses a bit of the on-road dartiness that is inherent to past Wranglers, it is much improved. And while the extra wheelbase of the Unlimited eliminates it entirely, it is at the expense of steering precision and fun. The Unlimited just isn't as entertaining to drive as the two-door, as the 3.8L V-6 has its work cut out, especially in the heavy Rubicon hardtop/automatic configuration, but ride quality does improve and the Unlimited is worlds more functional in daily life than the two-door. Cargo volume is greatly improved in the Unlimited, but the two-door's flip-and-tumble rear seat works great and opens up a very nice-sized cargo area.