A Toyota Prius cannot take six kids to Chuck E. Cheese. A Mini Cooper can barely carry a wheel of cheese. Sometimes you need more passenger or utility space than the usual fuel-sipping suspects provide -- sometimes you need an SUV. But which SUVs get the best fuel economy, and is it even possible for an SUV to be called a fuel-sipper?
Welcome to Fuel-Sipper Smackdown 3: SUV Edition. This isn't a typical comparison test, per se, as each of these vehicles is quite different in terms of size, engine type and price. The goal isn't necessarily to determine a winner, but to find out the real-world environments in which each vehicle succeeds at sipping (rather than gulping) fuel.
With summer and higher gas prices just around the corner, families are starting to think about buying a new SUV for that great American July road trip, but they'd also like to get the best fuel economy possible. Hopefully, the latest Fuel-Sipper Smackdown will provide some suggestions on how to satisfy both purchasing demands.
For a closer, more behind-the-scenes look at Fuel-Sipper Smackdown 3, check out the two videos above.
The most obvious selection was the SUV with the best EPA-estimated combined gas mileage: the 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid. Like the Prius, it features a full hybrid system that allows it to run for short bursts on electric power or in concert with a four-cylinder gasoline engine that shuts off when the vehicle comes to a stop. Boasting a similar powertrain concept is the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which also satisfied our need for a big, family-oriented SUV with three rows of seats to take those kids to Chuck E. Cheese. Although it's a hybrid, the Highlander actually achieves the lowest EPA highway number of the test.
There have been several diesel-powered luxury SUVs introduced recently, all of which hail from Germany. We thought including one of these was a must and opted for the model that achieved the highest estimated EPA fuel economy: the 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d. Packing a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque, the X5 promised ample performance while at the same time sipping fuel relative to other big, luxury SUVs. It's also available with a third row.
You don't have to buy a hybrid or a diesel to get good fuel economy, however. The GMC Terrain gets the best EPA-estimated combined fuel economy of any regular gasoline-engined SUV (along with its twin, the Chevrolet Equinox, and the unrelated Hyundai Tucson). The Terrain's EPA-estimated highway fuel economy of 32 mpg is indeed better than the frugal Escape Hybrid's.
Finally, there is the 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI. Yes, we realize it isn't an SUV, but the Jetta SportWagen represents an alternative to one. Not only does the TDI boast much better EPA-estimated fuel economy figures, but it has more cargo space than both the Escape and Terrain. Perhaps you don't need an SUV after all.
The Driving Route
As we've done in the previous Fuel-Sipper Smackdowns, each SUV followed exactly the same test route broken into three driving portions. The first was the rural highway portion (with speeds between 50 and 65 mph), which took us from San Bernardino, California, to Las Vegas via the Mojave Desert and Death Valley. This is also a good test of how well each vehicle handles steep grades, as fuel-sippers tend to be underpowered. The second portion was a 183-mile city/suburban driving loop, or nine-plus hours of tediously wandering around the greater Las Vegas area, which is a good analogy for typical American suburbia (as long as you steer clear of The Strip).
Our final portion was the 210-mile journey on Interstate 15 from Las Vegas back to San Bernardino. Sadly, a vicious wind storm greeted us on this portion, skewing our results considerably with stiff cross- and headwinds. It was as if we were conducting a fuel economy test at about 85 mph. As such, we've included our highway results, but portions 1 and 2 are more telling.
Before departure, each vehicle's tires were filled to manufacturer spec. Each car would be fueled by the same person at every fuel stop, and each car would return to the same pump in San Bernardino and Las Vegas. To prevent short fills or other irregularities, we waited several seconds after the pump "clicked off" its slowest setting for the fuel to settle before topping off to the next click. This is particularly important with diesel, which can foam up during filling. We jotted down the needed refueling data -- trip computer mileage, gallons used, price per gallon -- as well as the onboard fuel mileage readout to test the accuracy of these notoriously inaccurate gauges.
We would drive normally with traffic — no hypermiling, drafting or accelerating like the lead-footed gearheads we normally are. The Eco modes in the Terrain and Highlander Hybrid would be used to achieve the best fuel economy, while cruise control was utilized whenever possible to ensure a constant speed. Finally, all five drivers would rotate in and out of each vehicle to eliminate differences in driver technique.
The Country Highway Route
The SUV champ: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid with 32.4 mpg
2nd Place: 2010 GMC Terrain with 28.7 mpg
3rd Place: 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d with 27.7 mpg
4th Place: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with 25.8 mpg
The Alternative: 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI with 42.3 mpg
Despite the GMC Terrain coming in 2nd place among the SUVs, it was the first vehicle in our three Fuel-Sipper Smackdowns (14 cars total) not to meet or beat its highway fuel economy number in this testing portion. In fact, the Terrain didn't even come close to its 32-mpg estimate despite this 368-mile test route's lower highway speeds. Our guess is that its tall gearing, which is ideal for the EPA test, wasn't well suited for the steep hills of this driving portion. Of course, the GMC had to descend those hills as well, and all the other underpowered fuel-sippers that have tackled this same terrain didn't suffer like the Terrain.
As is typical for a diesel-powered vehicle, the X5 did better than its EPA numbers would suggest. Its ample torque also made it a champ in the steep grades around Death Valley -- while the gasoline-powered vehicles were huffing and puffing, the X5 barely seemed to notice. The diesel Jetta was also quite strong here, plus its best-in-group fuel economy proved that the SportWagen is the way to go if you value cheap fill-ups above an elevated driving position on lengthy freeway journeys.
The lilac-colored Highlander Hybrid proved to be the least green and also suffered from the worst range. With an estimated 38 miles to empty when we refueled in Las Vegas, the Highlander had editor Mark Takahashi nervously eyeing the DTE gauge and fretting over being stranded in the desert (Fuel-Sipper Smackdown rules: run out of gas and get left behind). By comparison, the Terrain had the second-worst remaining range at 128 miles and even the Smart Fortwo with its dinky 8.8-gallon fuel tank had 52 miles left during Fuel-Sipper 1.
The Champ, Period: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid with 40.9 mpg
2nd Place: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with 28.1 mpg
3rd Place: 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d with 22.6 mpg
4th Place: 2010 GMC Terrain with 21.5 mpg
The Alternative: 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI with 35.6 mpg
This was a shocker and in fact we ran the numbers three times just to be sure: The Escape Hybrid bettered its EPA city estimate by nearly 7 mpg. True, our city loop was obviously different from the EPA's and was certainly more suburban than urban, but that 40.9 mpg is a real number that could easily be achieved by someone living in typical suburbia. The VW Jetta SportWagen bested its city number by 5.6 mpg, while its nimble handling relative to the SUVs made it a favorite among our editors when maneuvering in tight traffic conditions and parking lots.
The Highlander Hybrid came in 2nd amongst the SUVs, proving that this vehicle makes sense if you'll be doing most of your driving around town. The X5 35d also did surprisingly well in this test.
On the other end of the spectrum, the GMC Terrain once again failed to meet its EPA estimates despite the rest of the competitors beating theirs. This time, we could field no hypothesis. Still, 21.5 mpg in the city from a big, comfortable vehicle with a gigantic backseat is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
The SUV Champ: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid with 26.7 mpg
2nd Place: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with 24.5 mpg
3rd Place: 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d with 24.3 mpg
4th Place: 2010 GMC Terrain with 22.7 mpg
The Alternative: 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI with 39.3 mpg
As mentioned before, this driving portion could more accurately be described as Operation: Desert Storm. The stiff cross- and headwinds, in addition to the route's many inclines, severely hampered our results. Those vehicles with small, underpowered gasoline engines (the Escape and especially the Terrain) were at a definite disadvantage. The other, more powerful entries didn't fare as poorly relative to their EPA numbers.
The Jetta TDI was the big fibber this time around, with its onboard trip computer saying its fuel economy was 5.7 percent better than it actually was. The Jetta's trip meter also showed that we traveled more miles than we actually did. The Escape Hybrid, on the other hand, was essentially accurate and the GMC Terrain was actually 1.1 mpg better than its in-car gauge said it was — so at least there's that.
The Final Cost
The SUV Champ: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid used $69.86 worth of regular gasoline at 32.1 mpg ($45.04 at 34.8 mpg without final highway leg)
2nd Place: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid used $86.12 worth of regular gasoline at 25.9 mpg ($59.01 at 26.4 mpg)
3rd Place: 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d used $87.58 worth of diesel at 25.4 mpg ($62 at 25.9 mpg)
4th Place: 2010 GMC Terrain used $89.94 worth of regular gasoline at 24.9 mpg ($60.68 at 25.8 mpg)
The Alternative: 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI used $56.22 worth of diesel at 39.7 mpg ($40.19 at 40.3 mpg)
The final fuel cost is highly dependent on the fluctuating prices of gasoline and diesel. At the time of this test, diesel was about 1 cent more expensive than 87 octane gasoline. However, three years ago when we did Fuel-Sipper Smackdown 1, there was a 50-cent difference.
Because of the gusty final highway journey, we've included the total cost and miles per gallon after the desert and city portions of the trip. While the mpg rankings remained the same, the price difference in diesel made the BMW slightly more expensive to fill than the GMC.
The CO2 Impact
The Champ: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid with 0.78 pound per mile or 0.30 total tons
2nd Place: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with 0.97 pound per mile or 0.37 total tons
3rd Place: 2010 GMC Terrain with 1.01 pound per mile or 0.38 total tons
4th Place: 2010 BMW X5 xDrive35d with 1.1 pound per mile or 0.42 total tons
The Alternative: 2010 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI with 0.71 pound per mile or 0.27 total tons
For those purchasing a fuel-sipper because you're concerned about limiting your contribution to global warming, this is the section to consider. Obviously, burning less fuel equates to less CO2 pumped into the atmosphere, but gasoline and diesel emit different types and amounts of greenhouse gases. This explains why the Terrain emits less than the X5, despite the BMW getting better fuel economy during the course of the test. For those keeping score at home, the best SUV in this test still emitted more than every previous Fuel-Sipper Smackdown contestant.
The 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid did nothing to escape its title as most fuel-efficient SUV sold in the United States. Its staggering city/suburban performance was certainly the surprise of this test, as it was actually better than the performance turned in by the Ford Fusion Hybrid last year. Its overall tally was almost on par with the Mini Cooper. Unfortunately, the Escape Hybrid suffers from a lawnmowerlike drone when its gas engine kicks in and its 10-year-old underpinnings make it feel like an antique next to the thoroughly modern Terrain. Hybrid powertrain aside, the Escape is quite simply behind the times.
The 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid turned in good fuel economy around town, but its less-than-impressive fuel economy and limited range on the low-speed highway portion make it questionable if you take a lot of road trips. Given our tester's shocking cost of $48,180, we had to wonder why you'd ever buy one instead of the bigger and well-rounded Ford Flex, which turns in an EPA-estimated 24 mpg highway.
The X5 xDrive35d showed that a diesel engine is a perfect fit for a big luxury SUV. With 425 lb-ft of torque, the X5 accelerates with the type of gusto you'd expect from a BMW, yet it returned the same or better fuel economy as a four-cylinder-powered compact SUV. We'd like to see more diesel engines offered in SUVs of all sizes and price ranges.
As we've mentioned already, the GMC Terrain failed to meet its EPA mileage estimates in a test where all other vehicles have historically met or exceeded them. We're still big fans of the Terrain, as its enormous backseat, classy interior and well-sorted ride make it one of the most appealing entries in the small-SUV class. Just don't expect to get those lofty EPA mileage estimates.
And finally, our SUV alternative, the VW Jetta SportWagen TDI. While the Escape beat it in the city, the Jetta's superior highway performance made it the overall champ. We know there is a stigma associated with wagons, but if you can ignore that, the Jetta's huge cargo area, reasonably generous passenger accommodations and interior quality that bested all but the $57,000 BMW make it an easily recommended fuel-sipper.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.