2002 Midsize SUVs Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2002 Nissan Pathfinder SUV

(3.5L V6 4-speed Automatic)

  • Comparison Test
  • Editors' Evaluations
  • Data and Charts
  • Top 10 Features
  • Consumer Commentary
  • Final Rankings and Scoring Explanation

Hard to believe, but it's been almost 20 years since the introduction of the SUV as we now know it (remember the S-10 Blazer?). But unlike the pint-size two-door that started it all, today's sport-utes boast V8 engines, room for seven, top-of-the-line safety systems — even DVD entertainment systems. Despite their much-maligned reputation as road hogs and gas guzzlers, they're as popular as ever, and they have the sales numbers to prove it.

Nearly every major manufacturer produces some form of sport-utility vehicle, from the smallest mini-utes right on up to the gargantuan Hummer, but the midsize four-doors remain the out-and-out sales leaders by a wide margin. Their blend of size, power and safety has turned them into the family vehicle of the 21st century, but with so many different models to choose from, it can be a nightmare trying to decide which vehicle is just the right one for your particular needs.

We conducted an extensive eight-vehicle comparison test just two years ago, with the Nissan Pathfinder coming out on top. But with several strong new challengers now available, we considered it high time for another sport-ute showdown to see just how well the newcomers compete. Despite the introduction of numerous new crossover sport-utility vehicles, we stuck with more traditional midsize SUVs that offer dual-range transfer cases and real off-road ability.

There would be only five competitors this time. The Nissan Pathfinder comes in virtually unchanged from the previous test, as it was a freshly updated model at that time. Ford's Explorer and Chevrolet's TrailBlazer are both all new for 2002, so they were obvious choices. Mitsubishi released its completely revamped Montero in 2001, so it got the nod as well. We rounded out our fivesome with the Dodge Durango. It hasn't undergone a full redesign since the last test, but numerous upgrades and a strong second place finish the last time around made it a logical choice.

To conduct our evaluations, we trekked out to scenic Sedona, Ariz., a trip that included long stretches of highway, snow-covered mountain trails and mud-caked fire roads. When it was all said and done, we tallied up the scores and declared a winner. So if you want to know what we think is the best midsize SUV currently on the market, just keep on clicking and we'll tell you everything you need to know.

Fifth Place - 2002 Mitsubishi Montero

How can a relatively new vehicle come in fifth behind a couple of oldies like the Durango and the Pathfinder? Chalk it up to an anemic six-cylinder engine and poor handling.

With the lowest-horsepower engine (200 hp) and the highest curb weight (4,735 pounds), the Montero's lackluster performance was hardly a surprise. It finished last in every category of our performance testing, and subsequent test drives only reinforced what the track numbers already proved. There's a decent push off the line, but from there on out the Montero struggles. Passing and merging on the highway is a chore, and although the Montero is rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds, we shudder to think how slow it would be saddled with that much additional weight.

This is the same Montero that was deemed unsafe by Consumer Reports after it repeatedly threatened to tip over while negotiating their standard accident-avoidance maneuver. It never felt that dangerous to us, but a few lifted tires during slalom testing indicated that the Montero could use a wider track to help keep it glued to the pavement. Less evasive maneuvers are handled easily enough, but the Montero's excessive body roll doesn't inspire much confidence in the corners. Crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) resulted in an overall "Acceptable" rating, their second highest.

The suspension delivers an acceptable level of comfort when cruising on the highway, but our off-road excursions revealed a setup far less comfortable than some of the more softly sprung vehicles in the test. Road feel is one thing, but harsh impacts over every nook and cranny begin to take their toll after a while, and more than one editor complained about the Montero's stiff ride.

Previous tests of the Montero proved it to be one of the most capable off-road machines around, and our experiences during this test were no different. The Montero plowed through the mud and snow with ease, and even rigorous rock crawling failed to expose any deficiencies. The lack of a fully automatic four-wheel-drive system cost it some points in the features category, but if true off-road ability is a major factor in your SUV-buying equation, take a close look at the Montero.

Chewing on dirt roads wasn't the only time the Montero impressed us. The big Mitsu earned top scores in the interior design and materials categories. The gauges are clear, the controls are logically arranged, and dashboard clutter is kept to a minimum. The thick wood-trimmed steering wheel feels great in your hands, and the optional automatic climate control system is simple and effective. High-quality plastics and plenty of soft touch surfaces give the Montero an upscale appearance that none of the other trucks in the test could match.

The view forward from the driver seat is outstanding, and the supremely comfortable front seats were rated best in the test. A large center console and dual gloveboxes provide ample storage space, although a loose-fitting lid rattled incessantly over off-road sections. Nearly every editor commented on the size of the gigantic sunroof, calling it out as one of the Montero's most likable features.

Passenger room in the rear is adequate, but the seats are far less accommodating than their front-row counterparts. Third-row occupants get even less room, and the hard bench seat is not something we would want to sit on for more than a short trip.

With just over 91 cubic feet of cargo space, the Montero has the largest cargo hold of any truck in the test. Most of the credit goes to the disappearing third-row seat that folds completely into the floor, leaving a perfectly flat cargo area. The large swinging tailgate affords easy access, but we would prefer that it opened to the curbside for easier loading. The Montero was also one of the few vehicles in the test that didn't have a separate glass hatch to allow access to the rear without having to open the tailgate itself.

Consider the Montero a sport-utility vehicle in the more traditional sense. It's not fast, it doesn't handle like a car, and if you want four-wheel drive, you have to pull a big lever instead of turning a switch. This might appeal to some buyers, but most would prefer a more refined package. And at $37,557 fully loaded, it's not cheap either. Throw in a V8, retune the suspension, and add a few items to the options list and the Montero would be a much more competitive vehicle.

SECOND OPINIONS

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
For this truck, Mitsubishi's slogan should be "drive and fall asleep," as the engine's lack of mid- and upper-range poke may have you thinking the V6 is ready for a nap. Around town, the Montero accelerates with verve, giving the impression that there's plenty of power at hand. But call for some steam at speeds above 40 mph and you best be patient (and plan passing maneuvers carefully), as the acceleration curve drops off steeply and the engine makes more noise than forward progress. When it eventually gets up to freeway speeds, the Montero settles down quietly in cruise mode, even at 75 mph.

The transmission does its best, delivering creamy upshifts under full throttle without fail and stepping down a gear or two smartly when needed. Like acceleration, slowing down is also an exercise in frustration, as the brakes are non-linear in action. The first inch or so of pedal travel does nothing, and then, the brakes take hold, making for a jerky experience until I adapted to this idiosyncrasy. Off-road, the Montero felt capable as far as suspension articulation and traction were concerned, but I felt like I was flogging the engine to keep pace with my cohorts.

On the upside, the Montero, for the most part, had the nicest cabin in the test. Rich-looking materials, tall windows, clear gauges and comfy front seats made the Mitsu's inner sanctum a nice place to be. Well, it would have been, except for the annoying rattle from the glovebox that underscored the cowl shake which cropped up when we traversed the bumpiest sections of our trail loop.

The Montero is not without its merits. But this truck is overshadowed in too many important areas for me to give it anything approaching a thumbs up.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
If you were traveling on a straight highway, already up to speed, and were ready to hit that cruise control button, you might think that there was no finer place to be than inside the Mitsubishi Montero. But then you mash on the throttle to pass a merging truck only to get a weak yet loud response (I had trouble passing an '86 Corolla, for crying out loud!), or you hear the incessant rattling of the less-than-perfectly assembled interior, and it soon loses its charm.

It has a few features that make it stand apart from the crowd, such as the large-opening sunroof, the goofy screen display with a compass and trip computer, a five-speed automanual transmission and relatively convincing woodgrain trim, but none of these seem very important if you're looking for a solid, planted SUV. Its high step-in was a pain to ford, and you can feel its tall center of gravity in turns. And the swing-out tailgate? Ugh. Plus, the ABS kicked in with excessive amounts of jarring, uneven pulses that gave little confidence to stop with bravura. I'd prefer this truck over the Chevy simply for its third-row seating and classy interior, but give me any of the other three over this one, please.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Here's what the Montero needs for success: a V8 engine, a longer wheelbase and a wider track. Why? Because what keeps me from recommending it is a dearth of power and top-heavy handling characteristics that fail to inspire confidence.

The cabin is beautifully trimmed, with high-quality leather, low gloss plastics and wood trim that emits a rosy glow in sunlight. It's definitely upscale in terms of ambience. The seating position is high; the greenhouse erect and airy — like a Land Rover. There's lots of space inside for five adults, though rear seat riders might be dissatisfied with the low bottom cushion. A third-row seat pops up out of the floor (with some difficulty, it is noted), but should be limited to children only. When the third-row seat is folded down, a gargantuan cargo space awaits whatever you wish to load through the side-opening rear door.

The Montero tracks straight and true even in stiff crosswinds; the steering is heavy, requiring virtually zero correction. The ride is stiff, but not uncomfortable, the brakes stout with good pedal feel. The downside is the truck's lack of power; the 3.5-liter V6 is taxed motivating the Montero's mass. And testing by some members of the media has shown that the Mitsubishi can become a handful when abruptly maneuvered.

I like the Montero. Like a Land Rover or Isuzu Trooper, it's a true truck, providing a uniquely entertaining driving experience. It also excels off-road, even if the interior shudders and rattles excessively. But given the way most people drive an SUV most of the time, I cannot recommend this top-heavy form of transport over the more stable, more powerful and more car-like entries from the competition.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Mitsubishi Montero

Ranking in stereo test: Tied for fourth (last)

System Score: 6.0

Components: This Infinity system begins with a 6.5-inch subwoofer along the rear side wall. The sub really aids in the overall sound of the system. It is complemented in the speaker department by a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass in the front doors, coupled to a pair of tweeters above. The tweeters are housed in their own enclosures, located between the side mirrors and the dash.

The radio design is cluttered, crammed into a small faceplate that crowds many of the features into too small of a space. Most of the buttons are too small, for instance, and many of the controls have little or no space between them. On the plus side, the radio has a large, ridged volume knob that is easy to find and use. Overall, though, the head unit lacks ergonomic feel and doesn't measure up to the other vehicles in this test. It includes 12 FM and six AM presets, a single-play CD, but lacks a cassette player. There are also no steering wheel controls in this system.

Performance: There's a thinness of sound in this system that we can't quite put our fingers on. It has many fine qualities, such as a thumping bass (thanks to the sub in back), but on certain kinds of music, it just doesn't sound quite right. For example, it shines on acoustic instrumental music (strings, guitar, piano), but is less impressive on rock and hip-hop. Some of this may have to do with the tweeters, which are poorly aimed and therefore don't produce that "sweet spot" you'd expect from a system of this caliber. Also, the amp sounds grainy and distorted on certain kinds of music, especially above two-thirds gain. Kind of a strange system, with some interesting qualities to recommend it, but not enough to entice us.

Best Feature: Rear subwoofer.

Worst Feature: Crowded faceplate; poorly aimed tweeters.

Conclusion: We marked off heavily for the poorly designed head unit and the mis-aimed tweeters. This is pretty rudimentary stuff, and Mitsubishi (or is it Infinity?) should have gotten it right. Competition is steep in this segment, and the other systems in this test stomped all over the Mits, especially in the ergonomics department. — Scott Memmer

Fourth Place - 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer

If there were an award for "Most Improved," it would surely go to the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Its predecessor finished seventh out of eight vehicles in our last sport-ute comparo, and although the TrailBlazer's fourth of five wouldn't seem like much of an improvement, fewer than two points separated it from the third-place Durango.

Every aspect of the vehicle has been enhanced. There's more power under the hood, more style on the outside and more passenger and cargo room inside. Ours came loaded with nearly every feature imaginable, but in the end, cheap-looking interior bits, an overly soft suspension and an engine that couldn't quite overcome the V8s kept it from finishing higher.

Only one engine is available in the TrailBlazer — a 4.2-liter inline six — but with 270 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, there's not much reason to have another. The TrailBlazer posted the best score in all three acceleration categories, while at the same time turning in the best mileage figure in the test at 16.3 mpg. Despite the top-notch track numbers, however, the TrailBlazer doesn't have the off-the-line pep of its V8-powered competitors. It's great for freeway on-ramps and highway passing, but stop-and-go driving reveals a lack of low-end grunt that kept it from earning unanimous praise.

The TrailBlazer's suspension is another mixed bag. It's ultra-soft tuning results in an extremely comfortable ride around town and on the highway. But push it hard into a corner, or take a bump too fast in the dirt, and the TrailBlazer's soft setup gets out of sorts quickly. Although it managed to outrun the Montero through the slalom course, it was far and away the most difficult to control at the limit. As much as we enjoyed its smooth ride, we couldn't help but knock off some points knowing that when the going gets rough, the TrailBlazer folds quickly under pressure.

It was no surprise that the Chevy was well liked off-road, as the suspension filtered out most of the rough stuff, and the BFGoodrich all-terrain tires dug in deep for excellent traction. The TrailBlazer features a standard Autotrac four-wheel-drive system that can be set to engage four-wheel drive automatically when slippage is detected at the rear wheels. It worked as advertised, but we did notice a slight delay between the time the rear wheels slipped and the front wheels engaged, causing the rear end to skitter sideways before the truck regained full traction.

The steering is vague on-center, and there's little feel for the road through the wheel. The brakes — while a huge improvement over the previous model's — still don't have the dialed-in, confident feel of the front runners in the test, posting the second longest distance of the five during testing. The standard four-speed automatic transmission delivers nearly flawless shifts with very little gear-hunting.

The front seats got low marks for their flat cushions and lack of side support. It was the only vehicle to offer a four-way power lumbar adjuster for the driver, but even that couldn't rescue the Chevy from the bottom of the seat comfort category. The rear seats aren't much better, but there's enough space for three adults, and the optional DVD entertainment system and satellite stereo and fan controls help make up for less than perfect seat comfort.

Cargo room has grown substantially compared to the previous TrailBlazer, but even with 81 cubic feet available, it still lags behind the competition. The TrailBlazer also lacks a third-row seat, but only because Chevrolet felt that it couldn't offer a usable seat within the space of the current platform. An extended-wheelbase model is set to debut in mid-2002, offering third-row seating and a more generous cargo area.

The TrailBlazer lost a lot of ground when it came time to assess interior design and materials. There's nothing inherently wrong with the way things are arranged, but the large gaps between the various panels don't make for an appealing look. The dark gray color of our test vehicle's interior certainly didn't help matters, but we've seen other colors and they're not much better. The panels themselves are made of cheap-looking plastics that would barely look acceptable in a $20,000 sedan, let alone a $36,000 sport-utility. We were pleasantly surprised with the TrailBlazer's overall build quality, as none of the panels squeaked or rattled and none could be easily pulled off, a welcome change from the TrailBlazer in our last comparison test.

Although it didn't score full points in our features category, our test vehicle was certainly well equipped. We appreciated the dual zone climate control system with its easy-to-use control knobs and numerous fan settings, as well as the auto up/down driver and passenger window switches. We also liked the multiple 12-volt outlets right in the dash and the three sizable cupholders in the center console. Our top-of-the-line LTZ model also came standard with the OnStar communications system, a visor-mounted voice recorder, and a comprehensive trip and engine computer.

Front and side airbags are standard on all TrailBlazer models, along with four-wheel antilock brakes and child safety locks for the rear doors. Crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) resulted in a "Marginal" rating, their second lowest.

Even with all these gadgets, however, the TrailBlazer didn't pull off any upsets. New and innovative features are nice, but we would prefer a more precisely tuned suspension that delivers a comfortable ride and solid handling. As good as the new engine is, it still doesn't offer the low-end torque of a V8. In typical GM fashion, the interior lacks design elegance and material quality, but at least the build quality has improved.

If you can put up with the unstable at-the-limit handling and don't mind the cabin aesthetics, the TrailBlazer is certainly a competent vehicle, but when there are even more competent vehicles for the same price or less, it's hard to recommend the TrailBlazer.

SECOND OPINIONS

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
In spite of being a "clean-sheet" redesign, the TrailBlazer was not well-rounded nor refined enough to place high on my list. Hopping in and sitting down brought out two immediate gripes. Getting into the back seat is hindered by the narrow footwells. And the front and rear seats have bottom cushions that are too flat and offer little under-thigh support. Once underway, I was put off by the lifeless steering that had too much play off center. And when we hit the snow and the automatic four-wheel-drive system was called into action, there was a noticeable delay (and some slipping) before the system kicked in.

Although build quality was generally good, there were still a few weak points, such as a flimsy tailgate pull-down handle that doesn't look long for this world.

Make no mistake, there's still a lot to like here: the powerful inline six, the typically seamless performance of the automatic transmission and the suspension that delivered on-road comfort without being too cushy for off-road work. And the TrailBlazer had a number of neat features, including a DVD player and four-way power lumbar support for the driver seat.

Overall, the TrailBlazer strikes me as basically a good truck that needs some tweaking to bring it near the head of the class.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
While the Chevy TrailBlazer represents a vast improvement over the previous-generation Blazer, which practically croaked in the hands of our temperamental editors, I still don't think it has what it takes to outclass most of its competitors. Our expensively outfitted LTZ model elicited adolescent cries of "Cool!" as we enjoyed the rear seat DVD player on the day we were rained out at our testing facility, but having to actually drive the truck was more of a drudge than not. When we were choosing the SUV to make the lengthy trek home from Sedona, the TrailBlazer was only begrudgingly taken by the editor who didn't have the foresight to "call" another one. While its squishy suspension was a boon on washboard dirt roads, it was a liability on regular asphalt, especially when asked to handle a twisty mountainous two-lane highway. And the engine certainly didn't feel like the most powerful in the class, even when taking the high elevation into account. The Chevy was my least favorite in our previous test, and I'm sorry to say, even this improved version still is.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
I can see why people will buy the TrailBlazer. Under normal driving conditions, both on the pavement and off, it rides beautifully, soaking up bumps, ruts and washboard roads with uncanny aplomb. The powerful inline six under the hood produces smooth power, which gets delivered to the rear or all four wheels via a four-mode four-wheel-drive system. The brakes feel great underfoot, with good pedal feel and response. It's got a tight turning circle and provides decent comfort on large, wide front seats.

In addition to the appealing way the TrailBlazer drives under normal conditions, a fully loaded version like our LTZ test truck offers a wide range of features, from automatic dual-zone climate control and a DVD entertainment system to OnStar communications and leather upholstery. Plus, it looks great, with stylish 17-inch aluminum wheels, two-tone paint and a rugged, no-nonsense design. Notably, it's even assembled with greater care than most recent GM products I've sampled, emitting few rattles and squeaks over rough, washboard roads and refusing to relinquish interior trim pieces to prying hands.

Still, it leaves me cold. There's a skittish handling dynamic to the Chevy that makes me distrustful. It feels loose, soggy and unresponsive under demanding conditions. During the drive to Arizona, stiff crosswinds buffeted the TrailBlazer, tossing it from side to side in the lane. On packed snow, the AutoTrac 4WD exhibited enough delay to allow the tail to slide out of the ruts and into the soft powder along the edge of the trail. On the test track and twisting two-lane roads, the Chevy exhibited the same disconcerting, tail-happy handling in the slalom that we've noticed on its corporate cousins, the GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile Bravada. The steering is numb, light and slow, spelling dissatisfaction given the funky handling. Additionally, the cabin is claustrophobic; the dash filled with wide gaps and cut lines, and the rear seat still isn't roomy enough for optimum comfort.

With a reworked suspension and a smidge more interior room, the Chevy could be a contender. But as it stands, it serves well only those who refuse to buy anything other than a General Motors product.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer

Ranking in stereo test: Tied for first

System Score: 9.0

Components: The Bose system in this Chevy TrailBlazer is very similar to the Bose system we listened to several months back in the GMC Envoy, one that earned a solid 8.0. We liked this one even better. In fact, we've given it a score tying it with the Nissan Pathfinder for first place in this test. Both systems have their weak points, but luckily sound is not one of them: Each one sounds great. In fact, as far as stereos go, we'd be happy with any one of the five systems from this test. Clearly, though, the Nissan Pathfinder and the Chevy TrailBlazer are the two best. Let's look at particulars.

The system in the 2002 Chevy TrailBlazer begins with an excellent array of speakers. Although this system lacks a subwoofer, it actually sounds better than several of the vehicles in this test that have subs. The rear doors house a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers, which utilize the door cavities to produce surprisingly deep bass. The front doors do likewise, with a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers rolled off to tweeters above. The tweeters are the real piece de resistance in this system — a pair of dash-mounted, upward-firing high-frequency drivers perfectly positioned in the corners of the dash. These fire upward into the windshield glass, reflecting into the cabin and producing an impressive soundstage.

Electronics are a little more problematic in the TrailBlazer. Depending on your taste, the head unit is either God's greatest gift to technology or a mish-mash of bells and whistles. Put it this way: If you're the type of person who likes widgets, this is your cup of tea; if not, keep shopping. The head unit offers a full array of features and programming buttons, such as a single-disc CD player, CD repeat, random, song list, auto eq, auto volume, the list goes on. It does have a great ergonomic feel, with round rubberized knobs for both tuning and volume, but since half of the American population still has its VCR blinking "12:00, 12:00, 12:00," perhaps this head unit is a bit much for the average consumer. The system also offers steering wheel controls that operate volume up/down, mode and seek/scan.

Performance: Powered by 275 watts of healthy Bose power, this system really cranks. Unlike our listening tests in the Envoy, this same system in the TrailBlazer struck us as more balanced. Highlights include a great thumping bass, detailed and intricate mids, and superb attack on percussion. Then, of course, you have the upward-firing tweeters, which manifest excellent sound staging throughout the upper register. And considering the fact that this system doesn't contain a subwoofer, it really thumps out the bass.

Best Feature: Upward-firing, dash-mounted tweeters.

Worst Feature:
Overly complex head unit — too many features for the technologically impaired (which includes this reviewer).

Conclusion: This is a great-sounding system. It's a coin toss between the TrailBlazer and the Pathfinder. If you like cutting-edge technology with loads of features, roll with the TrailBlazer. For the more traditional approach, choose the Pathfinder. — Scott Memmer

Video Evaluation - 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer

System Score: 10

Components: Although this was the only vehicle in the test that came with a factory-installed video entertainment system, most SUV manufacturers in this price range now offer some form of in-car video. See our vehicle detail pages and look under options for the SUV of your choice.

This DVD-based system comes complete with a DVD player, two pairs of wireless headphones, a wireless remote control, an LCD video screen and two sets of controls. The dual controls operate the audio portion of the video system, which can be listened to either through the supplied wireless headphones or the audio system. When in the headphone mode, the other occupants of the vehicle can operate the audio system independent of the video system.

The DVD player gives a crisp and vibrant video image, which is displayed on a 6.8-inch LCD screen that folds down from the ceiling. As recently as six months ago, GM was still installing VHS players in its video systems, so it's great to see them stay with the times and switch to DVD.

Performance: You really couldn't ask for much more. The audio and video work together seamlessly. Having a wireless remote control handy makes it a snap.

Best Feature: DVD replaces the old, clunky VHS format.

Worst Feature: No apparent weaknesses.

Conclusion: If you're looking for an SUV with a factory-installed video entertainment system, this is definitely one to consider. We were very impressed. — Scott Memmer

Third Place - 2002 Dodge Durango

After its strong second-place finish in our last comparison, it wasn't much of a surprise when the Durango once again came in just behind the Pathfinder in the final scoring. There wasn't much we didn't like about the Durango. It has a well-tuned soft-ride suspension, room for seven and class-leading V8 power, but when we factored in its lofty price and awful mileage figures, the Durango fell far enough to land in third place.

Although it debuted almost five years ago, the Durango's rugged good looks have held up well. Our test truck was a top-of-the-line SLT Plus model with the optional 5.9-liter V8, oversize off-road tires and a host of other options that pushed the price to just under $38,000. Items like skid plates and a trailer package are understandable enough, but we were a little surprised to see four-wheel antilock brakes listed as a $500 option.

The big V8 promised performance with 245 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque, but our test numbers told another story. The Durango finished fourth in nearly every category, beating out only the lowly Montero to stay out of last place. It did post the second-shortest braking distance from 60 to 0, and it was the second fastest through the slalom. The Durango also boasts the highest maximum tow rating at 7,300 pounds.

Around town, the big V8 delivers loads of smooth, quiet power that makes it a joy to drive. With a strong off-the-line tug and plenty of midrange power, the Durango feels faster than the test numbers suggest. The transmission is nearly perfect, delivering quick, smooth shifts time after time.

Then there's the mileage. On a relatively flat run from Los Angeles to Phoenix, with the cruise control set at 70 mph nearly the entire time, the Durango barely returned 12 miles to the gallon according to the onboard trip computer. Our actual as-tested mileage for the week eventually came out to just over 13 mpg, but that was still the lowest out of the five. Unless you absolutely have to have maximum torque for towing, stick with the standard 4.7-liter V8. It's equally smooth, feels almost as powerful and should return somewhat more respectable mileage. In fact, the Durango in our last comparison test was equipped with this engine and it finished second out of eight vehicles.

The Durango earned top marks for its well sorted suspension. Unlike the TrailBlazer's overly soft setup, the Durango has a nearly perfect blend of ride comfort and body control. On the road, it's confident through the turns with little body roll. Offroad, the Durango soaks up washboard terrain with ease, never feeling as though it's on the verge of bottoming out or losing its grip. The steering is nicely weighted, but it doesn't have the direct, almost car-like feel of the Pathfinder.

Our Durango came equipped with the optional full-time four-wheel-drive system. A dash-mounted dial allows drivers to lock the center differential for added traction as well as select low-range gearing for more precise slow-speed maneuvering. The burly tires dug in so well that we rarely called upon anything more than the standard setting. If rough weather performance is less of a concern, we would choose the standard part-time system that offers the same capability without the added mileage drain of powering all four wheels all the time.

Interior comfort is another of the Durango's strong suits. The power adjustable driver and passenger seats offer a good range of adjustment and solid lateral and thigh bolstering. Visibility is excellent, with large side mirrors helping to erase blind spots. Rear seat accommodations are characterized by massive head room, average shoulder space and cramped footwells. The Durango's third-row seat is livable for short trips, but the Explorer's is better.

Updated just last year, the Durango's interior design is neither stylish nor exceedingly dull. One editor called it "function over form" while another merely thought it looked "unsophisticated." Fake wood trim attempts to jazz things up a little, but it's not enough to make up for the grainy plastics throughout the rest of the interior. The climate controls are simple enough, but the radio takes some getting used to, and there's no in-dash changer available.

One design element that we have always loved on Chrysler products is the placement of the satellite steering wheel controls. With multiple fingertip switches on the backside of the steering wheel, you can scan your favorite stations or adjust the volume without ever having to move your hands. We also liked the oversized adjustable cupholders that are perfectly placed and sufficiently sized for the just about any fast food cup or water bottle.

Cargo space has always been one of the Durango's strong points. There are 88 cubic feet available with both rows of seats folded flat, the second highest in the test. Folding the third row is a snap, and even the second-row seats tumble forward with relative ease. The liftgate opens easily, but not quite high enough to walk under if you're over 6 feet tall. There's also no lift glass, so carrying extra-long items is out of the question.

On the safety front, the Durango offers side curtain airbags that protect both the front and second-row passengers during side-impact accidents. Crash testing by the NHTSA resulted in a four-star (out of five) rating for the both the driver and front passenger, while the IIHS gave the Durango an overall rating of "Acceptable" (second highest) in their frontal offset crash test.

With the 4.7-liter engine and a more carefully selected options sheet, the Durango might have overcome the Pathfinder to take second place. Considering that the Durango is well into its life cycle (it's scheduled for a full redesign in 2003), the fact that it remains so competitive is a testament to its inherent likeability.

If you don't mind the bland interior and can do without certain safety and convenience features, the Durango is a solid all-around performer that drives as good as its looks.

SECOND OPINIONS

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Going into the test, I imagined that the Durango would rank at the top of my personal faves list. I mean, I dig the Dakota Quad Cab (which shares many components with the Durango, ranging from powertrains to interior components) in terms of performance, ride and styling.

So what happened? The chief culprit for the Durango's fall from grace was the 5.9-liter V8. It didn't feel as powerful as I thought it should. Indeed, the smaller 4.7-liter V8 that powered that Dakota (and which is standard on this rig) felt stronger than the bigger mill, which is rated at 10 more horsepower and 40 more pound-feet of torque than the baby V8. Maybe I should cut the Durango some slack, as it weighs nearly 200 pounds more than the Dakota and we were conducting our test at higher elevations (ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level). But I won't, because all the other trucks in this test were faced with the same conditions, and I expected more thrust from a motor that was getting a frightening 11 mpg according to the Durango's trip computer.

Most of the other aspects of the Durango were endearing, however. The comfortable seating, the roomy cabin and a pleasing ride on paved and unpaved surfaces alike won points with me. In fact, on the offroad portion, this was my favorite truck, as it felt like it could go through anything without breaking a sweat.

For those who will be buying an SUV for the right reasons — that is, to tow things or get to remote places not found on your auto club map, this would be one of the top choices. But the reality is that most ute buyers will neither be pulling anything nor venturing into seriously rugged terrain, relegating the gas-guzzling Durango to mid-pack status in my book.


Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The Dodge Durango rates pretty high on the truck spectrum, in terms of fulfilling every requirement that a truck needs to possess to be fully functional. With a huge cargo area, nonpareil hauling ability thanks to the 5.9-liter V8 and talent to handily bash almost any type of road, if you're looking for a truck in the traditional sense of the word, this is the one to get.

Of course, along with "truckhood" comes other less appealing aspects, such as the ability to swallow vast amounts of unleaded with nary a thought to the environment, little to no road feel and cheapish interior bits. OK, that last part is just for American trucks. Yet, the Durango stills charms with its gentle giant status, its handsome fascia and remarkably agile handling abilities. Plus, we can't forget that this is the progenitor of the third-row seating area.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Despite its age, the Durango is the best all-arounder in this competition. With a long wheelbase and wide track, the truck feels stable and rock-solid on the highway, offering a surprisingly smooth and compliant ride. Off the pavement, its 31-inch tires and generous ground clearance give it an edge when the going gets rough. Inside, there's room for seven adults, or five and a good deal of cargo with the third-row seat stowed neatly beneath the rear floor.

The stump-pulling 5.9-liter V8 motivating our test vehicle isn't as satisfying as the standard 4.7-liter V8. It exists solely for those who need optimum towing ability and to swill fuel like Dean Martin did martinis. But the four-speed automatic transmission operates flawlessly, and the full-time four-wheel-drive system ensures that there isn't any wheel slip when sudden icy or muddy conditions are encountered. A small-diameter steering wheel makes the interior feel larger and creates the impression that the Durango is more nimble and maneuverable than it really is.

My biggest gripe stems from the interior design. It is simple and functional, two characteristics I appreciate in any vehicle. But the way things work is ergonomically inferior. Take the standard-issue Chrysler stereo design. With its glossy display panel, outdated slide-lever adjustments for bass and treble, uncomfortably ridged station preset buttons and irritating station preset procedure, it's in need of a drastic redesign. Ditto for the power window buttons. For those, Dodge should examine the Explorer to see how it's done. However, one stroke of brilliance is evident here: Chrysler's redundant stereo controls behind the steering wheel spokes are the best in the business.

The Durango is due for a redesign soon, but the existing package is still quite appealing. And it's the best-looking rig of the bunch.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Dodge Durango

Ranking in stereo test: Tied for fourth (last)

System Score: 6.0

Components: The Infinity system in the Dodge Durango begins with a standard Chrysler head unit. On the plus side, the radio boasts easy-to-use slide controls for bass and treble, as well as pop-out dials for balance and fade, plus a user-friendly topography; it also includes a cassette deck and a single-play CD. On the downside, the system lacks tonal flexibility and uses a funky two-stage radio presetting procedure that most of our editors find antiquated if not downright annoying.

Speakerwise, the Durango offers a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors coupled to a nicely positioned pair of Infinity tweeters above. The rear doors boast the identical setup, which is a nice little touch, since systems in this segment rarely offer tweeters in the rear doors. There is no subwoofer in this system.

Performance: All the vehicles in this test sound pretty good, but this is perhaps the least impressive of the lot. The system comes off as unimpressive and flat. In particular, horns are boxy and constrained, mids lack intricacy, and vocals are missing warmth and detail. The lower register sounds fairly full and rich, but highs are snakelike and brash. To make matters worse, the designers have trimmed costs by offering absolutely no volume limiting, meaning if you peg the volume knob (either intentionally or by accident) you risk blowing up your speakers. This is by far the worst amplifier design in the test.

Best Feature: Tweeters in rear doors.

Worst Feature: Poorly thought-out amplification stage.

Conclusion: It's kind of a toss-up between the Montero and the Durango for last place in this test. In a sense, they're mirror images of one another. The Durango offers a good radio with lousy sound, while the Montero gives you a poor radio with good sound. Your choice. One other thing we found disconcerting about both systems: According to our research, neither one offers a CD changer as an option, while the other three vehicles in this test make a six-disc changer available in various packages. — Scott Memmer

Second Place - 2002 Nissan Pathfinder

While the Dodge scored big for its truckish looks and offroad prowess, the Pathfinder brought home second place with its car-like ride, smooth V6 and reasonable sticker price. As the winner of our previous midsize sport-utility test, the Pathfinder already proved that it was a top-notch performer in all categories. The fact that it only slipped to second place against such a strong field of new contenders just reinforces the fact that it's a terrific all-around package.

Our last tester was a luxuriously appointed LE model, but this time, we went with the cheaper SE version. Coming in at just $30,987, the Pathfinder was over $5,000 less than the next cheapest truck in the test. With a price like that, you might think that we had a stripped-down low-budget model, but few complained when it was their turn to get behind the wheel.

The previous test was our first exposure to the Pathfinder's wonderfully smooth and powerful 3.5-liter V6. Now, two years later, this terrific engine still impresses with its broad powerband and refined operation. With 240 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque, it has plenty of oomph to go heads-up against the larger V8s of its competitors. Track-testing yielded midpack results in nearly all categories, with a solid 0-to-60 time of 8.4 seconds. A 60-to-0 braking distance of 129 feet put it within 4 feet of the top-ranked Explorer, and the Pathfinder tied with the Ford in the braking category of our subjective evaluation assessments.

The four-speed automatic transmission is as smooth and refined as the V6 engine, with little gear-hunting and crisp full-throttle upshifts. If there was one drawback to the Pathfinder's drivetrain, it would be the old-school floor-mounted shift lever used to engage four-wheel drive. It's relatively easy to move from one setting to the other, but to those unfamiliar with its operation, the fact that you're required to push down on the lever before it will move could prove frustrating.

Like the Durango, the Pathfinder's suspension is an excellent compromise between comfort and capability. Its on-road feel was most often described as "car-like," with good body control and a solid, balanced feel through the turns. Offroad, the Nissan wasn't quite as playful as the Dodge, but the stiff unibody construction and generous wheel travel allowed it to filter out most bumps without bottoming out. Road feel is excellent on the road and off, with a good hefty feel to the steering and a progressive action that earned it the top score out of the five trucks.

After the long haul to Arizona, one editor complained that the seats could use some work, as the manual lumbar adjustment was too high to be effective. Most others agreed, as the Nissan was one of the few vehicles in the test not to provide power adjustable seats, a consequence of its lower sticker price. Rear seat comfort has never been one of the Pathfinder's strong points. Three adults would feel cramped, as there is little in the way of foot or shoulder room. Rear-seat passengers are also likely to notice the Pathfinder's tendency to crash over bumps when fully loaded, not the most desirable trait when you're already squeezed in tight.

You might think that with such a cramped rear seat that the Pathfinder would be low on cargo capacity, as well, but lo and behold, the Nissan actually fares quite well in this department. It's 85 cubic feet of available space places it just behind the Durango. The seats fold easily, but they require removal of the headrests, and there's no space provided for their storage, as in the Mitsubishi.

What the Pathfinder lost in comfort, it made up for in design and overall material quality. Second only to the Mitsubishi on most editors' lists, the Pathfinder's high-quality plastics and sharp design give even the midline SE model an upscale look. There were a few mixed emotions regarding the strange cloth material that covered the seats and door panels, but everywhere else, the Nissan looked sharp.

The black-on-white gauges are easy to read regardless of the lighting conditions, and the three-dial climate control design is a model of simplicity. The stereo that included an in-dash CD changer also received top marks for its ease of use and excellent sound quality. Well placed satellite steering wheel controls make for easy tuning of the stereo and quick adjustment of the cruise control settings.

All Pathfinders come standard with second-generation front airbags for the driver and passenger, with seat-mounted side airbags optional. Crash testing by the IIHS resulted in a "Marginal" rating, their second lowest. But side impact crash tests by NHTSA gave the Pathfinder five out of five stars.

When all was said and done, the worst thing one editor could say about the Pathfinder was that it was boring. In some ways, this could be the ultimate compliment, as in the Pathfinder goes about its business with such efficiency that you hardly notice just how well it does things. This competence has never gone unnoticed by us, however, as the Pathfinder has won our Most Wanted midsize SUV award the past two years. If you're looking for an SUV that will dutifully substitute for a sedan, the Pathfinder is your best bet.

SECOND OPINIONS

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
This was my favorite, barely edging out the Explorer. For 95 percent of the people who buy an SUV and for 95 percent of the time that they drive it, this would be a good choice. A V6 that sports V8-like power delivers its healthy thrust in a smooth, unruffled manner, even when you boot it to pass dawdling vehicles on the freeway. And the tranny is quick to downshift when needed. The four-wheel-drive system did have the old-fashioned mechanical lever style of engagement, but really, is it much of a task to pull a lever rather than press a button? If automatic four-wheel drive is desired, it is available in the Pathfinder LE.

More than any of the others, the Pathfinder felt eager and nimble. The peppy engine, good sightlines, solid steering feel and manageable size made it the most enjoyable of all for me to drive. The brake pedal felt a little soft, but was easy to modulate and never left me feeling that I needed more stopping power. It became clear to me that the suspension is designed more for on-road comfort than offroad ability, as the Pathfinder wasn't as surefooted on our snow-strewn trail as some of the others. But I still had no problem getting through this more challenging section of our test loop, which resembled the streets back home in Massachusetts after a good Nor'easter.

When the test was over and I was faced with the 500-mile trek from Sedona to Los Angeles, I chose the Nissan, knowing this rig could gobble up blacktop at a speedy rate while delivering a smooth and comfy ride. Factor in the well-finished cabin with its intelligent and simple ergonomics, comfortable seats (I know, they didn't suit everyone, but they were fine for my 5-foot-5-inch 150-pound frame), excellent stereo and solid reputation for reliability, and you have an SUV that's easy to live with.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
In our previous SUV test, the Pathfinder took first place. Nearly everyone chose the Pathfinder as their premier pick. For what SUVs are primarily intended for, it excels. The Pathfinder's appeal is that it almost makes you forget that you're driving a truck, from its swift acceleration to its refined drivetrain. You don't miss a V8 or a five-speed; the engine and tranny hold their own against the Nissan's competitors.

No, it's not as capable offroad as some of the other trucks in the test; it managed to bottom-out pretty spectacularly several times during the offroad section. Plus, its four-wheel engagement is antiquated, with its "stop the truck, put it into neutral, push down on the lever" configuration, compared with the ease of use of the Ford, Chevy or Dodge's flick-of-a-switch operation. For those who don't plan on driving their vehicles rally-style, however, it's perfectly competent.

Being the most non-truck-oriented editor of the test, I find the Nissan the most appealing, with its almost docile demeanor, near-perfect interior ergonomics and a ride that doesn't make you feel like you made much of a compromise between an SUV and sedan. The Pathfinder probably won't win head over heels like it did the last time, because it lacks some key features like third-row seating and side curtain airbags that the newer trucks possess, but for my money, this is still the SUV I'd want.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
This is the SUV for people who'd really rather have cars. How so? From the driver seat, it feels like one, offering a low driving position, a quiet and lavishly appointed cabin, and peppy acceleration. It's easy to crawl into and out of, rides nicely on smooth pavement and exhibits about as much styling excitement as a Honda Accord.

The Pathfinder's strong suit is its refined 240-horsepower V6 engine, a strong argument against bothering with a V8 for power or an inline six for smoothness. Interior materials are also first-rate, constructed with care and precision, feeling like they belong in a luxury car and not a rugged SUV.

The Pathfinder is not a rugged SUV, no matter what its name suggests. It's too softly suspended for tough trails, its rear end excessively skittish on washboard roads. Our SE test truck came equipped with a transfer case lever in a day and age when push-button or automatic 4WD has become the norm. When encountering sharp bumps, the left front suspension "popped" alarmingly, inspiring little confidence in the Nissan's ability to stand up to abuse.

Furthermore, I don't find the Pathfinder to be comfortable. The front seatbacks are deeply dished, the bottom cushion mounted too close to the floor. The driving position is supine rather than erect, which never works to the driver's benefit. In back, there's precious little footroom, and the floor is uneven. Coupled with the poorly positioned rear seatbacks (despite a reclining feature), the Pathfinder is the least pleasurable vehicle in which to spend time.

What this truck, whose foundation and structure dates to 1996, offers consumers is decent crash test scores, proven reliability, quality construction, speedy acceleration and inoffensive styling. For those who'd really be better off in a less expensive, more fuel-efficient passenger car, the Pathfinder makes great sense.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Nissan Pathfinder

Ranking in stereo test: Tied for first

System Score: 9.0

Components: This Bose-branded system, which tied with the Bose system in the Chevy TrailBlazer for first place, includes a pair of 6-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, along with a pair of 6-inch mid-bass speakers in the lower portion of the front doors. The front speakers are rolled off to a pair of tweeters in the A-pillars. These tweeters are positioned higher than most, which may account for their excellent dispersion and sound pattern.

Electronically, this system boasts the same steering wheel functions that appear in the TrailBlazer: volume up/down, mode and seek/scan. The head unit includes an AM/FM cassette player with a six-disc CD changer built into the dash (this was an option in our SE test vehicle and is standard in the more expensive LE model), as well as a round, ridged volume knob for positive tactile feel and seek/scan buttons that are widely spaced and easy to use. Still, we found the radio difficult to use, for the following reasons: 1) The digital readout numbers are too small, and the display needs more contrast to be fully legible in daylight. 2) Presets have no gaps between them. 3) The faceplate is too "flat," and buttons are too small. 4) The radio needs to be higher in the dash, for safer use. In both the TrailBlazer and the Pathfinder, the head unit is the weakest link.

Performance: This system sounds awesome. Our listening notes state the following: "While not as loud as some, this system offers excellent sound. The power amp is clean and generous, and Nissan has wisely limited the gain control to reduce distortion. As a result, there is virtually no power amp clipping in this system, even at full gain." The A-pillar-mounted tweeters mentioned above perform admirably. They produce a rich, detailed treble response. Female vocals are intricate and complex, open and full. Bass response is measured and accurate, subtly present without being either overbearing or lost in the mix. Again, as in the TrailBlazer, this system contains no subwoofer, yet bass response is quite good.

Best Feature: Overall balanced sound.

Worst Feature: Low radio position, iffy ergonomics.

Conclusion: Nissan is one of those manufacturers that always seems to do a great job on its stereo systems. The Nissan Pathfinder is no exception. True, the stereo says "Bose" on the faceplate, and clearly this is a Bose design; still, someone at Nissan must allocate funds. In choosing between the TrailBlazer and the Pathfinder, look to the head unit. While both have their flaws, they're quite different in style and operation. — Scott Memmer

First Place - 2002 Ford Explorer

Out of the depths of tire scandals, recalls and a fifth place finish in our last comparison test, the all-new Explorer managed to emerge as our winner by almost 10 full points. Like its little brother, the Escape, the Explorer came out on top by posting consistently high scores in nearly every category. Its strong V8 engine returned excellent performance numbers, its functional and spacious interior won it praise in the evaluation section, and an extensive list of safety features snagged major points in the features section.

Completely redesigned for 2002, the Explorer now features an independent rear suspension for more precise handling and optional third-row seating that gives it seven-passenger capacity. An innovative new rollover protection system is the first of its kind in the class, providing additional protection in accidents severe enough to cause the vehicle to tip over.

Our test vehicle was a top-of-the-line Limited model that carried with it a top-of-the-line price tag. At $38,370, it was the most expensive vehicle in the test; although, like the Durango, a long list of optional add-ons added significantly to the bottom line.

Believe it or not, but it actually costs more to add a sunroof than it does to upgrade to the 4.6-liter V8 engine. Even here in sunny Southern California, we can barely understand that value equation, especially after experiencing the all-new engine. With its broad, flat powerband and impressive off-the-line torque, this new powerplant is infinitely better than the lackluster 5.0-liter V8 that it replaces. Comments ranged from "very refined" to "feels like more than 240 hp" to "best engine out of the five."

The Explorer posted excellent scores in every performance category, falling behind only the TrailBlazer's 270-hp six-cylinder when it came to acceleration. A braking distance of 125 feet was the shortest out of the five, and its speed of 59.2 mph through the slalom course was also the fastest of the group. The revised rear suspension makes the Explorer much more predictable and stable during evasive maneuvers, allowing it to be pushed with confidence.

Less enthusiastic driving revealed a good mix of ride quality and road-holding ability. Most drivers noted the Explorer's more substantial feel compared to the nimble and tossable Pathfinder. The steering is a tad heavy, but it also relates more road feel to the driver. This translated into a more jarring offroad experience that most, but again, the Explorer's solid suspension control made up for what it lacked in comfort.

The Control Trac four-wheel-drive system was one of the best combinations of all surface adaptability and traction. The vehicle is essentially in auto-4WD mode at all times, with 100 percent of the power directed to the rear wheels under perfect conditions. Should either of the rear wheels begin to slip, the Control Trac computer instantly redirects power to whichever wheels have the most traction.

During our offroad jaunts down snow-covered dirt roads, the system performed flawlessly. Full throttle starts yielded no perceptible delay between rear-wheel slip and front-wheel engagement, as was the case in the TrailBlazer.

For more serious offroad adventures, the 4-Hi and 4-Low settings automatically lock the front and rear driveshafts together for a 50/50 power split. Judging from how well the Explorer performed in Auto mode, however, we're guessing that it provides about as much capability as most people will ever need.

The cabin design and interior materials received mixed reviews. All the controls are neatly arranged, and the gauges are clear and readable, but like the Durango, it's function over form. The climate control console is a little low and gets washed out easily in direct sun, but there are satellite steering wheel controls that make adjustments easy.

The center console provides two good-sized cupholders and a nice storage tray, but it's constructed of a low-grade plastic that hardly looks like it belongs in a vehicle that costs almost $40,000. We also thought that the gray wood accents looked out of place against the tan dash plastics, and there isn't much in the way of soft-touch materials on the doors or the top of the center console where your arm rests.

The leather-covered seats provided solid support over the long haul, but their flat cushions and lack of contour kept them from earning top marks. Rear-seat comfort on the other hand was excellent, with plenty of legroom and firm support for the back. The Explorer's third-row seat was also the most comfortable out of the three trucks that offered this option, but it still is not suitable for adults during long trips.

Choosing the third-row option also reduces available cargo space. Seven-passenger Explorers max out at 81.3 cubic feet of cargo space, while five-passenger versions offer a more competitive 88 cubic feet. The folded seat also makes for a slightly sloped load floor, so if you value cargo-carrying capacity over people-moving ability, stick with the five-passenger version.

Since SUVs are as popular as minivans as a means of family transportation, safety is always a top priority. The Explorer was the only truck in the test with a reverse sensing system that detects obstacles directly behind the vehicle. It's also the only sport-utility to offer adjustable pedals; although, our test vehicle didn't include them. The Explorer's new rollover protection system consists of sensors that can detect an imminent rollover and automatically deploy the head curtain airbags to reduce injuries caused by passengers being thrown about the cabin.

Additional safety features include available AdvanceTrac stability control and the Ford Personal Safety system that combines dual-stage airbags, seatbelt detection sensors, seat position sensors and seatbelt pre-tensioners into one cohesive system to protect the driver and front-seat passenger during varying levels of crash severity.

Crash tests conducted by the NHTSA resulted in a four-star (out of five) rating for the driver and a five-star rating for the front passenger. The IIHS gave the Explorer a "Good" rating, their best, and named it a "best pick" for its overall crashworthiness.

So there you have it. The Explorer won the test by virtue of its powerful yet refined drivetrain, no-hassle four-wheel-drive system, spacious and functional interior, and comprehensive list of safety features that make it a sensible minivan alternative. It may not be the fastest or have the most elegant interior, but when it came down to choosing the one vehicle that we think represents the best all-around midsize sport-utility, the Explorer won hands down.

SECOND OPINIONS

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The Explorer gave the Pathfinder a run for its money. Two characteristics of the Nissan made me choose it over the Ford — a more nimble feel and virtually untarnished build quality and reliability records. That said, let me expound upon the Ford's many strengths.

In terms of powertrain, the Explorer was a smooth operator, with the V8 never sounding coarse or strained, and the automatic gearbox hard to trip up and seamless in action. At times, however, the tranny was a bit slow to downshift, not as quick on the draw as I would prefer. Ford did a really good job with the suspension, dialing in a nice ride without having the truck fall all over itself when put to the test, such as when we subjected it to a bumpy section off the beaten path. Back on the blacktop, I could sense some wallow when pushing it around some tight corners, but this is an SUV, not a sport sedan, so I didn't penalize it much.

What knocked my socks off the most was the roomy and well-executed interior. There is an amazing amount of space here, allowing seating for seven in this midsize SUV. On several occasions, such as when we all clambered into one vehicle to go for dinner, I'd ride in the third seat of the Explorer and didn't feel cramped at all. And even the taller editors who tried it agreed that it's not a penalty box. Credit the Explorer's independent rear end, whose space-efficient design allows a relatively deep footwell back there.

The latest useable advances in technology have made their way to the Explorer. One of my favorites is the reverse sensing system. This device makes parallel parking less stressful and also alerts one to the presence of an object (or small child) behind the truck when it is backing up.

Complaints are few. The climate control automatically kicks on the air conditioning compressor, even if it's 30 degrees outside, requiring the A/C button to be pressed to shut it off, and the power seat controls are awkward to use. But if that's all I can gripe about, then Ford evidently did something right with this new Explorer.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Ford really has studied what people want in an SUV and assembled it into a tight package that almost lives up to the "best-selling SUV in America" status. Heck, it almost deserves to be the mainstay of every mall parking lot in suburbia. With its myriad of safety features, an independent rear suspension and its third-row seating option, it should place high on shoppers' lists, and they will have little opposition from me.

Almost. Ford's V8, while a fine, worthwhile unit, lacks the fleetness and verve of the Pathfinder's V6 or the thrust of the Durango's V8. Plus, its power delivery is grainer than that of the Pathfinder, and doesn't let you forget that you're driving a truck. It also has several ergonomic problems that could be fixed with a few more refinements, such as severely misplaced seat adjustment controls and seat heaters, as well as the silly steering wheel controls that are overly complex, negating the reason they exist in the first place. The Explorer almost has it. For me, though, a non-truck person who doesn't need a V8 or third-row seat option, I'd still bet on the Pathfinder.

Senior Editor Chris Wardlaw says:
Since first driving the redesigned Ford Explorer over a year ago, I've been telling my colleagues that this is the benchmark in the class. This comparison test confirmed my assertion, at least for me. This is the truck I'd buy, and this is the truck I'd recommend. But that's because I rarely tow anything or travel off the pavement, and prioritize safety over all else in a family-type vehicle.

The Explorer feels the most stable near the limit, its optional V8 engine producing the best blend of oomph, refinement and fuel economy. On lumpy pavement and rutted dirt roads, the independent rear suspension keeps the truck planted to the ground, in noticeable contrast to other vehicles in the segment. The steering is responsive, with just the right compromise between heft and power assist. The brakes work well through a pedal that offers decent feel and modulation.

Sloppy conditions bring out the best in the Explorer. Control Trac is the name given to its automatic four-wheel-drive system, and its operation is nearly invisible to the driver, unlike the Chevy's Auto Trac setup. The only time we felt Control Trac diverting power fore and aft was when accelerating hard on partially wet tires (such as having driven through a stream of water in a gutter). Then a slight hesitation could be felt in the drivetrain as the wet portions of the tires slipped a bit on the pavement.

Inside there's room for seven adults, and the Explorer's third-row seat is the most comfortable of the group (the Montero and Durango are the only others with this indispensable feature). The cabin is open and airy, especially compared to the somewhat claustrophobic Chevy and Dodge, providing a feeling of spaciousness.

But perhaps the best reason to choose the Explorer is for the raft of safety equipment available to consumers. From the available head airbag and rollover protection system to the power adjustable pedals and reverse sensing system, the Ford fills the bill when it comes to protecting yourself and your loved ones.

Three items require improvement. First, on Eddie Bauer and Limited models, the stereo and climate control systems could use a reduction in terms of the number of buttons. Second, the jumble of controls on the sides of the power seats needs to be redesigned. The adjustor for the seat height and track travel never falls readily to hand, and there is absolutely no benefit to placing seat heater controls where they cannot be seen. Third, the door panels are awful. Not only do the graining and color fail to match the rest of the cabin, but the tops are hard plastic. I rest my elbow up there on long drives. Hard plastic is not conducive to comfort.

And someone needs to investigate the steering column vibration our truck exhibited at speeds of 70 to 85 mph. This is the second Explorer V8 4WD Limited in which we've noticed this, and it's irritating.

Otherwise, the Explorer ranks, in my opinion, as the best in the class.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Ford Explorer

Ranking in stereo test: Third

System Score: 7.0

Components: The 2002 Eddie Bauer and Limited Ford Explorer models come standard with an "audiophile" system rated at 290 watts. First, a little discussion of power ratings. Almost every car stereo manufacturer, from Alpine to Sony to Rockford Fosgate, plays with the numbers to make its gear appear, on paper at least, more powerful than the next guy's. This has now bled over into the automotive industry. When Ford states that the Explorer's audiophile system puts out "290 watts," there's a little fudge factor in there. This is most likely a peak power rating, roughly twice the continuous power rated output. It'd be like driving the new Explorer down a 20 percent grade doing 140 mph, then saying this is the "average" cruising speed. Not on your life. If this doesn't sound like a 290-watt system, it's because it isn't.

Not that we're picking on Ford. We're not. Most manufacturers play this game. But since our mission at Edmunds.com is to educate the consumer, we want you to know the story behind the power ratings.

This "audiophile" setup starts with a booming 8-inch subwoofer nestled in the cargo area. The rest of the speakers are full-range 5-by-7s in all four doors. The Ford engineers have done a very good job of elevating the door speakers so that, even without placing separate tweeters in the upper door panels or A-pillars, as you'll find many competing vehicles, the dispersion pattern is quite good. This truck presents a very respectable soundstage.

Electronics include a user-friendly head unit with 12 FM/6 AM presets, good spacing between the controls and an elevated dash position for easy and safe operation. Although the head unit lacks a cassette player, it boasts a built-in six-disc CD changer and lots of handy features like scan, shuffle play, mute and the like. In addition, there are steering wheel controls for adjusting volume, as well as scan and mode select. Similar to the Lincoln Blackwood's we recently reviewed, this system also offers a built-in Digital Signal Processing (DSP) unit.

Performance: Despite the addition of DSP and a subwoofer, this vehicle doesn't sound as good as some others in the test. We give it a 7. Sonically, its two best attributes include a thunderous bass response and excellent stereo imaging. On the down side, it has a hollowness in the midrange, and overall the system sounds boxy and muted. Another bummer: There's no volume limiting, so when you crank it up you get major distortion, which could ultimately lead to blown speakers. In addition, the tweeters get very grainy and hissy at higher volume levels. It's a fun system, but we're not sure we'd label it audiophile.

Best Feature: Separate subwoofer offers great bass response.

Worst Feature: Mediocre sound quality.

Conclusion: Despite our so-so score on this system, it has its charms. If you love to crank the bass, you'll enjoy this one. Clearly, though, the systems in the Pathfinder and TrailBlazer are a step or two above. This is somewhat disconcerting, since systems in Ford SUVs in the last year or two have done quite well in our comparison tests. It appears to us that Ford has cheapened its stereo offerings in its latest SUVs (while Ford vehicles in other segments, the Ford Focus, for instance, remain very competitive). — Scott Memmer

Conclusion

With so many SUVs on the market, and so many kinds of drivers buying them, it's hard to call one vehicle "the best." The Explorer won our test handily, but that doesn't mean it will suit your tastes perfectly.

The Mitsubishi may have finished last, but for those who can live without massive amounts of horsepower and a plush ride, the Montero is an appealing vehicle. Its ability offroad is second to none, and the well-trimmed interior is a fine place to spend time on the road.

A fourth place finish might not seem like much, but the TrailBlazer has come a long way. The engine is still no substitute for a V8, but it's a gem on the highway, and it will likely get better mileage than those eight-cylinder gas-guzzlers in the long run. And if you like gadgets, the TrailBlazer has more than enough to keep you busy for quite some time.

The Durango's third-place finish is pretty good considering that it's headed for a complete redesign next year. With plenty of cargo space, a soft-riding suspension and smooth-running powertrain, the Durango deserves a test drive if you're serious about a seven-passenger sport-utility.

Like we said in the review, the Pathfinder is best suited for those who want an SUV that's most like a car. A great engine, competent suspension and sharp interior all add up to a capable sport-utility that will rarely disappoint.

But there always has to be a winner, and picking the Explorer wasn't a tough decision. From a driver's point of view, the strong V8 delivers power when you need it, the Control Trac system puts that power to the ground as efficiently as possible, and the suspension always lets you know what's going on down below. As a family vehicle, it provides a spacious interior, comprehensive safety features and the best crash test ratings in the category. Throw in handsome styling, and it's easy to see why the Explorer is our pick as the best midsize SUV on the market.

Evaluation - Drive
Evaluation - Ride
Evaluation - Design
Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Evaluation - Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 8.4 1(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.4 1(t)
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.8 3(t)
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.8 3(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 4.2 5
Transmission
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.2 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 8.0 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.4 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.2 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.0 5
Braking
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 8.0 1(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.0 1(t)
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.2 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.8 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 4.8 5
Suspension
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 8.6 1
Ford Explorer Limited 8.0 2
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.8 3
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.4 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 5.6 5
Tires
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 7.6 1(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.6 1(t)
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.4 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.2 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.6 5
Steering
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.6 1
Ford Explorer Limited 7.6 2
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.4 3
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 5.4 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 4.6 5
Visibility
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.2 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.8 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.4 3
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 7.2 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.4 5
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.6 1
Ford Explorer Limited 7.0 2(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.0 2(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 5.4 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 4.2 5

Evaluation - Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 8.4 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 8.0 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.4 3
Nissan Pathfinder SE 6.8 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.0 5
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 7.0 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.4 2
Nissan Pathfinder SE 5.8 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 5.4 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 5.2 5
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 7.6 1
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.0 2(t)
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.0 2(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.4 4
Nissan Pathfinder SE 6.0 5
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 7.6 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.4 2(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.4 2(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 3.6 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ *  
* Due to the fact that the TrailBlazer was stuffed full of various test equipment throughout our test drive, we chose to remove this category from its scoring evaluation.

Evaluation - Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 8.6 1
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.0 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.2 3
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.6 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 4.2 5
Interior Materials
Vehicle Score Rank
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 8.6 1
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.4 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.2 3
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.0 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 4.6 5
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.6 1
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 8.0 2
Ford Explorer Limited 7.2 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.0 4
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.6 5
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.6 1
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.2 2(t)
Ford Explorer Limited 7.2 2(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 7.0 4
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 5.8 5
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 8.2 1
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 7.2 2
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.0 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.6 4(t)
Ford Explorer Limited 6.6 4(t)
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 9.2 1
Ford Explorer Limited 7.6 2(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.6 2(t)
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.2 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 5.6 5
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.2 1
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.0 2(t)
Ford Explorer Limited 7.0 2(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.0 4
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 5.6 5

Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Entry/Exit
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 7.4 1
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.2 2
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 6.8 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 6.4 4
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.0 5
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 8.0 1(t)
Ford Explorer Limited 8.0 1(t)
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.4 3(t)
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.4 3(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 6.2 5
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford Explorer Limited 8.0 1(t)
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 8.0 1(t)
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.4 3
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 7.2 4
Nissan Pathfinder SE 7.0 5
Cupholders
Vehicle Score Rank
Dodge Durango SLT Plus 8.8 1
Ford Explorer Limited 8.2 2
Mitsubishi Montero Limited 7.6 3
Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ 7.4 4
Nissan Pathfinder SE 6.6 5
Dimensions
Engine & Transmission Specifications
Performance
Warranty Information

Dimensions

Exterior Dimensions & Capacities
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Length, in. 191.8 193.5 189.5
Width, in. 74.6 71.3 72.1
Height, in. 74.5 72.0 71.9
Wheelbase, in. 113.0 116.2 113.7
Curb Weight, in. 4,600 4,726 4,339
Turning circle, ft. 36.4 37.4 36.7
Fuel Tank, gal. 18.7 25.0 22.5
Maximum Tow Rating 6,200 7,300 7,000
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Length, in. 189.2 182.7
Width, in. 73.9 71.7
Height, in. 73.1 70.9
Wheelbase, in. 109.7 106.3
Curb Weight, in. 4,735 4,131
Turning circle, ft. 37.4 37.4
Fuel Tank, gal. 23.8 21.1
Maximum Tow Rating 5,000 5,000
Interior Dimensions
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Front legroom, in. 44.6 41.9 43.9
Front headroom, in. 40.2 39.8 39.9
Front shoulder room, in. 58.5 57.6 59.1
Rear legroom, in. 37.1 35.4 37.2
Rear headroom, in. 39.6 40.3 38.9
Rear shoulder room, in. 58.5 57.9 58.9
Third Row headroom, in. N/A 37.7 39.0
Third Row legroom, in. N/A 30.7 34.8
Third Row shoulder room, in. N/A 56.5 52.4
Maximum Cargo Vol., cu. ft. 80.1 88.0 81.3 ( 88 w/o 3rd row)
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Front legroom, in. 42.3 41.7
Front headroom, in. 39.8 38.0
Front shoulder room, in. 58.5 56.6
Rear legroom, in. 35.2 31.8
Rear headroom, in. 38.0 37.0
Rear shoulder room, in. 57.5 56.4
Third Row headroom, in. 37.4 N/A
Third Row legroom, in. 25.2 N/A
Third Row shoulder room, in. 54.7 N/A
Maximum Cargo Vol., cu. ft. 91.7 85.0

Engine & Transmission Specifications

Engine & Transmission
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Engine Type 24-valve DOHC inline six 16-valve OHV V8 24-Valve SOHC V8
Displacement, liters 4.2 5.9 4.6
Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm 270 @ 6,000 245 @ 4,000 240 @ 4,750
Max. Torque, lb-ft @ rpm 275 @ 3,600 335 @ 3,200 280 @ 4,000
Transmission 4-speed automatic w/overdrive 5-speed automatic w/overdrive 5-speed automatic w/overdrive
Observed Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 16.3 13.2 15.3
EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 12/16 12/16 14/19
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Engine Type 24-Valve SOHC V6 24-Valve SOHC V6
Displacement, liters 3.5 3.5
Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm 200 @ 5,000 240 @ 6,000
Max. Torque, lb-ft @ rpm 235 @ 3,000 265 @ 3,200
Transmission 5-speed automatic w/overdrive 4-speed automatic w/overdrive
Observed Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 16.4 15.5
EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 13/18 15/19

Performance

Performance
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 8.1 9.2 8.3
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 16.1 17.1 16.3
Quarter-mile speed, mph 84.8 81.5 82.9
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 131 128 125
600-ft slalom, mph 54.7 56 59.2
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 11.6 8.4
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 18.3 16.4
Quarter-mile speed, mph 74.6 83.6
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 136 129
600-ft slalom, mph 53.2 54.4

Warranty

Warranty Information
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Basic Warranty 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles
Powertrain 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles
Roadside Assistance 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles
Corrosion Protection 6 yrs./ 100,000 miles 5 yrs./ 100,000 miles 5 yrs./ unlimited miles
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Basic Warranty 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles
Powertrain 5 yrs./ 60,000 miles 5 yrs./ 60,000 miles
Roadside Assistance 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles 3 yrs./ 36,000 miles
Corrosion Protection 7 yrs./ 100,000 miles 5 yrs./ unlimited miles

We asked the editors who participated in the test to pick the top 10 features that they would want if they were buying a midsize SUV. Any feature that was standard equipment on all five vehicles was thrown out. Points were awarded based on whether or not each feature was standard or optional, and whether or not our particular test vehicle was equipped with that feature.

Top 10 Features

Top 10 Features
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Adjustable roof rack S S S
Steering wheel controls S S S
In-dash CD changer O N/A O
Auto 4WD S O S
Rollover protection system N/A N/A O
Side airbags S O O
Third-row seat N/A S O
Reverse sensing sytem N/A N/A O
Trailer hitch S O O
Three-point center position seatbelt S N/A N/A
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Adjustable roof rack N/A S
Steering wheel controls N/A O
In-dash CD changer N/A O
Auto 4WD N/A N/A
Rollover protection system N/A N/A
Side airbags S O
Third-row seat S N/A
Reverse sensing sytem N/A N/A
Trailer hitch N/A O
Three-point center position seatbelt N/A N/A

Key:
S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

Adjustable roof rack: Most midsize SUVs are used as do-anything, go-anywhere family vehicles, therefore, the ability to stow extra cargo on the roof securely was considered essential. Only the Mitsubishi failed to provide some measure of adjustability to its rooftop cargo rails.

Satellite Steering Wheel Controls: These handy buttons allow drivers to adjust various climate, stereo and cruise control functions without ever have to take their hands off the wheel.

In-Dash CD Changer: In-dash CD changers allow you to load multiple discs without ever having to leave the driver seat — a real plus when you're traveling alone.

Auto 4WD: Automatic four-wheel-drive systems give drivers optimum traction without having to worry about when to shift into and out of four-wheel drive. Once selected, onboard computers detect wheel slippage and automatically send power to the wheels with the most grip.

Rollover Protection System: Only the Explorer offers this new safety feature. In the event of a severe crash, if onboard sensors detect that the vehicle is about to roll over, the head curtain airbags will automatically deploy and remain inflated 6 seconds after impact to protect occupants from injuries caused by movement within the cabin.

Side Airbags: Some vehicles provide seat-mounted units that only protect the driver and front passenger, while others employ head curtain airbags that protect both the driver, front passenger and second-row passengers in the event of a side-impact collision.

Third-row seat: They're typically cramped and uncomfortable, but when you need to get a coupla extra kids home from school, the extra passenger capacity of a third-row seat is invaluable.

Reverse sensing system: The Ford Explorer was the only vehicle in the test to offer this important safety feature. Sensors in the rear bumper alert the driver via an audible signal to the presence of children or objects directly behind the vehicle.

Trailer Hitch: All five vehicles in the test were rated to tow at least 5,000 pounds, so it's only fitting that they include a proper trailer hitch.

Three-point Center Position Seatbelt: Only the TrailBlazer included this important safety feature. If third-row seat passengers get full three-point belts, all three passengers in the second-row should, as well.

2002 Mitsubishi Montero

"The Monte handles very well off road. I've been in snow, ice, mud, sand, hills, you name it. The only complaint is that in the mud I could have used more aggressive tread. Boy, this thing is smooth on fire roads or any road for that matter. No breakdowns or repairs. The transmission is the best I have ever driven. Air conditioning works very well, 100+ degrees and the thing stays very cold. Seats are very comfortable on long trips (that was going to be my concern given my aging back). Headroom and space overall is fantastic, and everyone is comfortable front and rear." — brillmtb, "Mitsubishi Montero," #1080 of 1423, Aug. 9, 2001.

"We've had our new Montero two months now and have just returned from a 3,000+ mile family vacation with plenty of off-road driving. We have approximately 4,500 miles on it now and we just really love it. It seems to be a very well built vehicle. This truck is a keeper — I am not concerned about its resale value. We plan on keeping it a long, long time. We loaded it up with loads of camping gear and four people and it performed very nicely. Our new Monty got a bunch of head turning looks from many other SUV owners too, including Toyota Land Cruiser owners. This new Monty is a smooth, quiet, solid driving highway vehicle — and a very capable off-road vehicle too. We took it over several backcounty 4x4 roads and high mountain passes in Colorado and New Mexico and had plenty of power. It handled the rough and very narrow switchbacks on 12,600 foot Cinnamon Pass on the Alpine Loop with ease and very much comfort. The four wheel independent suspension makes for a very nice ride over rough terrain. Its turning radius is very impressive and much tighter than our Trooper. I can think of several improvements for off-road use, however. The first thing is better all-terrain tires. The stock Yokos did an adequate job, but I will have BF Goodrich A/T's on there for better traction when these Yokos wear out. For highway driving at an average of 72 mpg, we got anywhere from over 19 to nearly 22 mpg with a fresh change of Amsoil 5-30 synthetic oil. I don't know what is going on with the fuel tank for this truck, though. It seems to take different amounts of fuel to fill it at different times. Could the fuel tank be some sort of plastic or rubber that expands and contracts some due to temp or pressure? On a final note, although we really put this truck through the paces and got it really dirty, it looks just as good as new now after being washed and cleaned out." — rs_rogers, "Mitsubishi Montero," #1097 of 1423, Aug. 13, 2001.

"Cons: What's the deal with those hooks/latches that stick up in the rear storage area? Makes sliding stuff in difficult. My car seems to have a sticky gas pedal, as it's difficult to accelerate from a stop smoothly. On more than one occasion I've refilled the tank (not to full) and the mileage left readout didn't auto set, and thus didn't give an accurate reading of what's left in the tank. Is it me or is the silver paint on the plastic exterior VERY delicate and prone to chips? My dealer-installed running boards still seem loose even after the dealer tightened them and said they would tighten no more due to fear of stripping the thread. No in-dash nav system. Squishy brakes. No tilt/telescoping steering wheel (I feel too far away when my legs are positioned correctly). Tumbling rear seats eat up lots of room when they're out of the way. Pros: Very good visibility, above average ride quality, plenty of room for passengers, good looks, better acceleration than I expected at highway speeds, rear A/C, heated seats, good audio system, and overall, a good buy for the bucks. It gets about 15 mpg and ~350 gallons per fill-up, which I feel is quite good for a vehicle of its size." — mp19fan, "Mitsubishi Montero," #1341 of 1424, Dec. 11, 2001.

2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer

"I have a new TrailBlazer. The combined city and highway driving will probably give you about 16-17 mpg. I drive almost all highway miles, so it's hard to guess. I have found the interior to be very confortable so far, and ergonomics are great. The engine is awesome...really moves when you want it to, but still purrs like a cat. As far as durability, I guess we'll all have to wait and see how it stands the test of time. It certainly seems made well, and I'm sure GM has no interest in making a vehicle that will not stand up to the likes of the Explorer, Pathfinder and 4Runner." — pureevil, "MY2002+ Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada," #1957 of 3470, Aug. 14, 2001.

"I purchased a 4WD TrailBlazer LS about three weeks ago, and wanted to share my experience with any potential buyers. I have seen a fair share of complaints here, so I wanted to present the viewpoint of a very happy buyer. I have had no problems of any sort from my TB, and it continues to delight me every time I drive it. I have always been a sports car owner, with this TB being only my second SUV. The performance, handling and overall ride of this car is closer to my past sports cars than that of my former SUV, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Whereas the Jeep drove like a truck, the TrailBlazer drives more like a luxury sedan, with the heart of a sports car. The engine thinks it is a 300+ HP V8, and motivates the car quite nicely. I tend to be a stoplight racer on occasion, and it's nice to know that the TrailBlazer can keep up with Civic SIs. The engine revs freely to 6,000 rpm, like a Honda four cylinder. The exhaust note has a pleasant rumble. Chevrolet hit the bullseye with this engine. The Indigo Blue paint job was also one of the finest I have ever seen on a new car. My TB had a list price of $29,300, and I was able to purchase it for about $27,000. This is one great vehicle at that price point. I would totally endorse anyone purchasing a TrailBlazer." — okay1, "MY2002+ Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada," #1965 of 3740, Aug. 15, 2001.

"I picked up my TrailBlazer LTZ last Thursday and have been incredibly happy with it so far — much nicer than the '98 Blazer I traded in. I'm still trying to figure out what all the buttons do and I haven't even been in the backseat to play with the DVD player and rear-seat radio controls! I have noticed though that the shifting seems to be a bit "off", which a couple of other posts have mentioned. I really notice it from a stop — depending on how much gas I give it, it seems to take a while to shift out of first. If I give it a moderate punch, it doesn't shift until over 4,000 rpm. Is this the same problem other people have been experiencing? Otherwise — very nice vehicle! And the Black/Pewter colour combo can't be beat!" — c2h6o, "MY2002+ Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada," #2613 of 3742, Oct. 29, 2001.

2002 Dodge Durango

"I have owned my Durango now for 1 year and 3 months. I must say that I am completely satisfied with this vehicle. I have had no troubles out of it. I have now 38,900 miles on it. Yes, I do a lot of driving. City and Highway. It is an SLT with 4x4. It drives great still. No noises, no squeaks or rattles, gas mileage best I got on hwy was 21.6. City is not that good at 15 mpg. The engine is still strong, the interior still looks new. I have no problems with the paint or clear coat. Mechanically I have had no problems. It gets regular maintenance and that's it. I have switched (since new) all the fluids to synthetic and this may be an addition to the reason why I have had good luck with it. It has been loaded to the gills hauling furniture and other items for vacations and never had any problems. It drives great on the road and is very comfortable. No fatigue when the long drive ends. I must say that I did look at other vehicles before buying this one and I am glad I did. I have put on an Intense Performance intake and the performance has improved slightly but again. No problems at all. Would I purchase one again? Absolutely if my tastes are the same when that time comes. I will be keeping this vehicle until the doors fall off." — czard1, "Dodge Durango," #594 of 642, Sept. 10, 2001.

"I have had my Durango for 19 months now. Not quite the two years you are looking for but I can say that I have had no problems whatsoever. I have the 4.7 engine and 4x4. Not a lot of fancy stuff. I just got the base SLT. No leather, etc,etc. I am about to turn 50,000 miles. I have taken long driving vacations, and it is a daily driver. I had it totally synthed out after about 300 miles. I am a stickler for synthetic fluids for any vehicle. Just my choice. I traded a Saab 900 for it. It is my first truck and after having and enjoying it, I am sure it will not be my last. All vehicles have something go wrong with them today it seems." — ywilson, "Dodge Durango," #640 of 642, Jan. 16, 2002.

"I have had my Durango for almost two and a half years. It has been a great truck. To be honest with you, if you don't need the shift-on-the-fly 4WD and the truck frame for offroading and such, look for something else. The ride is not exactly the greatest, but it fills all my needs. Reliability has been OK but not spectacular. I have had two minor problems and a third that left me stranded. The two minor problems were a faulty trunk lock and crossed wires for the reverse lights. My major problem was my power steering pump failed in a parking lot and I had to have it towed. Even though that happened, I still love my truck and haven't had a problem in a little over 2 years. Gas mileage is terrible when the engine is breaking in, but now I get 16 in the city and 18.5 on the highway and I am a serious leadfoot. Overall, I have no doubts with my truck. Yes, I have had problems and the ride can get bad on some highways, but it is well worth it. If you have anymore questions, fell free to e-mail me. Hope I've helped and good luck on your decision." — nab00, "Dodge Durango," #641 of 642, Jan. 20, 2002.

2002 Nissan Pathfinder

"I have owned 90 and 96 SR5 Toyotas, both great vehicles. I can't believe the difference between the 4-Runner and my Pathfinder. Since 1999 I have been towing a fully enclosed 6 x 10 motorcycle trailer from Pa to Fl. When loaded probably over 2000lbs. Toyota moaned the whole trip and constantly shifted. Got '02 Pathfinder in November and after break in hooked up same rig and headed to Fl. What a difference. Pulled trailer like a V8. No moaning and when it did shift out of O.D. could hardly feel it. If someone was on your tail while passing I just stepped on it and was up to 85 mph like nothing. Pathfinder also rode better with less sag in the rear end (300-lb. tongue weight). Just hope quality is as good as 4-Runner. 3,500 miles so far and no shimmy talked about in forum. Also without a trailer this is a much more refined vehicle for five grand less than the 4-Runner." — sivi1, "Nissan Pathfinder," #4170 of 4352, Dec. 14, 2001.

"Just logged 800-plus miles on a trip from Philly to the Outer Banks. The PF performed flawlessly. With a full load and luggage on top I got 20mpg up and back along the DelMarVa peninsula route which requires some stop and go driving for a while. The seats supported both of us perfectly, and we suffered no driver fatigue as a result. Offroad and in deep, soft sand, the truck kept going. We are really taken by this truck." — er2v, "Nissan Pathfinder," #3639 of 4352, Sept. 13, 2001.

"I just got back from a trip to Kentucky from Michigan. We towed a Sea-Doo and had the truck full to the roof with camping gear all the way up to the front 2 seats. No problems other than the suspension occasionally bottoming out and the cruise seemed to surge occasionally on flat surfaces. I got 23 mpg on one tank of gas!!! My front passenger window is a little sluggish going up but other than that I have 10,000 trouble free miles. No dealer visits so far." — Ispangler, "Nissan Pathfinder," #3485 of 4352, Aug. 27, 2001.

2002 Ford Explorer

"In mid-November I purchased a new 2002 4WD XLT with V8, leather, towing package, single CD/cassette, etc. I've since put >3000 miles on this vehicle, and I'm happy to report that to date, this vehicle has simply been a gem to own and drive. I've not yet had ANY problems to bring to my dealer's attention, i.e. Thus far, I'm highly impressed with my new XLT, and I've especially fallen in love with the performance of the V8, four-wheel disc brakes, Michelin Cross Terrains, suspension, transmission, handling, cruise control, power accessories, audio system, etc., as well as the quality fit-and-finish and comfort of the interior (and exterior). It seems clear to me that the Ford design team spent a great deal of time thinking and re-thinking almost every nuance of this vehicle, and it shows. Furthermore, this vehicle is quite handsome, and I just keep getting genuinely nice comments from bystanders and passengers alike. And indeed, this is precisely the sort of experience that we as consumers should be enjoying for our hard-earned money — that is, for what these vehicles cost, they SHOULD be of a quality and reliability that allows us to focus on simply enjoying and driving them with great satisfaction and peace-of-mind, rather than being forever dissatisfied and worried by them. Thus far, my vehicle has been a jewel, and I would recommend this SUV most highly." — kheinztelman, "MY2002 Explorer/Mountaineer," #532 of 533, Dec. 31,2001.

"I just test drove a 2002 Eddie Bauer the other night. Like already mentioned here, there are a lot of pluses and minuses. The ride is more car-like, but there are still too many negatives about the truck to make me go out and shell out $30k+ for. The exterior is nice, but there are some parts that look very cheap. Who designed those running boards I will never know, but they are UGLY! And the wheel lip moldings on the XLT model are not painted, just molded gray plastic. It gives it a very cheap look. Also, to get fog lamps you have to step up to an Eddie Bauer model. Also, the back tail area has the same cheap looking graph paper kinda of black plastic like the running boards. Other than those details, the rest of the exterior looks great. Now the interior, it has a very import car kinda of feel to it...to me anyways. They moved the compass and temp gauges into the instrument panel. I kinda like it better on the headliner like my '99 Sport has. One good thing about the EB is that they moved that silly computer thingy into the instrument panel as well, so you don't lose any center console space anymore. Another thing, the radio buttons are kinda small so they might be a pain to find in the dark, even though they'd be lit. One thing I'm kinda disappointed with is that you cant get the electrochromic mirror unless, once again, you step up to the EB model. Now, the back cargo area is huge now..... compared to the last generation. Seems much more roomier, that independent rear suspension really made a big difference in space, no doubt about that. Overall I am impressed with the 2002, but I sure wish they made some of the things you can get on the 2001 XLTs available on the '02s. I'm sure in the next 2-3 model years they will. But for now, I'm gonna trade in my '99 Sport for a 2001 XLT with the Sport package. The interest rates and rebates are just too damn good pass up. Maybe in 2-3 yrs I will upgrade to a 2003-4 or so." — IntrepidJC, "MY2002 Explorer/Mountaineer," #8 of 533, Mar. 16, 2001.

"We test drove a new Explorer today - I was pretty impressed. I thought the ride was MUCH better than the previous model; however, it didn't feel like the V6 had a ton of power with four people in the Explorer. I was disappointed to find out that a lot of the options like people have mentioned are only available on the Eddie Bauer and Limited and not on the XLS/XLT. You can build an XLT w/ leather, sunroof, third seat, etc. and you would still have to jump in price almost $2,000 to get the little options like on the Eddie Bauer (auto climate control, electrochromatic mirror, message center, etc.). That is a lot of money just for little gadgets like that. I was impressed with the third-seat room — with the independent suspension in the rear, it really gives the Explorer a lot of third-seat room. I'm 6'2" and I had plenty of legroom and headroom. We have a Toyota Sienna minivan now (which we've had a lot of problems with), and I thought there was more headroom in the Explorer's third seat than in our minivan. There was also more leg room. However, you sacrifice a lot of cargo space in order to seat 6 or 7 people in the Explorer."wildcat384, "MY2002 Explorer/Mountaineer," #10 of 533, Mar. 17, 2001.

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Chevrolet TrailBlazer LTZ Dodge Durango SLT Plus Ford Explorer Limited
Personal Rating (10% of total score) 28.0 72.0 88.0
Recommended Rating (10% of total score) 36.0 56.0 96.0
Evaluation Score (20% of total score) 62.2 73.0 73.0
Feature Content (20% of score) 63.6 50.0 73.3
Performance Testing (20% of total score) 89.0 74.0 95.0
Price (20% of total score) 85.5 80.1 78.5
Total Score 66.4 68.2 82.4
Final Ranking 4 3 1
 
  Mitsubishi Montero Limited Nissan Pathfinder SE
Personal Rating (10% of total score) 36.0 76.0
Recommended Rating (10% of total score) 28.0 84.0
Evaluation Score (20% of total score) 63.7 73.6
Feature Content (20% of score) 20.0 36.7
Performance Testing (20% of total score) 42.0 78.0
Price (20% of total score) 81.1 100.0
Total Score 47.8 73.7
Final Ranking 5 2


Scoring Explanation:

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.

20-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranked every vehicle based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.

Performance Testing: Each vehicle was subjected to set of performance tests that measure acceleration, braking and handling through a 600-ft slalom course. Scores were calculated by giving the best vehicle in each category 100 percent. Subsequent vehicle were awarded points based on how close they came to the best-performing vehicle's score.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors picked the top 10 features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. Points were awarded depending on whether 1) The vehicle comes standard with that option (3 pts); 2) The vehicle offers that feature as an option and our test vehicle was equipped with that option (2 pts); 3) The vehicle offers that feature as an option, but our test vehicle was not equipped with that option (1 pt); 4) The vehicle does not offer that feature at all (0 pts). Any feature offered as standard equipment on all five models was not eligible for the list.

Price: The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least-expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least-expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.

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