Sport-utility vehicles are continuing to multiply faster than a bunch of rabbits who own the complete Barry White catalogue. Available in all sorts of shapes, sizes and prices, the SUV landscape has more options than ever, as these jack-of-all-trades vehicles supplant the duties formerly performed by minivans, wagons, family sedans and even luxury cars.
When searching for a new SUV, it's important to understand the differences between these types and know what you're expecting an SUV to do for you. Old-school, body-on-frame SUVs offer superior towing capabilities and usually better off-road performance, but suffer in terms of on-road handling, ride quality, interior space and general refinement.
A crossover is broadly defined as an SUV that features carlike unibody construction. In general, this increases interior room, betters the driving experience and reduces weight (which improves fuel economy and agility). However, the lines between car, truck, SUV and crossover are becoming increasingly blurry. For instance, some "crossovers" are nothing but tall wagons with macho styling and available all-wheel drive. This may be just a case of marketing, but consumers should be aware that not all crossovers are created equal.
This is arguably the most competitive SUV price segment, and it's dominated by family-friendly "cute utes." These include the three best-selling SUVs, with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 ranking at the top in not only sales, but as the segment benchmarks as well. These nameplates started the cute-ute subsegment and recent redesigns have made them even better. Both offer superior interior versatility and space, an appealing collection of family-friendly features, and competent road manners. Both get good gas mileage, but the RAV4's available V6 engine sets this Toyota apart by offering both exceptional power and fuel economy. In addition, the RAV4 can be equipped with a kid-size third-row seat.
There are two similarly sized cute-utes that are also worth checking out. The stylish Mitsubishi Outlander comes close to matching the Toyota and Honda's versatility and offers unique entertainment options, but lacks overall refinement. The Hyundai Santa Fe is also a well-crafted crossover that provides plenty of value, comfort, quality and space. Both the Outlander and the Santa Fe have a third-row seat option.
A step down on the size scale is the Ford Escape (the third best-selling SUV) and its Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute siblings. Following a thorough freshening last year that updated styling and greatly improved their interiors, these models are nevertheless a little behind the times compared to newer designs. (However, they are the only small SUVs that offer legitimate full hybrid versions.)
Those newer designs include the redesigned Saturn Vue, which features European-penned styling, a high-quality interior and a variety of powertrains -- including a mild hybrid. The all-new Nissan Rogue is also compelling for suburbanites who are willing to sacrifice some utility for a lot of style and a very carlike drive.
The Jeep Compass and Patriot have received lots of attention, but they challenge the term "SUV" by essentially being restyled versions of the Dodge Caliber hatchback. Both offer poor interior quality, limited interior space and unrefined powertrains. Although they cost less than other compact crossovers, you get what you pay for. Better choices for budget-minded buyers are the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage twins.
Rounding out the crossover world are the Chevrolet Equinox/Pontiac Torrent twins and Kia Sorento, all aging designs that provide solid amounts of utility, but are a little behind the times. Similarly, the Subaru Forester and Suzuki Grand Vitara are smaller crossovers that don't quite match the segment leaders in terms of day-to-day utility and, in some cases, quality. That said, the turbocharged Forester XT remains an interesting alternative for buyers seeking unexpected zing in a utilitarian vehicle.
The Honda Element exists in its own, well, element. Nothing really compares to it, but this two-door, four-passenger utility crossover with rear-hinged "suicide" doors is an interesting alternative for folks who want something fun and different.
Not all vehicles in this price segment are crossovers, however. The Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ Cruiser and Jeep Wrangler (now available in a four-door body style) are body-on-frame SUVs designed with off-road use in mind. The Dodge Nitro and Jeep Liberty are technically crossovers because of their unibody construction, but they're also intended for more rough-and-tumble use. All of these models offer burly, macho styling and the ability to hit a trail, but this does come at the expense of some on-road comfort, handling and fuel economy.
Traditional truck-based SUVs once dominated this price segment, but these days crossovers have largely taken over. The large crossover SUVs from General Motors are some of the biggest players in this bracket. The Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook triplets represent the new guard: These are excellent full-size crossovers that provide room for eight passengers, nicely crafted interiors and a polished driving experience. They have already taken over family-hauling duties for GM's not-so-dearly-departed minivans, and are making the traditional Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy SUVs look as modern as hula hoops and Jiffy Pop.
Another excellent full-size crossover is the Mazda CX-9. All that "zoom-zoom" stuff isn't hyperbole, as Mazda has managed to make a spacious family hauler legitimately fun to drive. It looks pretty good, too, successfully cloaking its sizable girth.
The Hyundai Veracruz is one of the newest names in the family crossover market, and should appeal to both budget- and luxury-minded buyers with its wide variety of features and price points. The Toyota Highlander has been redesigned for 2008, growing significantly in size to meet the growing demand of customers for a habitable third-row seat. The Highlander Hybrid version is currently the only gasoline-electric vehicle in this segment. The Honda Pilot continues to sell well, and is worth considering, but is showing its advanced age. The Subaru Tribeca is an alternative for those who desire something different, while the Suzuki XL-7 is a good budget buy.
A step down from these big full-sizers is a group of five-passenger crossovers that can appeal to both families and singles alike. The Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7 and Nissan Murano bridge the gap between more economical, compact models and luxury nameplates. With powerful engines, agile handling and spacious interiors, these are perfect choices for those who don't need a third-row seat and 100 cubes of cargo space. The Mitsubishi Endeavor is an alternative to those choices, although it's not as desirable overall.
Amongst the "old guard" of SUVs are the Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner. Each is a nameplate that helped create the SUV craze in the 1990s, and there's no denying they maintain some of their original appeal. The Hummer H3 and Jeep Commander (larger than the Grand Cherokee and technically a crossover) also fall into this category. Each is comfortable and has made great strides over earlier SUVs in terms of on-road civility. Plus, when there's a boat or a U-Haul to pull, they provide the type of towing capacity that crossovers simply can't match. However, crossovers are taking over for a reason. Most consumers don't really need the advantages body-on-frame construction provides, and the resultant poor gas mileage is certainly unattractive in these $3-per-gallon times.
There are two types of SUVs that inhabit this price point. The first is the full-size, truck-based models like the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon. These popular workhorses are better than they have ever been, highlighted by classy interior appointments and more agreeable road manners. New hybrid versions are also available that raise fuel economy to a very impressive 21 mpg for both the city and highway. Other full-sizers include the Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada and the all-new Toyota Sequoia. The Sequoia, in particular, is worth a look, as it matches GM's entries strength for strength, while offering unprecedented seating flexibility thanks to fore/aft adjustable second-row seats coupled with a fold-flat third row.
Compact and midsize luxury models constitute the other type of SUV in this category. Particularly impressive are the Acura MDX and Cadillac SRX, two crossovers that marry family-friendly utility with sport sedan handling and luxurious interiors. The Volvo XC90 comes close to this formula, but is pretty pricey and still rather bland to drive.
The Lexus RX 350 is the best-selling model in this class, offering the typical levels of quality, luxury and cabin serenity that Lexus is famous for. However, it can't match the fun-to-drive qualities of the Acura and Cadillac. On the other end of the spectrum, the Infiniti FX35 and FX45 are incredibly fun, but lack utility. The Lincoln MKX and Saab 9-7X are two models that try their best to compete with the RX 350, but are generally unimpressive.
Following the FX's general theme is a new breed of performance-oriented compact luxury crossovers. The Acura RDX, BMW X3 and Infiniti EX35 are essentially sport wagons with a raised body height. Each boasts very impressive handling and powerful engines that will make you question whether you're really driving an SUV. They also offer cutting-edge technology and luxurious cabins, although the EX35 has by far the nicest interior in this price category. The Land Rover LR2 is similar in size, price and equipment levels to those models, but instead of being an on-road handler, its forte is off the beaten path. Its underwhelming engine combined with Land Rover's less than stellar reputation for reliability make it a questionable proposition in this class, though.
This price segment exists for the rich and ostentatious. For many of the SUVs here, the general mantra is "the more chrome, the better." Vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX56, Lincoln Navigator and Hummer H2 are monster utes with huge optional chrome wheels, in-your-face styling and, for the most part, elegant interior trappings. The Lexus LX 570 and Land Rover's Range Rover are similar, but they tone down the "bling" in favor of a classier vibe, more refinement and higher-quality cabins.
The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class is the best choice for those who want a lot of luxury and genuine utility for the money. While the aforementioned monster utes have third-row seating (minus the Land Rover), none can match the big Benz for its family-friendly utility. Also likable are the GL's smooth driving characteristics that conceal its size with direct steering and controlled body motions.
There are several off-road-friendly models in this luxury price segment. The all-new Toyota Land Cruiser is worth the closest look, blending serious trail-tackling abilities with composed road manners. This is an iconic nameplate, and it just added to its legend. Another iconic off-roading luxury ute is the Land Rover LR3 (formerly the Discovery).
The Volkswagen Touareg 2 and Lexus GX 470 are other premium offerings that are happy amidst muck and rocks, but other vehicles in the class are more appealing for most buyers -- specifically, the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Although each comes with a choice of engines and refined driving experiences, each has its own take on the luxury crossover market. The X5 puts a premium on performance and handling, with an occasional-use third-row seat. The Q7 is quiet, beautifully crafted and has more people-friendly rear quarters. It's more at home on a straight highway than a twisty road. The Benz cuts the difference, but its lack of a third row may be a turn-off for some.
At the top of the M-Class line is the ML63 AMG, a tuner variant that competes with other seemingly oxymoronic high-performance SUVs like Land Rover's Range Rover Sport, VW's Touareg V10 TDI and the Porsche Cayenne.