Old-school SUVs may be about as popular these days as mortgage-backed securities, but no one can deny that these vehicles still appeal to consumers looking for extra interior and cargo room, towing capability and a combination of carlike handling and trucklike utility. And while the number of super-size SUVs has dwindled, the car-based crossover SUV subcategory is one of the fastest-growing vehicle segments. Here we don't separate SUVs from crossovers (in some instances the distinctions between the two are negligible), but instead, divide the entire category by price range.
The lowest-priced SUV category consists of a variety of different vehicle types and sizes. While some, like the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota FJ Cruiser, are decidedly old-school in their ability to venture off-road, most buyers will be best suited to a crossover model. The Chevrolet Equinox (and to a lesser extent, its GMC Terrain sister) thrives at carrying passengers. Its backseat slides and reclines to a degree that provides limolike space, and all its seats are especially comfortable. Its quiet cabin and well-sorted ride are indicative of a more expensive SUV.
Next up is the Honda CR-V, a highly versatile model well-suited to life in suburbia. Innovative storage solutions, simple controls, responsive handling, copious interior space and excellent visibility make the on-road life of mom and dad easier. Should you not have kids to strap into the back, the redesigned 2011 Kia Sportage is a stylish, little crossover that provides great value for your money. What it lacks in ultimate utility, it makes up for in personality.
This SUV range is unusual in that it includes large family crossovers as well as compact luxury models. Of the former, we're big fans of the Mazda CX-9, as it provides room for seven people and 101 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity. However, with its potent engine and relatively athletic handling, it can make you forget you're driving a big family mobile.
The Volvo XC60 is our top pick among compact luxury crossovers, beating out rivals from Audi, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz in a comparison test. Though we prefer it with its upgraded turbo engine, the XC60 stands out with class-leading passenger and cargo space, a comfortable ride, unique Swedish style and innovative features like built-in child booster seats and the City Safety collision-prevention system.
Finally, the Ford Edge was always comfortable and pleasant to drive, but suffered from subpar interior quality and terrible brakes. For 2011, those areas have been addressed and Ford added new engines and the nifty MyFord Touch electronics interface for good measure. It's a nice choice for those who don't need all the space of a full-size crossover, but want more refinement than a less-expensive compact model.
The SUVs in this category range from posh luxury utes to big-people carriers with massive towing potential, like the GMC Yukon. However, most consumers don't really need such massive potential, and we instead direct those looking for a seven- or eight-passenger SUV in the direction of the Buick Enclave. With a more comfortable and versatile interior than the big truck-based SUVs, the Enclave also benefits from better fuel economy and a more refined driving experience. For less money, you can also consider the Buick's GMC Acadia and Chevy Traverse siblings.
On the opposite end of the size spectrum is the Audi Q5, a compact luxury crossover that delivers best-in-class fuel economy from both its V6 and new turbocharged four-cylinder power plants. Relatively agile handling and an opulent interior are other Q5 attributes. In between the Enclave and Q5 in size is the Acura MDX. This luxury model isn't as big as the Buick, but its third-row seat still provides ample room for a pair of kids. Most of all, the MDX is extremely well-rounded with its surprisingly adept handling, multitude of high-tech features, high-class cabin, strong reliability and generous equipment list.
In this category, "sport" takes precedence over "utility" and luxury is a necessity. The redesigned Porsche Cayenne exemplifies this sentiment with reduced off-road capabilities and increased on-road prowess. The Cayenne drops the dual-range transfer case along with almost 400 pounds from its curb weight (also thanks to lighter body panels). This results in improved performance and fuel economy, vaulting it to the top of our picks. From the laid-back V6-powered base model to the extra-spicy S and Turbo models, there seems to be a Cayenne for every taste. There's even a more eco-friendly Cayenne S Hybrid available.
The new Infiniti QX56 also gains our favor for its sharp driving dynamics and long list of features. The QX56 ups the convenience quotient by adding a third row of seats; though, those rearmost quarters are a bit cramped. Points are deducted for the Infiniti's stiff ride and questionable exterior styling.
Despite its spotty reputation for reliability, the Land Rover LR4 represents value that simply cannot be ignored: It costs thousands less than other full-size luxury SUVs. Featuring an enormous cabin that was constructed to almost the same quality standard as the more-expensive Range Rover, the LR4 typifies British luxury. Its go-anywhere off-road ability gives it a unique set of skill sets that most other SUVs in this price range lack.