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Old-school SUVs might 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.
While this pricing category contains some truck-based SUVs geared toward serious off-road duty, most shoppers are served better by compact crossovers. Our first pick in this segment is the Kia Sportage. The recently redesigned Sportage impresses us for the second year in a row by being fashionable, fun to drive and a great value. It doesn't have quite the same cargo capabilities as other crossovers, but it's a great choice if cargo capacity isn't your No. 1 priority.
If passenger space is more your thing, we recommend the stylish Chevrolet Equinox (and its GMC Terrain twin), also for the second year in a row. The Equinox/Terrain's roomy cabin is full of high-quality details, like a reclining rear seat to make passengers even more comfortable and an available two-tone interior.
Don't be afraid of our final pick in this category, the Nissan Juke , even if it has been nicknamed the Bionic Frog. No one can accuse the Juke of blending in with the crowd (a big plus in a sea of bland crossovers), and its standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine is downright powerful, while maintaining decent fuel economy. From the comfortable driver seat, the Juke is enjoyable to drive and boasts an interior design that's a bit more serious than its exterior would suggest. If you like this design language, this peppy Nissan will serve you well.
Our first pick in this category, the six- or seven-passenger Ford Flex won our hearts when we had one in our long-term fleet for two years. Its combination of versatile passenger space, spacious and boxy cargo area, and easy driving demeanor made it the staff's frequent car of choice for road trips all over the country. It gets even more appeal from the optional turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine, which combines a substantial measure of added power with fuel economy that's nearly identical to that of the regular V6. The Flex is also one of the few large crossovers that can realistically seat taller passengers in the third row comfortably.
Suburban life often necessitates compromises, but with our second pick for SUVs costing less than $30,000, you don't have to abandon driving enjoyment in order to chauffeur your family in comfort and style. The Mazda CX-9 is a three-row crossover SUV that delivers sporty performance without compromising on family-friendly qualities, like a roomy and easily accessed third-row seat (though headroom could be better). If you're in the market for a family crossover but need it to be fun in the corners, the CX-9 is for you.
Before its substantial update in 2011, the Jeep Grand Cherokee was a serious off-road performer saddled with a lackluster interior and disappointing engine. With that redesign, it has been elevated to a refined midsize SUV with a cleanly designed interior made with impressive materials and much improved V6 engine, plus it's still a shining star when the road goes away.
SUVs in this category range from comfortable luxury utes like the Cadillac SRX to large people carriers with serious towing ability, for which the Chevrolet Suburban has served as template for decades. Most buyers, however, won't need that level of fortification for the family's daily shuttle. Those simply seeking refined surroundings for seven or eight passengers are ably served by the GMC Acadia. With a more relaxing and versatile interior than the large truck-based SUVs, the Acadia also delivers higher fuel economy and better handling — in this case, maneuverability more like a large car than a bus.
But if it's maneuverability you're after — the kind where tires and suspension bite the pavement and deliver genuine speed thrills — the Audi Q5 is hard to beat. Based on the A4 sedan, the Q5 crossover offers superb dynamics, a choice of two responsive engines and one of the nicest interiors in its class. Plenty of passenger and cargo room also means you don't have to sacrifice practical priorities. But performance comes at the expense of fuel economy; the turbocharged Q5 returns 22 mpg in combined driving, while the V6 achieves 20 mpg. A Q5 hybrid is also expected sometime in late 2012.
Finally, the Volvo XC60 remains our top pick among compact luxury crossovers, beating out rivals from Audi, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz in a comparison test. Though we prefer the XC60 with a turbocharged engine, the stylish ute really stands out with class-leading passenger and cargo space, a comfortable ride and innovative safety features like built-in child booster seats and the City Safety collision-prevention system.
In this class, sport and style trump utility. Luxury is a necessity. The Porsche Cayenne best exemplifies this sentiment by trading off-road ability for on-road prowess. Previous Cayenne models came with specialized components for off-highway fun, but Porsche dropped that pretense last year, shaving weight and increasing fuel economy in the process. The result is an all-wheel-drive family SUV capable of 500 horsepower, with a sumptuous interior of fine leather, wood and metal. We won't call the Cayenne V6 completely sporting in the Porsche manner, but its power and handling are impressive by SUV standards.
If the Cayenne appeals to a buyer's irresponsible adrenal gland through a veil of practicality, the Acura MDX represents a refined and forward-thinking choice, a solid blue-chip among flashy hedge funds. Along with striking design, the MDX is a technology-lover's dream, and its surround-sound audio and navigation systems are among the best. Lest you think the MDX is some listless techno-carriage, its V6 makes 300 hp, equal with the base Cayenne V6. And its all-wheel-drive system, paired with good steering and a suspension that limits body roll, make the MDX a confident carver as well.
Finally, for a sublime union of mud, luxury and value, the Land Rover LR4 is unmatched. With proven all-terrain credentials and generous interior space, the LR4 practically begs you to take it somewhere steep and slippery, with a stop at Ruth's Chris on the way home. You'll pay for this versatility at the pump however, as the LR4 gets just 17 mpg on the highway. And although the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is a strong alternative candidate with formidable off-road chops, the LR4 is still one the classiest way to get dirty.
Big bodies and big power drive this segment of luxury liner, beginning with the Mercedes-Benz GL Class. Available with either a V6 diesel or a V8, with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive, the GL makes a great case for the large family that prefers to travel in style, in all manner of weather. The GL spreads its creature comforts equally among all seven passengers, and the standard air suspension ensures that no one gets roughed up over choppy surfaces.
The GL's turbodiesel, and the exceptional torque it generates, makes it a perfect choice to move a heavy load. The all-wheel-drive Porsche Cayenne Hybrid takes a different, but no less logical, approach. It uses a V6 and electric motor to make more than 427 pound-feet of torque, helping it accelerate to 60 mph in an estimated 6 seconds.
Finally, the Infiniti QX is a talented all-wheel-drive leviathan, powered by a large, thirsty V8, and seats up to eight passengers in a cabin more like a private jet than an SUV. The QX's third row is a bit cramped and the ride is too stiff, but the big ute is a surprisingly sharp handler and offers a load of features both standard and optional. We'll leave it to your eyes to judge its exterior skin.