"Crossover? What's a crossover?" The middle-aged woman looked at me sideways. We were fueling up at a gas bar in Hazleton, Penn., and she had asked me what we were all doing there. Though I knew a stream of questions would follow, I told her that we were auto journalists conducting a comparison test. After I agreed that I had the best job in the world and that, yes, they were all fine vehicles, she asked me for a definition of crossover.
I looked to my left and right at the four vehicles in our midsize crossover SUVs comparison test: a silver Nissan Murano, a black Mitsubishi Endeavor, a gold Toyota Highlander and a silver Honda Pilot. "Well, ma'am, it's kind of complicated."
Simply put, a crossover SUV is a vehicle that doesn't fit neatly into any of the established vehicle categories car, SUV, wagon, minivan but has characteristics of all. That is, it crosses over the criteria that separate these vehicles. From the standpoint of exterior styling, ride height and capability, these vehicles more closely resemble SUVs than any other vehicle type.
For the purposes of this test, we define a midsize crossover SUV as a vehicle with an elevated driving position, some measure of all-terrain capability, a car-based unibody chassis and a sticker of less than about $35,000. Although all of our test vehicles were all-wheel drive, none had a dual-range transfer case, which would allow low gearing for extreme off-roading another factor that separates crossovers from sport-utility vehicles.
OK, that's pretty clear, but what about other crossovers? For instance, where are the Subaru Outback and the Buick Rendezvous? Well, they participated in our 2002 Entry-Level Luxury Crossover Comparison Test and finished second and third, respectively. Barring a major redesign, only the first-place vehicle, in this case, the Toyota Highlander, is eligible to compete in the next test. So it joined the Murano, Endeavor and Pilot, which were not available at the time of our last test they're all-new vehicles in this growing segment.
We conducted our test in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania over a four-day period. Our diverse driving route allowed us to experience the vehicles on a variety of road surfaces, at different speeds and driving conditions. We had four-lane highway cruising, curvy two-lane country highways, cobblestone village streets, rugged off-road tracks and the busy, potholed streets of midtown Manhattan. Later, we put the vehicles through their paces at our testing facility outside of Los Angeles. As a result, we were able to get to know all of them pretty well.
But, before you move on to find out which vehicle won this comparison, it's best to keep in mind that there were no bad vehicles in this test; each had its good and not-so-good points. And, depending on your needs and desires, you may look at our findings and disagree. That's good, because several of the categories are subjective, such as design, and what one person finds important, another doesn't need. However, we can assure you that we tried as hard as possible to scrutinize these vehicles completely so that the information we provide is comprehensive, accurate and unbiased.
Now you can check the results.
Fourth Place - 2003 Toyota Highlander
From first to last, just like that. It must seem a little strange that a vehicle could finish first in the 2002 Entry-Level Luxury Crossover Comparison Test and then dead last one year later.
It's not so strange, considering the competition.
Less than a year ago, we praised the Toyota Highlander for "displaying a near-perfect blend of practicality and refinement in a functional, easy-to-drive alternative to a conventional SUV. From the tall stance to the silky drivetrain to the cavernous interior, the Highlander is exactly what a crossover vehicle should be."
Now, we criticize the Highlander for being slow, bland-looking and boring to drive. We still applaud its competence, but it's no longer the darling it was in 2002.
The Highlander's 3.0-liter V6 had the least horsepower at 220 and the least torque (222 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm) of all the vehicles in the test. Torque is, of course, the best indicator of an engine's power as it translates into the get-up-and-go you feel when pulling away from a stop or up a hill.
The shortcomings of the Toyota's V6 showed at the track, where it finished last in 0-to-60-mph acceleration (9.4 seconds), quarter-mile acceleration (17.2 seconds) and quarter-mile speed (78.7 mph). Quarter-mile acceleration and speed are the best indicators of an engine's performance and the Highlander was well behind the competition, all of which completed the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds or less and at speeds over 83 mph.
But we complained about the Highlander's lack of oomph long before we got to the track. General consensus was that it operated smoothly and was adequate for moving the 3,880-pound Toyota (lightest in the test) around, but it simply did not generate enough power to make our socks go up and down. After enjoying spins in the quick and dynamic Endeavor and Murano, climbing into the Highlander was like riding the carousel after the roller coaster it goes around all right, but it ain't very fun in comparison.
It would be unfair if we failed to mention that the Highlander received kudos for its automatic transmission, steering and overall handling. During our four-state romp, its tranny won our admiration for its quick downshifts, exact upshifts and overall unobtrusive demeanor. The Highlander also proved to be the most agile-feeling vehicle in the bunch, with responsive steering and a solid four-wheel independent suspension that provided a supple ride and minimal body roll. Most of us agreed, however, that the steering was a little numb and we would like better feel and more connection to the road.
Other reasons for the Highlander's low finish were its dull interior design, questionable build quality and comfort. Our test vehicle was not a limited edition loaded with leather and faux wood trim, but a base model with too much hard plastic and too many bland, ugly colors inside for our taste. We also found the dash and controls too utilitarian. Yes, they are simple to operate, but, in our opinion, too basic and plasticky.
Besides that, the Toyota's front and rear seats were rated last in terms of comfort, and it had several rattles that vexed us during the test. We were surprised that a Toyota product (an automaker revered for its build quality) betrayed its shoddy workmanship so vocally. We were willing to excuse it because, it is, after all, a press vehicle, but we have had similar experiences with other Toyotas, including the Highlander we used during the 2002 comparison test.
While we all thought the Toyota was easy to get in and out of, its cabin seemed the most cramped, with less shoulder and headroom in front and rear than the other vehicles. Also, its storage capacity fell short of our expectations. The lack of a center console storage compartment created an airy feeling but left our CDs and other paraphernalia without a convenient home.
The Highlander fared pretty well during our modest off-road excursion at the Paragon Adventure Park in Pennsylvania. It handled all the obstacles with confidence, but its tight suspension and low ride height provided a fairly rough ride punctuated by frequent clangs on the undercarriage. While we don't expect a crossover SUV to tackle the Rubicon, part of its mission is to offer some off-road ability. If it doesn't, you might as well buy a station wagon. The Toyota's full-time all-wheel-drive system is always on, splitting power 50/50 front and rear via a viscous-coupled center differential. The system overcame every limited traction scenario we encountered without difficulty. Judging by its performance, we believe the Highlander could easily handle a rutted or snowy road to a vacation home, trailhead or remote beach. Ask more of it than that and you may be calling for roadside assistance.
None of us hated the Highlander, but none of us loved it, either. It was just too bland to engender any strong feelings. We wouldn't go so far as to condemn you for buying one (it's a good, solid vehicle), but we just think there are better choices out there now.
We would be remiss if we did not mention that the 2003 Highlander is based on the previous-generation Camry, a car that dates to 1997. Toyota has slowly been revamping its entire fleet of Camry-based vehicles, using its new 2002 Camry platform. These include the 2002 Lexus ES 300, 2004 Lexus RX 330 and the 2004 Toyota Camry Solara and Sienna. The Highlander will receive its overhaul for the 2005 model year. Perhaps then it can reclaim its title among crossover SUVs.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I wouldn't steer anybody away from choosing the Highlander. It has an excellent powertrain comprised of a silky-smooth V6 and a seamless automatic (though sometimes it seemed that the gearbox slurred its upshifts in an attempt to remain jolt-free). Likewise, the light and precise steering make driving this SUV as user-friendly as a Camry. The cabin has supportive seats, plenty of storage space, top-grade materials and simple controls. And the comfortable, quiet ride should make transitioning from a family sedan to an SUV a no-drama experience. Factor in Toyota's sterling reputation and it's hard to argue against the Highlander.
Having said all that, it still wouldn't be my top choice in this field. Neither the styling nor the driving dynamics did much for me; it was refined almost to the point of boredom. Granted, these SUVs are utilitarian vehicles that are not supposed to elicit the same response as sport sedans, but the Highlander's ho-hum exterior design and anesthetized steering left me cold. If I was married and my wife wanted to buy a Highlander, she'd have my blessing and I certainly wouldn't mind driving the thing. But if it were just me buying a crossover SUV, I'd have to go with something with more personality.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
If I were spending my own money, the Highlander would be a close second choice for me. Being a Toyota owner in the past, I feel comfortable in the well-appointed interior (especially in Limited form) and dash arrangement. The Highlander offers a great combination of semisporty on-road manners, a really great V6, perfect size and packaging combined with a resale value rivaled only by Honda products. For urban dwellers, the Highlander is probably the one SUV that offers manageable exterior proportions with a "roomy enough" interior.
That being said, I find the Highlander's styling to be horribly lackluster. Of the four crossover SUVs in this test, the Highlander is the least attractive.
One thing I wasn't expecting was how many little rattles and creaks came from the Highlander's interior. The sunroof or the storage panel just in front of it kept clicking a recent Sequoia we tested made the same noise and my wife's Camry does the same thing on days when the weather is very dry. For a company that has created a reputation by building high-quality cars, I find this kind of minor problem disappointing it's a Toyota for crying out loud.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Toyota Highlander
Editor's Note: Although the Highlander that competed in this test was a base model, the following evaluation is for a Limited model with the optional in-dash CD changer.
System Score: 6.0
Components: This JBL-designed sound system begins with a standard-issue Toyota head unit. Toyota went to this new head unit design in the 2001 model year and is using the same basic setup for most of its fleet. It stands as a marked improvement over previous designs. The faceplate includes a number of user-friendly features that make this radio exceptionally easy to use while driving. For instance, preset buttons are widely spaced and oversized, the digital readout is large and bright, and, best of all, the radio comes with two large circular knobs, one for volume and the other for fine-tuning radio stations. The head unit also includes a cassette player and a built-in six-disc CD changer, as well as a midrange tone control for increased sonic flexibility (almost like having a built-in graphic equalizer). There are no steering wheel controls in this system.
Speaker locations include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors coupled to a pair of 1-inch tweeters above.
Performance: This system plays really loud. There's a cranking amp hidden somewhere inside here. Highlights include a very boomy bass, which we found slightly muddy and diffuse, and tweeters that are extremely bright and brassy. Many consumers actually prefer this kind of sound (if you're one of those who turns the bass and treble all the way up before you buckle your seatbelt, then this one's for you). We don't, but that's us. You'll probably like it. And it does play plenty loud.
Best Feature: User-friendly head unit.
Worst Feature: Lack of sonic accuracy.
Conclusion: If you prefer your music with a lot of snap, crackle and pop, then this one's right up your alley. If, on the other hand, you lean toward softer listening, you might be a little put off by the overly aggressive nature of this system. Either way, it represents a good value for most consumers. Scott Memmer
Third Place - 2003 Nissan Murano
The first thing you notice about the Murano is its styling. We applaud Nissan's effort to try something new for the 21st century. Not everyone likes the Murano's distinctive shape, but it's hard not to say that it's new, different and effective. Its doorstop front end makes it look slippery as if it can cut through the air with the ease of a bullet. Its short overhangs, bulging fenders and big wheels give it muscularity. Of all the vehicles in the comparison test, the Murano certainly cut the most rakish profile and drew the most looks.
It was also the vehicle that most intrigued our editors, possibly because it looked like a winner, even if the shape didn't appeal. Because it was such a fun vehicle to drive, we were all pulling for it to win, but it didn't.
Unfortunately, the Murano was ultimately hamstrung by its continuously variable transmission (CVT). The tranny, which gave the Nissan the best fuel economy (a miserly 20 mpg city and 24 mpg highway) of all the vehicles in the test, was also responsible for its third-place finish. We found the CVT interfered too much with the wonderful performance of its 245-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6. Despite having the most ponies in the test, the confused wind-up of the CVT made the Murano feel sluggish at takeoff.
The CVT does offer a Sport mode, but we didn't like how it kept the engine boiling at 2,000 to 2,500 rpm more than in the regular mode at any given speed. However, the Sport mode provided instant acceleration and a deep-throated roar. One of our editors pointed out that Nissan was supposed to offer automanual capability for the CVT (as Audi does) but, much to his regret, it never made it to production. He suggested that Nissan's engineers should just set the transmission's programming in between the current "D" and "Sport" settings and be done with it.
That was not the only problem we had with the Murano, but it was by far the biggest one.
All our test drivers applauded the Murano's well-bolstered, comfortable seats, awarding the Nissan top marks for front-seat comfort. The rear seats also won best in show for their combination of generous head-, hip-, foot- and shoulder room and available recline.
The secure and comfy seating complemented the Murano's tight-as-a-drum suspension and sporty handling. We thought it was the most nimble of all the vehicles in the test, and that sentiment was borne out on the test track where the Nissan took first-place honors in the 600-foot slalom by carrying a speed of 60.7 mph through the cones.
We thought the suspension was perhaps too tight in the city, especially when we encountered infamous New York potholes, but it otherwise provided great road feel and precise handling. Same for the steering (the Murano also won this category), which we felt offered excellent feel, response and tracking. We could feel the road beneath our seats and through our hands and the Murano did exactly what we told it to this made it a blast to drive.
The Nissan was also awarded top honors for its interior design, materials and storage space. We all liked the unique styling of the dash, especially the separate instrument cowl which reminded us of the binnacle on a touring motorcycle. The faux suede inserts on the seats and the brushed metal trim accents also were praised. Similarly, the various high-quality materials, such as the soft pebbled plastic on the dash and the fleecy door skins, were crowd pleasers.
The spacious center console with its various storage spaces, some rubber-lined, and cubbies was also appreciated. The cell phone holder was a hit, as were the expanding door bins. At 81.6 cubic feet, the Murano offered the second most cargo capacity in the test group. We also liked the slick, brushed-metal rear-seat release handles that were recessed into the cargo area.
The Murano was least capable in the dirt when we went to the Paragon Adventure Park in Pennsylvania. It bottomed out more than any of the other vehicles in the test, mainly because it had the least ground clearance. Its all-wheel-drive system operates only when one of the front tires loses grip, in which case an electronic clutch sends torque to the rear wheels. Otherwise, the Nissan is front-wheel drive. By pushing a dash-mounted button, you can lock the clutch to split the power evenly between front and rear, which gives the Murano capable traction in slippery conditions. However, we would have to recommend that you keep the Murano on the pavement most of the time.
Off-road ability aside, the Murano is a likable vehicle that blends unique styling with a spacious, comfortable interior and a fun-to-drive character. If it wasn't for the power-sapping CVT transmission, it might have won the test, but such is the chance you take with new technology. Future revisions may cure the Murano's transmission woes, but until then, it will have to be satisfied with a strong third-place finish in a field of four strong competitors.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Being a driving enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed the Murano when the road got twisty. Quick, well-weighted steering and a taut (compared to the rest of the field) suspension gave the Nissan a crisp dynamic absent in the others. And we drove the luxury-themed SL version; the SE is even sportier with its firmer suspension tuning. Factor in Nissan's superb V6 and it would seem that driving the Murano is all aces. Well, almost. Although I applaud Nissan for using a CVT, it seems that the engineers need to tweak the programming for it as it always seemed to be searching for the right ratio and never finding it.
The Murano's sporty nature continues in the cabin, as the seats have great lateral support and the gauges and steering wheel are similar to the 350Z's. But the exterior styling? Yep, it's different and is attractive in profile, but the grille, lights and hood look as if they're from three different vehicles but to each his own. If performance counts more than utility, then the Murano may be the 'ute for you.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Nissan got it right with the exterior styling of this car. I'm not saying I like it, but it is polarizing. I can remember a few editors saying they loved the styling and a few saying they hated it. The funny thing is each had a perfectly valid point when explaining his/her view. Like it or not, the Murano stands out in a crowd.
The Murano has a lock on the handling category. This SUV is clearly the most fun on a stretch of twisty two-lane blacktop, and no one in their right mind would argue against Nissan's stellar 3.5-liter V6. Unfortunately the CVT sapped any fun I was having other CVTs are much better, the Murano never knew what engine speed to choose, and the transmission was far too easy to confuse.
The interior, although chock-full of high-grade materials, felt cramped and oddly proportioned. I like the roomy rear seats, but couldn't shake the notion that my head was too close to the roof whenever I was in the front seats. Other than exterior styling and handling, the Murano simply does not ring true with me.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Nissan Murano
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our test vehicle was outfitted with the optional 225-watt Bose audio system, providing the tunes through an AM/FM stereo with cassette player and in-dash six-disc CD player. Sound is channeled through four 6.5-inch door-mounted speakers, two 36mm tweeters wedged into the A-pillars and a cargo area subwoofer. Faceplate controls are easy enough to operate and understand, and while the tape deck looks anachronistic against the avant-garde interior, it's balanced by satellite radio capability and welcome radio data system (RDS) readout. The high-mounted LCD screen, steering wheel-mounted controls, speed-sensitive volume control and prized "mute" button round out the list of eye- and ear-pleasing features.
Performance: Even with a sub and 125-watt boost to the stock system, the Murano's sound output is just OK for a car with such radical aesthetics and a getting-up-there price tag. Bass levels leave something to be desired as the six channels of sound equalization, delineated as low, medium or high, lack any true shifts in performance. The expansive dashboard seems to trap bass traveling up from the door-mounted speakers and bounces the tweeter highs toward the windshield glass. Midrange notes and vocals fare best, while highs and bass-rich lows are delivered with a mildly hollow ring.
This is not to suggest that the Murano's audio hardware is a complete throwaway; most drivers won't notice the finite shortcomings nor push the volume to the extremes. To that end, the optional Bose system delivers adequate power and sound quality for a broad spectrum of tastes. However, the additional cost for this seemingly minimal upgrade ($1,499 on SL trim and $3,499 on the SE) should inspire a lengthy pause to look at (or hear) just what your greenbacks are getting you.
Best Feature: Beam in the tunes, Scotty, we've got satellite capability.
Worst Feature: Doesn't sound as good as it looks.
Conclusion: A well-designed, capable stereo that will keep your fingers tapping the wheel while also tapping your checking account. Hud Giles
Second Place - 2003 Honda Pilot
Most of us thought the Pilot would walk away with the title in this comparison test. After all, it's based on our perennial minivan favorite, the Odyssey; it's loaded with standard features, including a DVD system; it was the only one with a third-row seat; and it's a Honda. How could it lose?
For one driving dynamics. Our editors unanimously thought it felt too sluggish and cumbersome. We felt this way even though its 3.5-liter V6 generates 240 horsepower (second only to the Murano), enough to move the big Pilot with authority. In fact, it was only half a second behind the top-of-the-heap Mitsubishi in the 0-to-60-mph track test at 8.5 seconds and 0.2 second behind the Murano. Its quarter-mile speed was also second best of the four, but the Pilot's bulk (at 4,439 pounds, it was the heaviest in the test) held it to a last-place finish (57 mph) in the 600-foot slalom test.
During the 60-to-0-mph braking test, the Honda's considerable avoirdupois pushed it to the back of the pack once again. It needed 134.2 feet to complete the stop, nearly 7 feet more than the Highlander and almost 14 feet more than the Endeavor. We also didn't care for the Pilot's brake pedal feel, finding it too soft. And, despite its good showing in the acceleration tests, the Honda felt like a bit of a wallowing bear on the road. The steering was numb, and the Pilot had a tendency to understeer around tight corners.
Although opinions regarding its exterior design were largely negative most taking issue with its prosaic, boxy form the Pilot had the most road presence of all the vehicles in the test. Add to this its large greenhouse and all-round excellent visibility, and it was the vehicle that made us feel most secure and confident. (This feeling is supported by the fact that the Pilot received the maximum five stars in front- and side-impact crash testing by the NHTSA.)
Our test Pilot was a top-of-the-line EX model, loaded with standard features, such as leather upholstery, DVD entertainment system, seven-speaker audio system and a fold-flat 60/40-split third-row seat. All that and it was still within a few hundred dollars of the rest of the field.
The cabin won kudos for its storage space, ease of ingress and egress, nine cupholders and well-marked buttons and secondary controls. The Honda also had the most average room for first- and second-row passengers. We liked the column-mounted shifter as it frees up welcome room in the center console. In addition, at 90.3 cubic feet, the Pilot's maximum cargo capacity was the largest by far. The Honda also got top marks for having the quietest interior with minimal road and engine noise.
Additionally, the Pilot took first place when it came to build quality. Interior and exterior seams were uniform. Construction seemed solid and durable. It also had none of the mystery buzzing and rattling that afflicted our other testers.
We did bemoan the blockish interior design with its vast, unbroken plains of monochromatic plastic. And some drivers found the audio controls far too busy and confusing to operate while driving.
The front and rear seats also drew some complaints. While they were wide and initially comfy, over time we found the front seats a little short under the thigh and a tad too hard. Similarly, the rear seats seemed roomy at first, but were ultimately deemed too firm. The third-row seats are exclusively for children, small children.
The Pilot proved to be the most comfortable of our crossover SUVs, as its soft suspension flattened out the rough spots. The automatic four-wheel-drive system is the same as is used in the Acura MDX. Called Variable Torque Management Four-Wheel Drive (VTM-4), it directs power only to the front wheels during normal driving. When the system detects slippage, it can direct up to half of total torque to the rear wheels. If you are trapped in very slippery conditions, you can lock the power split at 50/50 for speeds up to 18 mph. Because it's electronic, the switch can occur before you even realize a wheel has lost traction.
There were times on the "beginner" trails at the Paragon Adventure Park when we only had a front and rear wheel on the ground, and the Honda never hesitated. However, when the trail got touchy, we had to be careful that the Pilot's considerable momentum didn't force us into directions we didn't want to go. Otherwise, the Pilot was solid and composed; and even on the bumpiest surfaces, it kept everyone inside firmly in their seats.
Although it failed to grab top honors, the Pilot was still an impressive crossover SUV. We think it's a solid, wise choice for anyone with a lot of kids and gear to move around at a good price. But for those looking for all that and a little fun behind the wheel, the Pilot comes up short.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The Honda was my fave. Why? It felt solid as a rock, was powerful, had the most seating and towing capacity and came with a ton of standard luxury and convenience features, such as a DVD system and that fold-flat third-row seat.
Some of my colleagues thought the Pilot felt big compared to the others, but it didn't strike me that way, as I found it easy to handle and park. And just like Honda versus Toyota cars, the Pilot gives more feedback to the driver, while the Highlander delivers a more isolated ride. I liked the reassuring weight in the Pilot's steering and was also impressed by the five-speed automatic that did a great job of picking the right gear for hills and holding it.
In terms of style, the Pilot may not be as exciting as the Mitsu or Nissan, but it looks more like an SUV than the tall-wagonlike Toyota. With all of these loaded SUVs' as-tested prices hovering around the $32,000 mark, the Honda's greater working abilities, commendable fuel efficiency, generous list of features and well-rounded driving dynamics make it the winner in my book.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I thought the Pilot was a dead ringer to win this comparison test from the day I heard which vehicles would be involved. Although I like the Pilot quite a bit, when driving it back-to-back with the other vehicles in its class I was surprised by how big, heavy and numb it felt on the road. It's clearly the biggest of the bunch, and it offers the much desired third-row seat, but its size seems to result in clumsy handling. That really turned me off.
I was also expecting more comfort from the front seats; they're kinda hard if you ask me. Inside, the Pilot is filled with the typical (for Honda) quality materials, but it doesn't do much for me from a design perspective. Even the Highlander and its funky slate-gray trimmed dash had more pizzazz than the Pilot.
I love the Pilot's open highway manners smooth and quiet. Other than that, I don't feel like I have much to say good or bad, the Pilot just is. Certainly, no one who buys a Pilot will be disappointed; in fact, if you need the extra space, there are few choices as good as the Honda. Still, I can't help but feel rather "blah" about this car nothing about it excites.
Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Honda Pilot
System Score: 9.0
Components: It could be said that every Pilot needs a good radio, and in the case of Honda's full-size SUV, truer words were never spoken. Honda, which once lagged behind in the stereo area, has been coming to market with factory sound systems that rival its better-sounding Toyota and Nissan cousins. The system in the Honda Pilot stakes a further claim that Honda plans on giving its customers viable sound systems that meet the competition.
This system begins with an unusual-looking head unit that nonetheless offers the kind of user-friendly ergonomics we've come to expect from Honda. Surprise-and-delight features include round knobs for both volume and radio tuning, a logical and commonsense topography and great button spacing for ease of use. The head unit also occupies an elevated position in the dash that is perfectly positioned for accessibility and safety. As if this weren't enough, the system also boasts steering wheel controls for volume and seek-scan.
It gets even better in the speaker department, with 6.5-inch drivers in all four doors, plus a wonderfully thumpy 10-inch sub in the right rear quarter-panel. Top this off with a pair of upward-firing tweeters mounted on the dashboard, and you'll understand why this one sounds as good as it looks.
Performance: Even before turning this system on, we were impressed with the generous array of speakers in the cabin, and this one certainly didn't disappoint once we put it through its paces. The overall sound of the system was smooth and luxurious. High frequencies not only sounded lush and intricate, but the dash-mounted tweets presented an excellent dispersion pattern into the passenger compartment; as a result, the soundstage in this vehicle was one of the better ones we've heard in this segment. We were a little put off by a slight stridency in the midrange, but perhaps this is just quibbling. Horns sounded excellent, female vocals just a little hissy and acoustic strings warm and wooden. We were really impressed with the bass response, which was not only deep and bounteous but exhibited tight attack when called on to do so. Honda has definitely upped the ante in the segment.
Best Feature: Overall sonic excellence.
Worst Feature: Can't get a factory-installed CD changer.
Conclusion: Take me to the Pilot! This is a great-sounding SUV! Scott Memmer
Video Evaluation - 2003 Honda Pilot
System Score: 9.0
Components: As if it weren't enough to have a great-sounding audio system in the Honda Pilot, our test vehicle also came equipped with a DVD-based entertainment system. The system which consists of an in-dash DVD player, a roof-mounted fold-down screen, two pairs of wireless headphones and a wireless remote control represents the state of the art in the category.
Performance: We could find little fault with this system. The audio can be routed through the existing sound system or the headphones, your choice. The headphones sound excellent and are also lightweight enough that they won't become tiresome after an hour or more of viewing. The video image was crisp and bright and easily viewed from all the rear seats. We also enjoyed the wireless remote, which had about as many features as a home player. All in all, a nice setup.
Best Feature: Great wireless headphones.
Worst Feature: Poor access to DVD player.
Conclusion: A few minor complaints. Why is the DVD player mounted in the dash, away from the viewers? It would seem to make more sense to have it in a center console, accessible to the rear passengers. Likewise, the roof-mounted controls. Scott Memmer
First Place - 2004 Mitsubishi Endeavor
We were as surprised as anyone. When we first set off from lovely Newark, New Jersey, for our New England adventure, we all thought the Honda Pilot would take the top prize, with maybe the Nissan Murano in second and then a scrap for the final two spots.
The Endeavor crept up on us. It wasn't so much that it dominated every aspect of the comparison test to win outright, but rather that it scored well in a majority of categories.
On paper, the Endeavor's powertrain seems the weakest of the group. Its 215 horsepower is well behind the Pilot (240 hp) and the Murano (245 hp). But it leads in a more important category: torque. At 250 pound-feet at 3,750 rpm, the Mitsu has the highest torque rating of all, getting more power at lower revs than all the others. This imbues the Endeavor with surprising speed off the mark, accompanied by a throaty roar to let you know it's taking control. Judging by our on-road experience of winning every streetlight derby we waged, we weren't too shocked when the Endeavor posted an 8.0-second 0-to-60-mph time to take first place.
The Mitsu had to settle for second in the quarter-mile acceleration test at 16.3 seconds, as its lack of horsepower became apparent toward the top of the rpm range. Also, it should be noted that the Endeavor, at 4,156 pounds, is second only to the Honda in weight. So, it's little wonder its performance tapered off over the quarter-mile. This diminishing power plays out on the street, too, where the Mitsu loses guts at higher rpm.
However, thanks to its powerful four-wheel disc brakes the Endeavor was able to stop from 60 mph in just 120.7 feet. This was good enough for first place and nearly 14 feet better than the Honda and three feet better than the Murano. None of us cared for the feel of the brake pedal, calling it mushy, soft and cumbersome. We would have liked it to be more progressive in feel like the Toyota's.
Power from the Endeavor's 3.8-liter V6 is controlled by a four-speed automatic transmission that was praised for being unobtrusive most of the time. However, under duress, such as with the gas pedal matted going uphill, the tranny had a tendency to wait too long to downshift and sometimes clunked when it did. There is also an automanual feature, which Mitsubishi calls Sportronic, that allows the driver to choose his own gears fun in the curves, but we found it was usually easier just to let the automatic shifter do its job.
The Mitsu scored top marks for its well-sorted suspension, which provided a carlike ride that was the class of the test. There was a little too much body roll (as demonstrated by its second-place showing in the 600-foot slalom), but otherwise we were impressed by the Endeavor's exemplary road manners. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering afforded good balance and response, but was docked marks for being a tad too numb and lacking in on-center feel.
The Endeavor scored well for the comfort of its front seats, but some of us wanted more lateral support and a little more cushioning and width (some of us need to cut back on trips to Krispy Kreme). The rear seat also received good marks for its generous legroom (38.5 inches best in the test), head- and shoulder room. The Mitsu's cargo capacity was the stingiest in the test (76.4 cubic feet with the seats folded), but we liked the large rear opening and thigh-level, slide-in loading.
The Endeavor's cabin design was definitely polarizing. We all agreed that it uses a good mix of tactile, soft materials, and some of us liked the silver plastic cascading center dash, which houses the audio and HVAC controls. Others thought its big round buttons and blue-light graphics looked too much like a boom box from the 1980s. One editor wondered if it would play any music other than Wham! and the SugarHill Gang. Regardless of your opinion, we worry that the painted-on silver finish will wear over time and leave unsightly scars of black plastic showing from underneath.
Opinion regarding the Endeavor's exterior design was less contentious. While most of us thought it was heavily derivative of a Jeep Grand Cherokee (especially the rear end, square fenders and wheel design), it received high marks for its distinctive, rugged and muscular appearance. Like the center stack, the grille is certainly unique and set the Mitsu apart from the Honda and Toyota. Only the out-there Murano was more distinctive.
The Endeavor's all-wheel drive uses a mechanically actuated center viscous coupling that employs a 50/50 front/rear split under normal traction conditions. With a generous 8.3 inches of ground clearance (the most in the test), the Mitsu climbed, crawled, traversed and absorbed all the off-road obstacles it encountered. This combined with its supple suspension provided the most compliant and enjoyable off-road experience. Of all the vehicles in the test, the Endeavor was the one we're most comfortable taking off-road. It never once bottomed out and seemed completely at ease.
We're told that Mitsubishi plans to spend $60 million to advertise the Endeavor. That may not be necessary. Once word gets out about its blend of performance, handling and comfort, it should advertise itself.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Going into this test, I wasn't too hyped about the Endeavor. The styling struck me as a bit quirky and I didn't expect much performance from it, given Mitsubishi's other SUVs and their lackadaisical acceleration.
Boy, was I wrong! The design has quickly grown on me; the aggressive nose and tail treatments are certainly distinctive. And I loved the modernistic cabin layout with its easily read multifunction display that didn't wash out in the bright daylight, like some other units do. Underway, the Endeavor felt energetic, whether taking off from a light or blasting up a freeway on-ramp. The engine's quiet attitude rivaled the Highlander's V6 I even made the embarrassing mistake of trying to start it when it was already idling. On our mix of curvy two-lanes, freeways and city slogging, the Mitsu felt refined and provided a comfy ride and decent handling, though the steering was too light for me (like the Highlander's) and there was more body roll than I expected. Even when we took it off-road, the Endeavor felt at ease and well built, especially notable considering that the test vehicle was a preproduction unit.
In short, I say you'd be making a mistake if you didn't consider the Endeavor while shopping in this class.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Endeavor is my favorite of the bunch it offers standout styling, a spacious interior and ride refinement that frankly exceeded my expectations for a Mitsu. I'm not sure why I was so surprised at the nice ride quality, as I find the Montero Sport to be one of the more refined truck-based SUVs on the market. Perhaps the bad taste left in my mouth by the deplorable full-size Montero clouded my perception.
The Endeavor is no Montero, and I mean that as a total compliment. Its carlike ride is almost Toyota-like, and the V6 is really smooth and powerful. On paper, the Endeavor's 215 hp looks like someone at Mitsubishi dropped the ball, but the engine feels plenty powerful. Acceleration is more than adequate.
Boo-hoo for whomever decided to go with the big, cheap-feeling (looks great, though) painted plastic piece in the center stack that houses the stereo and climate controls not good. On the other hand, the blue glowing dash lights add a nice flair and are in keeping with the Endeavor's edgy style.
Finally, the Endeavor seems more able to tackle off-road terrain than the others in this test. Yes, they are all car-based, but the Endeavor is most capable in the rough.
Stereo Evaluation - 2004 Mitsubishi Endeavor
System Score: 9.0
Components: Clean layout, straightforward operation and abundant performance best describe the latest audio offerings from Mitsubishi Motors, and rest assured that you'll be bobbing and weaving just like they do in the TV ads.
Our test vehicle included an AM/FM/six-CD head unit framed on a broad silver template that could have doubled as Robocop's chest armor. Seven speakers produce a robust 315 watts of power through four 6.25-inch full-range speakers located in the front and rear doors, two 2-inch tweeters perched at the base corners of the windshield and a hearty 8-inch subwoofer buried in the cargo area panel. The oversized buttons and knobs, more customary in a full-size truck, keep in theme with the spartan yet eye-pleasing interior. An LCD screen sitting just above the center stack reports disc and track data via a clean and user-friendly blue/black digital layout while storage abounds under the center console armrest for your CDs and applejack hat.
Performance: From Gershwin to Grand Puba, the system delivers clear, strong performance at almost every level. Rich bass output feels aftermarket with the extra push from the subwoofer, while tweeters keep the deep hums carefully balanced with distinct mids and highs. The volume tops out at a numerical "39," and one minor drawback is the faint interior rattle when you begin nearing "25" with hip-hop and techno tracks. Pop, rock and live music seem to defy this limitation; however, bass levels need to be set at the upper echelons to elude a tinny sound at higher volumes. Conversely, backseat passengers may feel overwhelmed by the bass coming from the rear, as it tends to overshadow vocals and highs coming from the front.
The LCD display screen makes radio tuning and CD-loading a breeze, however, there's a lag in the digital readout denoting the minutes and seconds of the song while advancing a specific track in play. Otherwise, it's hard to find fault with the Endeavor's hardware, presentation and performance.
Best Feature: Rich sound and ample bass at any decibel.
Worst Feature: Irritating speaker air puff on the legs of backseat passengers.
Conclusion: Able, ample and aesthetically pleasing, Endeavor delivers the audio goods and then some. Hud Giles
There was a small margin between first and third place in this comparison. Only the fourth, and last, place Toyota Highlander finished well out of the running. And that's not to say it's a bad vehicle, it's just not as good as the competition anymore. As we pointed out in our review of the Highlander, it's due for an overhaul for the 2005 model year, and we expect it will return with a vengeance.
The third-place Nissan Murano might have vied for top honors if it wasn't for its continuously variable transmission, which seemed to suck the life out of its otherwise stellar V6 power plant. It was certainly the most distinctive of the bunch, and we liked how it moved and handled, making it the most enjoyable drive out of all the vehicles in the test. Depending on your criteria, the Murano's mix of fun and fuel economy might suit you just fine.
The Honda Pilot's second-place finish came as a bit of a surprise to us. It offered the most room, a third-row seat, a buffet of standard features and a proven Honda platform, but it just wasn't a pleasure to drive. Sure, it got around OK, but for a crossover vehicle to take home the hardware, it has to make us smile sometimes when we're behind the wheel.
The Mitsubishi Endeavor offered a combination of our favorite aspects of all the vehicles in the test. Its performance and handling had the ability to make us smile; it provided a comfortable ride; its cabin was spacious and well-tailored (if not a little avant-garde); it ran well over rugged terrain; and its exterior design was aggressive. It did nothing spectacular, it just did a lot of things well. That was enough for us to award it number-one ranking in our 2003 Midsize Crossover SUVs Comparison Test.
We can't wait until next time to see how the competition responds. Until then.