The bickering started late in the evening -- over platters of bangers and mash and pitchers of beer -- at West Hollywood's best attempt at an authentic Irish pub. Dublin's, a crowded and noisy joint on Sunset Strip, was the locale Edmund's editors chose for picking the finalists of the annual Edmund's Most Wanted List. We picked Dublin's because we thought the jovial atmosphere would suit the fun we were certain to have talking about cars and drinking beers on the company dime. Indeed, throughout the night we enjoyed many laughs and engaged in the friendly give-and-take that is typical of any committee-made decision. The routine bluffing and ribbing over lame favorites was all in good fun, and we sailed quickly through the list, displaying our maturity and keen sense of purpose as we named vehicle after vehicle to our roster of favorites.
As we neared the home stretch and ordered another pitcher of lager the unthinkable happened; an argument broke out over what deserved the honor of being named Edmund's Most Wanted full-size sport-utility vehicle. As I poured another frothy pint, I almost laughed out loud. I mean, really, we had no difficulty deciding on truly tough choices, like the best sports sedan under $50,000 and best overall sports car. How could a group of car nuts get hung up on naming the best full-size sport-ute?
The bickering escalated into name-calling and tempers began flaring, so I wisely collected all of the spoons and handed them off to a passing waitress. (Anyone who has ever witnessed the dreaded spoon duels of Saskatchewan can understand why I took this precaution.) Suddenly, lightning flashed overhead, a dog cried out in the distance, and all conversation in the room fell to a hush, as Technical Editor Karl Brauer and News Editor John Clor squared off against each other in an odd chest-puffing dance best left to hormone-addled roosters.
"Damn it, Karl, you know the Suburban is the best sport utility in the country," said Clor, light from the neon Rolling Rock sign flickering ominously off of his sweat-flecked brow.
"You've got to be kidding," Brauer shot back in a low growl. "Everyone knows the Land Cruiser is the safari vehicle of choice on five continents."
Clor laughed heartily, "I'd like to see a Land Cruiser haul nine kids to hockey practice."
"Yeah? I'd like to see the Suburban make it a year without a major repair," rejoined Karl.
"The Cruiser is over-priced and under-powered," said Clor sardonically.
"The Suburban is old-tech junk," countered Brauer.
"The Suburban is an American icon," thundered Clor.
"The Land Cruiser is a world-wide legend," screamed Brauer.
By this point, all eyes were fixed on our table. Patrons sitting near us scrambled away like cockroaches, certain that a poorly aimed fistful of mashed potatoes was about to be hurled by one of our surly combatants. Seeing the bouncer at the front door shifting uneasily on his large, stump-like legs, Features Editor Ingrid Palmer valiantly tried to make a truce.
"Come on guys, this isn't such a big deal," she said reasonably. " I'm certain we can agree on something. How about the Ford Expedition?"
"Not the Expedition," howled Editor-in-Chief Christian Wardlaw. "It's the worst of all."
"Range Rover?" I tried, hoping, like Palmer, to defuse the volatile situation.
The collection of now-riled editors shot me derisive looks that said, "You've got to be kidding."
"What about the Hummer?" Senior Editor Greg Anderson asked. "It can go places the others only dream of."
"No!" bellowed the assembled editors.
And so the battle raged, icy glares flew across the table like footballs from John Elway's fingertips. Friends and comrades picked sides like the characters on the TV miniseries, "North and South." After what seemed like hours, we finally decided on the Toyota Land Cruiser as our pick for the Most Wanted List, but the agreement was no more certain than the outcome of the Middle East peace talks. Each of us knew in our heart of hearts that someday there would be a showdown to see which full-size sport-utility vehicle reigns supreme.
Two months later, we were assembled in West Hollywood again; preparing to embark on the sport-ute test that was to decide a question that had nearly torn our editorial board asunder. Each of us had forced the incident at Dublin's to the back of our minds over the intervening months; resuming the cordial, professional relationship that typifies Edmund's interoffice communication. Now, though, with several tons of American and Japanese steel assembled for our test, the old rivalries bubbled to the surface again. Barbed comments were traded about the assumed merits of each vehicle, and it became apparent that we needed to get the show on the road before things devolved into a schoolyard scuffle.
For our test we had acquired a Chevrolet Suburban K2500, Ford Expedition, GMC Denali, Isuzu Trooper, and Toyota Land Cruiser. Some notable vehicles did not appear on our list, due to the criteria that we established to designate what constitutes a full-size sport-utility vehicle. To be eligible for our test, the SUV in question had to have four-wheel drive and a cargo area of at least 90 cubic feet. We used cargo capacity as our defining standard, because it seemed that in order to fulfill the "utility" side of the full-size moniker, the trucks should be capable of hauling more than a garden-variety Ford Explorer or Chevrolet Blazer. As strange as it may seem, a relatively small vehicle like the Isuzu Trooper made it into the test, while scale-tipping vehicles like the AM General Hummer and Land Rover Range Rover did not have the requisite cargo capacity to be considered.
Despite rumblings to the contrary, each of us recognized the inherent brawniness that each of the assembled trucks exhibited. Although the differences in size and styling were clearly evident, we were hard-pressed to find an ugly cousin in the bunch. High marks were handed to the modern-looking Ford Expedition, which stood tall and purposeful, decked out in two-tone paint and stylish aluminum wheels. Likewise, no one could find fault with the carved-from-a-cinder-block look of the Chevy Suburban, which conveyed a solid sense of purpose seldom seen outside of military machines. Not everything was perfect, however; some on our staff wished the Trooper had arrived in a different color - the truck's gleaming white flanks gave the Isuzu a washing machine-like appearance that earned the truck the nickname 'Maytag.' A few on our staff found the recently redesigned Toyota Land Cruiser a bit too bulbous in appearance, thinking that the designers may have goofed when messing with the formula that made the previous-generation Cruiser such a dreamboat. Likewise, our staff was undecided about the appearance of the Denali; some of us thought that its jewel-like green paint, integrated running boards, and shaved nose made it look overdone for a segment that is supposed to be about substance, not flash.
The engines in our assembled workhorses ranged in size from a 3.5-liter V6 to a 7.4-liter V8. Despite the wide vagaries in displacement and horsepower, none of the motors could be called an outright slouch.
The optional 7.4-liter Vortec V8 powerplant in our Suburban K2500 was the pure power winner, offering drivers 290 horsepower @ 4000 rpm and 410 foot-pounds of torque @ 3200 rpm. Although the big Chevy's engine posted the most impressive raw numbers, its overhead-valve design did feel somewhat old fashioned at times.
The next brawniest engine could be found under the hood of the Ford Expedition, and was a 5.4-liter Triton V8 with a modern overhead-cam design. The motor makes 260 horsepower @ 4500 rpm and 345 foot-pounds of torque @ 2300 rpm.
The GMC Denali took third-place honors with the 5.7-liter Vortec V8 sitting in its engine bay. The only other overhead-valve engine in the group, this modern derivative of GM's famous small block 350 puts out 255 horsepower @ 4600 rpm and 330 foot-pounds of torque @ 2800 rpm.
The Toyota Land Cruiser comes in at a lowly fourth place in the pure power category, offering drivers a mere 230 horsepower @ 4800 rpm and 320 foot-pounds of torque @ 3600 rpm. The most sophisticated of all of the motors, this silky-smooth 4.0-liter overhead-cam V8 was borrowed from the Lexus LS400, and features Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVTi), the first application of such technology on a truck.
The Isuzu Trooper weighed in with the smallest engine, a 3.5-liter V6 making 215 horsepower @ 5400 rpm and 232 foot-pounds of torque @ 3000 rpm. Despite the penalties associated with having two fewer cylinders than the competition, the Trooper was able to stay in the hunt by offering nearly as much horsepower and torque as several of the larger, heavier trucks.
Of course, pure power can cause pure mayhem on your pocketbook when it comes time to fill any of these gas-guzzling beasts -- none of our trucks was shy about ordering a five-fingered shot of fossil fuel each time we stopped at the pumps. Nevertheless, the overhead-cam engines, despite wide ranges in displacement, turned in consistently better mileage than our trucks equipped with overhead-valve motors; often bettering them by as much as 2-3 mpg over the same terrain. Despite this, not even our fuel-sipping (relative term only) Land Cruiser is likely to get a commendation from the Sierra Club. Its combined 14.6-mpg average over the course of our trip hardly qualifies as fuel efficient. The trip averages for all of the trucks are as follows:
Chevrolet Suburban: 10.6 mpg
Ford Expedition: 14.1 mpg
GMC Denali: 12.7 mpg
Isuzu Trooper: 14.5 mpg
Toyota Land Cruiser: 14.6 mpg
There are many reasons that buyers choose full-size sport-utility vehicles, but the most common motivations we hear are that sport-ute shoppers want to increase their ability to haul people and gear. As we mentioned previously, this is why we considered cargo capacity to be the defining criteria of what it takes to be a full-size sport-utility vehicle.
Since there are more capacity measurements in this class of vehicles than you can shake a stick at, you'll notice that we parsed down the list to include only those things that we feel are critical to the full-size SUV shopper: maximum cargo capacity (with seats folded and stowed), maximum payload, maximum towing capacity (when equipped with optional towing package), and maximum seating (when ordered with optional seats). Below you will find a chart outlining how our five entrants measured up.
Cargo capacity: 149.5 cubic feet
Maximum payload: 2914 lbs.
Maximum tow load: 10,000 lbs.
Maximum seating: 9
Cargo capacity: 118 cubic feet
Maximum payload: 1800 lbs.
Maximum tow load: 8,000 lbs.
Maximum seating: 8
Cargo capacity: 118.2 cubic feet
Maximum payload: 1423 lbs.
Maximum tow load: 6,500 lbs.
Maximum seating: 5
Isuzu Trooper: Cargo capacity: 90.2 cubic feet
Maximum payload: 980 lbs.
Maximum tow load: 5,000 lbs.
Maximum seating: 5
Toyota Land Cruiser:
Cargo capacity: 97.5 cubic feet
Maximum payload: 1745 lbs.
Maximum tow load: 6,500 lbs.
Maximum seating: 7
The choices are clear for large families or for those who have a yacht that they like to trailer around the country. The biggest of the big American sport-utes (Suburban and Expedition) are the only ones that'll do for Kennedy-sized families that like to tow stuff.
This is where things start to get interesting. The balance between capacity and practicality is often an inverse relationship. The bigger a vehicle, the harder it can be to move down the road. Therefore, what may be good for the family of seven is simply too much for the family of five. Finding the right combination of size, power, comfort and driveability can be a Herculean task, and is what we undertook during this test.
We began our journey in West Hollywood, Calif., and took a long trip to Flagstaff, Ariz., to measure such intangibles as over-the-road comfort, driveability, real-life interior comfort, actual cargo capacity and off-road prowess. Our test took us across the glass smooth tarmac of I-10, the twisty two-lane roads of Oak Creek Canyon, and Class II four-wheel drive trails with a trained four-wheeling guide. We spent hours in the parking lot of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel loading all of our baggage into each of the five trucks, and then piled the editors in for a trip around town to test backseat comfort. It was a grueling couple of days, with lots of sore butts, splitting headaches, bed bugs, and bad food, but at the end of our journey the decision of who builds the best full-size sport utility was easy to make.
After a few minutes behind the wheel of the Toyota Land Cruiser, each of our editors agreed that it offered the best on-road performance of any truck in this segment. The Cruiser's long wheelbase contributes to a supple ride that is well damped at all four corners, and its steering is nicely balanced and weighted for such a heavy vehicle. During our nightly discussions, we often referred to the Land Cruiser as a car, distinctly separating it from the very truck-like competitors in our test. Part of this is due to the Land Cruiser's engine, which is taken from the Lexus LS400 and reworked for duty in this large truck. The overhead-cam engine with Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVTi) is a first in the truck segment, and offers the Land Cruiser a definite edge in power delivery, quietness and fuel economy.
One of our drivers proclaimed the Land Cruiser, somewhat derisively, "the Camry of sport-utes," a backhanded compliment that refers to the truck's no-brainer ease of operation, as well as to its somewhat blank personality. Nevertheless, there was nothing else in our test that even came close to offering this truck's level of control and ease of operation on the freeway and two-lane roads.
The big surprise of the day came from the GMC Denali, a truck that none of us expected to like because of its flashy pretension. Truth be told, most of Edmund's editors were guilty of condemning the Denali to also-ran status during our pre-test discussions. Imagine our surprise when we found that the transformation from workaday GMC Yukon into the highbrow GMC Denali brought more with it than a set of embroidered floor mats and chrome wheels.
A well-damped suspension, and, get this, good on-center steering feel vaulted the Denali to second place in our on-road portion of the test. Better placement of the brake pedal and improved brake-pedal feel might have been enough to give the Denali, with its stump-pulling engine, enough gumption to move into first place, but, alas, it was not to be. Too many of us felt that the Denali's mushy brakes were too damn scary to be safe.
The Chevrolet Suburban came in third place during our on-road portion of the test, yet was still a favorite of those on our staff who love trucks for their own sake. Unlike the Denali and Land Cruiser, which offer drivers plush rides and one-handed steering, the Suburban is an old-fashioned truck in every sense.
With a length of more than 18 feet, the Suburban can be a handful. Extra care must be taken when negotiating tight parking lots; a slight miscalculation could result in the demolition of a nearby building. The Suburban's size and horrible rearward blind spots caused by the panel doors required that we also bear some consideration for the little guy when on highways or two-lane roads. It's easy to forget about the smaller vehicles when you are the biggest thing in town, and most of our drivers found it necessary to check twice for stray Accords and Centurys before making a lane change in the Suburban.
That said, many of us were impressed with the Suburban's on-road manners. Despite its size it handled the two-lane portion of our test with little fanfare, negotiating tight corners much better than the similarly sized Ford Expedition. The Suburban also had good legs for running along the Interstate; its monstrous 7.4-liter engine offered up heaping spoonfuls of passing power regardless of incline or altitude. Steering, however, was numb off-center, a characteristic of all of GM's full-size offerings except the Denali and the Cadillac Escalade, and the brakes suffered the same mushiness as the Denali. An impressive effort for such a big truck, but not quite enough to place it higher than mid-pack.
The Trooper came in fourth place; our drivers thought it felt very top heavy and found that it rolled way too much in moderate turns. In spite of this, there was nothing to lead us to believe that we were less safe in the Trooper than in the Suburban, Denali or Land Cruiser. We pushed the Trooper as hard as we think anyone should try to push a sport-ute, and never felt like we were going to end up on our heads. Nevertheless, the continuous side-to-side motion of the Trooper on twisty roads is unsettling after more than a few minutes.
On the plus side of the ledger, the entire staff liked the Trooper's large side mirrors that made its rearward visibility among the best in the test. Furthermore, Wardlaw liked the Trooper's intelligent automatic transmission that didn't try to shift into overdrive when climbing steep hills. A more powerful engine, tighter steering, and more controlled body motions would have undoubtedly improved the Trooper's showing in the on-road portion of the test.
The Ford Expedition finished last in our on-road-driving test because it is simply too much work to drive. The Expedition's overly sensitive steering required constant correction and its body roll was the worst of the bunch. The Expedition wasn't just spooky on the two-lane portion of our test; it required two-handed steering on portions of the Interstate. A 5200-pound vehicle should feel more solid than did our Expedition.
On the upside, the Expedition had excellent visibility, extra-large outside mirrors with cool integrated turn signals, and a powerful engine. Unfortunately, the Expedition's transmission couldn't seem to maximize the engine's power because the truck was constantly hunting between third gear and overdrive on the uphill portions of our test.
The fact that our Land Cruiser proved to be the best off-road vehicle came as no surprise to our guide from Arizona Adventures, Drew Tedeschi. Tedeschi has guided off-roaders for nearly two decades, and has tackled some of the toughest terrain in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. He thinks that nothing compares to Land Cruisers when the road ends.
Helping us navigate Class I and II trails was probably no big deal for Tedeschi, but it proved to be more than enough for us to gauge the off-road abilities of our assembled troop of vehicles. When the dust settled, it was clear that there was one vehicle in the group, and only one, that was purpose built for serious off-roading: the Toyota Land Cruiser.
The Land Cruiser was able to tackle the hardest terrain of the day without breaking a sweat. The Cruiser's suspension smoothed out bumps and its precise steering made it easy to pick a line and stick to it. Heck, it even offered a remote radio antenna controller that allowed our drivers to adjust the height of the antenna from inside the vehicle; perfect for making sure that the thing wouldn't get snapped off by an errant branch.
Brauer commented that the Land Cruiser was the only sport-ute in our test that could be driven over the more difficult sections of our route one-handed. Palmer agreed, stating that the Land Cruiser was so good that it was almost boring on the relatively easy trails we traversed. I found the Land Cruiser to be the most forgiving of our novice four-wheeler mistakes. The Land Cruiser refused to punish us for stupid approaches and departures, literally gliding across boulder-strewn terrain. Anderson made the point that despite its high price tag, he was least afraid of damaging the Land Cruiser. He found that it lived up to its name by turning the nastiest terrain into a veritable pleasure cruise.
The only complaint registered about the Land Cruiser's off-road experience was its tendency to lurch into second gear when creeping along, sometimes disrupting a careful ascent over steep terrain.
The second place finisher in the off-road portion of the test was the nimble Isuzu Trooper. Easily the smallest vehicle in the test, the Trooper had the uncanny ability to squeeze through narrow openings on the trail that the other trucks had to lumber awkwardly through. The Trooper's short hood length also made it simple to line up an approach for the trickier aspects of the terrain, prompting Palmer to state that she felt most confident in this truck.
Clor found that the Trooper's smaller engine was not the penalty he expected on the tough river-bottom trails, commenting on the fact that the Trooper always had more than enough grunt to clamber over steep outcroppings and large boulders. All was not perfect in Trooperville, however, and things like inadequate ground clearance and a slow steering ratio kept it from taking the top off-road honors. Nevertheless, the Trooper proved to be the little engine that could off road, surprising all of our editors with its natural rock-climbing ability.
The battle for third place proved to be a vicious one, as the Denali barely managed to edge out the Expedition for the bronze medal. Again, the Green Machine managed to surprise us with its abilities, climbing over rocks and negotiating tight trails better than the hulking Suburban and wallowy Expedition.
The Denali's main off-road assets over the fourth- and fifth-place finishers were its steering and somewhat shorter wheelbase, both of which made it easier to maneuver on the admittedly narrow trail better than the largest competitors. The Denali's suspension, ostensibly geared towards an on-road bias, also seemed better at preserving our drivers' backsides, bouncing occupants much less than we expected.
The Denali did suffer on the trail, however; its integrated running boards were snagged enough times that we were afraid we might lose them. It also ended up with the worst paint scratches in the group, which was a real heartbreaker for those of us who came to love its emerald-green glow. Despite its four-wheel-drive competency, the worry that all of our drivers felt about scratching the Denali's paint and wrecking its running boards compelled Wardlaw to muse whether it was worth taking such a pretty, high-buck sport utility off road. We doubt that many owners will say yes to that question.
The fourth-place winner was the Ford Expedition, a competent trail buster that may have suffered somewhat because of the nature of our chosen route. Too long to negotiate the constricted jogs in the road, drivers of the Expedition often found it necessary to back up and try again.
Like the Denali, the Expedition's running boards also took a beating on the trail, serving as expensive rock-homing devices for some of our less-experienced off-roader drivers. Bruises notwithstanding, the Expedition faired well over the trail, giving the Denali a hard run for third place. I found that the brakes and steering, which felt overly responsive on the road, were perfectly suited for creeping over boulders. Minor corrections to the steering wheel and brake pedal allowed me to slither slowly over obstructions that other trucks in the group just could not finesse. This was truly a surprising accomplishment in an eight-passenger vehicle.
Unfortunately, the Expedition exhibited a great many creaks and groans when traveling over the rougher portions of the trail, prompting Wardlaw to wonder whether or not it would be able to stand up to the routine abuse of off-roading for any extended period of time. This, beyond anything else, kept us from naming the Expedition the third-place winner.
In its defense, we must acknowledge that river washes are not really the kind of places where Suburban drivers are likely to spend a lot of time. Nevertheless, the most technical portion of our off-road adventure took place in a river wash, and the Suburban didn't do well there.
Several of our drivers found the Suburban's heavy-duty suspension much too harsh for boulder bashing, punishing our drivers' heads and necks with every bounce over the trail. As one of our editors said of the Suburban, "When you mess up in this truck, it hits back."
The Suburban's 18-foot length was also not a benefit on the steep trail; Wardlaw caught himself banging the rear differential on obstacles he had thought were long past him. This long wheelbase also contributed to our editors' tendency to high center the Suburban on uneven ground and large boulders.
The Suburban's long hood forced drivers to set up approaches from too far away, and many of us found that we had forgotten what we were driving over by the time it was under the Suburban's tires. Likewise, the Suburban's towering height gave some of our drivers a false sense of security regarding the vehicle's ground clearance; security that quickly evaporated as rocks bashed against the truck's undercarriage, sounding like toddlers in a room full of pots and wooden spoons.
With such a monster test, it would be easy to ramble on forever about which vehicle had the most cupholders, seating adjustments and interior doo-dads. All of these vehicles land in the high-zoot spectrum of the truck market and none of them would be truly disappointing from an interior standpoint. There are combinations that some of us prefer; the soft luxury of the supple hides in both the Land Cruiser and Denali was a particular favorite. We also liked the seating position and dash layout in the Expedition, which won accolades from everyone except the quixotic Wardlaw, who thought the Expedition's ovoid and protruding dash looked like a mass of melting Jell-O. There were also some interior features that weren't appreciated, like the Suburban and Denali's exposed screw heads on the door panels and the Trooper's small-buttoned stereo head unit, but none of the vehicles qualified as an ergonomic or design nightmare.
Amazingly, we were able to fit all of our drivers and their luggage into each of the assembled vehicles. This included multiple suitcases, laptop computers, camera bags, early Christmas gifts, stray shoes, and countless duffel bags. Some handled the load easier than others did (the Denali and the Suburban didn't even require concentrated packing), but all could be loaded to the max and driven around town with without anyone suffering. Nevertheless, if people moving is your thing, the Suburban (with max seating for nine) or the Expedition (with max seating for eight) would have to top your list.
Before we announce the winner, it's important to recognize that these results apply to more than just the vehicles included in our test. All of the vehicles in our test are rebadged and sold as other models. The list that follows will help you keep things straight when you are confronted with other full-size sport-utes.
A.k.a GMC Suburban (Like most of GMC's current lineup, there is little other than the badge on the grille to distinguish these two Suburbans.)
A.k.a. Lincoln Navigator (A powerful 300-horsepower engine, second row captains' chairs, formal chrome grille, and a healthy load of luxury features separates the Navigator from its humble progenitor.)
GMC Yukon Denali:
A.k.a. GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe, Cadillac Escalade (The Yukon, Tahoe and Escalade are all built on the same large truck platform. The Tahoe and Yukon slot beneath the Denali in terms of luxury and refinement, while the Escalade is slightly ahead of the Denali in the snob-appeal game.)
A.k.a. Acura SLX (Nothing but a name separates the Acura SLX and the downmarket Trooper.)
Toyota Land Cruiser:
A.k.a. Lexus LX470 (The LX470 gets all of the Land Cruiser's options as standard equipment. Other than that, there are no differences between the trucks.)
The Isuzu Trooper came in last place, not because of any inherent badness about the vehicle, but simply because it was out-gunned in too many categories. Too few horsepower, too confining of an interior, and too many rattles kept the Trooper from doing better in our full-size SUV comparison.
The truth is that the Trooper would probably dominate a comparison of midsized sport-utes like the Explorer, Blazer, Montero Sport, and Nissan Pathfinder, and, in reality, that is the market against which the Trooper is most often shopped. Nevertheless, the Trooper fit our criteria, so we pitted it against the big boys.
Despite its last-place finish, shoppers could benefit from the Trooper. Normal-sized families looking for a medium-to-large vehicle for family trips or running around town will not be disappointed with this Isuzu. In fact, its deficiencies in the test, namely its smaller size and less-powerful engine, could spell real-life gains -- especially when it comes to driving on crowded streets and paying for gas. Our Trooper's price tag is one additional feature that could move it up the list for some families. Our Trooper's sticker was $10,000 lower than anything else in the test, and $10,000 could pay for a lot of nice salmon steaks on those camping trips.
The fourth-place finisher was the Ford Expedition, a surprise for those of us who have been longtime fans of its powerful engine, modern design and impressive list of standard features. Like the Trooper, there was nothing horrible about the Expedition; it just didn't perform to the level we hoped when measured against the assembled competition.
Unfortunately, the Expedition was perceived to be the vehicle most likely to break during the off-road section of our test, and proved too difficult to drive confidently during the on-road section of our test. It was also the most difficult vehicle to load with our luggage, because there is little room behind the optional third-row seat. The third-row seat can be folded, which is what we did in our test, or it can be removed entirely. However, folding or stowing the seat knocks the Expedition down to five-passenger capacity.
The Expedition is a sales-leader in this growing market, and will remain so as long as people keep buying big sport-utes. Like many of Ford's products, the Expedition takes aim at a large group of people instead of a narrow, targeted market. The result is that the Expedition can win the sales crown without being the best in any single category. The idea is: appeal to a broad group, sell to a broad group. From a business standpoint, it's hard to argue with that type of idea. However, since we're journalists, not businesspeople, we'd like to see Ford concentrate more on a few specific areas, like on-road handling and off-road ruggedness.
The Suburban didn't win or place, but it sure did show. The Suburban showed us how to haul nine people in comfort; it showed us how to carry more gear than an Everest expedition, and it showed us that biggest doesn't always mean best.
All of the trucks in this test can move lots of stuff. The Suburban, though, takes stuff-moving to an artistic level. With the largest people, cargo, and towing capacity of any sport utility on the market, the Suburban is truly unmatched as a stuff-hauler.
Edmund's majority consensus, though, is that most people would not benefit from the Suburban's giant capacities on a regular basis. (If you are one of the people who do need that much space and power, however, quit reading here and call the Suburban the winner.) We feel that the trade-off between the Suburban's large size and everyday practicality may not justify its purchase.
The Suburban is hard to park, difficult to maneuver, and not very impressive off road. Its steering is slow, its brakes are mushy, and it has a cheap plastic dashboard. The Suburban is also priced within $1,000 of the very similar and much more manageable Denali, a truck who's presence undoubtedly kept the Suburban out of second place.
The Denali has most of the Suburban's benefits without as many of its faults. The Denali is large and offers a giant cargo space, but is designed to carry only five people, so it doesn't have to be as long as the Suburban, making it easier to park and maneuver.
GMC targeted the true luxury market with the Denali, so most of its interior materials are higher quality than those found in the Suburban. The Denali also has a better on- and off-road ride than the Suburban, a miraculous achievement considering that both trucks are built on the same platform with nearly identical parts.
GMC's Denali surprised Edmund's editors with its excellent road manners and more-rugged-than-expected attitude. The large truck platform that spawned GM's previous-generation of full-size pickup trucks and current lineup of full-size SUVs are notorious for their numb steering and slow response. Somehow, GMC was able to take that characteristic out of the Denali and imbue it with something approaching real road feel; an impressive feat in any sport-utility vehicle, doubly so for a large GM truck. Edmund's tips its collective hat to the Denali. We expected it to finish dead last, and it stole our hearts on its way to second place.
The hands-down winner of our full-size sport-ute roundup was the Toyota Land Cruiser. Better on-road than many cars, better off-road than a mountain bike, the Toyota swept every driving test we could throw its direction.
You are probably wondering if we are off our rockers, since Edmund's typically prizes value over pure performance, and there is a $6,000 price penalty for those who choose the Land Cruiser over the Denali. Is the Toyota really worth that much of an increase? You bet it is.
Although none of the trucks in this test was a slouch, none came close to matching the Land Cruiser's interior luxury, highway performance, off-road prowess, and all-around livability. Not the biggest, but by no means small, the Land Cruiser can haul seven people with its optional flip-down rear seats, or can move a considerable amount of gear. Beyond that, the Land Cruiser possesses an unimpregnable build quality that no amount of off-roading can tear apart.
In the final analysis, it looks like Edmund's editors made the right choice on that fateful night last fall. Our choice then for best full-size sport-utility vehicle was the Toyota Land Cruiser, and, after a multi-day flog through all types of conditions, it remains so. Nice job Toyota. Now, if only we can agree on where to hold our next editorial meeting.