2013 SUV Buying Guide: Top Recommended SUVs

SUVs Under $25,000

When it comes to transportation for small families, it's hard to beat the Honda CR-V. Thoughtful design and useful features are evident throughout, while the CR-V's generous interior dimensions make easy work of hauling people and cargo. On top of that, excellent safety scores offer a high level of confidence when shuttling your precious cargo, plus the CR-V's favorable fuel economy is a big plus for your budget. One of the only drawbacks is the lack of a more powerful engine option, but we still think most drivers will find the Honda CR-V appealing, especially when fuel economy is factored into the equation.

The Ford Escape is all-new this year and has managed to impress us right out of the gate. It checks off all of the items that a small family needs — as all good crossovers should — and sweetens the deal with agile handling, a pleasing cabin and comfortable seating for all. Unlike the Honda, the Ford Escape gives buyers the choice of three engines that all achieve favorable fuel economy ratings. Budget-conscious buyers should keep tabs on their options, though, as the price can climb very quickly as items are added.

Also new this year is the Mazda CX-5, which receives similar high marks as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. Additionally, the Mazda comes with daring styling plus a dash of fun-to-drive character. As an added bonus, the CX-5 could leave a couple thousand dollars in your pocket compared to the other crossovers. The Mazda CX-5 is a relative newcomer to our list, but its new position is certainly well deserved, especially since it puts so much sport into a segment that is otherwise perhaps a little too preoccupied with family values. The Mazda CX-5 crossover offers adventure, not just a trip to the store.

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SUVs Under $34,000

The Ford Flex is equal parts manageably sized minivan and budget limousine. The Flex's boxy profile and vast interior mean you get almost all of the utility — and passenger-carrying capacity — of a minivan, but with none of the minivan stigma. Its carlike height means there's no clambering up to get inside, while its carlike driving manners make it corner and steer a lot sharper than most minivans or crossovers. The optional EcoBoost V6 scoots the delightfully substantial package with authority, plus there's almost no fuel economy penalty compared with the base V6, although you have to watch the bottom line, as EcoBoost-equipped models can get pricey.

True to Mazda's reputation for making great vehicles that often are overshadowed by the fare from larger competitors, the Mazda CX-9 is one of the most satisfying three-row crossover SUVs you can buy at a price that is comfortably below $34,000, yet it goes widely unappreciated. When it comes to driving, the Mazda CX-9 puts the sport in sport-utility, and this makes it a favorite with us. Tool out to the mall in the CX-9 and you'll be astonished at how nimbly a seven-passenger crossover can drive. Exterior styling is clean and understated, while the interior is filled with convenience features, trimmed with uncommonly nice materials and assembled to a visibly high standard. Buying Mazda's CX-9 proves the wisdom of zigging while the rest of the world zags.

Hauling plenty of people or gear without fuss is the strong suit of the GMC Acadia, which takes a detour from the brand's rugged-truck image to put the emphasis on comfort and refinement. As many as eight occupants can travel in the Acadia, while optional all-wheel drive can see you through inclement conditions. But the Acadia is one of our top choices mainly because of its blend of versatility and premium attributes — dirty it up towing muddy off-road motorcycles on Saturday and yet the Acadia cleans up well enough to merit out-front parking at a fancy restaurant later that evening. The GMC Acadia is the new interpretation of the classic American car.

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SUVs Under $40,000

Opulent but not ostentatious, the Audi Q5 is responsibly dimensioned, has a high-quality interior and is packed with performance and utility that exceed its modest footprint. As you might expect from its European provenance, the Q5 emphasizes agile handling and confident high-speed cruising. You can choose from a wide range of powertrains that offer different combinations of performance and efficiency, encompassed by a thrifty-but-thrusty turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, a heavenly supercharged V6 or even a hybrid. Meanwhile, Audi's customary all-wheel-drive system is standard, but things start to get expensive once you get to the hybrid.

The Swedish aesthetic is in full force with the Volvo XC60, a crossover that demonstrates how hip "sensible" can be. The XC60's styling intrigues from all angles with its austere Scandinavian coolness, while the well-trimmed interior is deceptively spacious, not to mention refreshing in its lack of buttons. Meanwhile, the XC60 sublimates Volvo's wonky, safety-first legacy with an emphasis on driving dynamics, particularly from the turbocharged T6 models. It's a $6,000 jump from the base model to the T6 in order to get all-wheel drive, so check out the front-drive XC60 if you like what the XC60 says but don't necessarily need all-weather traction.

The first generation of the BMW X3 crossover wasn't one of the company's better efforts, but all that's changed now and the X3 is one of our top choices for an entry-luxury crossover. The new turbocharged four-cylinder engine is a performance marvel and is uncommonly frugal, while the 300-horsepower inline-6 helps deliver BMW nirvana in a crossover wrapper. The X3's interior is lusciously styled and trimmed, while even the base model BMW X3 offers an unusual amount of standard content, including all-wheel drive and an engine stop-start system that enhances fuel efficiency.

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SUVs Under $55,000

No matter which version of the Porsche Cayenne you select, it's no subtle cruise-around-the-block proposition. Yes, the Cayenne makes a magnificent statement. Yes, you can spend as much as you want on a Cayenne, but at well less than our $55,000 price point, even the base Cayenne has a stunningly designed interior, standard all-wheel drive and some of the most muscular sheet metal in the crossover kingdom. At a smidge more than $55,000, the new Cayenne Diesel may be the thinking buyer's choice, with performance that rivals the much pricier V8 variants and a 29 mpg rating on the highway.

The choices in this class don't get any more all-around solid than the Acura MDX. Whether it's the MDX's front-line array of high-tech electronic features, the ample performance from its 300-hp 3.7-liter V6 or the meticulous quality of its interior, the MDX simply doesn't mess around. Mix in Acura's reputation for unbeatable reliability and resale value and the MDX is a can't-miss proposition — unless you want to save some bucks and examine its little brother, the RDX, which was totally redesigned for 2013 and with 273 horses ain't no slouch, either.

"Cavernous" isn't really accurate to describe the Infiniti JX35, because a cavern also would need exquisite leather-trimmed walls and enough high-tech firepower to please a midlife-crisis Batman. The JX35 is genuinely huge inside, including its rearmost row of seats, which can handle adults (at least for a while) and is accessed via a clever new seat-tilt design that allows child seats strapped in the second row to remain in place. Infiniti's got an arsenal of available electronic features for the JX, including a system that will stop the JX completely before you reverse into something unseen. A poised highway ride and a hushed interior complement these impressions, although the V6 engine is still pretty thirsty despite the efficiency offered by the powertrain's continuously variable transmission (CVT).

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SUVs Over $55,000

Like your mom said, it's what's on the inside that counts, so consider the Infiniti QX56 for your next luxury SUV. No longer built from a pickup truck platform, the new seven- or eight-passenger QX56 impresses with a combination of old-world comfort and modern technology. A seven-speed transmission routes power from a powerful 5.6-liter V8 to either rear- or four-wheel drive, so cross-country trips feel effortless. Properly equipped, the QX is also capable of towing up to 8,500 pounds and features a tow/haul mode for the transmission as well as an automatic-leveling rear suspension. Criticisms are few, but a tight third-row seat and an exceptional fuel thirst should be noted.

Similarly well-outfitted for well-funded, large, active families in inclement climes, the seven-passenger, all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz GL-Class fulfills its mission with a range of powertrains from which to select. Either the 4.7-liter V8 or 5.4-liter V8 will blast this full-size SUV to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds, while the 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 has a cruising range of about 600 miles and can tow up to 7,500 pounds. This is a full-size SUV done in the Mercedes-Benz style, completely sophisticated and refined, like an S-Class sedan in a sport-utility suit. It might be an SUV, yet it makes every drive an occasion.

Finally, if either Rodeo Drive or the Rubicon Trail beckons, there are few tools as posh or as well equipped for the job as the aptly named Land Rover Range Rover. With its impeccable 40-year pedigree of off-road prowess and a choice of two powerful V8 engines, the aluminum-intensive Range Rover sheds some 700 pounds this year in an effort to improve its traditionally poor fuel economy. It will continue, however, to indulge up to five passengers thanks to an entirely redesigned interior that's one of the most opulent extant, boasting a 1,700-watt, 29-speaker audio system, front seats that can move in 20 different directions while massaging your buttocks in five different ways, optional LED ambient mood lighting, and a heated windshield. All this and go-anywhere mobility besides, from snowy wilderness cabin to fashionable downtown restaurant.

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