Sport-utility vehicles promise adventure and world-expanding capabilities to enhance our dull lives. Most SUVs actually can, at least to a degree, deliver on this promise. However, there is an ingredient often lacking from the recipe for adventure--a person behind the wheel that will tackle life in such a hearty way. The truth is, SUVs primarily serve as all-weather people movers shuttling kids from one diversion to another. This apparently is enough adventure for most.
With this in mind, we gathered eight of the most popular mid-size SUVs (with seating for five to eight) and put them to the test--on the highway, through twisty back roads, and over dirt roads made very sloppy by lots of Michigan snow and slush. As we drove, their strengths, weaknesses, and distinct personalities came to the fore. Here's how they stacked up.
The Seating Solution
The introduction of the third-row seat has allowed some SUVs to further encroach on the minivan's turf as the family vehicle of choice. If the comfort of those banished to the back row is a top priority, then none of these mid-size SUVs is truly the answer. What a third-row seat offers is one final, credible rationalization to keep a minivan out of the garage.
Not all of the SUVs in our test offer third-row seats. If you're shopping Toyota, you'll have to walk right past the 4Runner and step up to the Sequoia. Jeep fans will have to wait until the Hummer-esque, seven-passenger Commander hits the market this fall. If the Buick Rainier catches your eye, you'll have to opt for its platform-mate from GMC or the Trailblazer EXT we tested here. If you want more than five seats in that Mitsubishi Endeavor, you'll have to shop a different brand altogether.
Four of the eight SUVs in our test offer third-row seating. The Honda Pilot's three-across third row is the most ambitious, making it the only eight-seater in our test. To access the Pilot's rearmost seating, the entire second-row seat slides forward on tracks, creating a narrow alley. Getting in and out isn't easy, and once you're there the lack of foot and knee room makes it a place strictly for kids. The Chevy Trailblazer EXT, Ford Explorer, and Nissan Pathfinder all have individual flip-forward chairs that allow more spacious access to the third-row. The Trailblazer EXT's third row was the unquestioned champ in both ingress/egress and adult-friendly comfort thanks to its wide pass-through, generous foot- and knee-room, and effective theater seating. The Explorer's pass-through was fine, but the seating position suffered from tight foot space and a low bench, while the Pathfinder ranked slightly above the Explorer in seating comfort but a bit below it for rear-row access.
Okay, our SUVs are all loaded up. Let's hit the road and see what they're like to drive.
Buick Rainier CXL AWD
The Rainier is Buick's first true attempt at an SUV (the Rendezvous is more of a minivan-based crossover). Although it shares a platform with Chevy's Trailblazer, the Rainier has been tuned with traditional Buick luxury in mind. That makes for the softest ride in our group, insulating passengers from any imperfections in their path. It seems that Buick engineers went to great lengths to dampen any external stimuli. The Rainier is commendably quiet and comfortable, but that comfort comes at the expense of control. The ride quickly goes from soft to downright floaty, and body control deteriorates. This is the SUV for the retired doctor who just loved his Buick Park Avenue.
Inside, the Rainier is a mishmash of hits and misses. Comfortable leather seats (with blazing heaters that will conquer arctic cold in mere seconds) and elegant gauges are let down by a lack of interior storage and a poor dash layout. The partially wood-rimmed steering wheel feels great to the touch, but the interior wood's dark hue and plastic sheen does little to liven up the drab gray plastic. The Rainier does excel on the utility side of the ledger with clever rear headrests that flip back automatically when the rear seats are folded down to make a flat load floor.
We tested the Rainier CXL AWD in both I-6 and V-8 forms. The 4.2-liter 275-hp I-6 generates 275 lb-ft of torque, providing perfectly acceptable performance for most situations. The Vortec 5300 V-8 is a worthy upgrade with minimal impact on fuel consumption (15/20 mpg city/highway for the I-6 versus 15/19 for the V-8). The V-8's additional power is welcome when merging on the highway or for that extra thrust entering the fast lane. Identically equipped except for the engine, our I-6 retailed for $37,860 while the V-8 was $39,010. Of course, that's MSRP. Like all of GM's big SUVs, the Rainier should be available with generous incentives. That's a good thing, because dynamically, the Rainier clearly is a step off the pace.
Chevy Trailblazer EXT LT AWD
As platform-mates, the Trailblazer and Rainier share most of the same components, but different suspension tuning makes for subtle but important differences in their driving demeanors. The Trailblazer's suspension is still on the soft side, but it provides a better compromise between comfort and body control.
As you might expect, the Chevy's interior is the same hit-and-miss proposition as the Buick. The dash is finished in the same expanse of gray plastic, but it's even more unrelenting in the Chevy. Compared with the Rainier, more cup holders and better storage bins make life nicer for the driver, but the fit and finish still fall short of the competition. The bright touch-screen LCD that comes with XM Satellite Radio and Bose premium sound is a nice high-tech flourish in an otherwise old-think interior.
Our seven-seat, V-8-powered Trailblazer EXT (base price $34,220) was optioned to $39,875, making it the second-most-expensive SUV in this test. While it offers the most spacious accommodations for seven, that's a mighty steep price for a package that falls toward the bottom of the pecking order in presentation and performance.
Honda Pilot EX-L
Take a seat in the Honda Pilot and you're instantly at home with a great driving position and an ergonomically excellent layout. The center console, the epitome of fresh thinking, encompasses two cup holders and storage bins within storage bins that can seemingly store and compartmentalize your entire life. The Pilot's cockpit is the most thoughtfully arranged in this test. The interior's dour all-black color scheme could use some contrast, but at least the materials are top quality.
Like many Hondas, the Pilot feels faster than the middling 255-hp output from its 3.5-liter V-6 would suggest; acceleration always feels swift and athletic. Unfortunately, "athletic" doesn't always describe the Pilot's handling. Though it provides far better body control than the GM vehicles, the Honda still allows some bouncy head toss over bumps. Cornering is solid but never a lot of fun. Get too enthusiastic in the corners and heavy understeer enters the fray like an overprotective soccer mom, resulting in unseemly body roll and front-end plow. The Pilot is a very nice place to go about your day, but it's not where you'd go to spend recess.
With heated leather seats and a six-disc, in-dash stereo as standard, our test vehicle felt plenty upmarket. Yet, at a mere $34,635, it was the third-cheapest entrant in our test. We can forgive its benign handling given the quality, value, and expected reliability.
Mitsubishi Endeavor Limited AWD
Mitsubishi's Endeavor looks like it was the product of some "outside the box" thinking. The unique interior is the most modern in our octet and has a refreshing, airy feel. The designers hit a few false notes in the final presentation: The center control stack feels both too low and too upright to be deciphered at a glance--a condition made worse in daylight by the ice-blue hue of the controls' lighting. Interior plastics are also a notch below the Honda's. Still, the Endeavor comes across as a hip refuge for the individualist.
Mitsubishi engineers have endowed the Endeavor with superb body control and a taut suspension that handles bumps and dips with aplomb. Things fall a bit short of stellar due to numb steering feel that enhances the impression of understeer, but our judges were unanimous: The Endeavor is more rewarding to drive hard than the playing-it-safe Pilot. The Endeavor's 3.8-liter V-6 generates the lowest horsepower and torque ratings in our test (225-hp and 255 lb-ft) and its level of refinement is mid-pack, but it provides solid acceleration and a hard-edged, metallic snarl that is pleasing to our enthusiast-tuned ears.
The Endeavor was the second-cheapest model in our test, its as-tested price of $34,463 just barely undercutting the Honda. It definitely has some rough edges compared with the carefully polished Pilot, but these snags could just as easily be counted as positives in the personality column.
Ford Explorer XLT 4x4
Let's get right to our conclusion on the Ford Explorer: We all agreed when one tester said, "It feels like a really good four-year-old SUV." This is logical, since this is exactly what it is. To be clear, our conclusion was uttered without any hint of condescension. The fact remains that the Explorer is still really good.
It's easy to understand why one might approach the Explorer with some skepticism. Open the door and you're met by a tall, wide dash and an oppressively high cowl. It screams old-Detroit so strongly that it's hard not to expect the moves of an old Detroit pickup. Then you start driving and you're struck by body control and handling that rank right near the top of our group. The Explorer initially feels big, but it seems to shrink around you as you drive.
It's in the engine bay that the Explorer begins to shows its age. Of the four V-8's in this test, the Explorer's 4.6-liter mill is the smallest, and its output (239 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque) ranks at the bottom. It seems to generate as much induction roar as it does forward progress. It's even outgunned by most of the six-cylinders in this group. The Explorer XLT 4x4 starts at $32,675. Adding options like a power moonroof ($850), Ford's safety canopy air bags ($560), an audiophile in-dash six-CD stereo ($510), and the third-row seat package ($795), and our as-tested price reached $38,215--squarely in the middle ground. Though suspension and powertrain updates are coming for 2006, today's Explorer still displays rock-solid capabilities in a simple, straightforward package.
Nissan Pathfinder LE 4X4
The Pathfinder is the newest model in this test. The fact that our test subject was technically still a prototype was moot since everything felt nicely screwed together. The Pathfinder's clean, geometric design theme was everyone's favorite, looking aggressive without trying too hard. The cabin is tastefully designed, with fake wood trim that looked better than the real stuff in the Buick. Add the Pathfinder's fine outward visibility (marred only by a too-small rear wiper), and you have a very nice driving environment.
The Pathfinder has one of the more stiffly sprung suspensions in our group--showing its tough truck roots--but it has enough compliance dialed in to avoid choppiness. The stout foundation keeps body roll in check and puts it among the best handlers in the segment. There is no V-8 option, but the 4.0-liter unit that generates 270 hp and a fat 291 lb-ft of torque is the most powerful six-cylinder in the group. Just as with the Titan pickup, Nissan has created a package that measures up nicely in specification, performance, and sheer presence.
A 4x4 Pathfinder XE starts at a low $26,650, but the model we tested was a top-of-the-line LE. This gave us heated leather seats, side-impact and supplemental roll-over air bags, a six-CD Bose stereo with subwoofer, DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones, and GPS Navigation, all for $38,910. For a mere $700 more than the Explorer, this well-optioned Pathfinder represents a strong value for such a handsomely fresh take on the seven-seat, mid-size SUV.
Toyota 4Runner SR5
The fact that automakers are so quick to tout the "carlike" handling of their SUVs is a tacit admission that SUVs have inherent disadvantages when it comes to vehicle dynamics. The Toyota 4Runner SR5 is one SUV that can truly be called carlike. It feels light and agile, with an impressive linearity in its acceleration, braking, and handling. What is amazing about the 4Runner is that it accomplishes this car-like behavior while still maintaining the tough persona one looks for in an SUV. Race over washboard surfaces and the 4Runner's firm suspension shrugs them off without a hint of shudder. It displays composure in every setting--from the delicacy needed to negotiate a fast switchback curve to powering through deep snow and slush. Occasionally the stability control kicks in a bit too forcefully, so we just turned it off and let the four-wheel drive do its job while we supplied just a hint of opposite steering lock to keep everything in check when the back stepped out. The more cautious among us left the stability control on, and the 4Runner never put a tire wrong. The bottom line: The 4Runner is the SUV for those who like to drive with enthusiasm wherever they may be.
The 4Runner is available with a 4.7-liter V-8, but our 4Runner SR5 was powered by a very refined, no-complaints 4.0-liter V-6 with 245 hp and a torque rating of 282 lb-ft. Interior plastics are Lexus quality, and the black and gray two-tone interior with aluminum accents looks contemporary. The only issue we have with the interior is the three push-button HVAC dials arranged in a five-spoke arrangement. They're too clever for their own good, and the stylistic payoff (if any) is not worth the lack of functionality.
The lightly optioned 4Runner we tested was easily the value champ, coming in at a mere $31,914--nearly three grand cheaper than the Honda Pilot. Even at even money, if you want to drive with verve on the pavement, and you need only seats for five, the 4Runner's stellar driving experience is very hard to top.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited
Jeep is one of the original inventors of the SUV. While SUVs like the Hummer H2 and Cadillac Escalade are more concerned with street cred, Jeep is still all about trail cred. Jeep's term is "Trail-Rated," but you get the point. Off-road prowess aside, this third-generation Grand Cherokee has made great strides in its on-road moves. It has a plush quality to its ride, yet this softness rarely becomes floaty. Jeep has done an admirable job damping the suspension so that vertical forces rarely result in head toss. Dips are nicely controlled so that rebounding and bounce stay out of the equation. The body rolls a bit in the corners, but the forces are absorbed before things get too sloppy. Of the more softly sprung SUVs in this test, the Grand Cherokee is the one that feels strong enough to keep its composure.
The Grand Cherokee Limited starts at $34,045, but our ultraloaded $42,355 test subject shows just how far Jeep has come from the days of Spartan, war-proven CJs. The cabin feels a bit tight and confining compared with the others, but the interior execution is very nice, if not quite up to the best Japanese entrants in overall quality. The two-tone dash was a rich mix of taupe and dark olive green, and the heated leather seats were a delight. An LCD screen controls the CD, GPS navigation, and Sirius Satellite Radio, while those in back can enjoy DVD movies complete with wireless headphones. The system is nicely integrated, allowing rear-seaters full control over the entertainment options. Anchoring the entire system is a phenomenal sound system with a thumping subwoofer that would make any street-cruising punk proud. Original-equipment car audio doesn't get much better than this, but there was something else that sounded just as impressive...
Yeah, this thing had a Hemi. For $1245 we ditched the Limited's standard 4.7-liter V-8 in favor of the 330-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8, and we used all 375 lb-ft of torque in lurid acceleratory launches. Fully kitted-out as it was, this Grand Cherokee had all the street cred anyone could ask for.
Taken on their own, the Buick Rainier and Chevy Trailblazer EXT are solid vehicles--vast improvements over GM's past efforts in this segment. The Trailblazer gets extra points as a seven-seat mid-size SUV that provides adult-worthy transport for more than just short jaunts. But drive these two back-to-back with their competitors, as we did, and their myriad small shortcomings in dynamics, design, and execution conspire against them. The Ford Explorer remains a paragon of traditional SUV virtues, and it holds up well in this company. It simply falls a bit short in the value equation, and its old-school charms diminish with each new model that arrives on the scene. The Pilot is Honda's typical quality effort--smart, sensible, and sound in everything it does. Its competence and value are as predictable as sunrise, but it's just really...predictable. It is, however, the best SUV for most families. The Mitsubishi Endeavor enters the fray with endearing spunk. It feels like you may be giving up some substance compared with the Honda, but if SUVs are about breaking free from convention, its individuality just might be worth it. The Jeep Grand Cherokee spoiled us more than any other SUV here--its combination of posh performance really was special in this group. But was it $3445 more special than the formidable new Pathfinder, which offers a similarly beefy personality, more space, more utility, two extra seats, and fetching new looks? We're inclined to give the edge to the Nissan, but here it really depends on your personal taste and your bank account. Perhaps all of these ruminations are pointless in light of the Toyota 4Runner SR5. It was by far the cheapest entrant in this test, but it would vie for the top spot regardless of its price. It captures the SUV's "sport" and "utility" in perfect measure, without the dynamic baggage lugged around by the competition.