May 2007
send to a friend printable version
Growing up
Small SUVs: Vehicles in this class are getting larger, with some even adding third-row seats

Dodge Nitro's fender
Dodge Nitro

Hyundai Santa Fe's rear lift gate
 Hyundai Santa Fe

Mitsubishi Outlander's rear tail lens
 Mitsubishi Outlander

Subaru Forester's grill
 Subaru Forester

Suzuki XL7's grill and headlight
 Suzuki XL7
Photos by Tracey Kroll
Just as vehicles in other classes have grown in size and power over the past several years, so too have the models in this relatively young small SUV category. In 10 years, the class has evolved from just one vehicle, the ­four-cylinder, ­five-passenger Toyota RAV4, to a category with more than 20 offerings. Many models offer both four- and ­six-cylinder engines, and the redesigned RAV4’s optional third-row seat is no longer unique to this class.

In fact, small SUVs have grown so much that the lines between them and midsized SUVs have become blurred.

Improvements, additional features, and increased versatility can also mean higher prices, and these not-so-small SUVs can now approach or exceed $30,000. This puts them very close to midsized SUVs not only in price but also in size, amenities, and power.

In our February 2007 test of small SUVS, the redesigned Honda CR-V scored close to the RAV4 four-cylinder and better than the Subaru Forester 2.5X. Since that test, more models have entered the market.

For this test we bought three redesigned, ­seven-passenger small SUVs: the Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Suzuki XL7. We also added two ­five-passenger models, the Dodge Nitro, which is based on the Jeep Liberty, and the Subaru Forester Sports XT, which shares the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in the sporty Impreza WRX (all available to subscribers).

The redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe topped this group in our testing and is now ranked just below our top-rated RAV4 V6. It’s quiet, comfortable riding, and it’s refined. It has a versatile interior, yet its exterior dimensions are modest. Handling is improved, and the 3.3-liter V6 is powerful and smooth. The interior has simple controls and impressive fit and finish. The optional third row seat is too small for adults. Our Limited AWD cost $30,745 with the optional third-row seat and sunroof.

The high-end $27,662 Sports XT is the only Forester to currently offer electronic stability control. It is also quick and handles nimbly. The ESC kicks in too late to prevent a tail slide. The lack of available curtain air bags is a negative, and the snug interior lacks the ambience found in newer SUVs. Reliability of the Forester has been excellent.

The previous Mitsubishi Outlander was dowdy but adequate; this redesign is a major upgrade.

The strong engine and new six-speed transmission make the new Outlander quicker, but without a big drop in overall fuel economy. Handling is improved, with better agility and steering, but ride comfort suffers a bit in return. The interior is a mixture of hard plastics and some flimsy materials, but they all fit together well. The third-row seat is snug and purely for children. With options such as heated leather seats, a sunroof, and an audio and navigation package, our XLS AWD rang in at $30,615. Reliability is yet unknown.

Suzuki abandoned the truck-based platform for the XL7, using an extended Chevrolet Equinox platform for the redesigned car-based SUV.

Unlike the base Equinox, the XL7 uses General Motors’ refined and powerful 3.6-liter V6 engine. However, fuel economy is unimpressive. Cabin access is easy, and adults can fit in the third-row seat. Handling is more responsive and the ride is more comfortable than the Equinox we tested for our February report, but by no means is the XL7 nimble. Our Luxury model, with the optional rear DVD system, cost $29,284. Reliability of this new model is unknown.

The new Dodge Nitro is long on aggressive looks but not much else. It has a noisy engine and a big thirst for fuel. Handling is ponderous, and the ride is uncomfortable. Interior materials are insubstantial, poorly constructed hard plastics. The narrow foot wells hurt the driving position, and the small windows and high belt line compromise visibility. The 4WD system is part-time and lacks a low-range setting for serious off-roading. The Nitro is too new for us to have reliability data for it. Our SLT part-time 4WD, with leather, heated seats, an audio upgrade, sunroof, and a towing package, came to $28,875.

For this issue, we’ve also tested three minivans that have been recently updated: the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, and Chevrolet Uplander.