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SUVs

SUV buying guide

Last updated: February 2013

Getting started

Sport-utility vehicles are available in a wide range of sizes and prices. Midsized models typically provide the best balance of interior space, fuel economy, and engine power. Smaller SUVs are typically less expensive and get better fuel economy, but they usually have less passenger and cargo space. Larger models provide more room and towing capacity, but get poor gas mileage, are less maneuverable, and have a significant overall ownership cost.

Why buy an SUV?

SUVs appeal to a wide range of drivers. They provide versatile cargo-carrying space (although generally not as much as minivans), a higher driving position than passenger cars, varying amounts of towing capacity, and in models with three rows of seats, the ability to carry seven or eight people. With an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive system, they also provide extra traction in slippery conditions and the ability to tackle at least moderate off-road terrain. But because of their taller height, SUVs as a class are not as nimble as passenger cars and can roll over more easily in emergency handling maneuvers. Generally, their added weight compromises fuel economy compared to a minivan or wagon, which can often provide a suitable alternative.

Important things to consider

When looking for an SUV, consider the type of driving you do, the climate and/or road conditions, how much power you need, how much cargo you will be carrying, and how many people you are likely to transport. Focus on abilities rather than size because increasingly, midsized SUVs provide three-row seating and moderate tow capability, making them smart alternatives to large models. Likewise, so-called small SUVs are not as compact as they once were. Mileage can vary significantly among size classes, making it important to check Consumer Reports' fuel economy Ratings.

The powertrain choices for SUVs usually ranges from small four-cylinder engines in most small SUVs to powerful V8s available in the largest SUVs in the class. The most fuel-efficient nonhybrid SUVs return fuel economy in the mid-20s, but large nonhybrid models get very poor gas mileage only in the low teens. Three-row SUVs are alternatives to minivans in that they can seat up to eight passengers, but some models with third-row seats are cramped and cannot accommodate adults. Definitely try the seating before buying.

Determining the SUV type you need (small, compact sporty, midsized, and large) will narrow the field. And because each type has a spectrum of models to choose from, this is a useful step toward creating your shopping list.

What you'll spend

Some stripped-down small SUVs start at under $20,000 but most are priced in the low-to-mid-20s when typically equipped and can extend to the $30,000 neighborhood with all the bells and whistles. Midsized SUVs span from near $30,000 to more than $50,000 for the upscale versions from manufacturers such as BMW, Infiniti, and Lexus. Large SUVs can cost in the high $30,000 range to more than $60,000 for a premium model such as the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. More expensive SUVs have added power, but sacrifice fuel economy. Luxury branded models typically require premium fuel, adding to the already high operating costs. There is a rising number of hybrid SUVs, though they tend to command a significant price premium over similar models with a conventional powertrain. The cost benefits depend on the fuel economy gains, gasoline prices, and price premium. (Compare the owner costs for models in the New Car Selector, available to online subscribers.)

Types

Car-based vs. truck-based SUVs

There are two basic kinds of SUVs: car-based and truck-based. Sometimes called crossover vehicles, car-based SUVs are built with unibody construction, where the frame and body are bonded into one piece, or œunit." Like regular cars, most such SUVs have a fully independent suspension, which helps provide better handling and ride comfort than traditional, truck-based models. They offer all-wheel drive and can handle moderate off-road situations, but they generally aren't designed for more challenging off-road conditions, such as traversing high rocks, deep water, loose sand, or steep inclines and descents.

Traditional SUVs are built with a body-on-frame platform (often the same one used for a company's comparable-sized pickup). They typically offer greater cargo and towing capacity than a similar-sized car-based model, and when fitted with four-wheel drive, they are better equipped to tackle serious off-road terrain. But their handling can be cumbersome, and the ride can be bouncy and unsettled. Although most do not have independent rear suspensions, some body-on-frame SUVs offer it for more refined ride and handling.

For Consumer Reports' testing purposes, we group SUVs according to size.

Small SUVs


Well-suited for drivers who are looking for more room than a sedan can provide, small SUVs offer flexible cargo space and a higher driving position than cars. Some small SUVs' fuel economy rivals that of some family sedans, though others can be thirstier and have a rough ride. For the more adventurous drivers, a few models have true off-road capabilities. If you are just looking for a vehicle that provides flexible cargo space, you might want to consider a wagon or hatchback because they provide better fuel economy and are more affordable. Some wagons are available with all-wheel drive and elevated ride heights, such as the Subaru Outback.

Compact sporty SUVs


The upscale small, performance-oriented SUVs typically offer better handling, quieter cabins, nicer fit and finish, and more amenities than regular small SUVs, though fuel economy and price are common trade-offs. Most entries in this niche are from European or Japanese prestige brands.

Midsized SUVs


Midsized SUVs have become alternatives to minivans and might satisfy the needs of shoppers considering a large SUV. For many families, midsized SUVs provide the best balance of power, interior space, cargo room, and safety. Although many midsized SUVs offer an optional third-row seat, those seats are often cramped and not easily accessible to adults.

Large SUVs


Most large SUVs offer plenty of power, interior space, and towing capacity, but they're big and bulky, typically not agile, and guzzle fuel. For hauling a heavy trailer, they may be just the thing, but if it's primarily seating and cargo capacity you're after, you might be better off with a minivan. A minivan is apt to get much better fuel economy and be quieter, more comfortable, and more flexible at switching between people and cargo. But a minivan will not be as capable for towing and certainly isn't meant for off-roading.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing an SUV.

Engines and fuel economy

Budget-friendly small SUVs are typically powered by a four-cylinder engine, with some offering a turbo. Don't assume that small equals thrifty, as our tests show the fuel economy of some four-cylinder models is more on par with a V6 and performance can be lackluster, particularly when the SUV is fully loaded or ascending hills. Most SUVs come with a V6 engine that generally provides a good balance of power and fuel economy. Some midsized and large models are available with a V8 that delivers effortless acceleration and is better for heavy towing, but it usually takes a greater toll in gas mileage.

Many automatics now provide a manual-shift mode that works in a way similar to a manual transmission, allowing the driver to select a gear without using a clutch. Models with five-, six-, seven-, or even eight-speed automatic transmissions or continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) might provide better fuel economy than a traditional manual transmission, which is very rare in this category. Check our SUV ratings for specifics.

Drive wheels

All SUVs are available with either all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD), with a two-wheel drive option. Many truck-based SUVs still offer rear-wheel-drive versions, whereas crossovers tend to be front-wheel drive when only two wheels are operating. AWD and 4WD provide power to all wheels, but they're not quite the same thing. AWD is a lighter (and lighter-duty) system that stays engaged and ready to distribute power at any time. Another difference is that 4WD includes low-range gearing for tackling difficult off-road terrain, such as rocks or steep off-pavement descents. AWD is typically fine for normal adverse weather conditions and moderate off-road driving. If you drive almost exclusively on pavement without snow or ice, consider a front- or rear-wheel-drive model, which generally provides better fuel economy. If you choose 4WD, look for a system that provides full-time 4WD operation. Vehicles with part-time systems should not be driven on dry pavement in 4WD mode.

Towing

Truck-based SUVs typically offer much more towing capacity than any other vehicle type except for pickup trucks. Some larger models can tow up to 8,500 pounds, or the equivalent of a small mobile home, large boat, or sizable camper trailer. Car-based SUVs generally don't tow as much, though some powerful, midsized models can pull 5,000 pounds, enough for a small boat or camper. Look at the tow-capacity rating and be sure you get a vehicle that can comfortably handle the load you'll be towing. SUVs often require an optional tow package to achieve the maximum rating.

Access

Most SUVs offer wide front and rear doors and ample head clearance, which aids entry and exit. But because their ground clearance is higher than cars', it can be difficult for shorter people, children, and the disabled to climb into them. Third-row seats, if offered, are often especially difficult to access. Car-based SUVs usually have the edge there.

Seating

Virtually all SUVs carry up to five people. Some midsized and full-sized models include a third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to seven or eight, depending on the model. But third-row seats are typically tight and are only suitable for children. Most third-row seats can fold flat into the rear cargo floor when not in use.

Cargo

The versatile seating configurations of an SUV mean that all of the space behind the front seats can be used as cargo space, if needed. This is done with second- and third-row seats that fold flat or are removable. The most convenient type of third-row seat is one with a split design, so that one portion can be folded for cargo space, while allowing someone to sit in the other section. SUVs usually have a higher cargo floor than a minivan, which can make loading heavy objects more difficult. On the other hand, truck-based models typically have higher maximum load capacities, so you can carry more weight.

Safety features

Statistics show that SUVs as a class have a higher percentage of single-vehicle rollover accidents than cars do, largely before they're taller and more top-heavy. Consumer Reports' safety Ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, road tests detail issues regarding child seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

All new SUVs have head-protecting side air bags, usually in the form of a side curtain that covers front and rear side windows. These air bags are designed to keep passengers inside during a rollover.

Electronic stability control (ESC) is a computer-controlled feature that automatically and selectively applies brakes to prevent a sideways slide. This potentially life-saving feature is standard on all new passenger vehicles, including SUVs. If you shop for a used model, seek one with ESC. It can help reduce the risk of a rollover and other crash types. Another welcomed feature, traction control, can help you to get going on a slippery road but doesn't aid in a sideways skid. (Learn more about car safety.)

Rear backup alert systems, which warn the driver with an audible signal and visual cue when the rear bumper is near a solid object, such as a parked car or a signpost, are becoming more common. These systems are marketed as parking aids, and in testing, Consumer Reports has found that they work well for that. But they aren't reliable enough for use as backup safety systems that can detect a small child behind the vehicle. A better alternative for backup safety is a wide-angle rear video camera, which is readily available.

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rear-view cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate hard-to-see vehicles driving to the side and rear of you. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. There is a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory and through the aftermarket.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right, as well as fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has higher-watt amplifier, so you can play music loud with minimum distortion, and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback.

Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds of dollars to an SUV's sticker price. SUVs at every price level have a jack for plugging in an MP3 player. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, will be able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast "alongside" a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for about $750 to $1,500 when offered alone but are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the vehicle, and some use touch-screen displays that make it easy to put in destinations and navigate through menus. Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But portable GPS units can offer most of those abilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigators.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming more readily available, enabling wireless devices such as cell phones to communicate wirelessly with the car's audio system for convenient, hands-free phone operation. In addition, some new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Popularized by GM's OnStar, telematics systems use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions or summon emergency aid based on your vehicle's location.

Brands

Chevrolet arrow  |  Dodge arrow  |  Ford arrow  |  Honda arrow  |  Hyundai arrow  |  Kia arrow  |  Nissan arrow  |  Toyota arrow

Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant SUV brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their sport utility vehicles.

Chevrolet

Some newer models have done well in our tests, but older designs are sub par. Performance and reliability varies significantly by model.

Dodge

Dodge SUVs have been disappointing in our testing, typically among the lowest-scoring models. But lately we've seen some improvement in reliability.

Ford

The reliability of Ford models has improved; most are now average or better. But the driving experience is a mixed bag, especially with the SUVs.

Honda

SUVs are typically very reliable and have consistently high test scores, excelling in road manners, packaging, fuel economy, and safety.

Hyundai

Hyundai and its sister company Kia form Korea's entry in the SUV market. Overall quality has improved markedly in the past few years and both Hyundai and Kia models are well made and reliable.

Kia

Hyundai and its sister company Kia form Korea's entry in the SUV market. Overall quality has improved markedly in the past few years and both Hyundai and Kia models are well made and reliable.

Nissan

Nissan models usually perform well, but in our annual survey, model-to-model reliability ranges from much better than average to much worse. Nissan offers car-based and truck-based SUVs, with the later emphasizing off-road capability.

Toyota

Toyota SUVs generally score well in Consumer Reports testing, with good fuel economy, performance, reliability, and safety.  Common highs include quietness, powertrains, ride comfort, controls, and fit and finish. Lows have been agility and steering feel. Toyota has several models that are among the top-rated SUVs in their classes.

New vs. Used

When in the market for your next SUV, the first consideration is whether to buy new or used. Buying a brand-new vehicle brings the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new SUV, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying new is rapid depreciation. A new SUV can shed half of its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you have only made a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the SUV is worth.

Used SUVs can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find an SUV you like that's only two to three years old. Such an SUV has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern SUVs, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of the regular servicing necessary in the past.

The key to selecting a good used SUV is to focus on reliability, even when a prospect is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for an SUV that has done well in our Reliability judgments. For many years, the reliability stars in our records have mostly been Japanese-nameplate models, especially those from Honda, Subaru, and Toyota. But a handful of domestic models have been standouts, too. (See our guide to car reliability.)

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for SUVs with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used vehicle is unique. A careful prepurchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do your homework and take care in the selection, a used SUV can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research if you are to choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our new or used car buying guides.

   

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