Midsized SUVs

Hybrid, diesel, and redesign: Three paths to better fuel economy

Last reviewed: June 2011
Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and Volkswagen Touareg TDI

When pump prices climb, car buyers start thinking twice about buying “gas-guzzling” SUVs. And that resistance, not to mention the higher fuel-economy standards that are being phased in this year, has automakers working overtime to find ways of squeezing more mpg from their models.

The SUVs we tested for this issue—the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and Volkswagen Touareg TDI (all available to subscribers)—reflect different ways that car companies are achieving improvements, including clean-diesel engines, gas/electric powertrains, lighter weight, better aerodynamics, and more advanced drivetrain technology.

The Highlander Hybrid has delivered some of the best fuel economy in its class since it was introduced in 2005. This year, it received a newer V6 engine that boosts its gas mileage to an even more impressive 27 mpg overall, up from its previous 24. That nails it as the most fuel-efficient SUV in our Ratings (available to subscribers), edging out the smaller Ford Escape Hybrid and Lexus RX 450h at 26 mpg. Its gas mileage is far better than that of any conventional SUV and is comparable to a small sedan’s.

But the Toyota’s virtues don’t stop at the gas pump. It’s also a quiet, comfortable vehicle, with a roomy second-row seat and a handy, if tight, third row. All of those highlights contribute to it being the highest-rated SUV we’ve recently tested.

The diesel-powered Touareg TDI, which was redesigned for 2011, also provides very good fuel economy of 24 mpg overall, thanks to its turbodiesel V6 and eight-speed automatic transmission. But diesel fuel often costs more than even premium gasoline, so how much you’ll ultimately save at the pump is not so clear-cut.

The redesigned 2011 Explorer can’t match the high mpg marks of the other tested SUVs. But it’s more representative of the incremental yet effective changes that automakers are employing to boost the efficiency of conventional models.

The new Explorer sits on a car-based unibody platform rather than its former truck-like body-on-frame. That not only helps improve its ride and handling, but makes it lighter. Its body is more aerodynamic, which cuts wind resistance. And the powertrain now uses a six-speed automatic transmission and more modern engine technology than the previous Explorer. All of that helps the SUV achieve 18 mpg overall, which is a notable improvement over the 15 mpg of its predecessor and is competitive with the better conventional-engined models in this category.

Despite a roomy interior and usable third-row seating area, the Ford Explorer ranks near the bottom of this competitive category overall. It’s hindered by a flawed driving position, a noisy engine, complicated controls, and a lack of agility.

Hybrid and diesel technologies add cost. The as-tested prices of our Highlander Hybrid and Touareg TDI were $47,255 and $49,505, respectively. Our Explorer XLT cost $39,275. Only the Toyota is recommended. The Volkswagen and Ford are too new for us to have reliability data.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen has rolled out a 380-hp Touareg Hybrid. And the Explorer will soon offer a turbocharged four-cylinder engine for better economy, but AWD won’t be available. Like the Explorer, the Dodge Durango has also been redesigned for improved fuel economy. We will report on the Durango in a forthcoming issue.