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,
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
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.