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Personal Picks: 3-row SUVs

Consumer Reports News: October 29, 2008 04:09 AM

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Times are tough if you’re selling SUVs these days. While many families like the space offered by midsized and larger three-row SUVs, they’re often concerned about fuel economy. Once you add AWD and common options, these vehicles don’t come cheap, either – a problem in a tight economy. Finally, while big truck-based SUVs used to generate big profits, sales are moving toward car-based alternatives. So how do you sell such vehicles in this climate?

Gathered in the November 3-row SUV test group are some of the latest efforts from Detroit and Japan. But as far as fuel economy goes, if you want the best you have to pony up over $40,000 for a Toyota Highlander Hybrid—but it returns an impressive 24 mpg overall. At the other end of the spectrum are the old-style, truck-based SUVs, such as the Cadillac Escalade, Dodge Durango, Ford Expedition, and Nissan Armada, which all get 13 mpg overall.

But are these vehicles necessary? Here’s a look at what we would choose if we wanted a three-row SUV in our garage:

Rick Small: Within this category, I like to drive the Mazda CX-9 the most. It has quicker response and a sportier feel to it than other competing models. The driving position is pretty good for my tall frame. But fuel economy could be better – it gets just 16 mpg overall. The new Ford Flex was a pleasant surprise; it’s quiet and rides very well. It has plenty of room in the second-row seat and a useful third row. While I like the versatile cargo area is, I wish the driving position was more comfortable.

We also have the latest version of the GM’s three-row crossovers, the Chevrolet Traverse. So far it’s very similar to the Buick Enclave and Saturn Outlook versions we previously tested. The Traverse has a good ride, fairly responsive handling, and a roomy second-row seat and useful cargo area. Unfortunately, the Enclave, Outlook and Acadia all have below-average predicted reliability. (We have no data yet for the new Traverse.)

The Honda Pilot does most things pretty well; it gets a little better fuel economy than the others here and we predict above-average reliability. You couldn’t go wrong by buying it – just don’t look for a sporty experience.

Tom Mutchler: As our Ratings show, the three-row SUV market is crowded with a lot of good choices. In fact, I’m having a hard time narrowing down which one I’d buy. I’ve very happily taken long road trips in our Mazda CX-9, Ford Flex, and our previously tested Buick Enclave. Which one you prefer depends on details: the CX-9 has sporty handling, the Flex has distinctive looks, and the Enclave blends room with luxury.

Maybe the reason I’m having a hard time picking a three-row SUV is that I’d rather own a minivan. (Indeed, I do.)

Beyond towing my someday-Airstream, there isn’t anything that I would need a SUV to do that a minivan can’t do better. My Honda Odyssey has much more cargo volume, allowing me to haul my whitewater kayaks and mountain bikes (standing up!) inside with room to spare. There’s more passenger space, with business-class accommodations in the second-row captains chairs. Like the CX-9, the spry Odyssey is surprisingly fun on twisty back roads, as proven convincingly on a vacation turn on Skyline Drive. On that same trip, I averaged 25 mpg, far better fuel economy than I got out of the SUVs. (Our test results show similar benefits.)

Sure, I don’t have AWD, but a set of Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires improve snowy road stopping and turning beyond just the traction gains of AWD. I do wish it was quieter inside, like the Flex and Enclave, but a Toyota Sienna rivals them.

Nope, a minivan isn’t cool. No one dreams of conquering the Sahara or the arctic tundra behind the wheel of a minivan. But for hauling your family or lots of stuff, you can’t do better.

Mike Quincy: Since my life doesn’t include towing heavy trailers or going very far off-road, I’m still sticking with the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. It’s the king here for fuel economy, predicted reliability is off-the-charts good, and it drives more like a nice car than a truck. I also find it more entertaining to drive (and quieter) than most minivans. I still like GM’s Traverse/Enclave/Outlook/Acadia lineup, but my wish that I made for these a little over a year ago for “a torquey turbo-diesel engine” still hasn’t come true. But now, more than ever, is the time for fuel efficiency. With improved fuel economy, GM could right the listing SUV ship.

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