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Best large all-purpose SUVs

These all-purpose vehicles are the right choice for many families

Published: March 10, 2014 11:00 AM

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SUVs are like the Swiss army knives of the automotive world. They provide plenty of room for passengers and gear, a comfortable interior that’s often loaded with amenities, reasonable trailer-towing capability, and the added security of all-wheel drive.  All of that has made them the all-purpose vehicle of choice for many families. Midsized models are generally more fuel efficient, and easier to maneuver and fit in a garage than large SUVs. Some three-row models can carry up to seven or eight passengers.

Drawbacks: Fuel economy is often their Achilles' heel, with V6 models averaging 17 to 19 mpg overall, although a few can break 20. Expect about 14 to 16 mpg overall from most large SUVs, though you might get 20 mpg on the highway. And though many offer third-row seats, they're often small, tight, and best suited for kids.

Best overall

Roomy, stylish, and well-equipped for the price, the Santa Fe delivers the kind of value and functionality that families are looking for. It has room for up to seven passengers in three rows of seats, and everyone will appreciate the quiet and comfortable ride and well-finished interior. The smooth and lively 3.3-liter V6 packs ample punch, and fuel economy is very good for the category. Handling is responsive and secure. And the standard backup camera provides extra safety and convenience. Don’t confuse this model with the Santa Fe Sport, a less-expensive two-row version that is less capable.

Price as tested: $36,290
Overall mpg: 20

The Traverse and Acadia are similar vehicles with different badges. And if you need the interior room of a large SUV but want the comfortable ride and more responsive handling of a car-based design, you can’t do better. (The upscale Buick Enclave is also similar.) The decision comes down to styling and available trim; the Acadia offers a tad more luxury. Both seat up to eight people in a spacious, quiet interior with a third-row seat that’s roomy  enough for adults. The V6 is smooth and refined, and a recent freshening brought improvements to the ride and interior quality and connectivity.

Price as tested: $39,920/$41,315
Overall mpg: 16

For hauling the whole brood

Chevrolet Traverse
GMC Acadia
Dodge Durango
Mazda CX-9
Ford Flex
Honda Pilot

For large families or group outings, three rows of seats are a must. The Traverse and Acadia are the crowd pleasers, with room for up to eight adults and their gear. The CX-9 offers lots of space in each row, and the Dodge Durango can carry up to seven in its roomy cabin. The boxy Ford Flex makes the most of its shape, with limolike room in the second row and a usable third row. The Honda Pilot can hold eight in a pinch, but that leaves little room for gear.

Frugal with fuel

Hyundai Sante Fe Sport 23 mpg overall
Toyota Highlander Hybrid 27 mpg overall

Although less functional and not as polished as the Santa Fe, the two-row Sport uses a 190-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that provides a commendable 23 mpg overall. Inside you’ll find a similarly well-finished and comfortable cabin, with a lot of features for the money. A turbo four-cylinder is also available. If you can find a leftover 2013 Highlander Hybrid at the dealer, expect to get a stellar 27 mpg overall. We also expect that the new diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee will deliver decent fuel economy and readily available power.

Keep the kids happy

Ford Flex
Chevrolet Traverse
GMC Acadia
Honda Pilot

Plenty of room, easy access, and windows that are easy for kids to see out of are all things that growing families are looking for. The three-row Flex delivers all of that and more. The boxy shape and large glass area make for an airy feel and good visibility, and a lower step-in height helps with access. But the Flex is beginning to show its age in terms of handling and powertrain refinement. Other good choices include the spacious Traverse and Acadia twins, and the Pilot.

Big, comfortable cruisers

Hyundai Santa Fe
Chevrolet Traverse
GMC Acadia
Dodge Durango
Mazda CX-9

Several road-trip-worthy choices are good for carrying people and their gear. The three-row Santa Fe offers a spacious, quiet, and nicely finished cabin, and a comfortable ride that does a good job of masking road imperfections. The Traverse, Acadia, and Durango are other notably passenger-friendly choices with roomier third-row seats. The sportier CX-9 is spacious and well-finished but has so-so fuel economy.

Models to avoid

The Edge has an unrefined powertrain, with a six-speed automatic transmission that isn’t smooth. The ride is jittery, and road noise invades the cabin. And the MyFord Touch system is convoluted to use and has had poor reliability in our owner survey.

The Armada has the room and power to carry eight people and their stuff, but it comes at a cost. Overall fuel economy of 13 mpg is abysmal, reliability is poor, and ownership costs are the worst in the category. Interior quality is so-so for a $50,000-plus vehicle, and the ride is quite stiff.

In addition to the Journey’s below-average reliability, its V6 engine returned an unimpressive 16 mpg overall. If that weren’t bad enough, the SUV’s lack of agility makes it feel far larger than it really is, the transmission is reluctant to downshift, and the optional third-row seat is tiny even for kids.

2014 Autos Spotlight

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From 2014: Top Picks, Who makes the best cars, and Extended warranties.

Editor's Note:

This report also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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