The SharpMan's Guide to the SUV Market

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Friday 15th October 2010
In this article
  • Are these gas hogs right for you?
  • Which one?
  • Photos galore.
The SharpMan's Guide to the SUV Market

They’re everywhere. On every highway and byway. Climbing every mountain, fording every stream, fulfilling every suburban dream. Of course, I speak of the incredible popularity of sport utility vehicles over the past decade or so.

These vehicles have become so prevalent, virtually every carmaker has had to jump on the bandwagon, some offering entire lines of all- or four-wheel drive machinery. And despite the fact that the roads are jammed with the things, there are new examples being introduced all the time.

Now, an article dealing with every SUV out there would take up our site’s entire domain and then some. So, rather than transform these pages into the latest issue of "Off-Roader Online," we’ve selected a dozen examples in three main categories that hint at the wide range of options on the market.

Buckle up, ’cause it just may be a bumpy ride…

* Note: All specifications and prices listed are for the all- or 4-wheel-drive version of the vehicle in question.

Big Things from Small Packages

The smallest among the SUVs can be a tricky bunch. All of them play the versatility card, but not all of them deliver on that spin-doctored promise. You are likely to find cramped, under-powered and poorly designed SUVs almost as often as you find these lackluster qualities in other cars and trucks. But not so with this fantastic foursome…

Honda CR-V

Newly redesigned for the 2002 model year, the Honda CR-V represents an improvement on the previous iteration in nearly all areas. Masters of practical, reliable craftsmanship, the engineers at Honda started with a platform shared with their Civic and built an SUV with a car-like ride and some truck-like utility.

Where it scored: Handling is superb and steering is precise; engine meets LEV-II emission standards; RealTime all-wheel-drive system does not sacrifice fuel economy in the name of traction; and rear seats easily "fold and tumble" to create more cargo space.

Where it missed: Engine isn’t wildly powerful as compared to some others in its class; car platform is capable, but not suited to the rough stuff; and styling of this SUV represents Honda at its dullest.

Honda CR-V $19,300

Engine 2.4-liter inline-4

Horsepower/torque 160 hp / 162 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 72 cu ft

Max towing capacity 1500 lbs

Fuel economy 22 city / 26 highway

Honda Element

On the other end of the design spectrum is Honda’s other small SUV, the radical new Honda Element. What to make of this box on wheels? Well, love it or hate it, the designers deserve some praise for giving us something different. And the Element is nothing if not flexible, with its flat floor, split rear tailgate, waterproof interior and removable rear skylight.

Where it scored: Exterior design commands attention; fully reclining seats are sweet; options include neoprene seat covers; same engine as the CR-V, so the same good qualities; and plastic body parts replaceable.

Where it missed: Different gearing and heavier curb weight than CR-V translate into weak acceleration; tall stance is a magnet for wind gusts; rear "suicide" doors must be closed first, so potential for damage to front doors is high; and in terms of cargo capacity and fuel economy, not as good as the CR-V.

Honda Element $18,300-$20,850

Engine 2.4-liter inline-4

Horsepower/torque 160 hp / 162 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 70.1 cu ft

Max towing capacity 1500 lbs

Fuel economy 21 city / 24 highway

Mitsubishi Outlander

These days, it seems like you need a program just to keep track of all the SUVs in the Mitsubishi fleet. One of the new entries is the Mitsubishi Outlander, another of the vehicles to adopt the "tall station wagon" design that’s become so prevalent. This newcomer incorporates all-wheel drive technology derived from the company’s highly successful Paris-Dakar Rally efforts and places it on a reinforced platform derived from their Lancer sedan.

Where it scored: AWD system sure-footed under all conditions; independent suspension provides car-like ride with definite off-road capability; and standard features include 140-watt CD stereo, A/C, power windows, mirrors and door locks.

Where it missed: Only comes with 4-speed semi-automatic transmission; ABS not standard; acceleration is weak; and in terms of exterior styling, vies with the CR-V for dullest entry.

Mitsubishi Outlander $20,790

Engine 2.4-liter inline-4

Horsepower/torque 140 hp / 157 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 60.3 cu ft

Max towing capacity 1500 lbs

Fuel economy 20 city / 25 highway

Subaru Baja

The Subaru Baja is an SUV that carmakers love to call a "category buster." It’s not quite a car, not quite a truck, but a curious blend of both. Essentially a Subaru Outback from the tip of its front bumper right up to the rear doors, the Baja then becomes a mini-pickup with a 41.5-inch long truck bed. The Switchback, a pass-through to the passenger compartment, boosts that figure to 77.7 inches.

Where it scored: Dynamite styling despite critics’ complaints about silver lower body armor; back of rear seats covered with bed liner material for protection during pass-through maneuvers; and rugged in the finest Subaru tradition, they know AWD like few others.

Where it missed: Without the pass-through, truck bed is too short for many items (optional bed-extender available); questionable real-world utility of the package; and the weak link in the Subaru chain: the 5-speed manual transmission.

Subaru Baja $23,995

Engine 2.5-liter flat-4

Horsepower/torque 165 hp / 166 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 17.7 cu ft

Max towing capacity 2400 lbs

Fuel economy 20 city / 25 highway

Mid-size, Not Middle of the Road

There’s a large group of mid-sized SUVs that packs a healthy wallop and offers plenty of packing space to boot. The most populated segment in the market is also the most hotly contested. And here are four of the combatants…

Buick Rendezvous

If you’re looking for the room to hold seven passengers and looking to watch your pennies, the Buick Rendezvous may just be your ride. Not the most exciting SUV around, this one is tailor-made for families with a lot of gear. The middle row of seats can be removed and the back row can be folded down to create an expansive 108.9 cubic feet of storage space. The Versatrack AWD system operates as front-wheel drive until traction to those wheels is suspect.

Where it scored: Disc brakes on all four corners for extra stopping power; comfortable interior made for long family trip; and interior cargo space is best-in-class.

Where it missed: Engine is under-powered for an SUV of this size; baffling list of options packages won’t be helped by introduction of 2004 Rendezvous Ultra; and exterior styling decidedly uninteresting.

Buick Rendezvous $28,170

Engine 3.4-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 185 hp / 210 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 108.9 cu ft

Max towing capacity 3500 lbs

Fuel economy 18 city / 24 highway

Honda Pilot

Here’s the thing about the Honda Pilot: It may not be the flashiest SUV on the road, but does it ever perform like a star. Built on the same platform and using the same basic engine as the Acura MDX, the Pilot offers plenty of power in an 8-passenger layout. And although it’s a large vehicle compared to a sedan, it maintains a civilized ride and a high level of comfort.

Where it scored: With the MDX, first mid-size SUV to earn highest possible crash rating from US government tests; ultra-low emission engine; and Variable Torque Management 4WD among the best anywhere; 5-speed automatic very smooth.

Where it missed: Relatively high curb weight hampers fuel economy; rear seat big enough for kids only; and exterior styling on the plain side.

Honda Pilot $26,900-$29,270

Engine 3.5-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 240 hp / 242 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 90.3 cu ft

Max towing capacity 3500 lbs

Fuel economy 17 city / 22 highway

Hyundai Santa Fe

You’ve got to hand it to Hyundai. When they first entered the North American market, their offerings were truly dismal. Now, in fewer than 20 years, they produce cars (and an SUV!) that rival anything in their price bracket in terms of quality and the all-important fun-to-drive factor. That SUV, the Hyundai Santa Fe, cuts a unique swath across a conservative design landscape with its bulging fenders and rounded edges.

Where it scored: Light curb weight for this category; least expensive SUV in this group, so a lot of truck for the buck; long list of standard features; the best warranty in the business; and unique styling.

Where it missed: Smaller 2.4-liter engine too under-powered, 2.7-liter unit the only smart choice; full-time AWD less technically sophisticated than others out there; and underneath the skin, not terribly exciting.

Hyundai Santa Fe $21,599-$22,619

Engine 2.7-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 173 hp / 182 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 77.7 cu ft

Max towing capacity 1200-1500 lbs

Fuel economy 18 city / 24 highway

Toyota 4Runner

Building on a 50-year history of building tough trucks starting with the original Land Cruiser, the all-new Toyota 4Runner is bigger, more powerful and even tougher than its predecessor. Past models have been under-powered and tight on space, but the new iteration solves that with a 4.0-liter V6, a larger profile and a redesigned interior. When combined with legendary Toyota quality, the 4Runner is now a tough act to follow.

Where it scored: Greatest towing capacity in this group; engine is silky smooth and very powerful; capable off-road performer, unlike many SUVs; and anti-lock disc brakes standard.

Where it missed: Lowest fuel economy in this group; smallest cargo capacity too; long list of options adds a big $9K to the base price; and 5-speed automatic comes with optional V8 engine, V6 has four speeds only.

Toyota 4Runner $28,005-$36,480

Engine 4.0-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 245 hp / 282 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 75.1 cu ft

Max towing capacity 5000 lbs

Fuel economy 15 city / 19 highway

Luxo-trucks Go Off-road in Style

The SUV has become so ingrained into our car culture, many of them rival luxury sedans in terms of sheer comfort. This group is referred to as "near-luxury" SUVS, a selection of four that offers plenty of features and a lot of "off-roadability"…

Acura MDX

When the Acura MDX was introduced in 2001, it was a steal, a near-luxury SUV at a bargain basement price. Since then, due to high demand, the manufacturer has revised their flagship model slightly and priced it to match its competitors. This model year, the MDX gains 20 horsepower, improved ride quality, better handling and an upgraded 5-speed automatic transmission.

Where it scored: Smoother ride defeats previous iteration’s glaring weak spot; as stylish as any SUV on the road; engine makes MDX responsive and fun; and goes and drives like far more expensive competitors.

Where it missed: Unsure if 2003 version is a wiser choice than a used 2001 model; large optional equipment list sends price into orbit; and without optional front guard and running boards, looks a bit naked.

Acura MDX $35,700

Engine 3.5-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 260 hp / 250 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 81.5 cu ft

Max towing capacity 3500 lbs

Fuel economy 17 city / 23 highway

GMC Envoy

General Motors has a seemingly endless array of models, but few are as enjoyable as the GMC Envoy. When it was introduced last year, it immediately lured buyers away from more established nameplates… and for good reason. An aggressive stance and the most powerful engine in its category translate into SUV-ing in style. The extra-long XL joins the line-up this year and the XUV that switches into a pick-up arrives as a 2004 model.

Where it scored: Strong, strong engine; astounding towing capacity; anti-lock disc brakes standard; and car-like refinement combined with truck-like attitude; few know luxurious cruising, on-road or off, like GM.

Where it missed: Long list of options creates buyer paralysis; 4-speed automatic only transmission for base model SLE; and optional 290-hp V8 tempting but expensive.

GMC Envoy $30,735-$37,385

Engine 4.2-liter inline-6

Horsepower/torque 275 hp / 275 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 80.1 cu ft

Max towing capacity 6200 lbs

Fuel economy 15 city / 21 highway

Mitsubishi Montero

One of the strangest looking SUVs on the road, the Mitsubishi Montero offers the highly palatable combination of off-road capability and exquisite comfort. For this year, a new engine brings greater low-end torque and more power overall. Sitting behind the wheel of the Montero is simply a very pleasant experience, with dynamite seats and all the amenities you could want, all for a competitive price.

Where it scored: 5-speed Sportronic automatic standard with entry level XLS; Active Skid and Traction Control adds to surefootedness; anti-lock disc brakes standard; fully independent suspension for the rough going; and low-range transfer case for off-road adventures.

Where it missed: Anemic fuel economy numbers; engine offers good pulling power, but so-so capability in highway acceleration and on long stretches.

Mitsubishi Montero $32,487-$36,597

Engine 3.8-liter V6

Horsepower/torque 215 hp / 248 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 96.4 cu ft

Max towing capacity 5000 lbs

Fuel economy 15 city / 19 highway

Volvo XC90

The company known for creating ultra-safe family sedans and wagons has at least entered the SUV game! The Volvo XC90 was just introduced late last year as a 2003 model, but it’s already earning accolades and awards. Looking like a beefier and taller version of their CrossCountry wagon, the XC90 seats seven adults comfortably and boasts a list of technological safety features as long as your arm.

Where it scored: Third row of seats folds away flat; air conditioning controls and audio jacks appease rear seat passengers; Roll Stability Control helps prevent rollovers; traction control and anti-lock disc brakes also standard.

Where it missed: Not as cool a design as the CrossCountry; least powerful engine in the group; optional twin-turbo inline-6 a virtual must, but you lose the 5-speed automatic transmission with that option.

Volvo XC90 $35,100

Engine 2.5-liter turbo inline-5

Horsepower/torque 208 hp / 236 lb-ft

Max cargo capacity 93.2 cu ft

Max towing capacity 4000-5000 lbs

Fuel economy 18 city / 24 highway

This article last updated on Friday 15th October 2010
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