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The Definitive Guide to SUVs

By the late 1990s, virtually every volume automaker offered an SUV. Unibody cars had surrendered big engines and towing ability in the name of mileage-maximizing weight-savings. Body-on-frames like the Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, and the original Ford Explorer became attractive for their capabilities – and for their anti-minivan character.

For many early adopters, though, the novelty of commuting, parking, and fueling a real truck they didn’t actually use for towing or off-roading was wearing thin. And swings in gas prices and the economy caused many to reconsidering their choice of daily transportation.

Of course, a manufacturer’s ledger sheet is no concern if you need three seating rows and the power to pull a 6,000-pound trailer over a rocky trail. Nor is it relevant if you’re shopping for the best affordable for your the money. That starts with choosing the right vehicle for the job.

 

Difference Between a SUV and a Crossover

There is a difference between a crossover and an SUV. Most Americans are indifferent to the nuances, but we know what we want. Introduced to the joys of a high seating position and an adventure-ready image by traditional SUVs in the late 1990s, we’ve learned how to crossover in unprecedented numbers.

Indeed, the Honda CR-V is not only America’s most popular of this size, it was outselling every other car and sport-utility vehicle in the nation at the end of 2014. Among other top affordable automobiles, the Ford Escape, was not far behind. This is more than a trend, and it extends beyond our shores. The best small vehicles without separated trunks are in unprecedented demand globally, and for many of the same reasons they’re hot here: they pack lots of versatility into a modestly sized package, they’re fuel-efficient, and, increasingly, they’re fun to drive.

Meanwhile, automakers have always loved both because both are quite profitable. SUVs have come to be defined as, essentially, four-door passenger-wagon bodies bolted to the frames of full-size pickup trucks. Carmakers spend the bulk of the engineering money to create the pickups, which sell in much higher volume. Revenue from the spinoff is gravy. Some industry analysts say the Cadillac Escalade, for example, is General Motors’ most profitable vehicle. The 2015 edition has a base-price range of $73,965-$95,870 (all base prices in this report including shipping fees). Beneath its leather-lined cabin and upscale tech is the same basic hardware developed for the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, base-price range $27,300-$52,345.

The alternative is lucrative, too. Trade publication Automotive News recently cited estimates that an automotive manufacturer starting from the under structure and front-wheel-drive powertrain of a compact car spends just $1,500 to transform into a hatchback. Yet, the average retail transaction price for the crossover is $5,000 higher than for the car responsible for the initial development expenditure.

Read more about Crossovers and their Sizes

In the beginning, all these autos were pickup trucks with enclosed cargo beds. Their appeal was go-anywhere ruggedness and four-wheel drive traction in an era when station wagons offered neither and pickups were still tools of farmers, ranchers, and tradespeople. These originals were not very luxurious, though. They had thirsty V-8s and to engage 4WD, you had to stop, get out, and manually lock the front-wheel hubs. Upon a return to dry pavement, you had to reverse the process to avoid drivetrain damage.

Today’s roster of traditional sports-utility vehicles is brief. GM re-trims the same basic vehicle for duty as the Escalade, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, and the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL. Similar corporate cousins are the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator, the Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GS, and the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX. The Infiniti QX80, Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Nissan Armada and Xterra, and the Toyota Sequoia complete the list.

On the upside, such old-school assets as generous torque, rear-wheel-drive-based design, and girder-grade chassis have been blended with all manner of amenities to sustain a place for these people movers. Little short of a big truck can match an Expedition’s ability to tow 9,200 pounds, for example. The QX80 is a leather-trimmed palace. And few motoring sensations equal the fun of a topless Wrangler on the Rubicon Trail.

Discover fantastic Luxurious Crossovers

Also intact, though, are downsides associated with the shear mass required to support these attributes. Residential garages strain to contain eighteen-and-a-half-foot-long Suburbans. Brawny engines struggle to rate more than 18 mpg combined city-highway. Hefty frames tend to make them difficult to climb into and trucky drivetrains render them relatively space-inefficient once aboard. You’d be surprised how little legroom there is in the third row of a Land Cruiser or even a Yukon XL.

Enter the crossover. The class got off the ground with the first-generation Toyota RAV-4, launched in model-year 1996 and based on underpinnings of the compact Celica sport coupe. Imitators proliferated. By the mid-2000s, the new bred had sped past traditional in sales; some body-on-frame originals, such as the Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, even abandoned their original designs to be reborn as unibodies.

Today’s buyers are mostly married and 35-55 years of age, though young, single professionals and empty nesters are significant constituencies, too. By contrast, buyers of body-on-frames tend to be older, skew more male, and have fewer children in the household.

Crossovers rate as the fastest growing automotive segment and account for 27 percent of all vehicle sales in the U.S. Demand is strongest for compact-sized entries like the CR-V and RAV-4, and the compact segment more than doubled the industry’s 6-percent rate of growth in 2014.

It’s easy to see why. Here’s the elevated seating, cargo versatility, multi-surface grip, and big car image — without the pain. With body structures doubling as the frame, these sedan-structured autos save fuel-consuming pounds and maximize interior roominess. Step-in height is modest, door openings generous, cargo floors low. Without bulges required to clear bulky solid rear axles, third-row seating becomes an advantage for the best 7-seaters. You’d be surprised how much leg room there is in the third row of a Dodge Durango or GMC Acadia.

Check our Reviews of Luxury SUVs

Handling generally mimics that of a slightly top-heavy family car, but they are still far nimbler than body-on-frames. Their front-wheel-drive-based design concentrates powertrain mass in the nose, putting traction-enhancing weight over the drive wheels. Lots of crossover buyers — 40 percent for some models — don’t feel the need to spend extra for all-wheel drive.

Those who do can choose from no-fuss systems that activate automatically when sensors detect tire slip – ideal for snowy streets — to those that employ sophisticated power-distribution algorithms, locking differentials, even skid plates and boulder-clearing air suspensions to equal the off-road ability of the hardest-core 4x4s. Entries like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Range Rover easily qualify among the best “4x4s.”

In fact, there’s one for nearly every purse and purpose. There are hybrids that rate 31 mpg combined, luxury offerings with six-figure price tags, family-friendly models that play the role of minivans, even high-performance models with more horsepower than some Ferraris.

Familiar and Affordable: Medium Sized SUVs

This style of family transport isn’t a pushover when it comes to safety, either. It’s true that size, weight and the protective corral of a steel frame are SUV assets in a collision. But crossovers tend to score similarly in government and third-party crash tests, aided by structures designed to channel crash forces away from occupants, plus the latest in driver-aid and collision-mitigation systems. Both are susceptible to rolling over at higher rates than cars. But with quicker handling and shorter stopping distances, drivers of the later have an edge in avoiding a collision in the first place.

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