When sport-utility vehicles began appearing in the 1990s, no one could have predicted the way the segment would grow. From humble beginnings like the Ford Bronco and early Toyota 4Runner, manufacturers responded to buyer demand by growing the field and broadening the audience, which brings us to where we are now. Today, there is an SUV for just about any budget and any need. From a $19,000 Kia Sportage to an $83,000 Range Rover, the manufacturers have sliced and diced and multiplied their offerings to appeal to just about everyone.
Along the way, SUVs have become more comfortable and often downright luxurious. Many of them have ditched their original body-on-frame design for a car-like unibody structure, benefitting ride and efficiency. They’ve gone from being utilitarian to being as family-friendly as a Labrador.
The mid-size segment has long been the mainstay of the market, so our top picks here represent the best of the breed.
Long one of America’s favorite SUVs, Explorer for 2013 is a whole new animal. Ford ditched the body-on-frame design of the 2012 model in favor of a car-like unibody design. Car-like it is, because this Explorer feels more like a well-sorted sedan. Base power comes from a 290 horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 with 6-speed automatic transmission; some models offer a 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo. Of note to speed freaks, the new Sport trim uses the same 365 horsepower, twin-turbo V6 found in the Taurus SHO, along with various chassis upgrades. On the driveline front, 2013 Explorer no longer offers a transfer case with low-range gearing.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 20 city/28 highway/23 combined mpg (Base FWD with optional 4-cylinder engine).
Oddly enough, the GMC “truck people” have created what is probably the most upmarket, luxurious vehicle in this group. The exterior is modern, attractive and should age well. Inside, the refreshed 8-passenger interior boasts improved materials, French stitching and more soft-touch surfaces. The 6.5-inch touchscreen display for audio controls is easy to use, but it’s a bit small for the available navigation features. Power comes from a 288-horsepower V6 mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. Luxury has its price: the base MSRP on Acadia is about $5000 higher than for the other members of this group.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 17 city/24 highway/19 combined mpg (SE1 FWD).
Pilot’s boxy, angular styling will never be called svelte. However, it does help maximize interior space. Pilot is the only SUV here with standard 8-passenger seating, making it a natural choice for big or extended families. Plus, the second- and third-row seats fold 60/40, a trick shared only with the Acadia. The interior has many such intelligent details, but down-market trim mars the overall impression. As for the chassis, the sole power choice is a 250 horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 with a 5-speed automatic transmission. The engine is Honda-smooth, but overall handling isn’t at the leading edge.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 18 city/25 highway/21 combined mpg (LX FWD).
Pathfinder joins Explorer in swapping its truck underpinnings for a unibody design, adopting the chassis used by the Infiniti JX35 and Nissan Murano. Pathfinder lost some capability in the process but it gained sophistication and comfort. Some high-end JX35 features are available, including “Around View,” which uses four cameras to create a bird’s eye view of everything just outside the vehicle. Power comes from a 260-horsepower V6. The CVT (continuously variable transmission) can be a love it or loathe it thing, but it does contribute to the best standard fuel economy ratings in this group. Handling is comfort-biased, with cornering showing noticeable body roll and weak grip.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 20 city/26 highway/22 combined mpg (S FWD).
Goldilocks’ favorite SUV, Highlander is “just right” about so much it’s easy to overlook its flaws. Sure, the handling is a bit numb and third-row seating is spacious only for Hobbits. But on the positive side, it has good cargo room and flexible seating arrangements, a comfortable, quiet ride, and abundant convenience features. Refinement, safety and reliability are a given. Basically, Highlander is the definition of a good family vehicle. Base power is a 187-horsepower 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine with 6-speed automatic transmission, but the available 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with a 5-speed automatic is the way to go, albeit with a 2–3 mpg penalty.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 20 city/25 highway/22 combined mpg (Base FWD).