Because the term “SUV” is tossed around so much, and it applies to some very different vehicles, the definition has become somewhat garbled. In general, full-fledged, traditional sport-utility vehicles are built like trucks, with a separate body and frame. Some, in fact, are built on the same platform as a big pickup truck from the same company. SUVs are generally rear-wheel drive, with four-wheel drive as an optional alternative—worthwhile if harsh weather and occasionally leaving the pavement loom in the future.
Crossover vehicles are more car-like in nature, typically made with unibody construction and front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is optional on most, but not all. Crossovers tend to drive and feel much like passenger cars, not trucks of any stripe. Still, SUVs have become a lot more comfort-oriented in recent times, increasingly packed with luxury-car features and welcome amenities.
In the early days of SUVs, nearly all of them drove much like trucks. More recently, following the lead of crossovers, most SUVs have become more carlike in nature. Continuous improvement shows up especially strongly in Dodge’s utility vehicles: not only the Durango SUV, but the Dodge Journey, which qualifies as a crossover model.
Today’s midsize Durango blends capability for moderate off-roading with some of those car-like traits. Most of the sense of truckiness is gone, resulting in a close-to-crossover experience. Yet, the Durango, while more civilized than in the past, remains a sizable utility vehicle to be reckoned with. Despite its dimensions and strengths, a Durango is surprisingly maneuverable, though ride comfort is affected by a defiantly firm suspension, especially in the R/T model.
Performance with the 190-horsepower V6 and eight-speed automatic is wholly adequate, unless you expect to do some heavy towing. Standard in the R/T edition, the 360-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 is optional for other trim levels.
Arguably the ancestor of modern SUVs, the Land Rover organization has been a British icon for well over half a century. Whether on or far off any road, a Land Rover (or Range Rover) model is the real thing, ceding the essence of the sport-utility experience. Today’s SUVs—and some crossovers—rank as descendants of those go-anywhere-at-all Land Rover utility wagons that trekked through African desert and jungle in old movies.
No SUV delivers more elemental off-road capability, coupled with a selection of posh amenities. Land Rover products possess almost uncanny ability to cope with any harsh terrain: steep, rocky, slippery, or all together. Positioned between the compact Discovery Sport and the full-size, ultra-posh Range Rover, the seven-passenger LR4 holds a supercharged 3-liter V6 that produces 240 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.
For a three-ton vehicle, performance is surprisingly good. Fuel economy (no surprise) is not, estimated at 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway. Ground clearance of 10.2 inches helps the LR4 traverse waterways and boulders that would stop most SUVs cold.
Like the Chevrolet Suburban, Cadillac Escalade and Nissan Armada, Ford’s biggest SUV is just that: Big. Even bigger, if an extended-length EL edition is selected. Lincoln’s Navigator is closely related, if more luxurious.
Not everyone needs an SUV anywhere near this size, of course, but up to eight occupants can travel in comfort, enjoying a smooth, compliant ride, courtesy of the Expedition’s independent rear suspension. A twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 sends 365 horsepower to a six-speed automatic transmission, along with a husky 420 pound-feet of torque, using regular-grade gas.
For a true heavyweight, acceleration is impressive. At 16/22 mpg (city/highway) with rear-drive, gas mileage is nothing to boast about, but could be worse. On the Ford roster, the Expedition slots above the midsize Explorer, which is a crossover these days but used to be a traditional SUV. Despite a design that dates from 2007, the Expedition continues to appeal to an audience that hasn’t stopped applauding SUVs with enough space inside to hold a party. Dancing optional.
How could we omit mention of what might be deemed the original? Ancestors of the Wrangler rose up during World War II, to provide a new kind of transportation for the troops. Even those of us who never leave the pavement voluntarily, defiantly shunning the alleged attractions of off-road adventuring, have to admire the Wrangler’s down-to-basics attitude and capabilities.
Despite its smaller size, the Wrangler has body-on-frame construction and standard four-wheel drive. How could it not, when rock-climbing and river-fording are high points in its arsenal of talents. High ground clearance helps make it possible to bounce through nearly any terrain, yet today’s Wrangler has improved a lot in everyday driving.
Don’t expect a comfortable ride, though. Wrangler Unlimiteds have four doors instead of two, but still yield a turbulent ride. Wranglers aren’t short on strength, with 285 horsepower emanating from the 3.6-liter V6, driving an easy-shifting automatic. Don’t forget to take note of gas stations along the way, in view of the Wrangler’s 17/21 mpg (city/highway) fuel-economy estimate.
Sometimes, a vehicle deserves “favorite” status because of its role, even if you’re not personally attracted to it. When it comes to full-size SUVs, General Motors continues to hold the edge in numbers and diversity. Chevrolet’s Tahoe and its GMC Yukon counterpart are old-timers, for sure, but they’re still going strong in the big-SUV realm.
Ford still offers its gargantuan Expedition, kin to Lincoln’s Navigator. But the GM trio—including the bright and blingy Cadillac Escalade—aren’t ready to be toppled from their lofty leadership position.
All are dimensionally excessive, of course, beyond the needs of most families (though some insist on nothing smaller). At least, the Tahoe is shorter and thus more manageable than its massive Chevrolet Suburban sibling, which aims at those for whom biggest is invariably best.
Naturally, big-SUV buyers can’t expect moderation at the gas pump, but these biggies don’t guzzle as much as they used to. Typical owners don’t seem to fret much about fuel economy, either, but relish that voluminous interior space.