By The Car Family
Make no mistake, the competition is fierce in this segment and the result is some superior vehicles that often fly under the radar as Ford’s and Honda’s large advertising budgets overwhelm potential buyers.
We are not swayed by these dollars and review vehicles not for how fast they go, but how family-friendly they are in real life situations. We have broken the vehicles into three sections. First, SUVs that have three rows of seats. Second, SUVs that offer the most for the money. And finally, the best luxury-oriented vehicles. For those who feel they need the room, but prefer the driving style of a car, the Audi allroad is a winner. It has the higher seating position, an enormous amount of features and sex appeal. It’s easily the best looking wagon with enough safety features to satisfy NASA.
We were surprised, pleasantly, by what some competitors were offering. The Mazda CX-5 is a terrific and affordable SUV that handles well, is economical to operate and is a pleasure to drive. Subaru is certainly going to win the most improved player award with its dynamic Forester. The Dodge Journey is a bargain. The Chevrolet Equinox is a surprise. The Mitsubishi Outlander a downright underdog and the Toyota RAV 4 a cavern on wheels. Of course, the Lexus 450H is the queen of SUVs that combines sport and utility with luxury and fuel economy. A tough match-up for any vehicle in this price segment with only the Audi Q5 coming close.
All of these are worthy, but what makes them excel in this crowded field is their family-friendly nature, utility and pricing. Most of these start under $25,000, but this can change dramatically by ordering expensive option packages. There are also some great deals available for many models. The Dodge Journey and Mitsubishi Outlander, for example, start under $20,000. That is a heck of lot of vehicle for that money.
Best Sporty SUV
There are two that top this list: the BMW X1 and the Mazda CX-5. Both are eager to please, have room for five adults, and come with a variety of options. If the CX-5 does not fit the bill the Mazda 5 is excellent as well, but is more a minivan. Regardless, get the Skyactiv drivetrain. It is terrific and both can challenge the Subaru Outback for exceptional fuel mileage. Of note, the larger Mitsubishi with the base engine is the champion in this regard with a rating that tops an outstanding 30 mpg on the highway. However, that is without all-wheel drive.
Best All-Wheel Drive SUV
The Subaru Forester is very family-friendly and gets the best real life gas mileage of any SUV with all-wheel drive. We tested the manual transmission model, but much prefer the automatic even though the standard transmission had the available hill holder that makes starting out from a step grade much easier. The Hyundai Santa Fe, although somewhat similar in usefulness to the Subaru, is a much more relaxed driving vehicle without the handling and responsiveness of the Subaru. The Hyundai has the better warranty and more features, and the Subaru gets better fuel mileage.
Best Seven Passenger SUVs
The Dodge Journey, Mitsubishi Outlander and Chevrolet Equinox are all winners. The Toyota Highlander is also highly regarded, but is due for a redesign this year so we didn’t rate it. Of note, the redesign might make for some good deals as the new models crowd into showrooms. The Mitsubishi Outlander comes in several versions with the base model getting 31 mpg and a starting price under $20,000. If you want all-wheel drive the optional V6 engine is a must. The third row is tight, as you would expect, but the standard features are abundant, and you can feast on an options list that includes adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance and lane-departure warning systems. A plug-in hybrid model is planned for later in 2014. If you don’t need the third row seating and want a sharper handling SUV try the Sport version.
Best Luxury SUV
For over a decade the Lexus RX has held this title and it still does in the form of the expensive, but extremely well equipped RX 450 hybrid. There are faster luxury vehicles, larger ones, and more expensive SUVs, but none combine the family-friendly features and resale value of the Lexus. If you don’t need the extra features and hybrid option, the base model is just as comfortable, roomy, and gets 22 mpg on regular. You should be warned that some higher performance luxury SUVs use premium fuel adding considerably to your ownership costs.
Best SUVish Station Wagon
The Audi allroad is the easy winner in this segment with the Subaru Legacy winning in the affordable arena. Although it does not have the largest cargo space in its class, the exceptional fuel mileage (20/27) with the turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and eight-speed automatic make for a great overall ride and usability rating. A feast of features help justify the pricing with everything from an Internet connection, panoramic sunroof, Bluetooth, Audi’s Multi-Media Infotainment system (MMI) and a 10-speaker audio system on tap. A pleasure to drive in any weather and a family feels snug and secure inside.
Family conference: A lot of talent out there, but the biggest caveat for buyers is to do their homework. The various option packages must be explored carefully as they can add over $10,000 to the price. On the other hand, they enable the buyer to custom build a vehicle which is the main reason to buy a new one. We always recommend ordering all the safety features.
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