The $29,000 SUV Shootout: Overview

Even with the economy in the tank and gas prices fluctuating all over the place, families still need to get around. That's why small and midsize SUVs and crossovers continue to sell well. Our goal in the $29,000 SUV Shootout was to pit nine of the most popular models against each other to see which one has the best combination of ride, room, family-friendly features and handling.

Which SUVs?

How did we pick these SUVs? In many cases, we let the automakers pick them. We talked to J.D. Power & Associates to see which SUVs consumers cross-shopped with the Chevrolet Equinox and the Hyundai Santa Fe. They came back with this list: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Kia Sorento, GMC Terrain and Dodge Journey. We looked at sales popularity and found all eight had sold at least 17,000 through April 2010. A couple of others Subaru Forester and Nissan Rogue — merited inclusion because of their sales popularity, and a handful didn't make the cut due to a lack of sales. We allowed only one SUV per automaker, so GM had to pick either an Equinox or a Terrain.

That left us with a set of compact/midsize crossovers scattered across a wide price spectrum. We returned to J.D. Power to investigate the group's median transaction price. J.D. Power reported a $6,500 spread, from $25,361 for compact crossovers to $31,844 for midsize crossovers. Splitting the difference gave us $28,603, which we rounded up to $29,000. What do you get for $29,000 on these SUVs? This is what they come with.

The Rules

Then we set the rules for automakers: We wanted an SUV or a compact or midsize crossover that fit under $29,000. Automakers had to provide a Monroney sticker to prove each car came in under that price (excluding destination charges). It needed to have an automatic transmission. We also gave them specifics about our target family: It would be a family of four who would use this SUV as their primary vehicle. The family would be based in Southern California, meaning they would spend a fair amount of time in traffic together, and that might also explain why most automakers did not give us a car with all-wheel drive.

The automakers made different
and interesting choices. Rather than going with their midsize Santa Fe and Sorento, Hyundai and Kia (respectively) elected to give us well-equipped versions of their smaller Tucson and Sportage. Similarly, Ford and Nissan opted against a stripped-down Edge and Murano (respectively), going instead with a well-equipped Escape and Rogue. Chrysler, it turned out, was the only automaker that stuck with a truly midsize entrant.

The Testing

We put the SUVs through a number of tests, including a full day of testing by the experts, a full day's examination by our test family guided by our team of experts, and a full day's mileage drive. The tests were conducted in early December in Southern California around the Pasadena area.

The Scoring

Judging the SUVS were:

  • Kristin Varela, chief mom for and editor of
  • David Thomas, senior editor for
  • Jennifer Newman, editor for and
  • Chris Woodyard, reporter and editor for USA Today
  • Brian Robinson, producer for "MotorWeek," the longtime public television automotive show
  • Joey and Chandie Lawrence. Joey is the star of "Melissa and Joey" on the ABC Family network. They are the parents of two young girls.

The experts' opinions make up 65 percent of the  score; the Lawrence family, 25 percent. Fuel economy makes up the final 10 percent of the final score.

See what our experts and family found, and let us know what you think as well. Contact us via email.

The State of the SUV/Crossover Segment
The Family
Mileage Challenge

© 01/31/2011