Best Bets for SUVs

To rank models as first, second and third best, and so on, is to suggest that all people want the same thing in a vehicle, and that's just not the case. That's why these Best Bet recommendations include a handful of models that are "best overall," but all other citations center on a particular aspect in which the model excels. To understand how we choose our selections, read the Best Bet methodology. Best Bets for 2006 SUVs
Here, staff reviewer Joe Wiesenfelder applauds 14 sport utility vehicles, which are ordered according to base manufacturer's suggested retail price, from lowest to highest. The destination charge is not included.
Kia Sportage (and related Hyundai Tucson)
$15,900 - $22,245
Best new SUV model(s): These sister SUVs are exactly what we need at this point in U.S. history. They're small, efficient, drivable, packed with standard features — including high-ticket safety items — yet they're value priced, too. The standard four-cylinder engine delivers estimated fuel economy of 22/27 mpg (city/highway) with both the manual and the automatic transmission.
Caveat: The safety-conscious may want to wait until the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests these models. So far the Tucson has earned a double-five-star rating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal crash tests (we discount NHTSA's side-impact tests).
$21,795 - $27,895
Overall best compact SUV: Truth be told, the wagonlike Forester could be aging better. The 2006 update was an opportunity to address some of the quirks and shortcomings — lacking interior lighting in the front of the cabin, chronically rough idle in turbo versions, and tires with poor dry-surface grip, to name a few. Regardless, the Forester is so strong in so many ways that it's still the best overall. It's the only compact to sweep IIHS crash tests with Good scores for all three tests. The turbocharged engine in the 2.5 XT trim level does wonders for driving enjoyment, while the more modest drivetrains preserve admirable fuel economy. Reliability is above average. For optimal sporty performance, choose the 2.5 XT — but forget the optional automatic transmission and upgrade the tires.
$26,900 - $28,525
Best hybrid SUV: The 2005 Escape Hybrid was the first gasoline/electric hybrid SUV, and the first hybrid to offer four-wheel drive. Others have followed, but the Escape is the best value. With an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 36 mpg in the city and 31 mpg in highway driving, it has the power of a conventional Escape V-6 but with better efficiency than the conventional, two-wheel-drive four-cylinder model. From 2002 through 2004, the Escape has earned average to above-average reliability ratings.
Caveat: The current-generation, gasoline-only Escape earned a rating of Acceptable in IIHS frontal and rear crash tests. Most models in the small SUV class score Good in the frontal crash, though many score Marginal or Poor in the rear test. The optional side-impact airbags have raised the Escape's side-test rating from Poor to Good.
$26,995 - $33,045
Overall best midsize SUV: The Pilot accommodates eight people in comfort that rivals or bests that of full-size SUVs while burning less gas. Throw in Honda's storied reliability, emissions performance and crash-test ratings, and you have the best model for the way most people truly use their SUVs. If towing or off-roading is in your plans, a variety of truck-based models surpass the Pilot. If not, they're overkill.
Chevrolet Suburban (and related GMC Yukon XL)
$36,865 - $42,740
Best people-mover SUV(s): I'm the first to point out when people don't need an SUV — let alone a truck-based or full-size one. But here the Suburban and its GMC sister vehicle fill an important role, accomplishing something that no other model or body style can do: accommodate as many as nine occupants and their luggage. For people space, vehicles like the Honda Pilot SUV and virtually any minivan do the trick, and do so with greater fuel- and space-efficiency. But once they're packed with humans, the remaining space for cargo is negligible. Ford's new extended-length 2007 Expedition EL is about the size of a Suburban, but it won't be available until fall.
Overall best near-luxury SUV: Among fierce competition, the reliable MDX offers the most of the most. The Lexus RX 330 mostly goes toe-to-toe, but it has only five seats and lesser handling. The base MDX seats seven people without compromising cargo space, and the changes instituted in 2003 also make it better to drive. The Volvo XC90 costs far more for seven seats and all-wheel drive, and doesn't handle as well. As for safety, the MDX's crash-test ratings are closer to Volvo's than you think.
$37,850 - $49,860
Best safety equipment: The XC90's so-so driving characteristics, below-average reliability and high price rule it out of the best-overall contest, but it deserves the nod for safety equipment. It's difficult to quantify the real-world safety of one model with good crash-test scores compared to another with good crash-test scores. But when it comes to the effort — the emphasis on safe engineering and safety features — the XC90 is unmatched. It was the first vehicle with side curtain-type airbags for all three rows of seats and the first with a rollover-avoidance system, now shared with some Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models. Whereas most vehicles have front seat belt pretensioners, the XC90 has them for each seat. No matter your criterion, it's a safe bet.
$45,400 - $49,750
Best sportiness for the buck: How much would you pay to look better and go faster than a Porsche? How about more than $7,000 under what you'd pay for the Porsche Cayenne S? Rear-biased all-wheel drive, a 320-horsepower, 4.5-liter V-8 and a firm suspension make the FX45 go like a shot and corner flatter than flat. Unlike Porsche, Infiniti wasted no weight or cost making its SUV an off-roader. Its 20-inch wheels are meant for pavement and do a great job of sticking you there. The Cadillac SRX, which is lighter, somehow feels heavier to me, with slower acceleration and comparative front-end heaviness.
SUV you hate to love: The H2 is the SUV a lot of people love to hate — or just plain hate. And why not? It's gigantic, it's not commensurately accommodating inside, it sucks gas, and it's built to do something not nearly enough people will do to justify its purchase or even its manufacture. So why do I like it so much? How does it do that?! I hate to love it, but I do.
$74,285 - $89,285
The ultimate luxury SUV: Reengineered by BMW when it owned the Rover Group briefly at the end of the 20th century, the Range Rover is every bit as technologically advanced and capable off-road as anything from Hummer or Jeep, and far more luxurious, refined and comfortable. It's a lot of the things for which people hate SUVs ... and the Range Rover makes it very difficult to care.
Caveat: This citation doesn't include the Range Rover Sport, as described below.
$90,200 - $111,600
The sportiest utility vehicle: Why Porsche made the Cayenne fully offroad capable (a claim I haven't tested) is a mystery. The added weight means it's not as quick as it could be. Still, the Cayenne Turbo — the model with a 450-hp twin-turbocharged V-8 — overcomes the heft. It's the sportiest SUV out there, and very much a Porsche. Considering that the Infiniti FX45 is quicker, the Cayenne S doesn't deserve the same praise even if it does bear the badge. As for the new version powered by a Volkswagen V-6 ... don't get me started.

Removed from the list was the Ford Freestyle after Consumer Reports rated the Freestyle's reliability as "much worse than average."

Excluded from consideration were the following new or redesigned SUVs. Once tested, they will be removed from this list and, if worthy, added to the commendations above.

  • 2007 Cadillac Escalade
  • 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban
  • 2007 GMC Yukon and Yukon XL
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
  • Porsche Cayenne Turbo S
  • Toyota RAV4
The 2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport isn't based on the Range Rover platform.

The 2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport isn't based on the Range Rover platform.

The following models deserve to be mentioned, but not because they're Best Bets.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport — Dishonorable mention: The title goes to Land Rover's Range Rover Sport. But wait, didn't the Range Rover earn a Best Bet as the ultimate luxury SUV? Yes. And that's why the Sport gets dishonorable mention; it's a Range Rover in name only. The Sport is actually on a completely different platform, based on the LR3 model. The LR3 is a decent offroad vehicle with some interesting technology, but it's nowhere near as luxurious and solid as the Range Rover. The name may fool some people, but this move can only degrade the Range Rover nameplate in the long run.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class — Dishonorable mention: I understand why Mercedes would doll up this military vehicle and sell it in the United States. We've proven interest in such beasts with the Hummer H1. What I don't understand is why anyone aside from the most hardcore off-roader would buy it. It's not particularly roomy, it lacks independent suspension — and feels like it. It has ponderous trucklike steering and dismal fuel economy for its size: 13/14 mpg (city/highway) for the G500. Did I mention a sticker price of nearly $78,000 for the base model? I never understood the SUV craze overall, but this German model really takes the torte.

Volkswagen Touareg — Most overrated: Once I got past the handsome exterior and interior, I started to part company with the majority of auto reviewers who gushed over Volkswagen's late entry into the SUV class. VW took a unibody platform — other automakers' foundation for lighter, more efficient SUVs — and ruined it by turning it into a 2.5- to 3-ton offroad vehicle. The result is wanting acceleration and poor fuel economy of 16/21 mpg (city/highway) for the V-6 and 14/18 mpg for the V-8. Though it has six speeds, the drivetrain is unresponsive and the handling reflects a higher center of gravity than I've come to expect. There's no third row, and the backseat requires headrest removal and a cushion flip before folding flat. Even the name is a failure: If the manufacturer itself has to make fun of it in TV commercials, it's not cute; it's just a bad name. The Touareg may have high-tech air suspension and other modern aspects, but overall it screams 1995. I just don't get it.

Posted on 2/1/06