$37,000 SUV Shootout: Meet the Family

What's a busy family of four to do when they need a vehicle with a combination of family-hauling capacity and cargo-hauling ability plus modern styling that can't be found in a minivan? They come to the $37,000 SUV Shootout conducted by Cars.com, USA Today and "MotorWeek."

Beyond our team of staff experts, many of whom have families themselves, we enlisted the services of a Hoffman Estates, Ill., family, the Kochs (pronounced "Cooks"), to clamber in and out of — and drive — every car at our Shootout.

The Koch family — Tarek, Heather (both 38), McKenna, 8, and Bryson, 5 — currently use a Buick Enclave three-row SUV as their family car.

Tarek and Heather Koch juggle jobs and raising a family and need a car that can keep up with them.

While Tarek works full time, Heather balances out their family life by commuting 17 miles three days a week to work as an account executive for a finance company. Combine that with the kids' rigorous schedule of school, afterschool soccer practices and weekend games (often on separate fields on the same day at the same time) and the Kochs end up spending much of their time in the car.

This must be why McKenna seemed gaga over the rear entertainment system in the Honda Pilot, the only one in the Shootout with the feature.  Tarek was less concerned with having entertainment in the car. "The entertainment center in the car for us was not a key priority at all," he said. "Kids these days, they're not going to know how to get anywhere because they're glued to the TV" in back, he laughed.

While the kids were impressed with fancy extras, Tarek and Heather were more concerned with space and liked the seating and cargo capacity in the Chevy Traverse. There was even enough room for Tarek, who's 6 feet 5 inches tall, to sit in the third row. "Our biggest priority was roominess inside. It boiled down to the kids getting into sports and lugging big bags around," he said. 

McKenna and Bryson Koch help test SUVs during the comparison.

Not gas mileage? Tarek reconsidered. "Fuel economy was probably first.  But the roominess was second."

Heather was also concerned with roominess, but more specifically, the kids' easy entry to the third row. "There's no point in having a third row if the kids can't easily access it on their own," Heather said. "I don't want to have to help them flip and fold seats every time they're getting into the car." Heather was impressed with the Toyota Highlander's ability to convert the second row from a three-place bench into two separate captain's chairs, creating a passageway to the third row between the captain's chairs. McKenna said it was "easy as pie" to get in and out of.
 
Heather's other priority? A warranty with teeth. The Kia Sorento's 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty impressed her. "The warranty was a big deal. Our last car, we had for 10 years."

The Kochs also liked the upscale feel to the leather seats in the Dodge Durango and the sliding second-row seats in the Mazda CX-9, and, well — a little something in each car we tested.  This predicament puts the Kochs in the same position as many car-shopping families out there. 

If only we could pick and choose the features and ride quality from each of the competitors out there that's most appealing to our specific family needs (much like customizing a drink order at Starbucks), we'd be happy.

Cars.com's Kelsey Mays contributed to this report.

 

© Cars.com 10/14/2011