$37,000 SUV Shootout: Results

Our judges: David Thomas, Kristin Varela and Joe Wiesenfelder with Cars.com; James R. Healey with USA Today; Ben Davis with "MotorWeek"; and Tarek and Heather Koch, our guest family members.

No. 6 (tie) 2012 Kia Sorento SX; 690.15 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Kia Sorento)

What we liked: For many reviewers, this was the driver's car. "The sportiest handling of the bunch," Davis said. "It's high-revving engine and smaller footprint made for the most fun on the road," Thomas concurred. But it wasn't all in the driving. "The air-conditioned driver's seat was beyond blissful," Varela said. "The center console was large enough for me to stash my purse, iPad or laptop in it to keep the contents from flying all over the car if I braked too quickly." And then there's the design. "Its looks are striking, mainly due to the reverse-slant D-pillar," Healey said. "You won't mistake this one for somebody's vanilla rig."

What we didn't: But that design comes at a cost. "Guess what? The smallest crossover was the most confining inside," Thomas said. "While fine for me, I doubt many taller folks would find it that inviting." "Visibility is so terrible it borders on unsafe," Healey said. "That same big, slanted D-pillar that looks cool outside wrecks your ability to see out from the inside." "If it weren't for the amount of wind noise coming from the A-pillar," Varela said, "I might actually put the Sorento on my own family's potential new-car list."

The verdict: "The Sorento is a decent choice for buyers who are OK with a smaller SUV," Wiesenfelder said, "and who are more interested in efficiency and features for the money." "A hoot to drive, but pretty anti-family in most respects," Healey said.

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Sorento features:

    • As-tested price: $34,650
    • 20/26 mpg city/highway (best mpg in test)
    • 2011 IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Backup camera with backup warning
    • Maximum towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
    • Smallest cargo dimensions: 72.5 cubic feet total storage, 9.1 cubic feet behind third row
    • Navigation system (one of two in Shootout)
    • Only entrant with panoramic moonroof
    • Longest warranty of 5 years/60,000 miles basic, 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain
    • USB input for MP3 player
No. 6 (tie) 2012 Ford Explorer XLT; 690.15 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Ford Explorer)

What we liked: Believe it or not, the driver's seat seemed to make the most lasting impression on the judges. "The driver"s seat of the Explorer was incredibly comfortable, like a La-Z-Boy for the car," Varela said. Others liked the "bold styling, sporty dash and interior" (Davis); "I like how the Explorer hustled from a stop" (Thomas), and "the navigation system is good to have at this price" (Wiesenfelder). While many critics have complained about MyFord Touch, a touch-screen multimedia system, several experts found that, given time, they could make it work. "The center panel is less onerous than other MyFord Touch executions I've used," Wiesenfelder said, an opinion echoed by Thomas and Healey. 

What we didn't: But Davis still had issues with MyFord Touch: "Touch controls don't always respond and they distract attention from the road." "The Explorer is the only model in which I felt like I needed more driver's-seat legroom," Wiesenfelder said, "and the second row doesn't slide either — an invaluable provision on some of these models." That immovable second row also drew boos from Varela, who found them "quite heavy, making the flip-and-tumble operation to gain access to the third row extremely tough and a little violent. I would be worried about the fate of my children's fingers when trying to do this on their own," she said. For Thomas, the issues were more structural. "When you flipped the second row forward to get in or out of the third row," he said, "the connecting bolts to the sheet-metal shook loosely. A similar setup in the Sorento was rock-solid."

The verdict: "Like the Durango, the Explorer is on a new platform, and while its mileage is highly competitive, it retains some of the truckiness and modest passenger space associated with earlier SUVs," Wiesenfelder said. "Styling is love it or hate it," Davis said, "but it really makes an aggressive statement." "The Explorer has looks inside and out," Thomas said, "but the quality issues are concerning and would make me avoid it."

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Explorer features:

    • As-tested price: $36,640
    • 18/25 mpg city/highway
    • 2011 IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Backup camera with backup warning
    • Maximum towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
    • Navigation system (one of two in Shootout)
    • Voice-activated stereo and navigation system
    • USB input for MP3 player
No. 5 2011 Toyota Highlander; 692.1 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Toyota Highlander)

What we liked: It might seem silly, but the feature with the most positive comments was the configurable second row. "You can't beat the Highlander's center stow seat. You can convert the second row from a bench seat for three into captain's chairs with an open passageway between them for super-easy access to the third row, even if you have child-safety seats installed in the captain's chairs," Varela said. "This feature is neither cheesy nor gimmicky, but just plain genius." Several reviewers echoed those thoughts. But the Highlander's smooth drive experience also won several over. "Snappy throttle response and strong pull from the V-6," Davis said. "The transmission shifts are firm." Healey also noted that the SUV is "bigger inside than it looks."

What we didn't: "I drove this for a week before the Shootout and never got used to the spongy brakes," Thomas said. "I continued to misjudge stopping distances after hundreds of miles." "Compared to the rest of the group, it's in the Stone Age," Davis said. "So bland looking," Healey said, "that even ugly would be an improvement." "The ride is the choppiest of them all," Wiesenfelder said. "From the upholstery to the dashboard materials, the interior is woefully outdated, and the backup-camera display is tiny."

The verdict: Despite a split on its looks (Thomas said it "looks pretty cool"), it's clear the Highlander needs work. "Lots of room inside for the footprint," Healey said, "but it's so annoying to drive that it erases itself from consideration among this group." "You can see why the Highlander has been a huge success, but you can also see what will be its downfall if Toyota doesn't act soon," Wiesenfelder said.

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Highlander features:

    • As-tested price: $31,675 (least expensive)
    • 18/24 mpg city/highway
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Backup camera, no backup warning
    • Maximum towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
    • USB input for MP3 player

     

No. 4 2012 Dodge Durango Crew; 714.9 points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Dodge Durango)

What we liked: "Stunning." "Manly." "Handsome." "Wow, what a looker." Clearly, our experts liked what they saw when it came to the Durango,  and it didn't stop on the outside. "The Durango definitely sports some high-end and luxury types of features," Varela said. "You really notice the high quality of the delicious-looking, buttery mocha leather seats." Thomas thought "compared to the Ford and Chevy, it was the best in terms of getting into the back, and I like the sliding second row." Davis liked the "well-bolstered and long-haul supportive seating."

What we didn't: Despite that masculine exterior styling, the Durango could use a little more oomph in the engine. "With an image of brutishness," Thomas said, "you sure wish the Durango was faster. I would probably pick the R/T version and sacrifice some features." "The Durango felt heavy to me in ways the others didn't," Wiesenfelder remarked. "There's too much gear hunting during passing and acceleration," Davis chimed in. While Healey dissed the "mediocre seat comfort," Varela had a unique take: "On the first bumpy road of our test route, I was confronted with an embarrassing realization as the only woman test-driving on this Shootout," she said. "Maybe I should have packed a sports bra to wear while driving the Durango. Its more traditional SUV-like ride was definitely bumpier and more trucklike than many of the car-based crossovers we tested. Need I go into more detail?"

The verdict: Most reviewers saw the Durango more as a good-looker — both inside and out — that needs some work under the hood. "Once the new eight-speed automatic goes into the V-6 Durango, it's likely to drive so well that the minuses pale," Healey said. "Meantime, though, it's merely another pretty face."

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Durango features:

    • As-tested price: $36,685 (most expensive)
    • 16/23 mpg city/highway
    • 2011 IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Only rear-wheel-drive competitor (others are front-wheel drive)
    • Backup camera with backup warning
    • Blind spot monitoring system
    • Maximum towing capacity: 6,200 pounds (highest as-tested)
    • Remote start (only one with it)
    • 115-volt house-style outlet
    • Power liftgate
    • USB input for MP3 player
No. 3 2011 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring; 726.35 points

(See the scorecard or the Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Mazda CX-9)

What we liked: "The Mazda CX-9 was my favorite of the bunch to drive," Varela said. "It had a near-perfect blend for me of both ride comfort and carlike drivability." Healey agreed: The CX-9 was "the sports car of the bunch." Davis liked the "enthusiast-tuned handling and suspension." On the inside, Wiesenfelder liked "the CX-9's interior that puts some luxury SUVs to shame; it's definitely the richest one here." And, from a family point of view, Thomas noted that "the CX-9 was by far the best in terms of braking. During my own hard-braking tests," he said, "the CX-9 was the only one to do the deed without extreme shuddering."

What we didn't: The CX-9 was a pricey contender, especially for the features included, several reviewers noted. "Seems like a wad of cash to fork over for a vehicle that's not as current as others," Davis said. "Too expensive for what you get when judged against others in the Shootout," Healey said. "There are no air vents for the third row," Varela said. "I know in our 320-plus days of sun in the Denver area where I live, overheating youngsters in the way back would be a regular occurrence."

The verdict: "The CX-9 is still very competitive in this segment in terms of styling and performance," Thomas said. "I just don't know if it has enough room for larger or taller families." Healey agreed, to a point. "Extraordinarily satisfying to drive among this group, but not one I'd recommend as the best family value," he said. The CX-9 is one of the oldest in this group, but that didn't seem to hurt it. "For a model that hasn't been redesigned since its 2007 debut, the CX-9 remains remarkably competitive," Wiesenfelder said, "with a sleek design, rich interior and overall refinement."

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key CX-9 features:

    • As-tested price: $36,200
    • 17/24 city/highway mpg
    • Auto climate control for front and rear
    • Backup camera, no backup warning
    • Maximum towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
    • Power liftgate
    • Blind spot monitoring system
No. 2 2012 Chevrolet Traverse 1LT; 740.05 points

(See the scorecard or the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Chevrolet Traverse)

What we liked: The Traverse's "quiet, smooth ride," as Wiesenfelder put it, won over more than a few of the experts and our family. "Light and nimble steering make the Traverse seem much smaller than it is," Davis said. On the inside, though, it's "bigger than a Chevy Tahoe full-size truck-based SUV," Healey commented. Thomas liked that the second row's "sliding seats (to get to the third row) proved more friendly" than other SUVs in the Shootout. Speaking of seats, "the seat belt buckles are presented nice and high and on stable bases," Varela noted, "so kids of all ages can buckle in easily on their own." Also helping the kids were "the cupholders in the back-door armrests," she said, "making them easy to access even for kids strapped into car seats and boosters."  As any parent will tell you, happy kids are crucial to parental sanity.

What we didn't:
The Traverse interior took whacks from most reviewers. "The black fabric seats are a downer," Varela said. Thomas thought the black-colored plastic interior was "depressing," and as much as Thomas liked that folding second row, "the handle to slide the second-row seats forward accordion-style were flimsy" enough to make him worry about their longevity. The Traverse was one of the less-expensive entrants, and Wiesenfelder thinks Chevy should have coughed up for a few more features: "This test vehicle is priced cheaply enough that one could add important features like a backup camera, which is a stand-alone option." For Healey, the Traverse "feels a bit squishy and soft on the road, with numb brakes and steering," he said. "It's a Toyota wannabe, but in the wrong way."

The verdict: "The Traverse does a great job providing the roominess of yesteryear's big SUVs but with better efficiency and comfort," Wiesenfelder raved. "The Traverse is the crossover promise realized." Healey more or less agreed: "Swell value, and a strong choice for those whose demands have more to do with duty than driving."  But not everyone was so pleased. While the Traverse "gets the job done in comfort," Thomas said, "not only didn't it stand out, it faded into the background in this group" because of its lackluster styling and interior.

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Traverse features:

    • As-tested price: $32,925
    • 17/24 mpg city/highway
    • 2011 IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Backup warning only, no camera
    • Only competitor with NHTSA's five-star rating
    • Can seat eight (Most, tied with Pilot)
    • Largest cargo dimensions: 116.4 cubic feet total storage, 24.4 cubic feet behind third row
    • Maximum towing capacity: 5,200 pounds
And the winner is?

No. 1 2012 Honda Pilot EX-L; 752.1 points

(See the scorecard or the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Honda Pilot)

What we liked: The Pilot is "way roomy," Healey said. "It really delivers on the space promise," a point of view echoed by Wiesenfelder and Varela. "Switches, stalks and controls are nicely weighted and portray a high level of refinement and precision," Davis said. "I loved the large LCD screen in the center console," Thomas said. "It had huge type, displayed all your music information and it came loaded with great iPod integration, Bluetooth audio and a DVD player in back for the kids." "It has more features than I'd expect of a Honda at this price," Wiesenfelder said. "There are also tons of little nooks and crannies to store all of the stuff that families haul around with them on a daily basis," Varela said. "However, most of them are uncovered, meaning your clutter will forever be visible."

What we didn't: As she asked with the Traverse, Varela was stunned by one Pilot shortcoming: "I have to use a key in the ignition? Isn't this 2011?" Others disliked the truck feel and level of road and wind noise. "The ride is firm and there's noticeable wind noise at highway speeds," Wiesenfelder said, an opinion seconded by Davis and Thomas. Thomas attributed some of that noise to the Pilot's boxy shape, a design that drew darts from others, too. "The Pilot's clunky, squarish styling is no gift to the eye," Healey said. At least, he said, "the new grille finally axes that atrocious 'heating element' that has uglified Pilot's face for years."

The verdict: "The Pilot remains a nice balance of size, roominess, efficiency and versatility," Wiesenfelder said, "and it appears that Honda is becoming more generous with features for the money." "A great choice for growing families with a sense of adventure," Davis said. "The Pilot is the winner for me because of the high level of quality and comfort teamed to all the great entertainment features," Thomas said. "I'm not sure how you top it."

Features common to all: All models have Bluetooth phone connectivity, power windows and locks, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags.

Key Pilot features:

    • As-tested price: $36,170
    • 18/25 mpg city/highway
    • Can seat eight (most, tied with Traverse)
    • Backup camera, no backup warning
    • Auto climate control for front and rear
    • Maximum towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
    • Rear entertainment system (only one in Shootout with it)
    • Power liftgate115-volt house-style outlet
    • USB input for MP3 player
© Cars.com 10/14/2011