The family testers arrived at our Challenge with a history with one of the competing automakers, but they left choosing a different automaker's SUV. But it wasn't an easy or quick decision.
Midsize SUVs are all about family friendliness, so we called in a family of four to help us evaluate six SUVs in the Cars.com/USA Today/"MotorWeek" $38,000 Midsize SUV Challenge. Brian and Melissa "Missy" Brown live in the Chicago suburbs with their kids, Zachary, 7, and Taylor, 6. Missy is an elementary school teacher, and Brian is a technical support engineer for Panasonic's biomedical division.
Along with our experts, Brian and Missy evaluated the 2013 Ford Edge, 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 2014 Kia Sorento, 2013 Nissan Murano and 2013 Toyota Venza. Their evaluation scores helped determine the competition's winner.
The Brown family's taste in cars is interesting, or rather their taste in transmissions is: The couple's 2000 Acura Integra and four-wheel-drive 2005 Jeep Liberty have manual transmissions, defying the national norms. Everyone at the Challenge who spoke with Brian did a double take when they learned the Liberty was a row-your-own-gear SUV with four-wheel drive. Rarely are dedicated manual transmission junkies non-enthusiasts. "It's just something we both grew up driving," Brian said.
The Integra serves as Brian's 25-mile-a-day commuter while the Liberty is driven by Missy. "The Jeep is my wife's primary car to run errands and shuffle kids around on the weekend. It's kind of the main vehicle we use," he said.
The Liberty's size is working well for them, so it's an added bonus that the Challenge SUVs are slightly larger. "The space was really nice to fit three kids in the backseat," Brian said.
The biggest surprise for the Browns? Just how much technology is packed in these SUVs compared to the cars they own. "From a starting perspective of not having any of that," Brian said, "it was interesting what's standard nowadays."
Bluetooth connectivity, navigation, backup camera, voice activation, panoramic sunroofs and various power outlets were all common in the SUVs tested. Brian and Missy had mixed feelings on the technology's usefulness, especially the Ford Edge with the optional MyFord Touch multimedia system and nontraditional control surfaces.
"Technology is valuable, but it has to be technology I'm going to use," Missy said.
"It's odd that it has all this technology but doesn't have [smart key access] or a power liftgate. I'd rather be able to pop the trunk from inside than have a touch-sensitive panel." The Edge was one of two in the comparison without a power liftgate, though the feature is available.
The family's favorite features included keyless access and the panoramic sunroof found in the Santa Fe Sport and Sorento. "My wife really liked not needing a key to get in. It's kind of huge," Brian said, especially when making grocery runs. What they appreciated least was the interiors of the Murano and Venza, which were clear underperformers in their eyes.
"It would keep me from buying the Murano," said Brian about its beige interior color. As for the Venza, an abundance of plastic kept the low-riding SUV from being seen as a quality player. "The Venza should be the low-end car," Brian noted, and he wasn't far off; the Venza was the second-least expensive in the comparison.
The Santa Fe Sport ultimately won over the family for having features they liked for the lowest as-tested price, "The panoramic sunroof is a great feature for the low-end price," Brian said.
It wasn't an easy decision. Brian's scorecard was nearly a virtual tie between the Santa Fe Sport and Grand Cherokee. In addition to owning the family's current Jeep Liberty, Brian previously owned a Jeep Wrangler that he'd bought because it was fun to drive. Coming from Jeep lineage, the Grand Cherokee surpassed the Browns' expectations.
"The Jeep is a phenomenal car and high-quality vehicle overall," Brian said. The family was smitten with the well-appointed interior. "This feels nicer than the other cars, and for the same price?" Missy asked. "It's hard to believe something this nice costs the same as the others."
What swayed the Browns toward the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport in the end was its features for the money and a significantly lower price. At $34,205, including destination charge, the Hyundai was $3,380 less than the $37,585 Jeep.