By Joe Bruzek on July 7, 2013
Midsize SUVs aren't known as the most fuel-efficient vehicles. The six SUVs we tested for Cars.com's latest comparison have technological advancements that make these five-passenger family haulers far more efficient than the previous generations. Features like an eight-speed automatic transmission, Eco driving modes and a turbocharged four-cylinder are sprinkled throughout the field.
Each manufacturer fielded its own vehicle and chose the drive type and engine to be evaluated for our comparison. The result was a mix of front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive SUVs. The Santa Fe Sport (20/27 mpg city/highway) went with front-wheel drive along with the Edge (19/27 mpg); the Grand Cherokee (17/25) was rear-wheel drive, and the Sorento (18/24), Venza (18/25) and Murano (18/23) were equipped with all-wheel drive.
We put these SUVs to the test on a 200-plus-mile driving loop in the Chicago suburbs to evaluate their gas mileage in as equal conditions as possible: same day, same time and same route with six legs to swap drivers to equalize weight and driving styles. How'd they do?
The SUV with the highest EPA ratings also nabbed top honors in real-world testing: The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.0T with its turbocharged four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive returned 26.1 mpg and boasted a 1.9 mpg advantage over the rest of the field. Here's the kicker: The turbocharged four-cylinder Santa Fe Sport was no laggard and gave the V-6 engines a serious run for their money.
The Santa Fe Sport's 2.0-liter is the upgraded engine compared to the non-turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder. You won't find a V-6 offered in the two-row Santa Fe Sport — the larger three-row Santa Fe has one, however. The Santa Fe Sport was also one of the lightest at 3,569 pounds compared to the heavier competitors. Weight is significant when it comes to gas mileage and overall acceleration, handling and braking.
The onboard mileage calculator is our preferred choice of measurement. They're generally more accurate for shorter trips such as our 210-mile loop used for this test, which favored highway driving. Trailing the Santa Fe Sport was the Venza (24.2 mpg), Edge (24.1 mpg), Sorento (23.4 mpg), Murano (23 mpg) and Grand Cherokee (22.7 mpg).
A few SUVs had Eco modes that change the vehicle's transmission and accelerating characteristics for optimal gas mileage. The Jeep defaulted in the "on" position for its Eco mode, which degraded the driving experience and made the Grand Cherokee sluggish. Because it defaults to Eco, a few editors missed that it was on. While that may have aided the Jeep somewhat, we've found in our testing that an Eco mode typically does not make for a huge gain in fuel economy (usually less than 1 mpg), and we prefer to test with Eco modes off for an apples-to-apples comparison.
The EPA tests cars in their default configuration, meaning the 2014 Grand Cherokee's EPA ratings are with the Eco mode active. We had the mode on and off throughout the drive. A Jeep representative couldn't specify what gains are had using the Eco mode because he said it's really dependent on the driver. Other automakers like Hyundai say Eco mode can increase mileage up to 7%. Given the Jeep's performance with its Eco mode on, we'd take the mileage hit — whatever it may be — for the gains in acceleration in city traffic.
The Jeep's mileage is still commendable as it is nearly 600 pounds heavier than anything else we tested, in addition to having the most powerful V-6. The Jeep may have ranked last, but it only trailed the Murano by 0.3 mpg.
Road Test Editor Joe Bruzek covers Cars.com’s short-and long-term fleet of test cars and drives a 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Email Joe