Our expert judges spend a week driving and comparing vehicles in the best way anyone can evaluate competitors: back to back. Judges take each car on identical routes to uncover the little idiosyncrasies that in some cases can determine the difference between a winner and a loser.
Our judges’ opinions account for a large portion of determining a contestant’s score, but depending on the class, we also include objective scoring in the form of fuel economy, car-seat fitment, safety features and crashworthiness, and sometimes acceleration and braking. Below is how we scored SUVs in the 2019 Mid-Size SUV Challenge. Each vehicle is evaluated as equipped and priced; our results cannot represent model lineups as a whole.
Subjective Scoring Categories
Legroom, headroom and knee room are all considered when determining front-seat comfort. So is whether the cushioning is comfortable and if the seat can be adjusted appropriately. Features we look for include heated and ventilated seats, the extent of passenger seat controls, and memory and massaging functions.
Along with dimensions, backseat comfort is determined by cushioning, support and whether there’s a large center floor hump that could crowd foot room, as well as whether it’s easy to get in and out of. Backseat feature considerations include whether the seats recline and if it has adjustable air vents, rear climate controls, and heated or ventilated rear seats.
Vehicle User Interface
This category covers the many ways a driver controls the vehicle — beyond the steering wheel and pedals. What we used to call a “multimedia” system now frequently takes on some responsibility for controlling vehicle features that have nothing to do with audio and smartphones, so we’re avoiding categorizing the touchscreen that way. Judges consider ease of use for all controls — how logically grouped, visible and reachable they are. They also scrutinize the size and usability of touchscreens and their menus and navigation, head-up displays and virtual gauges, including display quality, responsiveness, supporting controls and how drivers configure and interact with these various systems, be it buttons on the steering wheel, dashboard or center console, or via voice control.
Media and Connectivity
In this category, we account for the different types of media supported, from CDs and Bluetooth to built-in streaming audio services, as well as video capabilities, front and rear. We note the presence or absence of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa and similar systems, and how well they’re integrated and function. We also judge based on the inclusion of Wi-Fi, near-field communication and wireless smartphone charging, and record the number of USB ports and 120-volt household-style outlets.
Interior quality considerations include whether it seems appropriately appointed, rating the appearance and feel of the surfaces, and overall craftsmanship. Judges note if the materials are well made and authentic or a cheap imitation. Another consideration is whether the quality drops from the front to rear seats.
As the size of our smartphones and other mobile devices grow, it’s important to have the space to accommodate them. We evaluate those and other storage options in the cabin, including open and covered storage, and if there are enough cupholders and a sunglasses holder.
Considerations for visibility include whether roof pillars or low roofs obstruct forward visibility, as well as if there are large blind spots to the side or rear. We look for features that can improve visibility, such as large side mirrors, rear head restraints that flip down, manual or remote flip-downs, and a full-time rearview camera mirror.
The powertrain score always reflects how well the engine and transmission work together. Judges look for whether there’s enough acceleration from a stop or for passing, if the transmission upshifts smoothly or downshifts without too much delay, and if the engine is smooth and refined or rough and unsophisticated. In the absence of track testing, Challenge judges also gauge each contestant’s acceleration versus the others.
Though we performed no formal stopping-distance tests, judges rate how strong and confidence-inspiring the brakes feel, how much pedal pressure is required and how linear the braking force is. Vehicles with mushy pedal feel or braking that is hard to modulate are scored lower.
Considerations for ride quality include how it contributes to the vehicle’s comfort level. Judges evaluate whether the ride is too firm, too soft, if it feels controlled over bumps and if it’s stable on rough roads.
Judges drive the car on the same route to determine how well each car corners, determining if it rolls (i.e., leans) as well as whether it feels planted and confident or uneasy, requiring too much effort to drive cleanly through a corner. Steering and all-wheel-drive execution also play a part.
Judges gauge how much wind, road, engine and external noise enter the cabin during all circumstances, including highway driving and acceleration.
Judges determine if each test vehicle is worth the retail price as equipped. Considerations apart from the categories above include warranties, free maintenance, and standard and optional features.
Objective Scoring Categories
Safety and Driver-Assistance Tech
The safety and driver-assistance component is scored by the number and complexity of safety and driver-assistance features equipped on the test vehicle. These include forward collision warning, forward automatic emergency braking (low versus high speed), rear automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning (with steering or braking assist), lane-centering steering (low versus high speed), adaptive cruise control (higher speeds only or to a complete stop), blind spot warning, dynamic lines for the backup camera, 360-degree camera systems, rear cross-traffic detection, parking sensors, automatic high beams and adaptive, pivoting headlights.
Rather than work exclusively from EPA mileage estimates, we embarked on a road-trip mileage test in which all six contestants caravanned for more than 200 miles, broken into six legs. After each leg, drivers rotated to balance out differences in driving style and weight. The route was a mix of city and highway driving. The top-rated vehicle earns 30 points to maintain consistency with the maximum score of other objective categories, and lesser results are the appropriate percentage below that number. Any closeness between point totals and mpg results is coincidental. The SUVs were scored based on the annual cost to drive 12,000 miles calculated using our observed fuel economy and national average cost of regular or premium fuel at the time of testing, based on the grade of fuel each SUV recommended.
We’ve reported how provided cargo specs can lie, and cargo storage is much more than a cubic footage number. When judging cargo room, we conduct our own measurements and also consider how usable the space is, how easy it is to load and retrieve objects, if there’s usable underfloor space and if the shape of the vehicle or angle of its liftgate limits utility. We take into account associated features, such as whether the backseat can slide forward and back and/or fold to extend the cargo space, if there’s a power liftgate, cargo-area releases for the folding backseat and if the folded backseat creates a flat cargo area.
Cars.com’s staff includes certified car seat installers who test the fitment of various child-safety seats in our test cars. You can find more information on how we install and test child-safety seats in our Car Seat Check section.
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