The $38,000 Midsize SUV Challenge: Results

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A quick look again at our judges:

  • Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for
  • Joe Bruzek, editor and car reviewer for
  • Mike Hanley, editor and car reviewer for
  • James R. Healey, auto writer for USA Today
  • Ben Davis, producer for PBS’ “MotorWeek”
  • Brian and Melissa Brown, our family judges for this Challenge

Here’s how the score broke down: The experts’ scores account for 75% of the total score; 15% from the family’s scores; and 10% was based on fuel economy. To help you make your own comparisons of these SUVs, we’ve pulled together a list of what you get for $38,000.

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2013 Toyota Venza

Scorecard | Monroney Sticker | Research | Photo Gallery

What they liked: “Rides the lowest and feels the most carlike of the bunch,” said Davis, and several others agreed. “That low ride also means easy access to the rear cargo area,” he added. “The low step-in height makes it easy to get into and out of,” Hanley said. Space was another favored attribute of the Venza. “Great backseat room,” Healey said, “probably enough to minimize the ‘are-we-there-yet’ whining.” More than a couple judges enjoyed the Venza’s responsive engine. Bruzek liked the “sporty handling and acceleration,” and Healey found it “fun to hammer. And it likes corners, and most SUVs can’t say that.” Davis also pointed out the “refreshingly simple-to-use climate and audio controls. The buttons and knobs are nice and high on the console.”

What they didn’t: The experts couldn’t stop harping on the brakes. “You have to use lots of leg to get very little response,” Healey said, “with a lot of sponginess in the bargain.” He was not alone in his assessment. “The interior lacks the premium look and feel that the other models in this comparison have,” Hanley said. Bragman said the “cheap, hard-plastic parts squeak and creak.” And Davis knocked the “tired design, inside and out” of one of the oldest models in this segment. Bruzek noted the small display screen for the navigation system, and finally, several found the ride to be rough, in large part because of the large wheels.

The verdict: “It feels like there’s less in this car for the same price as the others,” Brian Brown said.

Key Features

  • IIHS Top Safety Pick and NHTSA five-star overall crash-test rating
  • All-wheel drive
  • The most bottleholders and cupholders (10 total)
  • Toyota’s Entune multimedia system with app integration from your smartphone
  • Leather seating; front seats are heated
  • All windows are one-touch up and down
  • Power liftgate
  • Two years or 25,000 miles of complimentary maintenance
  • Cargo-area release levers for easy second-row seat folding

2013 Toyota Venza Payment Facts
Price as tested: $35,887
Monthly payment*: $738.18

Find a 2013 Toyota Venza near you.

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2013 Nissan Murano

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What they liked: In many ways, this was a driver’s choice. “Light and tossable, the Murano is fun to drive,” Bragman said. It “invites you to fling it a bit,” Healey said, “yet also rewards you with mechanical aplomb when you don’t feel like playing boy racer.” The continuously variable automatic transmission “seems much more dialed in than what I’m used to from other Nissans,” Davis said. It wasn’t all drivetrain, though. The Murano provides “extreme seating comfort,” Bruzek said, “with minimal wind and road noise.” Bragman agreed. “Those aren’t seats, they’re thrones: amazingly big and comfortable.” And Hanley applauded the “comfy backseat, even for taller adults.”

What they didn’t: The Murano is one of the oldest and most expensive competitors here, and it showed. “The Murano was the only model with cloth seats in the comparison, and their fuzziness wasn’t appealing,” Hanley said. Davis found them “hard to look at.” Bragman wasn’t won over by its polarizing looks: “Ugly is right,” he said. “The styling isn’t just dated, it’s downright odd. It has no chin!” Healey was bothered by a lack of space. It “seems a bit tight for its apparent size,” he said. Brian wasn’t impressed with the interior: “I just don’t like the materials or colors in here.”

The verdict: “Ugly and a bit dated inside,” Healey said, “but exceptional chassis tuning make driving rewarding.”

Key Features

  • Only vehicle with a continuously variable automatic transmission
  • All-wheel drive
  • Only has four cupholders
  • Has RCA and USB inputs
  • Only vehicle with cloth seats; only vehicle without heated seats
  • Power liftgate
  • Cargo-area release levers for easy second-row seat folding

2013 Nissan Murano Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,770 (highest in test)
Monthly payment*: $776.91

Find a 2013 Nissan Murano near you.

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2013 Ford Edge

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What they liked: The Edge stands out visually, both for its unique shape and the brilliant blue color that the tester arrived in. “The styling inside and out is attractive, if a little dated now,” Bragman said. “Its bulldog stance is appealing,” Healey agreed. Another area of agreement was the Edge’s strong visibility. The large greenhouse for the crossover creates “great visibility, thanks to thin roof pillars,” Hanley said. The Edge also seems to be a driver’s car for a variety of reasons. “I like the sporty, driver-focused dash design,” Davis said. “It creates a true cockpit feel.” The Edge “feels planted and hunkered down at highway speeds,” Bruzek said, and several experts raved about the Edge’s ride quality and comfort.

What they didn’t: That unique look rubbed some the wrong way. “The once-bold look no longer looks great,” Davis said. “It’s time for a refresh.” Healey found fault with the Edge’s handling. “It’s very wallowing: The tighter the corner, the more you feel out of control,” he said, “even at low speed.” But the gorilla in the room for the Edge was Ford’s MyFord Touch multimedia system. “The touch-sensitive center stack may look slick,” Bragman said, “but it requires you to take your eyes off the road to use it, every time.” For Hanley, the system “remains a frustratingly slow multimedia system with a poor interface.” For the family, “technology is valuable, but it has to be technology I’m going to use,” Missy Brown said. In the end, Healey said, what bothered him was the “price is too high for the features. It’s more than $37,000, but there’s no all-wheel drive or power liftgate, no push-button start.”

The verdict: “The Edge is a solid servant with a nice list of features,” Davis said. “The rise is sporty, quiet and comfortable. Unfortunately, its aging design looks even older when parked next to some of the others, and the pricing is a bit strong as well.”

Key Features

  • Front wheel drive
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick
  • One of two vehicles with a blind spot warning system
  • No keyless access
  • Plenty of multimedia hookups: RCA, SD card, iPod and USB inputs
  • One of two without a power liftgate
  • Leather heated (front) seats, configurable gauge cluster and rear parking sensors
  • MyFord Touch multimedia system with app integration from your smartphone
  • Cargo-area release levers for easy second-row seat folding

2013 Ford Edge Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,125
Monthly payment*: $763.64

Find a 2013 Ford Edge near you.

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2014 Kia Sorento

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What they liked: Fun to drive, comfortable ride and a cool-looking interior. What’s not to like? “The drivetrain goes fast and shifts great,” Healey said, “and it doesn’t default to Eco mode on restart.” It has a “refined ride at all speeds,” Bruzek said. Its “refined and powerful V-6 provides exceptional passing power,” Hanley added. “Excellent design textures inside and out,” Davis said. “Even the grille was impressive.” Bragman also chimed in that the Sorento has a “commanding driving position from the high seats and the low dashboard.” And he noted: “Lots of great content for the money,” a Kia recipe that continues to work for the automaker.

What they didn’t: While that dashboard looks cool and is out of the way, it’s a “dim digital dashboard,” Davis complained. Several experts also said that rear visibility was lacking, and Healey said the amount of room was “not much versus the others.” Tight rear-seat knee space and small rear-door storage pockets also drew knocks. Experts were split over both the ride quality (which some applauded) and material quality, which some called cheap. “I like the style of the Kia, but the others felt higher quality,” Missy said. In terms of driving, “the gas pedal is unusually stiff, requiring extra effort when accelerating,” Hanley said. It also has “notable body roll,” he added. And Healey thought its price was “a bit steep, even considering it has all-wheel drive. Seems wrong that value-oriented brand Kia would be among the priciest models.”

The verdict: “The Kia Sorento’s ride is like no other Sorento before: refined, smooth and quiet over the roughest suburban roads,” Bruzek said. “Its second row is roomy and filled with family-friendly features like side-window sunshades, a 110-volt household outlet and a flat floor for extra room.”

Key Features

  • Redesigned for 2014
  • All-wheel drive
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick
  • Blind spot warning system
  • Kia’s new UVO multimedia uses your smartphone via Bluetooth
  • Leather seating, front seats are both heated and ventilated
  • Rear parking sensors and a large panoramic sunroof
  • 40/20/40-split folding backseat
  • Power liftgate
  • Three driver-selectable modes: Sport, Comfort and Normal

2014 Kia Sorento Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,650
Monthly payment*: $774.44

Find a 2014 Kia Sorento near you.

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2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport

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What they liked: The Santa Fe Sport was the crowd favorite, for many reasons. “It feels premium and has thoughtful features,” Healey said, “such as large, color displays of numbers and letters in the driver information panel that are easily read with a peek.” Its “premium interior finishes and cabin design might surprise some car shoppers,” Hanley added, and Bragman called the Santa Fe Sport “the surprise athlete of the group. It feels light on its feet and is fun to drive quickly.” Davis was wowed by the “out-of-this-world sunroof” and said that the below-load floor “hidden storage made me feel like Han Solo.” Bruzek pointed out it was the only competitor “tested with a sliding rear seat,” which is always helpful in a vehicle of this type. It wasn’t just interior features, though. “The turbo four-cylinder’s great low-end power makes passing and merging easy,” Hanley said, and Bruzek said it was the “most nimble-handling of the bunch.” Finally, the Santa Fe Sport was also the least expensive of the group.

What they didn’t: That sunroof came at a cost, though: “It eats up headroom in the backseat,” Bragman said. “Anyone taller than 5 feet 11 [inches] will not be comfortable.” Several experts thought the four-cylinder engine was noisy and found its ride “bumpy,” as Bruzek called it. That low price also meant that some key features, including a power liftgate or all-wheel drive, were missing. The SUV lacked space, Healey said: “Not exactly the [Chevrolet] Suburban of the bunch.” And Healey and Hanley both faulted the handling. “It has a disappointing steering feel that’s both numb and artificially weighted,” Hanley said. Finally, several noted that visibility out the back was less than optimal.

The verdict: “The Santa Fe Sport’s acceleration and features list are both impressive,” Hanley said, “but Hyundai hasn’t cracked the code as far as driving dynamics are concerned.”

Key Features

  • New model for 2013
  • Only vehicle tested with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine
  • Front-wheel drive
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick and NHTSA five-star overall crash-test rating
  • No memory settings for power adjustable driver’s seat and no smartphone app integration
  • Leather seats, heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel
  • One of two without a power liftgate
  • Three driver-selectable modes: Sport, Comfort and Normal
  • Has a large panoramic sunroof
  • Has a 40/20/40-split folding backseat
  • Hyundai’s Blue Link teleconnect service (three years of free service come standard)

2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport Payment Facts
Price as tested: $34,205 (lowest in test)
Monthly payment*: $703.58

Find a 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport near you.

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2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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What they like: Like isn’t a strong enough word for how everyone felt about the Grand Cherokee’s interior. “A luxury liner compared to the challengers,” Healey raved. “It looks, feels, even smells like a luxury car in there,” Bragman said. “Beautiful,” “premium,” “elegant” and “best in test” were also thrown around. But it’s more than just a pretty face. “When the Eco mode is deactivated,” Hanley said, “the V-6 engine and eight-speed transmission are a well-matched pair.” It provides a “commanding view of the road,” Bruzek noted. “It has nice rear visibility helped out by generous side mirrors,” Davis said. Several noted the Chrysler Uconnect system’s ease of use. “It’s the best multimedia system of the bunch,” Bragman said. And in the biggest affirmation possible, “it does as you ask” Healey said. “This feels nicer than the other cars,” Missy said, “and for the same price? It’s hard to believe something this nice costs the same as the others!”

What they didn’t: That Eco mode drove a few judges crazy. “To leave it on is an offense against God and man,” Healey said, “given how it hobbles the drivetrain and erases the Jeep’s fun-to-drive factor.” “That big power comes with a big thirst,” Bragman pointed out, “and rear-wheel drive may not go over well in some climates.” “I wish the pricing was a little lower so I could more easily afford one,” Davis said. Both Davis and Bragman noted how busy the steering wheel is with buttons, both on the front and back of the wheel. Seriously. Interestingly, both Hanley and Davis found fault with the shifter. “The electronic gear selector has a cheap feel and makes it harder to select the gear you want,” Hanley said.

The verdict: “This is the one to have if you are looking for a true SUV and not merely a carlike tall wagon,” Bragman said.

Key Features

  • Refreshed for 2014
  • Rear-wheel drive (only one)
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick
  • Chrysler’s Uconnect multimedia system with app integration from your smartphone
  • Only vehicle with a complimentary 12-month satellite radio subscription
  • USB inputs throughout the cabin to charge or play mobile devices
  • Leather seats, heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel
  • Rear parking sensors and a configurable gauge cluster
  • Power liftgate
  • Fits three child-safety seats in the second row (only vehicle to do so)

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Payment Facts
Price as tested: $37,585
Monthly payment*: $773.11

Find a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee near you.

*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan, 5% interest and 9% sales tax.

Index | Overview | Family | Results | Mileage | Cargo

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