The Best SUV?

SUV rendering

Looking for the best SUV for your family? While the economic climate has changed dramatically, America has not stopped buying SUVs. For big families, it’s either an SUV or a minivan, and for those in colder climates, it’s the SUV that gets the nod. While determining which SUV best suits your family’s requirements needn’t be a drawn out process; it does take a bit of time and an open mind. The best SUV for your needs might not be the one you have your heart set upon.

The good news is that the recent drop in gasoline prices and the glut of SUVs on dealer lots has created a buyers market. I chatted with an old friend of mine earlier this evening. His marital situation is changing and he’s ready to buy a new SUV, but he’s not sure exactly which model to choose.

Joe Cool: Hi Dan. I have a bit of a dilemma in the car department and am hoping you can help me out.

Dan Gray: Hey there, old friend, tell me about that dilemma.

Joe Cool: I’m coming out of a divorce and will end up with two cars, neither of which I want. The first is a Toyota Prius. It’s from the first year of the second generation of the car, and it’s good, but it’s too small and definitely doesn’t handle poor weather well.

The second is a Volvo XC90 SUV and while it’s a good size and handles poor weather (snow, ice, etc) well, it gets terrible mpg. They’re both in good condition with relatively low mileage for their age. I want to trade them both in – for whatever I can get – and buy a new car to replace them both. I have three kids and really like the hybrid concept and supporting newer auto technology. So my question to you: if I want good mpg, a hybrid and a car that can handle crummy weather, what do you recommend, Dr. Auto?

Dan Gray: The good news is that you should have a good chunk of change in your residual values. The second generation Toyota Prius has held its resale value remarkably well. Since you have three kids, you’re fair game for a SUV, or better yet, a crossover … which is codeword for “kinda like an SUV, but more like a station wagon.”

Joe Cool: did I mention those magic words “price is not a constraint”? I want a car that’ll work for all of us for years to come — including if I have a new woman come into my life too (e.g. needs to be space for 5, not just 4).

Dan Gray: It’s always fun spending someone else’s money, old friend … lets see if we can come up with some ideas. Hmmmm … Dad + three kids + the mystery woman …

Joe Cool: Already sounds like a good movie!

Dan Gray: Either that, or a sequel to the Brady Bunch! It sounds like you may need more than two rows of seating, if your kids have friends to bring along, or if your new friend has a kid of her own (or a dog).

Joe Cool: well, I don’t want a SCHOOL BUS!

Dan Gray: Fear not … you will not be driving the short bus,

Joe Cool: Nice film reference.

Dan Gray: Looking at the current crop of three row hybrid SUVs … there’s the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the Chevy Tahoe/Cadillac Escalade Hybrids, and the Dodge Durango/Chrysler SUV Hybrids. The GM and Chrysler SUV hybrids are large trucks. The Toyota is more car-like. If you were going to tow a trailer, you’d want to look at either the GMs or Chryslers. If not, the Toyota might be the best fit … again, if you need three rows of seating.

Joe Cool: well, my youngest is only 5, so theoretically I could have three squished into a single row. But it’s most definitely NOT optimal. Tell me a bit about the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

Dan Gray: The Highlander Hybrid is roomy and comfortable, with most of the high-tech stuff I know you love. Since you’ve been driving your Prius for a while, you’re already familiar with what it takes to get the most miles out of every gallon with the Hybrid Synergy Drive system.

Joe Cool: Toyota site says they’re coming out with an all new 4-cylinder engine for the Highlander? What’s the scoop with that?

Dan Gray: If I’m not mistaken, the new 4-cylinder engine will be available in the standard Highlander, not in the Hybrid. Are you dead set on a hybrid? Would you consider other technologies?

Joe Cool: Are you sure it has a third row? Or is that only in the non-hybrid?

Dan Gray: The 2008 Highlander Hybrid that I test drove over the summer had three rows of seating. The third row is an option.

Joe Cool: Okay what’s the difference between the “Hybrid” and the “Hybrid Limited”?

Dan Gray: The Highlander Hybrid Limited adds niceties like a power lift gate and leather interior. Once you fully option it out, you can land in the high 40s.

Joe Cool: I price my configuration out at $41k if I get the non-“limited” edition. But I can’t see on their configurator how to specify a third row. On the Volvo, the third row is only rated for max 45 pounds/person (e.g. younger kids). Do you know if the Highlander third row is for bigger kids?

Dan Gray: The third row seating is part of the “popular package.” We’d have to dig for the seating capacity, although I don’t recall that the third row was as tight your Volvo. While the Highlander Hybrid is a very nice SUV, there are other vehicles which may offer a bit more appeal for the single dad. If I were in your comfortable shoes, I might also look at the Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz 320, and … if you want to go domestic, the Ford Flex.

Joe Cool: I was looking at the Lexus 400h, actually. Not good for me + another adult + all three kids, but for the four of us, a very nice vehicle.

Dan Gray: The Lexus 400h hybrid is a lovely vehicle … like a living room on wheels … and it’s fast.

Joe Cool: Tell me about the Ford Flex?

Dan Gray: Haven’t see one yet? The Ford Flex is unlike anything else, although it might remind you of the station wagons we rode in as kids. There’s a certain nostalgic appeal in the big boxy lines. The interior is what puts this one over the top … It completely rethinks the concept of people mover. Ford touts it as “Limo Style Comfort”

Joe Cool: All these cars get crappy mpg, though. The Q7 gets 14, the Flex gets 17. Surely I can do better than that?

Dan Gray: Ford’s higher MPG solution for the Flex is still a year or two away … they have a new direct injection engine that’s rumored to deliver 20% better mileage.

Joe Cool: From 17mpg to 19mpg? Hardly worth the effort.

Dan Gray: Be patient, grasshopper. It should offer a bit more then that. The 2009 Audi Q7, on the other hand, is available with a new clean diesel engine that delivers significantly better mileage.

Joe Cool: I get 40-48 MPG on my Prius.

Dan Gray: Apples to oranges, old friend. Compare the weight of the Prius to that of a SUV. And consider the effects of AWD.

Joe Cool: Right, that’s why I want to find something in the middle, though. Going from 45mpg to 15mpg when at least 50% of the time I’ll be likely driving it solo is going to be painful.

Dan Gray: And that’s the rub.

Joe Cool: Which is why a smaller SUV like the 400h is nice. Maybe I just need to let go of the “4 + 1” sort of configuration. 😉 Really, my prime consideration is a hybrid that can handle rough winter driving conditions. That’s how we ended up keeping the Volvo when we got the Prius in the first place. So if I could replace both with a high-mpg AWD vehicle that doesn’t have ANY additional space for passengers, but is just safer and newer, well, that’d work for me.

Dan Gray: The Ford Escape Hybrid and it’s cousin the Mercury Mariner Hybrid get excellent mileage in town, but are more truck-like then the 400h or Highlander Hybrid.

Joe Cool: Hate to sound anti-American, but I haven’t bought an American car in years. All my prior experience has been poor, and my experience with Toyota, in particular, has been consistently splendid.

Dan Gray: Quite all right … I’ve been reviewing cars with an open mind … after buying nothing but Hondas for years on end. No doubt there are models that you’ve overlooked. You might want to look at the Saturn VUE Green Line Hybrid … it’s designed in Europe and is currently claims he highest highway MPGs of all the 5-seat SUVs sold here in America. The VUE Green Line has clean lines and rides well … there’s a two-mode hybrid system on the way that will boost mileage, or so they say.

Joe Cool: What’s Saturn’s reputation in the last year or two?

Dan Gray: For that, I’d say check with Consumer Reports. The great thing right now is that car dealers are hungry for sales, no matter which marquee … they’re almost all feeling the pinch. It’s a good time to shop.

Joe Cool: 32mpg highway: the Saturn VUE hybrid is definitely more like it! Did Saturn license the Toyota hybrid technology, or is it their own?

Dan Gray: It’s GM’s tech, from what I understand. Strictly a mild hybrid currently … you can’t creep around on the electric motor. The bigger downside for you is that it’s FWD only at this point.

Joe Cool: Oh, that’s not going to work. I need 4wd. I go up into the mountains during bad weather. mountains = the Rockies. So what 4wd hybrids are on the market?

Dan Gray: We’ve hit them all … Lexus 400h, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, Dodge Durango Hybrid, and the Chrysler.

Joe Cool: Audi Q7, Lexus 400h, Ford Flex … so if I omit American cars…

Dan Gray: The Audi Q7 is available with a clean diesel engine. As are the Mercedes 320 models.

Joe Cool: Lexus 400h, Toyota Highlander,…. that’s it? Two SUV hybrids, even in the 2009 line?

Dan Gray: Yep, that’s it. And Honda does not have a hybrid SUV, as of yet.

Joe Cool: 2010? What’ll show up mid-next year?

Dan Gray: There will be a Lincoln version of the Ford Flex. Honda might *finally* have a clean diesel engine in, most likely, an Acura SUV. I’ve driven the Euro diesel Honda CR-V and it’s a lovely little beast.

Joe Cool: Acura versus Lexus: which is a better brand?

Dan Gray: They are both formidable marquees. I’ve always been a Honda guy, but I drove seven Toyotas in a row this past summer.

Joe Cool: and what did you think of the 7 Toyos?

Dan Gray: Good solid values. It’s interesting experiencing vehicles this way. Once you take the skin out of the game, you can be more objective. We all come into these purchase decision processes with preconceptions. Often, our minds are already made up as to what we want to buy. The seven Toyotas were great cars, each and every one in its own way. You can’t really compare a Yaris to a RX400x. 🙂 But they were both wonderful for what they are and who they serve.

Joe Cool: Right. and I feel blessed that I’m not pricing Yaris, personally. 🙂

Dan Gray: The Yaris is an absolutely wonderful little car … I believe the name comes from the Greek, Charis, or “gift”.

So, I say … go shopping and have fun with this purchase … keep an open mind … Look at brands you might not have considered before. And if you come home to Toyota, that’s fine, too.

Joe Cool: Cool. Thanks for the great info and list of additional cars to check out. I’ll try to pop by the Audi dealer in the next few days to check out a Q7, to start.

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