Sport-utility vehicles promise adventure and world-expanding capabilities to enhance our dull lives. Most SUVs actually can, at least to a degree, deliver on this promise. However, there is an ingredient often lacking from the recipe for adventure--a person behind the wheel that will tackle life in such a hearty way. The truth is, SUVs primarily serve as all-weather people movers shuttling kids from one diversion to another. This apparently is enough adventure for most.
With this in mind, we gathered eight of the most popular mid-size SUVs (with seating for five to eight) and put them to the test--on the highway, through twisty back roads, and over dirt roads made very sloppy by lots of Michigan snow and slush. As we drove, their strengths, weaknesses, and distinct personalities came to the fore. Here's how they stacked up.
The Seating Solution
The introduction of the third-row seat has allowed some SUVs to further encroach on the minivan's turf as the family vehicle of choice. If the comfort of those banished to the back row is a top priority, then none of these mid-size SUVs is truly the answer. What a third-row seat offers is one final, credible rationalization to keep a minivan out of the garage.
Not all of the SUVs in our test offer third-row seats. If you're shopping Toyota, you'll have to walk right past the 4Runner and step up to the Sequoia. Jeep fans will have to wait until the Hummer-esque, seven-passenger Commander hits the market this fall. If the Buick Rainier catches your eye, you'll have to opt for its platform-mate from GMC or the Trailblazer EXT we tested here. If you want more than five seats in that Mitsubishi Endeavor, you'll have to shop a different brand altogether.
Four of the eight SUVs in our test offer third-row seating. The Honda Pilot's three-across third row is the most ambitious, making it the only eight-seater in our test. To access the Pilot's rearmost seating, the entire second-row seat slides forward on tracks, creating a narrow alley. Getting in and out isn't easy, and once you're there the lack of foot and knee room makes it a place strictly for kids. The Chevy Trailblazer EXT, Ford Explorer, and Nissan Pathfinder all have individual flip-forward chairs that allow more spacious access to the third-row. The Trailblazer EXT's third row was the unquestioned champ in both ingress/egress and adult-friendly comfort thanks to its wide pass-through, generous foot- and knee-room, and effective theater seating. The Explorer's pass-through was fine, but the seating position suffered from tight foot space and a low bench, while the Pathfinder ranked slightly above the Explorer in seating comfort but a bit below it for rear-row access.
Okay, our SUVs are all loaded up. Let's hit the road and see what they're like to drive.