Toyota 4Runner SR5
The fact that automakers are so quick to tout the "carlike" handling of their SUVs is a tacit admission that SUVs have inherent disadvantages when it comes to vehicle dynamics. The Toyota 4Runner SR5 is one SUV that can truly be called carlike. It feels light and agile, with an impressive linearity in its acceleration, braking, and handling. What is amazing about the 4Runner is that it accomplishes this car-like behavior while still maintaining the tough persona one looks for in an SUV. Race over washboard surfaces and the 4Runner's firm suspension shrugs them off without a hint of shudder. It displays composure in every setting--from the delicacy needed to negotiate a fast switchback curve to powering through deep snow and slush. Occasionally the stability control kicks in a bit too forcefully, so we just turned it off and let the four-wheel drive do its job while we supplied just a hint of opposite steering lock to keep everything in check when the back stepped out. The more cautious among us left the stability control on, and the 4Runner never put a tire wrong. The bottom line: The 4Runner is the SUV for those who like to drive with enthusiasm wherever they may be.
The 4Runner is available with a 4.7-liter V-8, but our 4Runner SR5 was powered by a very refined, no-complaints 4.0-liter V-6 with 245 hp and a torque rating of 282 lb-ft. Interior plastics are Lexus quality, and the black and gray two-tone interior with aluminum accents looks contemporary. The only issue we have with the interior is the three push-button HVAC dials arranged in a five-spoke arrangement. They're too clever for their own good, and the stylistic payoff (if any) is not worth the lack of functionality.
The lightly optioned 4Runner we tested was easily the value champ, coming in at a mere $31,914--nearly three grand cheaper than the Honda Pilot. Even at even money, if you want to drive with verve on the pavement, and you need only seats for five, the 4Runner's stellar driving experience is very hard to top.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited
Jeep is one of the original inventors of the SUV. While SUVs like the Hummer H2 and Cadillac Escalade are more concerned with street cred, Jeep is still all about trail cred. Jeep's term is "Trail-Rated," but you get the point. Off-road prowess aside, this third-generation Grand Cherokee has made great strides in its on-road moves. It has a plush quality to its ride, yet this softness rarely becomes floaty. Jeep has done an admirable job damping the suspension so that vertical forces rarely result in head toss. Dips are nicely controlled so that rebounding and bounce stay out of the equation. The body rolls a bit in the corners, but the forces are absorbed before things get too sloppy. Of the more softly sprung SUVs in this test, the Grand Cherokee is the one that feels strong enough to keep its composure.
The Grand Cherokee Limited starts at $34,045, but our ultraloaded $42,355 test subject shows just how far Jeep has come from the days of Spartan, war-proven CJs. The cabin feels a bit tight and confining compared with the others, but the interior execution is very nice, if not quite up to the best Japanese entrants in overall quality. The two-tone dash was a rich mix of taupe and dark olive green, and the heated leather seats were a delight. An LCD screen controls the CD, GPS navigation, and Sirius Satellite Radio, while those in back can enjoy DVD movies complete with wireless headphones. The system is nicely integrated, allowing rear-seaters full control over the entertainment options. Anchoring the entire system is a phenomenal sound system with a thumping subwoofer that would make any street-cruising punk proud. Original-equipment car audio doesn't get much better than this, but there was something else that sounded just as impressive...
Yeah, this thing had a Hemi. For $1245 we ditched the Limited's standard 4.7-liter V-8 in favor of the 330-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8, and we used all 375 lb-ft of torque in lurid acceleratory launches. Fully kitted-out as it was, this Grand Cherokee had all the street cred anyone could ask for.