2005 SUVs: The Crossover Continues

As recently as a couple of years ago, there were still those in the industry who claimed that the sport-utility vehicle replacing the four-door family sedan was a passing fad. Now it’s clear that SUVs will continue to be the popular family-vehicle body style for a long time. Over the past years, all SUVs have been migrating in the car direction, but this year sees several all-new SUVs that stick with their rugged roots: the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover LR3, and Nissan Pathfinder. On the other hand, vehicles like the Ford Freestyle and Hyundai Tucson are new car-based crossovers. Both of them will no doubt be sales successes. Furthermore, the SUV market is diversifying in an exciting way with several hybrids on the way, with the Ford Escape Hybrid and Lexus RX400h, and a couple of new diesel options, the Volkswagen Touareg V-10 TDI and the upcoming Jeep Liberty diesel.

While serious off-roading is no longer something that SUV buyers require, some measure of rough-riding off the pavement seems to be a requirement to give just about any SUV the needed credibility. In a recent event called Mudfest, held near Portland, Oregon , we were able to round up most of what’s new in sport-utilities for ’05 and test them on the road, off-road, and on the track, finding out that while these vehicles are closer than ever in terms of ability, they still vary greatly in packaging and design.

To help you when it comes time to shop, read on to see some of our favorites:

Ford Escape Hybrid

Up until now, advanced hybrid powertrains have only been offered on small cars. This year that will change with the Lexus 400h and the Ford’s first hybrid vehicle, a special version of the Escape that’s now on sale. An eco-tuned 133-hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine is the primary means of motion, with a 94-hp electric motor helping out. The 330-volt battery pack charges when coasting, decelerating, or braking. All together, the hybrid powertrain produces the equivalent of about 155 hp, but through the continuously variable transmission (eCVT) it delivers performance close to that of the 200-hp V-6 model.

I expected the Escape Hybrid to be a little weak-kneed in rigorous track and off-road testing, but it emerged as very competent and robust. Towing is even approved up to 1000 pounds. With the optional Intelligent 4WD system, the Hybrid has great traction when the going gets tough. Under situations where you’re just creeping along in traffic, the engine often cuts out entirely for fuel savings. When it starts back up, the transition is seamless. With city/highway mileage of 36/31 miles per gallon (that’s right, better in the city), it gets better overall fuel economy than most small sedans. Driving one — whether to the grocery store or the campsite — will be a strong statement for the future.

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid by TCC Team (5/17/2004)
Can you have it all with this “no compromises” SUV?

Land Rover LR3

2005 Land Rover LR3If you’re looking for an SUV with the intent of doing some serious off-roading, then the stylish LR3 should be included in your shopping list. It’s rugged, functional, and elegant, and the stunning interior really separates it from the competition. So do its optional third-row seats, which actually have enough knee room and headroom to fit tall adults on short trips. There’s a total of eight airbags to protect occupants.

The new Land-Rover-tuned 4.4-liter version of Jaguar’s V-8, good for 300 hp, provides plenty of smooth power through the six-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. And it’s just loaded with high-tech features like adaptive swiveling headlights, and a new off-road-friendly system called Terrain Response that adapts the behavior or the suspension, stability control, transmission, and other elements to suit the conditions.

There are a few drawbacks. The LR3’s handling isn’t nearly as confident and direct as carlike SUV models, and real-world gas mileage is embarrassingly low. But for people who want to do serious off-roading, the tradeoffs will be worth it. Finally, the value argument is very strong. Matched up to other models that cost as much, and at only slightly more than a fully loaded TrailBlazer or Explorer, the $44,995 LR3 looks like a steal.

2005 Land Rover LR3 by TCC Team (9/13/2004)
Disco is dead in America – but not its spirit.

Volkswagen Touareg TDI

2004 Volkswagen Touareg TDIVolkswagen’s Touareg enters its second year now offering the powerful V-10 TDI diesel engine for the U.S. market. The new V-10 TDI engine breaks down some of the traditional diesel negatives, in that it’s very smooth and almost luxury-car quiet, thanks to added sound and vibration insulation. It works out an impressive 310 horsepower, but it’s the 553 lb-ft of torque that makes it feel capable of towing a freight train.

Pricing at about $59,105, the diesel-powered Touareg costs almost $15k more than the V-8, but it offers much better overall performance — and better fuel economy. The TDI carries EPA ratings of 14 city, 18 highway, and can return up to 25 mpg in relaxed cruising — quite a feat for a 5800-lb vehicle.

That heft is also the down side, though. The Touareg is very heavy and feels it during normal driving, and during off-roading. And the V-10 might be smooth and refined, but it’s not soot-free, as the bluish clouds during track testing showed. Still, the Touareg is an immensely capable and luxurious vehicle, and the TDI option warrants an extra look, proving that a diesel-engine option can really be a step up.

Preview: 2005 Volkswagen Diesels by Eric Peters (6/7/2004)
Passat and Touareg could be the best-timed VWs in years.

Ford Freestyle

2005 Ford FreestyleFord finally has a crossover sport-utility to compete head-on with the likes of the Honda Pilot, Chrysler Pacifica, and Nissan Murano, among many others, and it’s a winner. Borrowing the platform and basic underpinnings from the Volvo XC90 but otherwise Ford-designed (and a companion to the new Five Hundred sedan), the Freestyle offers excellent packaging, an excellent ride, and a true “best of” mix of station wagon and SUV attributes. With keeping outside dimensions quite compact, the Freestyle manages to provide seating for seven. With the exception of the person in the middle, the seats are quite generously proportioned and supportive — more so than those offered on other Ford products. The third row is much more accessible than most other SUVs and actually useable for adults!

The Freestyle is very carlike in its road manners, with precise handling, very little body motion, and excellent brakes. The only criticism is the powertrain. The 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 has enough power to move the Freestyle rapidly, but it lacks smoothness and is especially loud and coarse while accelerating, accented by the CVT, which keeps the revs high during acceleration. The Freestyle showed to have one of the lowest body clearances in our rather simple off-road course, but its available all-wheel-drive system found traction without fuss.

While the packaging is brilliant, the styling is very clean, simple, and functional. The simple styling inside and out should mean that the Freestyle will age gracefully. At $25,595, if you stay light on the options, it’s a good deal, too. The long-past-its-prime Taurus wagon is going out of production this fall, and we think with the Freestyle coming in, it won’t be missed.

2005 Ford Freestyle by Marty Padgett (9/6/2004)
The bottom line on Ford’s crossover challenger? Keep scrolling.

Volvo XC90 V-8

2005 Volvo XC90 V-8The widely acclaimed Volvo XC90 enters its third year with our favorite new feature yet — more power. The XC90 gets an optional V-8, the first ever for Volvo. The narrow-angle engine is built by Yamaha, and can find its roots in the Yamaha V-8 that Ford used in the Ford Taurus SHO. Although Volvo plays that fact down, the SHO’s engine found a reputation for performance and durability, so it’s nothing to hide. The new V-8 makes 315 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque brought to the road (or trail) through a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. It’s the first V-8 in any vehicle to be ULEV II emissions-approved, and it boasts better gas mileage than any other V-8 sport-utility vehicle.

Conceived from the start with the U.S. market especially in mind, the XC90 has offers excellent handling, luxury-car comfort, and real seating for seven thanks to some of the best packaging in an SUV. Safety has also been a strong suit, with the market-first rollover protection system and airbags to help protect all occupants. The only thing lacking in the XC90 was a refined, powerful powertrain to match that of competing luxury SUVs. Volvo now has that, with the new V-8 model.

Objectively or not, the XC90 has been class-leader for crossover SUVs and a huge sales success for Volvo. Most buyers will be happy with the standard 208-hp five-cylinder engine’s punch. But for those who really want to have a V-8, the XC90 might make some new shopping lists.

2003 Volvo XC90 by Marc K. Stengel (8/26/2002)
Late to the party, or bringing the best present?

Subaru Outback VDC

2005 Subaru OutbackIt’s the sport-utility vehicle that feels, drives, and handles like a sport wagon, then delights with real off-road ability. Subaru’s Outback is all-new for ’05 and even though the EPA now classifies it as a sport-utility vehicle, it feels sportier and than ever. Look at the Outback, and you might think it’s just a station wagon with some “rugged” doo-dads added on. In that case, you’d be wrong, as on our rather mild off-road course the Outback was better off-road — in traction, clearance, and ride — than several of the vehicles that looked like more serious SUVs.

Subaru’s flat six-cylinder engine, offered on the pricier models like the top-of-the-line VDC Limited we tested, has been reworked. It now makes 250 hp and seems much quieter and smoother than before. The Outback is much more confident and fun to drive than most of the other competition, because of its peppy response, precise steering, and powerful brakes, and the all-wheel drive system seems ideal and hard to fluster either on- or off-road.

At $34,070, the top VDC model we tested isn’t cheap. But the base four-cylinder 2.5i Outback starts at less than $25,000. Slotting in between is a turbo model for those who lean toward the sporty, on-road side of the Outback experience. The ongoing high popularity of the Outback models in ski and snow states is well deserved; check them out.

2005 Subaru Outback by TCC Team (6/7/2004)
Crossing over comes naturally – even without the help of John Edwards.

Other notables:

Hyundai Tucson

2005 Hyundai TucsonHyundai is on an all-out assault of the market, with several new models coming out in the next year and a half. The Tucson , now on sale, is based on the Elantra small sedan but brings toughened underpinnings capable of occasional forays into forest trails, mud, or beach sand. When powered by the V-6, there’s plenty of power. Some off-roading ability is there, but the suspension is definitely tuned for on-road performance. Tucson ’s strong suit is its value-for-money equation. Tucson starts at under $18,000, and all models get standard equipment unheard of in this price and size class, like stability control, side airbags, side curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes. And for about 22 grand, you can get the V-6, all-wheel drive, and more luxury equipment. Go figure that for the competition.

2005 Hyundai Tucson by Bengt Halvorson (11/8/2004)
Rewriting the compact SUV value equation.

Nissan Pathfinder

2005 Nissan PathfinderDo you like the tough feel of the full-size trucks but don’t want to deal with obscene fuel bills and urban parking nightmares? Nissan’s new Pathfinder takes the full-size truck aesthetic and brings it down to a more manageable size. The new Pathfinder has a traditional body-on-frame layout, with some of the underpinnings adapted from the big Titan pickup and Armada sport-utility, making it more ideal for towing than most other mid-size utes. A double wishbone suspension front and back helps give it sharper handling and a very civil ride. Pathfinder rides and handles very well on-road, and off road is surprisingly tough. The new 4.0-liter V-6, with 270 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque, can move the Pathfinder with authority. The interior isn’t especially roomy, but packaging is also a Pathfinder strength, with comfortable seating and fold-down possibilities that include a flat cargo surface from tailgate to dashboard. With its capabilities and heavy-duty focus, the Pathfinder is poised to find those traditional SUV buyers who need a little toughness.

2005 Nissan Pathfinder by Bengt Halvorson (9/6/2004)
Full-size ruggedness, sized down for reality.

Porsche Cayenne V-6

An entry-level Porsche SUV. It still seems strange to say, but it’s already on sale. The model uses a 3.2-liter V-6, basically the same engine as used across the Audi and VW lineups, but here boosted to 247 hp, coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. V-6 models get most of the same standard equipment as the V-8, although they forego some of the interior brightwork for matte-black plastic. In an effort to make a model sound faster than it is, the V-6 gets a rather flamboyant exhaust system, but when you’re over you might notice that the V-6 seems to work hard, and it’s only adequate in the 4800-lb Cayenne . It does however have the same suspension settings as the Cayenne V-8, with both excellent handling on the street and track and goat-like off-road ability. Porsche fans are still fiercely split on what the Cayenne sport-utility vehicle does to Porsche’s reputation, but one thing’s for sure: the Cayenne V-6 will make money for Porsche and ensure the company will be there to make the great sports cars it’s known for. Priced at only $41,995, the Cayenne V-6 lands within the price range of a generously equipped mid-size SUV from most luxury brands, most of which don’t have the envied reputation and resale value of Porsche, making it a wise buy.

Preview: 2004 Porsche Cayenne V-6 by Ian Norris (12/1/2003)
It’s not just a V-6, Porsche cautions.

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