$29K SUV Shootout
Last year MotorWeek teamed up with our friends at Cars.com and USA TODAY to pit some of today's best selling family sedans against one another and pick a winner. But for many families, the family car is actually a crossover or sport utility vehicle. And that sounds like a great reason for another group hug. So, join us as we compare nine of America's best selling utilities in a $29,000 SUV Shootout.
Our price ceiling of 29K did limit us to mostly compact utilities, but we found all of our 2011 editions had big family features. Eight of the nine are front-wheel drive, but all are available with all-wheel drive, which is standard on the Subaru Forester.
That's joined by the latest Kia Sportage, the sporty, snub-nose Nissan Rogue, the original small crossover Toyota RAV4, the second generation Chevrolet Equinox, the very popular Honda CR-V, the updated Dodge Journey-with the only V6 in the contest-the aggressive looking Hyundai Tucson, and the venerable Ford Escape.
We returned to the Southern California scene of our sedan comparison, and along with editors from Cars.com and USA TODAY we were joined by some very special guests: actor Joey Lawrence and his family. Our evaluators found it much harder to determine a clear SUV winner than in our sedan comparison, where a few cars really stood out from the rest. But once all of the scoring was in, four were clearly on top.
Coming in fourth, with a price tag of $28,343 is the Subaru Forester. Its mix of SUV flexibility and sedan-like driving dynamics has always been a hit with us. But our testers particularly enjoyed being behind the wheel of the Forester and found the 2.5-liter flat four to be peppier than its claimed 170 horsepower would suggest.
DAVE THOMAS: The Forester was the only all-wheel drive crossover that we had here in the competition and it really showed in the handling department. Taking it through the mountains was a lot of fun. Now, suspension was a little floaty over some bumps, but overall it was a really good competitor.
CHRIS WOODYARD: Subaru Forester sort of stands out in this pack because it has excellent visibility, has some of the biggest windows of any cars out here. And, it also has got a good, rugged feel to it. It feels like a Forester. It feels like a car you want to take into the great outdoors.
Third place goes to the recently redesigned Kia Sportage, with a 176-horsepower 2.4-liter I4. While it was among the most heavily optioned in our test, its price was squarely mid-pack at $27,795. But it was mostly the modern styling that drove it up the list.
CHRIS WOODYARD: The Sportage is really an amazing looking car. It's probably the best looking car of this entire pack, and it's a very competitive segment. We didn't think that it drove as well as some of the others in the pack, but still seemed to be a very strong value proposition.
BRIAN ROBINSON: The Kia Sportage is a good-handling, great-looking SUV, and with features like the L.E.D. running lights and dual sunroofs, it really stands out in the segment.
We were a bit surprised by our runner up, the heavily revised Dodge Journey. As the only V6 in our test, it certainly had an edge in power, though not as much as we were expecting. The new Pentastar V6 rates 283 horsepower, and although it was also one of the biggest vehicles in our test, it was actually the cheapest of our finalists at $25,240. But, what really set it apart was its load of family features.
JOEY LAWRENCE (pictured with family): I like the Dodge; I like the size of the Dodge. It's closer to the Chevy Equinox, which again you feel like you've upgraded to a whole other segment for the same price point. I think the dash layout is excellent in that car. The seats are really comfortable. It has these rear doors that open at 90 degrees, which is perfect for accessibility, especially for the kids getting in and out with car seats and bags and whatnot.
DAVE THOMAS: The Journey obviously had a V6 engine, so acceleration was really strong, which was great. But, the real surprise was the cabin, it was really quiet and because it was one of the larger vehicles it had a lot of cargo room, too.
That leaves us with our winner...the Chevrolet Equinox. While already a MotorWeek Drivers' Choice winner, it was great to see others felt the same way. Power comes from a 182 horsepower 2.4-liter I4. Our heavily optioned Equinox barely squeaked under our $29,000 ceiling at $28,560. And as much as we like driving the Equinox, as your mom probably told you, it's what's inside that counts.
KRISTIN VARELA: The Chevy Equinox has a fit and finish inside that just isn't even comparable to the others, it's a step above. You really feel like you're in a whole separate category.
BRIAN ROBINSON: Among these vehicles, the Equinox is one of the most SUV-ish looking. The interior is really nice with a lot of high tech features; and it's a lot of SUV for the money.
JOEY LAWRENCE: Equinox probably has the best looking interior out of any of these cars. It's got a two-tone leather with a contrast stitching that makes it feel extremely German. The fit and finish is remarkable, I think. The size of the vehicle is fantastic. It's big. It's a lot bigger than the other vehicles. It almost feels like you've upgraded to a whole other segment. For under 30 grand, you just can't beat that.
Sport utilities are vastly different than those of a generation ago. Today, family-friendly features are much more important than off road capability. The Chevrolet Equinox certainly has plenty of family attributes, as well as a high quality interior, and lots of high-tech goodies. It's easy to see why the Equinox is the new benchmark in this class.
2011 Kia Sportage
2011 Nissan Rogue
2011 Toyota RAV4
2011 Chevrolet Equinox
2011 Honda CR-V
2011 Dodge Journey
2011 Hyundai Tucson
2011 Ford Escape
2011 Subaru Forester