2011 SUV Buying Guide

Last Updated: May 7, 2010

The 2011 SUV Buying Guide includes 20 true sport-utility vehicles -- rugged rides for those who appreciate a vehicle with substantial towing and off-road ability. Sales are not nearly as strong as they once were, but automakers know there’s enough life left in this interesting segment to continue developing new models such as the recently redesigned Toyota 4Runner.

Celebrated throughout the 1990s for their rough-and-tumble image, traditional truck-based SUVs represented the vehicles of choice for millions of U.S. families. But demand for fuel-thirsty, full-size models already was feeling the negative effects of rising gasoline prices and heightened environmentalism when the economic collapse in the fall of 2008 delivered the blow that would flatten sales. The popularity of midsize SUVs, meanwhile, suffered as mainstream buyers turned toward car-based crossover models for their more-predictable road manners, lower ride height, and better fuel economy.

The sales downturn was a death knell for such stalwart SUVs as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. For others, like the next-generation Ford Explorer, it meant abandoning body-on-frame construction and joining the crossover brigade. But plenty of desirable traditional SUVs remain available, and some are even enjoying a sales resurgence in 2010. These include the Chevrolet Suburban and Nissan Armada among full-size models, and the 4Runner and Ford Explorer among midsize SUVs.

To qualify as a traditional SUV, a vehicle must use truck-like body-on-frame construction in which the body is attached to a separate chassis. Crossovers by contrast use carlike unibody construction in which frame and body essentially form a single unit. The truck-like design of traditional SUVs gives them the robust construction well-suited for heavy towing and hauling and the demands of tortuous off-roading. These SUVs tend to weigh more than crossovers, however, which detracts from fuel economy, ride comfort, and handling characteristics.

A few SUVs blur this distinction. The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover LR4, for example, integrate a unibody structure and a reinforced subframe. In any event, the majority of entries in our 2011 SUV Buying Guide are four-door models with traditional “two box” exterior styling that emphasizes a utilitarian appearance. All of them have roots in rear-wheel drive engineering (2WD), with four-wheel-drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) standard or optional for added traction. With 4WD or AWD, separate low-range gearing for off-road adventures or plowing out of deep mud or snow is the rule.

These traditional SUVs come in three basic sizes.

Smaller and more-utilitarian models such as the Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Xterra, and Toyota FJ Cruiser are popular with younger (and often male) buyers who want to drive something visually and viscerally engaging.

Midsize SUVs essentially have the interior space of a station wagon that would fall into the compact- or midsize-car class. They all have four doors and seat five passengers. A few, such as the Explorer and 4Runner, are available with a small third-row seat suitable for young children. Midsize SUVs are popular with medium-income singles and young families, though a few, such as the $50,000 Lexus GX, fall into the premium-SUV category. Most midsize SUVs come with six-cylinder engines and several offer V-8s. These models are suited for towing most common-sized trailers and have a maximum towing capacity in the 3,500-7,000-pound range, depending on the engine and model.

Full-size SUVs are typically based on their manufacturer’s big pickup-truck frame and some offer two body lengths of different cargo- and passenger volumes. For example, the Chevrolet Suburban is essentially the Chevrolet Tahoe with an additional 14 inches of wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) and an extra 20 inches of body length. All full-size SUVs have three rows of seats for up to eight-passenger capacity. They’re generally fitted with hefty V-8 engines and can tow up to 10,000 pounds. Five- and six-speed automatic transmissions are the norm among mid- and full-size models, with manual gearboxes limited to only a handful of the lowest-priced models.

For any three-row SUV, that rearmost seat is a challenge to get to or get out of; minivans are the ticket for real third-row comfort and access. On the upside, the ability to fold down the second- and third-row seats invites the transport of building materials or other large objects. Most third-row seats can be removable altogether to maximize cargo room.

While their ride and handling qualities have been tamed over time, truck-based SUVs generally can’t match crossovers for bump absorption or carlike road manners. Full-size models can be a handful to maneuver in tighter urban areas and they can be difficult to climb into and out of – especially for smaller drivers and passengers -- because of their tall ground clearance.

Indeed, generous ground clearance is part of the traditional-SUV party, even though a small percentage of owners ever actually venture off road. Nonetheless, most models offer a choice of 4WD systems to enhance wet-road traction or rock-climbing prowess. Some are available with off-road packages that include special tires, heavier-duty suspensions, and other add-ons for greater durability and performance away from the pavement; unfortunately, this usually further diminishes on-road ride quality in the bargain. The Land Rover Range Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser are bona fide off-road all-stars with an array of advanced go-anywhere traction technology. In the U.S., these expensive vehicles seldom are subjected to the rigors and risks of backwoods work, but the capability is built into their lofty pricing.

Early SUVs were little more than pickup trucks with enclosed cargo beds and a second row of seats. Despite those utilitarian roots, all but the budget-minded SUVs of today feature handsome and accommodating interiors. Most can be tricked out like luxury cars, with leather heated seats and such features as Bluetooth hands-free cell-phone interfaces, GPS navigation systems, DVD entertainment systems, and rear backup cameras for easier and safer parking. Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, and Jeep models can be fitted with devices that turn them into automotive Wi-Fi hot spots for connecting laptop computers and other devices to the Internet. Luxury models include all the bells and whistles plus sumptuous wood-trimmed interiors and generous use of chrome trim inside and out.

Safety is a traditional selling point among vehicles in this segment. Most have front-side and side-curtain airbags to protect passengers in collisions and come with antiskid stability control to reduce the chances of sideways slides than can lead to rollovers – a leading cause of fatalities in crashes involving these high-center-of-gravity vehicles.

Most midsize- and full-size SUVs rate highly in government crash tests for occupant protection in front- and side-impact collisions. These tests are intended as a guide to measure crash protection involving only vehicles of similar size, so even a high-rated compact car isn’t likely to offer maximum protection in a collision with a larger, heavier vehicle. Certainly, the laws of physics – and their strong separate frames -- favor traditional SUVs in crashes with smaller, lighter vehciels.

Fuel economy, however, is not an SUV’s strong suit. A full-size model like the Chevrolet Tahoe is rated at a sobering 14/20 mpg (city/highway). Even midsizers like the Toyota FJ Cruiser fare little better at around 17/22 mpg. Hybrid gas/electric versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon are offered, but buyers have to pay top-dollar to save what amounts to a few miles per gallon.

The long-term future of traditional SUVs is unclear, given stricter government fuel-economy rules that begin to kick in starting next year. Luxury truck-based SUVs such as the Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX, and Lexus GX models may be the most vulnerable. Models such as the Chevrolet Suburban that suit a wider variety of need and buyers are likely to continue. The good news is that buyers with a bona fide need for a traditional SUV, or those who simply still prefer that big-SUV swagger, will find generous manufacturers’ cash rebates and deep dealer discounts to be the norm for some time to come.