2012 SUV Buying Guide

Last Updated: Jul 1, 2011

The 2012 SUV Buying Guide from iGuida.com highlights the last of the truck-based sport-utility vehicles. Consisting of 26 entries for model-year 2012 – down from 36 in model-year 2002 -- this is a dwindling automotive segment. But it remains a purposeful one. The traditional SUVs in this buying guide are characterized by substantial towing power and durable off-road prowess and can also serve as stalwart family vehicles.

SUV fuel economy, alas, is among the lowest of all vehicles. A full-size V-8 powered model like the 2012 Ford Expedition can be exceedingly costly to run, rated 14/20 mpg city/highway and 16 mpg combined city/highway. Midsize models like the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee don’t fare much better; it’s rated 16/23/18 mpg with a V-6 and 14/20/16 with a V-8. And those are for standard rear-wheel-drive models. Opting for four-wheel drive typically drops ratings by at least a mile per gallon. General Motors sells gas/electric hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, but their modest gas savings are offset by higher sticker prices (these and other hybrids are covered in our 2012 Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Buying Guide).

Sales of these traditional SUVs are far lower than during the genre’s heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, when families flocked to the truck-based wagons for their rough-and-tumble image. Changing consumer tastes and rising gas prices starting in the mid-2000s crushed their popularity as mainstream vehicles. Buyers instead have embraced car-type crossover SUVs for their more refined road manners, lower ride height, and better fuel economy. Indeed, automakers have followed the trend toward crossovers. Several body-on-frame SUVs, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, for example, have been replaced by crossovers – in TrailBlazer’s case, by the Chevy Traverse and Equinox. Others simply died, while some truck-based models, like the popular Ford Explorer, have been reborn as crossovers. (Check out our 2012 Crossover SUV Buying Guide for a full rundown of all 65 crossovers for sale in the U.S.)

To qualify as a traditional SUV, a vehicle must literally be built like a truck. This means body-on-frame construction in which the body is bolted to a separate chassis. Crossovers, by contrast, are built like cars, with unibody underpinnings in which body and frame are a single unit. A conventional SUV’s robust truck-like design is what enables it to perform heavy towing and hauling tasks and to survive rigorous off-roading. The stout separate frame, however, also makes traditional SUVs heavier than crossovers, which negatively affects ride comfort, handling, and fuel economy.

A few models manage to keep a tire planted in both SUV and crossover categories, however. The 2012 Dodge Durango, 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and 2012 Land Rover LR4, for example, are built using a unibody structure but add a reinforced subframe that gives them traditional-SUV-like abilities.

Most of the vehicles in our 2012 SUV Buying Guide are four-door models with conventional “two box” exterior styling that helps give them a functional, square-rigged appearance. All are inherently rear-wheel-drive (2wd) vehicles, with four-wheel-drive (4wd) or all-wheel drive (AWD) standard or optional for added traction. When fitted with 4wd or AWD, these SUVs generally include separate low-range gearing that enables them to plow through deep mud ruts or snowdrifts and crawl over rocks and debris off road.

The 2012 SUV Buying Guide describes vehicles of three basic sizes.

Compact-sized SUVs such as the 2012 Jeep Wrangler, 2012 Nissan Xterra, and 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser are popular with younger (and usually male) buyers who embrace their go-anywhere nature and can tolerate compromised comfort and a relatively narrow range of convenience features in the bargain.

Midsize SUVs are larger wagons that generally seat five passengers, though a few, including the 2012 Toyota 4Runner and 2012 Nissan Pathfinder, are available with a two-passenger third-row seat suitable mainly for young children. Regardless of the number, all rear seats in these SUVs fold flat to create a larger cargo hold. Midsize SUVs are popular with middle-class singles and young families, though some, such as the $50,000 Lexus GX460, are priced and equipped like luxury cars. Most midsize SUVs come with six-cylinder engines, though several offer optional V-8s for additional acceleration and increased towing capacity. Capable of pulling most common-sized trailers, midsize SUVs generally have a maximum tow rating of around 5,000 pounds with a V-6, around 7,000 pounds with a V-8.

Full-size SUVs typically are based on their manufacturer’s big pickup-truck frame, and some offer two lengths with different cargo- and passenger volumes. For example, the GMC Yukon XL, as its name implies, is an elongated version of the standard Yukon. It has an additional 14 inches of wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) and an extra 20 inches of body length. As with the Chevrolet Tahoe and its elongated cousin, the Chevy Suburban, both Yukons have three rows of seats. But the XL (and the Suburban) have slightly more accommodating third-row comfort and much more cargo room, with some 46 cubic feet of volume behind the third-row seat, versus just 17 cubic feet, and 137 cubic feet of maximum storage space, versus 109.

All full-size SUVs feature three rows of seats that can accommodate as many as eight passengers, depending on the seating configuration. With the second- and third-row seats folded, the largest SUVs can carry full sheets of building materials or an entire yard’s worth of sod – with the tailgate shut. They’re generally pack large, thirsty V-8 engines and feature tow ratings as high as 10,000 pounds. Five- and six-speed automatic transmissions are the norm among all these SUVs, with manual gearboxes alternately available only on the three compact models. 

Although truck-based SUVs have become more civilized over the tears in terms of ride and handling, they seldom can match crossovers for soaking up bumps and potholes while maintaining easy car-like handling.  Moreover, ingress and egress is also hampered – especially for smaller drivers and passengers -- because of their higher ground clearance; equipping a tall full-size SUV with running boards is highly recommended.

Traditional SUVs inherently ride higher than most other vehicle types because they’re built to traverse rocks and other obstructions without suffering undue damage to their undercarriages. To that end, most offer a choice of 4wd systems, though few owners ever actually take their SUVs off-road. Still, 4wd can come in handy to enhance traction on wet or snowy roads and loose-material surfaces. Some SUVs offer optional off-road packages that include special tires, heavier-duty suspensions, and other components that contribute to added durability and performance. Unfortunately, such additions usually come at the expense of an even-rougher ride and sometimes taller ground clearance.

And while they’re among the costliest models in this class, the Land Rover Range Rover and the Toyota Land Cruiser and its even-plusher Lexus LX570 cousin are also among the most-capable off-road vehicles. Ironically, these very models are rarely subjected to punishment blazing backwoods trails – partly because a large number are leased and could be subject to hefty “wear and tear” penalties at the conclusion of the lease term. By contrast, the relatively modestly priced Jeep Wrangler sees the highest percentage of off-road use, estimated by Jeep at around 60 percent of all Wranglers sold.

While the first SUVs were essentially sparsely equipped enclosed pickup trucks with two rows of seats, today’s traditional SUVs are now finished and equipped on par with passenger cars. All but the most-basic models can be fitted with a full range of upscale features that include heated leather seats, premium audio systems, 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 SUVs can be equipped with receivers that turn them into rolling Wi-Fi hot spots for connecting laptops, iPads, and portable gaming devices to the Internet. Luxury SUVs feature eye-catching amounts of chrome trim inside and out and coddle occupants with rich-looking wood-trimmed interiors.

All 2012 SUVs come with federally mandated stability control to reduce the chances of sideways slides, which could lead to rollovers – a leading cause of death in crashes involving these high-center-of-gravity vehicles. All but the Wrangler come with side curtain airbags designed to protect the head in side collisions and to deploy if sensors detect a rollover is imminent, thus decreasing chances unbelted occupants would be ejected. Because of its soft-top design (a bolt-on hardtop is optional) the Wrangler is available with seat-mounted front side airbags shaped to provide some head protection. .

Despite their legitimate usefulness for hauling, towing, off-roading, and even heavy-duty family chores, the number of traditional SUVs is likely to shrink in the coming years. With federal fuel-economy requirements for these truck-type vehicles set to rise in the coming years, automakers may shed some slower-selling models to help boost their corporate fuel-economy averages. The 2012 model year is reportedly the last for the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser, while the Nissan Pathfinder likely will be reborn as a crossover for model-year 2013. For the survivors, the trend could point to turbocharged V-6 engines instead of V-8s to boost fuel economy without sacrificing power.

Here is our 2012 SUV Buying Guide:

2012 Cadillac Escalade
The king of bling continues, but could be recast as a big crossover for model-year 2013 or 2014

2012 Chevrolet Tahoe
Heavy hauler is comfortable and handles fairly well; few changes until 2013 at the earliest

2012 Chevrolet Suburban
The Tahoe’s longer sibling offers added room with a bigger optional V-8 to boost towing power

2012 Dodge Durango
An elongated Jeep Grand Cherokee with three rows of seats; it’s well mannered on or off road

2012 Dodge Nitro
Cramped and clumsy SUV based on the Jeep Liberty, may not survive under Fiat’s stewardship

2012 Ford Expedition
Ford’s Suburban-fighter may lose stretched EL version with a model-year 2013 freshening

2012 GMC Yukon
Three-row SUV virtually identical to Chevy’s full-size Tahoe, save for ultra-plush Denali editions

2012 GMC Yukon XL
Also offered in an upscale Denali version, a larger optional V-8 adds power and towing abilities

2012 Infiniti QX56
Redesigned for 2011, this full-sizer is nicely finished and tech-rich but feels dynamically dated

2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Candidate for best midsizer after its 2011 redesign; gets a high-powered SRT8 version for 2012

2012 Jeep Liberty
Smallish SUV is off-road capable but otherwise lackluster; avoid the leaky canvas Sky Slider roof

2012 Jeep Wrangler
After getting an upgraded interior for 2011, a stronger and more efficient V-6 is expected for 2012

2012 Kia Borrego
Largely forgettable seven-seater offers V-6 and V-8 engines with about average performance

2012 Land Rover LR4
Tall-built seven-seater for upscale families is comfortable and capable, but too costly to off road

2012 Land Rover Range Rover
Rolling status symbol is one of the top off-roaders, but most owners use it as a plush luxury car

2012 Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Smaller and sportier alternative to a Range Rover is best served by its 510 hp supercharged V-8

2012 Lexus GX 460
Based on the Toyota 4Runner, this luxury midsizer seats eight, looks good and performs well

2012 LX 570
Lexus’ Toyota Land Cruiser-based answer to the Range Rover is both burly and refined

2012 Lincoln Navigator
Giant-size Lincoln continues in two lengths with lots of chrome, V-8 power and a too-floaty a ride

2012 Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Boxy German-army vehicle converted to luxury status is overpriced but has a loyal following

2012 Nissan Pathfinder
Midsize seven-seater in final year before a big redesign; might wind up a crossover for 2013

2012 Nissan Xterra
Probably the final year for this youth-appealing, though rough-edged, off-road-ready SUV

2012 Toyota 4Runner
Seven-seat midsizer boasts solid off-road abilities, but heavy weight taxes its only engine, a V-6

2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser
A problematical style statement but good off-road, this midsizer likely dies after model-year 2012

2012 Toyota Land Cruiser
Long-running flagship luxury SUV seats seven and offers off-road capabilities few buyers use

2012 Toyota Sequoia
Slow selling full-sizer is intended as a Chevy Suburban alternative, but feels more ungainly