The winner, rankings in $38,000 Midsize SUV Challenge

9:53 AM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
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USA TODAY - What once was a class dominated by truck-based models has given way almost entirely to car-based vehicles, still with the high seating position and styling that helped make SUVs popular, but with better ride and handling, fuel economy and interior space.

The class took a hit when gas prices first reached $4 a gallon, but sales have roared back. Jeep's Grand Cherokee is Chrysler's second-best-selling vehicle this year after the Ram 1500 pickup. Ford's Edge, while not as successful as sister SUVs Explorer and Escape, still outsells Ford's largest and smallest cars, Taurus and Fiesta.

So we decides put them to the test in our latest head-to-head vehicle Challenge. To pick the best of the bunch, here's how the Cars.com-USATODAY-Motorweek $38,000 Midsize SUV Challenge was done.

The contenders: 2013 Ford Edge, 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 2014 Kia Sorento, 2013 Nissan Murano, 2013 Toyota Venza.

The expert judges: James R. Healey, auto critic for USA TODAY; Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for Cars.com; Joe Bruzek, editor and car reviewer for Cars.com; Mike Hanley, editor and car reviewer for Cars.com; Ben Davis, producer for PBS TV's MotorWeek.

The family judges: Brian and Melissa Brown and their two children, our real-world family from suburban Chicago.

Why $38,000?: We set a price cap of $38,000, including destination charges, after taking into account the sales leaders in this space, consulting with J.D. Power and Associates and looking at listing prices on Cars.com. We also told the manufacturers that the cars had to have automatic transmissions and either turbocharged four-cylinder or naturally aspirated V-6 engines, but otherwise they could provide what they thought was their best configuration for the price limit. The cap resulted in a group with a range of features. And three had all-wheel drive, two had front-wheel drive, one had rear-wheel drive. All but one, though, had a V-6 – and Santa Fe Sport's turbo four-cylinder produced V-6-like power numbers.

How the three-day testing was done: A day of driving the entrants on a carefully planned route, rotating drivers and maintaining equal loads, to observe real-world gas mileage, a day in which each expert drove the six entrants alone and back-to-back on the same route and a day for the real-world family of four to go over and drive each entrant with an eye toward which features and attributes would matter most to them in their next vehicle.

Here's how they were scored: The experts' scores combined account for 75% of the total score; the family evaluation is 15% and the fuel-economy ranking is 10%.

And the winner is ...

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NO.1: 2014 JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE

•Points: 777 out of 1,000.

• Price with shipping: $37,585

• Observed gas mileage: No. 6 of the six, 22.7 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 17/25/20)

• Key features: Refreshed for 2014, rear-wheel drive (only one), IIHS Top Safety Pick, Uconnect multimedia system with smartphone app integration, only one with year-old satellite radio subscription. USB inputs throughout cabin, leather seats, heated front/rear seats, heated steering wheel, rear parking sensors, configurable gauge cluster, power liftgate, fits three child-safety seats in the second row (one of only two).

• What they liked: Interior. "A luxury liner compared to the challengers," said Healey. "Looks, feels, even smells like a luxury car," Bragman said. Powertrain. "When the Eco mode is deactivated," Hanley said, "the V-6 and eight-speed transmission are a well-matched." Visibility. "Commanding view of the road," Bruzek noted. "Nice rear visibility helped out by generous side mirrors," Davis said. Chrysler Uconnect system's ease of use. "Best multimedia system of the bunch," Bragman said. Premium feel. "It's hard to believe something this nice costs the same as the others!" Missy Brown said.

• What they didn't: Eco mode. "Erases the Jeep's fun-to-drive factor," said Healey. Gas mileage. "That big power comes with a big thirst," Bragman said. Price. "I wish the pricing was a little lower," Davis said. At Challenge price, it's rear drive, not AWD. Electronic gear selector. "Has a cheap feel and makes it harder to select the gear you want," Hanley said.

• Bottom line: "The one to have if you are looking for a true SUV and not merely a car-like tall wagon," Bragman said.

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NO. 2: HYUNDAI SANTA FE SPORT

• Points: 760 out of 1,000

• Price with shipping: $34,205 (lowest)

• Observed gas mileage: No. 1, 26.1 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 20/27/23)

• Key features: New model for 2013, only entrant with turbo four-cylinder engine; front-wheel drive, IIHS Top Safety Pick and NHTSA five-star overall crash-test rating, leather seats, heated front/rear seats, heated steering wheel, selectable driving modes (Sport, Comfort and Normal), large panoramic sunroof, 40/20/40-split folding backseat, Hyundai Blue Link teleconnect service (three years free).

• Expected but lacking: Memory setting for driver's power seat, power tailgate, full integration for smartphone apps.

• What they liked: Interior. Its "premium interior finishes and cabin design might surprise some car shoppers," Hanley said. Features. "Thoughtful features," Healey said, "such as large, color displays of numbers and letters in the driver information panel that are easily read." An "out-of-this-world sunroof," said Davis, adding that the below-load floor "hidden storage made me feel like Han Solo." The only competitor "with a sliding rear seat," said Bruzek. Power, light feel. "The surprise athlete of the group. It feels light on its feet and is fun to drive quickly," said Bragman. "The turbo four-cylinder's great low-end power makes passing and merging easy," Hanley said. "Nimble," said Bruzek. Price/value: The least expensive of the group.

• What they didn't: Rear headroom. The sunroof "eats up headroom in the backseat," Bragman said. "Anyone taller than 5-feet-11 will not be comfortable." Smaller space. "Not exactly the (Chevrolet) Suburban of the bunch," said Healey. Engine noise, ride ("Bumpy," said Bruzek) and steering. "Numb and artificially weighted," Hanley said. Limited rear visibility. No power liftgate. Limited smartphone integration.

• Bottom line: "The Santa Fe Sport's acceleration and features list are both impressive," Hanley said, "but Hyundai hasn't cracked the code as far as driving dynamics are concerned."

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NO. 3: 2014 KIA SORENTO

• Points: 718.5 out of 1,000

• Price with shipping: $37,650

• Observed gas mileage: No. 4, 23.4 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 18/24/20)

• Key features: Redesigned for 2014, all-wheel drive, IIHS Top Safety Pick, blind-spot warning, Kia's UVO multimedia that uses your smartphone via Bluetooth, leather seats, front seats both heated and ventilated, rear parking sensors, large panoramic sunroof, 40/20/40-split folding backseat, power liftgate, selectable driving modes (Sport, Comfort and Normal).

• What they liked: Fun to drive, power, comfortable ride. "The drivetrain goes fast and shifts great," Healey said. "Refined ride at all speeds," Bruzek said. "Refined and powerful V-6 provides exceptional passing power," Hanley added. Styling, interior. "Excellent design textures inside and out," Davis said. "Even the grille was impressive." A "commanding driving position from the high seats and the low dashboard," said Bragman. Value. "Lots of great content for the money," said Bragman.

• What they didn't: While that dashboard looks cool, it's a "dim digital dashboard," Davis said. Rear visibility. Space. "Not much vs. the others," said Healey, who noted tight rear-seat knee space. Ride, materials. Experts split over both the ride quality, which some applauded, and material quality, which some called cheap. "I like the style of the Kia, but the others felt higher-quality," Missy said. Handling. "Notable body roll," said Hanley.

• Bottom line: "The Kia Sorento's ride is like no other Sorento before: refined, smooth and quiet over the roughest suburban roads," Bruzek said. "Its second row is roomy and filled with family-friendly features like side-window sunshades, a 110-volt household outlet and a flat floor for extra room."

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NO. 4: 2013 FORD EDGE

• Points: 698 out of 1,000

• Price with shipping: $37,125

• Observed gas mileage: No. 3, 24.1 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 19/27/22)

• Key features: Front-wheel drive, IIHS Top Safety Pick, one of two entrants with blind-spot-warning system, RCA-SD card-iPod-USB inputs, configurable gauge cluster, leather seats, heated seats, rear parking sensors, MyFord Touch multimedia system with smartphone app integration, cargo-area release levers for second-row folding.

• Expected but lacking: Keyless entry, power tailgate.

• What they liked: Looks. Stood out visually for shape, bright blue paint of the tester. "The styling inside and out is attractive, if a little dated now," Bragman said. "Its bulldog stance is appealing," Healey said. Visibility. "Great visibility, thanks to thin roof pillars," Hanley said. Sporty cockpit, driving feel. "Sporty, driver-focused dash design," Davis said. Edge "feels planted and hunkered down at highway speeds," Bruzek said. Ride quality and comfort.

• What they didn't: Dated design. "The once-bold look no longer looks great," Davis said. "It's time for a refresh." Handling. "The tighter the corner, the more you feel out of control," Healey said, "even at low speed." MyFord Touch multimedia system. "The touch-sensitive center stack may look slick," Bragman said, "but it requires you to take your eyes off the road to use it, every time." "Remains a frustratingly slow multimedia system with a poor interface," Hanley said. "Technology is valuable, but it has to be technology I'm going to use," Missy Brown said. Price. "Too high for the features. It's more than $37,000, but there's no all-wheel drive or power liftgate, no push-button start," Healey said.

• Bottom line: "A solid servant with a nice list of features," Davis said. "Sporty, quiet and comfortable. Unfortunately, its aging design looks even older when parked next to some of the others, and the pricing is a bit strong as well."

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NO. 5: 2013 NISSAN MURANO

• Points: 679 out of 1,000

• Price with shipping: $37,770 (highest)

• Observed gas mileage: No. 5, 23 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 18/23/20)

• Key features: Only entrant with continuously variable-ratio automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, only four cup holders, RCA and USB inputs, power liftgate, cargo-area release levers for second-row folding.

• Expected but lacking: Leather upholstery, heated seats.

• What they liked: Driving dynamics. "Light and tossable ... fun to drive," Bragman said. Front seats. "Extreme seating comfort," Bruzek said. Bragman agreed. "Those aren't seats, they're thrones: amazingly big and comfortable," said Bragman. Rear seat. "Comfy backseat, even for taller adults," said Hanley. Quiet. "Minimal wind and road noise," said Bruzek.

• What they didn't: Price. Most expensive in test. Interior materials and space. Only entrant with cloth seats. "I just don't like the materials or colors in here," Brian Brown said. "Tight for its apparent size," Healey said. Styling. "Ugly is right," Bragman said. "The styling isn't just dated, it's downright odd. It has no chin!"

• Bottom line: "Ugly," Healey said, "and a bit dated inside ... but chassis tuning makes driving rewarding."

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NO. 6: 2013 TOYOTA VENZA

• Points: 622.5 out of 1,000

• Price with shipping: $35,887

• Observed gas mileage: No. 2, 24.2 mpg (EPA city/highway/combined 18/25/21)

• Key features: All-wheel drive, IIHS Top Safety Pick and NHTSA five-star overall crash-test rating, the most bottle/cup holders (10), Toyota Entune multimedia system with smartphone app integration, leather seats, heated front seats, all windows one-touch up/down, power liftgate, two years/25,000 miles free maintenance, cargo-area release levers for second row.

• What they liked: Ride. "Most carlike of the bunch," said Davis. Sits lowest in group. "Easy access to the rear cargo area," Davis said. "Low step-in height makes it easy to get into and out of," Hanley said. Rear seat. "Great backseat room," Healey said. Power and handling. "Sporty handling and acceleration," said Bruzek. Controls. "Refreshingly simple-to-use climate and audio controls," said Davis. "The buttons and knobs are nice and high on the console."

• What they didn't: Bad brakes. "Lots of leg to get very little response," Healey said. Downscale interior. "Lacks the premium look and feel that the other" entrants have, Hanley said. Bragman said the "cheap, hard-plastic parts squeak and creak." Small navigation screen, noted Bruzek. Design. "Tired ... inside and out," said Davis. Ride. Several found the large-diameter wheels and short-sidewall tires gave it a rough ride.

• Bottom line: "It feels like there's less in this car for the same price as the others," Brian Brown said.

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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