Top 40 Hit Parade
Marc K. Stengel, Fri, 29 Jun 2007 08:00:00 PDT
You can rage against the machine all you want, but if your recreationaldiversions lead out of doors, you'll be yearning for a classic, resourcefulSport/Utility Vehicle. A tiny Toyota Yaris ain't gonna cut it when campinggear, roof-cargo and trailer-towing are the preferred pre-requisites forenjoying yourself.
Back in the day, an SUV was evaluated on the basis of its testosteronequotient. Two of the three vehicles discussed below are genuine grizzlies inthis regard: You could say Jeep Grand Cherokee is the progenitor of thewhole SUV phenomenon; and Nissan's Pathfinder seems to have been with ussince the days of Washington Irving and Ichabod Crane. Honda's Pilot is anupstart by comparison, although particularly resourceful and innovative inits own right.
Three different vehicles; three different personalities; one common mission:to get out into the wilds and back again with hampers of cargo and a squadof companions. Oh, and with the expectation, as well, that sticker pricesshould top out at no more than $40-grand.
Jeep's iconic Grand Cherokee is the vehicle that eco-Puritans just love tohate. And how ironic, too, considering that the Grand Cherokee's oncegroundbreaking combination of off-road prowess and interior space managementhas made it possible for generations of folks to forge their way into thewoods and mountains for consorting with Mother Nature.
For 2007, Grand Cherokee manages to confound its critics with the sort ofinnovation that gives this old warhorse an entirely new sheen: A newversion, designated "CRD," now offers off-roaders the versatility they'vecraved for years, thanks to a 3.0-liter common-rail-diesel powerplant thatincreases fuel-efficiency by 30 percent and reduces exhaust emissions by 20percent even while producing unprecedented pulling power of 376 foot-poundsof torque.
Grand Cherokee remains a comfortable five-person vehicle with expandablecargo space ranging from 35 to 69 cubic feet. In four-wheel-drive trim, astested here, it incorporates the sort of serious off-road technology thatfew obstacles can stymie. But now, with brute-force turbo-diesel power,Grand Cherokee's climbing and grunting abilities are further multiplied.Torque rumbles to its maximum at a low 2,000 rpm. On the street, that meanszippy acceleration; in low-low gear range, that means sure-footedrock-climbing at an inches-per-minute pace.
The V6 turbo-diesel is a Mercedes-Benz design, so it should come as nosurprise that it's pricey. Technically, the Grand Cherokee CRD sneaks inunder $40K only as a Limited two-wheel-drive version. The Limited 4X4 testedhere stickers at $41,715. But considering the breakthrough of 20 mpg/city,24 mpg/highway for a 4,700 vehicle that can tow 7,400 lbs. Jeep's latestGrand Cherokee CRD is one of the new bright lights in the SUV landscape.
There's no denying that Nissan's Pathfinder has aged gracefully over theyears. Some say too gracefully, in fact. What was once a gritty four-wheelerbased on a pint-sized pickup is now a unibody people pod, seating seven andbristling with creature comforts. Today, it's the Nissan Xterra that wearsthe grit, while the Pathfinder tends to put the gloss on soccer moms'suburban lifestyles.
But with the "SE-OR" designation for 2007, Pathfinder gives a nod to itstrail-busting reputation of yore. This is a dedicated off-roader that boastsfully independent suspension and part-time four-wheel drive enhanced by HillDescent Control and Hill Start Assist. The upshot is that road manners arerefined, whereas trail capabilities are impressive. And with seating forseven, more folks can go along for the ride.
Into virtually the same size capsule as Jeep's Grand Cherokee, Nissanmanages to stuff more seats and more cargo space (ranging from 16.5 to 79cubic feet). Reading between the lines, however, one can infer thatthird-row seating is "kiddy-sized" and what remains is still rather snug foradults.
Underhood is a 4.0-liter twin-cam V6 that makes 266 horsepower and 288foot-pounds of torque. (For 2008, a 5.6-liter V8 becomes optional.) Fueleconomy is the Pathfinder's booby-trap. It achieves just 16 mpg/city, 21mpg, highway, with premium fuel required. And because maximum torque doesn'tappear until 4,000 rpm, Pathfinder surrenders some finesse in technicallytreacherous off-road circumstances.
Still, the Pathfinder SE-OR is a no-nonsense off-roader whose base stickeris an attractive $31,650. Although options will inflate the price swiftly to$38,090, as-tested, Nissan's original SUV remains a capable Top 40contender.
Like any good outdoorsman, Honda has this knack for watching and waiting,lurking back, then springing the trap with products that it didn't inventyet still managed to refine. Pilot is such a one, and it's a thinking man's,or woman's, SUV. Because the first thing a lot of SUV buyers might want tothink about is whether they really need serious off-roading hardware whenless aggressive all-wheel-drive will suffice. If slippery roads and muddydriveways are the chief impediments, Honda's Pilot shaves costs withoutcompromising versatility.
An all-wheel-drive Pilot EX-L NAV ("L" for leather; "NAV" for DVDnavigation) costs $35,445; and the front-wheel-drive model, tested here, is$1,300 less expensive yet. The Pilot is deceptively large: It seats eight,and boasts a cargo range of 16 to 88 cubic feet. Like the Pathfinder, thefarther rearward you sit, the more "sardine-ification" you suffer. And yetflip-fold seatbacks provide a welcome variety of people and cargo combos.
Pilot isn't a particularly robust tow vehicle, with its 3,500-pound rating.But it's very nimble for its size. What's more, it's frugal with a244-horsepower V6 that imperceptibly shuts down three cylinders at everyopportunity to achieve ratings of 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway, usingregular. What Pilot lacks in moxie, then, it makes up for in ingenuity, muchto its rivals' perennial chagrin.