Top 40 Hit Parade

2007, Jeep, Grand Cherokee CRD

You can rage against the machine all you want, but if your recreational diversions lead out of doors, you'll be yearning for a classic, resourceful Sport/Utility Vehicle. A tiny Toyota Yaris ain't gonna cut it when camping gear, roof-cargo and trailer-towing are the preferred pre-requisites for enjoying yourself.

Back in the day, an SUV was evaluated on the basis of its testosterone quotient. Two of the three vehicles discussed below are genuine grizzlies in this regard: You could say Jeep Grand Cherokee is the progenitor of the whole SUV phenomenon; and Nissan's Pathfinder seems to have been with us since the days of Washington Irving and Ichabod Crane. Honda's Pilot is an upstart by comparison, although particularly resourceful and innovative in its 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 squad of companions. Oh, and with the expectation, as well, that sticker prices should top out at no more than $40-grand.

Jeep's iconic Grand Cherokee is the vehicle that eco-Puritans just love to hate. And how ironic, too, considering that the Grand Cherokee's once groundbreaking combination of off-road prowess and interior space management has made it possible for generations of folks to forge their way into the woods and mountains for consorting with Mother Nature.

For 2007, Grand Cherokee manages to confound its critics with the sort of innovation that gives this old warhorse an entirely new sheen: A new version, designated "CRD," now offers off-roaders the versatility they've craved for years, thanks to a 3.0-liter common-rail-diesel powerplant that increases fuel-efficiency by 30 percent and reduces exhaust emissions by 20 percent even while producing unprecedented pulling power of 376 foot-pounds of torque.

Grand Cherokee remains a comfortable five-person vehicle with expandable cargo space ranging from 35 to 69 cubic feet. In four-wheel-drive trim, as tested here, it incorporates the sort of serious off-road technology that few 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 means zippy acceleration; in low-low gear range, that means sure-footed rock-climbing at an inches-per-minute pace.

The V6 turbo-diesel is a Mercedes-Benz design, so it should come as no surprise that it's pricey. Technically, the Grand Cherokee CRD sneaks in under $40K only as a Limited two-wheel-drive version. The Limited 4X4 tested here 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 latest Grand 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 the years. Some say too gracefully, in fact. What was once a gritty four-wheeler based on a pint-sized pickup is now a unibody people pod, seating seven and bristling with creature comforts. Today, it's the Nissan Xterra that wears the 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 its trail-busting reputation of yore. This is a dedicated off-roader that boasts fully independent suspension and part-time four-wheel drive enhanced by Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. The upshot is that road manners are refined, whereas trail capabilities are impressive. And with seating for seven, more folks can go along for the ride.

Into virtually the same size capsule as Jeep's Grand Cherokee, Nissan manages to stuff more seats and more cargo space (ranging from 16.5 to 79 cubic feet). Reading between the lines, however, one can infer that third-row seating is "kiddy-sized" and what remains is still rather snug for adults.

Underhood is a 4.0-liter twin-cam V6 that makes 266 horsepower and 288 foot-pounds of torque. (For 2008, a 5.6-liter V8 becomes optional.) Fuel economy is the Pathfinder's booby-trap. It achieves just 16 mpg/city, 21 mpg, highway, with premium fuel required. And because maximum torque doesn't appear until 4,000 rpm, Pathfinder surrenders some finesse in technically treacherous off-road circumstances.

Still, the Pathfinder SE-OR is a no-nonsense off-roader whose base sticker is an attractive $31,650. Although options will inflate the price swiftly to $38,090, as-tested, Nissan's original SUV remains a capable Top 40 contender.

Like any good outdoorsman, Honda has this knack for watching and waiting, lurking back, then springing the trap with products that it didn't invent yet 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 to think about is whether they really need serious off-roading hardware when less aggressive all-wheel-drive will suffice. If slippery roads and muddy driveways are the chief impediments, Honda's Pilot shaves costs without compromising versatility.

An all-wheel-drive Pilot EX-L NAV ("L" for leather; "NAV" for DVD navigation) 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, the farther rearward you sit, the more "sardine-ification" you suffer. And yet flip-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 a 244-horsepower V6 that imperceptibly shuts down three cylinders at every opportunity to achieve ratings of 18 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway, using regular. What Pilot lacks in moxie, then, it makes up for in ingenuity, much to its rivals' perennial chagrin.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2007, Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD

2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD front back
2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD front back
2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD back shot
2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD back shot
2007 Nissan Pathfinder SE-OR front
2007 Nissan Pathfinder SE-OR front
2007 Honda Pilot EX-L NAV front
2007 Honda Pilot EX-L NAV front