Reader Question: SUV Options?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Rob asks: I’ve heard you over the years on the Tom Woods show. We’re in the market for an SUV and have narrowed it down to an Explorer, Pathfinder or Wrangler Unlimited. I had a 2004 Ranger 2WD and ended up trading it in for a 2011 Suzuki Equator 4WD (basically the Frontier) and we also have a 2015 Rogue. I waited for the new Ranger but after seeing the size (and price tag) the SUV makes more sense. We would probably lease the Wrangler and see how we liked it after 3 years. I’m comfortable with Ford and Nissan product because of experience but is there any other SUV out there you would recommend I add to the list?

My reply: You included the (current, I assume) Explorer and Pathfinder on your list and – as I’m sure you know – neither of these are really SUVs like the Wrangler but rather are crossover SUVs – meaning they’re built on a lighter-duty/car-type FWD (AWD optional) platform rather than a heavier-duty truck-type RWD (4WD optional) platform. The Explorer and Pathfinder do not offer a two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing and aren’t meant for serious off-road work, as the Wrangler, et al are very much capable of dealing with (assuming ordered with 4WD, etc.).

But this is neither a bad thing nor a good thing. Just a different thing. A FWD/AWD crossover may suit your needs better than a RWD/4WD SUV. Or the reverse. To figure out which is the case, here are two questions for you:

Is most of your driving on pavement?

Do you need a vehicle that can comfortably tow 5,000 lbs. or more?

If the answer to the first is yes then you probably don’t need a truck-based SUV. In fact, the crossover is arguably the better choice, for a variety of reasons. One, in FWD form it will give you much better traction on pavement than a RWD SUV. To get decent wet/snow traction from an SUV, you almost have to buy 4WD.

With a crossover, you only have to buy a set of good snow tires. Much cheaper.

Two, the crossover will handle much better – especially when driven fast – and especially with AWD, which is designed to be a handling aid on dry pavement as well as a traction aid on dry and wet pavement. Truck-type 4WD is designed for traction – in a straight line and at lower speeds. On wet/snow-covered pavement. It is not meant to improve high speed handling grip. You should not even engage the 4WD on pavement most of the time, unless it is wet or snowing.

Three, the SUV will be heavier and probably use more gas. It will also have less interior/cargo room relative to a crossover of the same overall size.

If the answer to the second question is yes – or you just want a truck-based SUV – then you should be shopping for a truck-based SUV. There are a few crossovers that are rated for 5,000 lbs. but that is their maximum; many are rated for 3,500 lbs. Few, if any, can comfortably pull a 5,000-lb. load because most haven’t got the frame to do so. They aren’t built heavily enough to handle the torsional strain.

I mention all of the above as groundwork – and to possibly open up some other options for you.

I like both the Wrangler and the Pathfinder – even though they are very different kinds of vehicles. The Wrangler (in Trail Rated/4WD form) is an immensely capable off-roader but it is a rougher/noisier vehicle than the Pathfinder and – of course – does not offer a third row. The Pathfinder is much more on-road friendly, too.

Have you considered a Jeep Grand Cherokee? This would be a strong contender were I in your shoes and wanted a real SUV. The GC combines tremendous capability with tremendous civility. It is a very pleasant vehicle to drive that can also be driven almost anywhere. Plus, it is available with a V8 – not offered in either the Wrangler or the Pathfinder. 

Another recommend: Subaru Ascent. This one comes standard with arguably the best AWD system on the market and is also immensely capable  as far as dealing with snowy weather but without the downsides of a 4WD SUV. It also has three-rows and the seating capacity you may need.

Hope this helps – and keep us posted!

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Purchased a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, new, about 3 months ago. Worst mistake ever in a new car purchase.
    Seats, OK new but at just three months I can’t stand more than an hour drive. The seat foam either stiffened or compressed, bottom is hard now, the LH seat back bolster digs into my side/back to the point of soreness. I’m 6-1 and 215 lbs, not a huge guy. Fit and finish are a throwback to the 80’s, already had a interior A pillar trim replaced (warped) and the exterior has several mis fit trim pieces that I should have caught prior to delivery. Door and fender alignment not up to modern standards. Not just mine, start looking – any newer GC is a mis fit mess. Handling, it is a tramlining nightmare on grooved freeways, poor on center control in the wind. V6 does have adequate power and good mileage, money saved can pay for my LH kidney replacement. I never should have traded my 2005 Grand Cherokee, THAT was an all day comfortable driver with great handling.

  2. I’d check out the Jaguar F-Pace.

    The V6 can tow 6000 pounds and has active trailer management. The 4-cyl can pull only slightly less depending on HP version you get.

    And it starts around the same price as the others and is a better vehicle and every one of your choices. It also has Land Rover’s AWD system which is best of class and is RWD by default for better handling on dry pavement and only engages AWD when needed.

    First vehicle I’ve had that I actually still like after 2 years of driving it.

    • Good stuff, James – thanks for the input! I didn’t include any luxury-badged vehicles in my reply but you’re right – the price disparity isn’t what it once was.


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