As Americans, we ask a lot out of our family vehicles. But none exerts itself harder than the full-size, three-row SUV. These seven- and eight-seat SUVs are tasked with shuttling family members to school, jobs, and sports practice during the week. On the weekend, these workhorses support our hobbies—from towing horses or boats on trailers to taking us down remote two-tracks to our favorite hiking or hunting spots. While we play, they work even harder.
Because of the honeydew lists we place upon these big family SUVs, manufacturers build ’em tough. They typically feature big V-8 engines, four-wheel drive, and full-size pickup-based platforms. Given how many jobs we expect these SUVs to do, our testing will ask more of ’em, too. On top of the usual criteria—you know, driving, riding, and handling, plus the ability to comfortably swallow at least seven passengers and their cargo, all without breaking the bank—we’re also going to ask our trucks to tow a trailer loaded with Honda Pioneer side-by-sides aalthough nd complete a rough-and-tumble off-road obstacle course.
Our invite criteria was pretty simple: three rows of seats inside, a minimum towing capacity of 7,000 pounds, four-wheel drive, and a $65,000 price cap, which, shockingly, is about the average transaction price for this segment.
The SUV most synonymous with this segment is the Chevrolet Tahoe and its extended-length twin, the Suburban. The undisputed segment best-seller, the Tahoe (and the virtually identical GMC Yukon) has been continually improved since the current generation made its debut three years ago. Our 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe 4WD LT started its life as a midlevel model but is loaded with options, including the Z71 Midnight Edition package, which adds off-road tires, an off-road-oriented suspension, a revised front bumper, black paint, and some decals. Our four-wheel-drive Tahoe is powered by the standard 5.3-liter V-8 paired with a six-speed automatic.
It’s tough living in the shadows, but Ford has done its best to ensure the new-for-2018 Expedition gets its chance at the spotlight. Our 2018 Ford Expedition XLT 4×4, like all new Expeditions, is built with lessons learned developing the best-selling, Truck of the Year–winning Ford F-150. Its sleek new sheetmetal is made of aluminum, and under the hood it sports a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission and optional all- or four-wheel drive—our tester is equipped with the latter.
Big full-size SUVs aren’t just an American thing; Toyota has been playing in the segment since 2000 with the Sequoia. Although largely unchanged since it made its debut in 2008, Toyota gave it a handful of updates for the new year. Our 2018 Toyota Sequoia TRD Sport 4×4 is the newest trim level, and it, like the rest of the lineup, gets LED headlights and some infotainment updates this year. Despite the Sequoia’s new nose, under the hood it soldiers on with a 5.7-liter V-8 paired with a six-speed auto and optional four-wheel drive.
Nissan has also been a player in the segment with the Armada. The second-gen Armada just arrived Stateside in 2016, but it has been hiding in plain sight on American streets since 2010 as the Infiniti QX56 (now called the QX80) and globally as the utilitarian Nissan Patrol off-roader. The U.S.-spec Armada is a hodgepodge of the two, sporting the latter’s sheetmetal and the former’s interior and engine, a beastly 5.6-liter V-8 mated to a seven-speed automatic. Our tester is a loaded 2018 Nissan Armada Platinum model equipped with optional four-wheel drive.
And that brings us to our final contender. A Big Test needs to be just that, so to round out our field, we invited an SUV that artfully straddles the line between full-size crossover and full-size SUV. Our 2018 Dodge Durango 4 R/T is just slightly bigger than many midsize crossovers and slightly smaller than these full-size SUVs. (Its wheelbase is actually significantly longer than the Tahoe’s, but it’s about 2 inches shorter in overall length). The only SUV not built in the old-school body-on-frame fashion, our Durango tester features the optional 5.7-liter V-8 sending power through an eight-speed automatic and a four-wheel-drive system borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
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RIDE AND HANDLING
With two weeks of extensive testing to tackle, we kicked things off with our real-world evaluation loop, which includes city streets, highway speed stretches, twisty roads, and sections of asphalt so bad that the county is continually attempting to repave it. Basically, it’s just about everything these SUVs would have to tackle in a given month in a tidy 21-mile stretch of coastal SoCal.
The differences between the five SUVs were readily apparent from the get-go. The Chevrolet Tahoe feels every bit as truckish as the Silverado platform it rides on. Although the Tahoe isn’t the only SUV here riding on a pickup platform (the Sequoia and Expedition ride on ladder frames based on those of the Tundra and the F-150), it’s the only one to use a pickup’s live rear axle, meaning both rear wheels share an axle, and thus any impact felt by one tire also affects the other. At least it swaps the pickup’s leaf springs for better riding coils.
Typically used in pickup trucks because their inherent strength outweighs the ride-quality penalty the design suffers, its appearance in the Tahoe is likely a cost-savings measure that negatively affects its ride and handling. The Tahoe’s rear-axle design makes the SUV feel stiff—though compliant—and busy while going down the road. The optional off-road tires don’t do the Chevy’s steering any favors through corners, either; they trade numb steering feel in favor of aggressive tread for off-road use.
If the Tahoe is on the harsh end of the ride spectrum, then the Nissan Armada is on the soft end. The Armada’s ride is mostly supple and floats over most impacts, only hobby horsing on harsher, repetitive bumps. The soft suspension does, however, mean that the Armada leans a ton through corners, sending unsecured cargo flying as the Nissan rounds bends.
The happiest SUV in corners by far is the Dodge Durango. The steering wheel in our sport-oriented R/T tester is direct and communicative, letting you know what the front tires are up to right up until you push things a little too far and the Dodge eases you back with a hint of gentle understeer. The Durango’s ride is pretty great, too. Although it feels stiffer than the Tahoe, it dispatches bumps in a one-and-done manner. "Definitely the sportiest in the group,” associate road test editor Erick Ayapana said. "Not surprising given it’s the smallest and most nimble of the bunch.”
The Ford falls somewhere between the Dodge and Chevy on the stiff end and Nissan on the soft end of the ride and handling spectrum. Equipped with an optional off-road-oriented package featuring an off-road tire, it suffers from far fewer ride and handling trade-offs than the Tahoe. "It has impressive body control,” associate editor Scott Evans said. "There’s surprisingly little body roll for such a large vehicle, and it rolls over onto the outside wheels smoothly every time.” The Expedition handles pretty well, too, with accurate but not talkative feedback from the wheel.
SUVs in this segment have come a long way on the ride and handling front—something we were all reminded of once we took our first turns in the Toyota Sequoia. The big Toyota has soldiered on without any significant changes for a decade, putting it far behind the rest of the pack in automotive development. The Sequoia’s steering requires constant corrections to stay centered in a straight line. It doesn’t get any better through turns, either. "Driving this reminds me how bad Toyota steering used to be; it’s way overboosted with extremely vague on-center feel,” news editor Alex Nishimoto said. Fortunately for the Toyota, it rides acceptably, though executive editor Mark Rechtin noted that there’s "a lot of side-to-side shudder with a lot of head toss over very minor bumps in the road.”
The performance formula for SUVs in this class used to be pretty simple: big, lazy V-8 paired with a four- or five-speed transmission. My how things have changed.
The biggest departure from yesteryear can be found under the hood of the new Ford Expedition. Ford ditched its 5.4-liter V-8 late in the previous-generation Expedition’s life in favor of its EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6, and the Blue Oval doubled down on its commitment by pairing the newest version of the EcoBoost V-6, now churning out 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque, with a 10-speed automatic transmission. The benefits of the new powertrain coupled with the weight savings of its aluminum body panels mean the Expedition was among the quickest in our test, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.2 seconds and needing 14.8 seconds to get through the quarter mile at 91.7 mph. You’ll never miss a V-8 with this engine; it’s responsive and has a big, meaty torque curve. The gearbox is great, too, shifting almost imperceptibly in the background and always choosing the right gear.
source : motortrend.com