A California Highway Patrol officer waved a suspected speeder to the side of the road, prompting a convoy of trucks and SUVs to stop on the shoulder of a dusty, two-lane highway. He generously let them go, but a straggler, rushing to catch up with the rest of the pack, immediately crossed the sights of the CHP's radar gun and was picked off without mercy. The rest of the vehicles scampered away, sorry to have lost of one of their own but grateful to be continuing on their journey. Just another day during Truckin's Truck-and-SUV-of-the-Year testing.
This year we put the auto industry's newest and updated vehicles through their paces to see which truck, and which SUV, would rise to the top. Meet our candidates: On the truck side we have the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and it's siblings the new Chevrolet Avalanche and GMC Sierra; Ford's F-150 and redesigned Explorer Sport Trac; the Dodge Ram; and Nissan's Titan. In the SUV corner there is the redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe; the brand-new Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Nitro; the redesigned Ford Expedition EL; and the all-new Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Normally, we only test vehicles that are brand new or significantly redesigned for the 2007 model year. This formula broke down due to the fact that only GM had vehicles available that were new from the ground up. So we added more vehicles to the truck evaluation (the face-lifted Titan and F-150) and invoked a little known Truckin' rule that any vehicle with a truck bed is a truck (the Avalanche and Sport Trac). Every vehicle was an '07 except for the F-150, which was an '06. The reason for this is that the refreshed 2007 model was not ready, and we couldn't wait for it.
Our evaluation involved daily commuting, 1/4-mile acceleration and braking runs, and a three-day road trip. We rotated among each of the 12 vehicles over a two-week period, keeping score and taking notes of our impressions along the way. The road trip took us from our HQ in Anaheim, California, to Death Valley National Park; then to Whitney Portal in the Sierra Mountains; an off-road detour onto sandy dunes; and finally, home. This trek took us from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level in Badwater, Death Valley) to the trailhead for the highest point in the Lower 48 states (the 14,505-foot-tall Mount Whitney).
Overall, we logged approximately 1,300 miles on high-speed interstates, in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, along sparse two-lane highways, across straight and flat terrain, through windy mountain roads, and in outdoor temperatures that ranged from 58 to 100 degrees. Yes, there were mishaps in addition to our minor brush with the law, but none that the auto manufacturers who loaned us their vehicles for testing need to worry about: only two flat tires, and one mistakenly left behind editor, who snoozed during a roadside break. (Like we said before...just another day.)
Want to know which vehicles earned the monikers Truck of the Year and SUV of the Year? Then read on.
The Chevrolet Avalanche almost won Truck of the Year. Yes, it's based on the Tahoe, and while GM doesn't pigeonhole it into any particular category, we have a rule here that if it has a bed, it's a truck. The Sport Utility Truck concept was invented by Ford with the Explorer Sport Trac, and the Avalanche is an effective expression of that concept. The Avalanche takes the best of what the GMT900 platform has to offer and combines it with the versatility of a people-pleasing SUV and an open bed for hauling awkward cargoes, both connected by that handy midgate.
What we liked about the Avalanche is the fact that it still doesn't have that nasty plastic cladding anymore. We liked its bullet-like shape notched by the bed in the back. Yes, that behind slopes up and out-like J-Lo's after a weekend with Ben and Jerry-negatively impacting visibility, but luckily there was a rearview camera to help us back out of parking spots. The optional navigation system competed with Ford's as overall best among our testers, with DaimlerChrysler's system definitely third. The center console offered good storage, as did the side-bed storage that we used as a cooler during our track day. The new front suspension and five-link rear soaked up bumps pretty well. The brakes were strong. Dual-zone A/C and cushy seats felt great for long hauls.
What we didn't like was experiencing the 5.3L V-8 trying to push that 5,600-pound behemoth down the quarter-mile (it ranked last among the trucks) and on the road. And the Avalanche is somehow simultaneously easy to drive but wallows like a scow. We don't like its $46K price either-it's higher than the Sierra, which has a larger engine, larger bed, similar passenger space, navigation, etc. Perhaps the drawback of vehicles like this is that they try to be everything to everybody, resulting in a package that is certainly effective, but potentially bloated. Vehicles like this are certainly versatile and unconventional, and that latter point could be why they are still around.
We've had a lot of experience with Dodge trucks in the past year. The 1500 Mega Cab SLT won our Truck of the Year for 2006 and we've just written the last of our yearlong coverage of that vehicle. We also are currently driving a Cummins 2500 Mega Cab Laramie for a long-term evaluation. Therefore, in some ways, we felt right at home driving the 1500 Sport. One of the benefits, or curses, of driving this version was that we realized how spoiled, maybe even preoccupied, we had become with the Mega Cab's huge interior.
Sitting in the driver seat of the 1500 Sport, we couldn't tell much of a difference between it and its cousins. Here's why: That aggressive front-end design still screams "Ram;" we still appreciated the 5.7L Hemi-enabled ability to pull hard when the truck was full of people or towing; center console storage spaces were still huge; and it had the same no-nonsense overall interior design with cloth seats wrapped now in stain- and dirt-resistant material.
What distinguishes the 1500 Sport is its five-speed automatic transmission; body-color fascia and grille (in this case, painted a Brilliant Black glittered with metallic); 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels; and fog lamps. Available options are the same as the SLT trim level.The Ram got 14.03 mpg, which tracks with what we got from the Mega Cab 1500. This fuel economy is close to the Sierra with its larger engine, and the F-150's smaller one.
The downsides include the two-wheel, rather than four-wheel, ABS; front IFS that's not as smooth as GM's; a rear that still likes to bounce on the freeway; and second-row seats that are not as roomy as you would expect from a crew cab configuration.
One thing about this truck that became clear to us: It's like a hot-rod work truck. It has power and performance; it did great off-road (as one staffer put it, "If you can't Dodge it, Ram it"); and carries people and cargo confidently. But, when it comes to creature comforts, Rams lag a bit behind GM brands and to some degree Ford brands. It's a well-rounded competitor that really only stands out as having an aggressive aura. As another staffer put it, "It knows it's a truck." If you use it as nothing more than a truck, you'll like it even more.
Like the Chevrolet Avalanche, we decided that the SUT feature of attaching an open truck bed to the SUV makes the Explorer Sport Trac a truck.
Looking at it through that filter reveals a non-traditional vehicle. In fact, Ford thinks so, too. The company counts the unusual Honda Ridgeline as the Sport Trac's nearest competitor, although we would think that the Tahoe-based Avalanche would be on the Sport Trac's hit list. The Ridgeline is hardly setting the truck world on fire, but the Explorer may only be running neck-and-neck with the Ridgeline (and Avalanche) in unit sales as of third quarter this year.
Regardless, the Sport Trac has been a successful vehicle that launched the SUT segment; and it's been redesigned along the same lines as the 2006 Explorer SUV. In a way, the Sport Trac offers mid-sized pickup capability, albeit with a shorter bed, and the full benefits of a mid-sized SUV. It offers refinements in interior comfort, perceived quality, and ride quality that are similar to its Explorer ancestor. A first for the Sport Trac is the addition of Ford's 5.4L Triton V-8 to the choice of powerplants. This lends it more hauling capacity-1,500 pounds more than one equipped with a V-6. Ford's roll-abatement technology is standard as part of the traction/stability control suite, a handy safety feature. We like the tri-sectioned plastic tonneau, the adjustable bed extender, tie-downs, and small storage compartments in the bed-all serve to maximize the utility of the tiny bed.
But it didn't really keep up with the Avalanche, or any of the more traditional pickups in our field. The Avalanche was a closer contender for Truck of the Year, as the Sport Trac didn't accumulate enough points. Perhaps its body style had something to do with it. The vehicle's seemingly compact dimensions and the way that the bed is differentiated from the cab gives the body an off-balanced, toy-like appearance compared to the other trucks. It's not as unified-looking as the Avalanche. The interior appointments, while well-endowed, didn't appear as plush as you would expect from a Limited trim level. The seats felt too firm, although that may be indicative of us driving too much and not spending enough time walking or going to the gym for the two weeks we had these vehicles. The inside door handles are in an odd position, not offering the best leverage. The two-toned upholstery on the seats didn't look as classy as the buckets in the other vehicles. As one staffer indicated, it's hard to put a finger on why the Sport Trac didn't win. Most of us appreciated its utility, but were otherwise neutral about the vehicle, which might as well be a negative in a tough market.
If you ever wondered how competitive the truck market has become, take a look at the 2006 Ford F-150. We pointed out in our intro that normally we wouldn't have evaluated this truck because it hasn't been redesigned yet. But, we needed to beef up our story and thought it would be a great idea to include America's best-selling truck in the mix. Unfortunately, the somewhat refreshed '07 model was not available when we needed it, so we fell back on the '06. What a learning experience.
We touted the well-deserved merits of the newly redesigned F-150 just a few years ago, but, boy, how the market has changed. The F-150 may have set the standard, but almost every other truck we evaluated for this story had strong points that cast a harsh light on the now-tired F-150. We hope that the '07 F-150's changes-boost to a 10,500 lb max tow rating; cuts in price; and the addition of the FX2 and Harley-Davidson Super Crew models-will be enough to keep its numbers up until the redesign that might happen by 2008.
Our F-150 had a great interior and a nice ride, but was underpowered. It ranked just a step higher than the heavy and underpowered Avalanche on the quarter-mile. It's 5.4L got 14.08 mpg, which is slightly better than the Ram's 5.7L and a little worse then the Sierra's 6.0L. The King Ranch package is plush and distinctive in its styling, but we thought it worked better in the Super Duty we evaluated earlier in the year than in this model. Also, 2WD just doesn't jibe for the King Ranch's rugged-west motif, but we presume that Ford wouldn't offer it if nobody was buying it. Its brake performance stood in the middle of the pack; its cab was quietest; its interior was roomy but not the most; and its powertrain didn't stand out either. As it stands, our '06 F-150 King Ranch is more like an average truck, probably because everyone else has been gunning for it. Unfortunately, average is not quite good enough for today's tough fullsize market.
The redesigned GMC Sierra also was one of the strongest contenders for Truck of the Year. As the step-up brand in the GM truck line up, GMC tends to get crowded by Chevrolet both in the market and among our readership. But that doesn't mean that it isn't a worthy truck. It shares the same guts as the Silverado and is certainly built for work, but it's the truck that the owner of a construction company drives, while the Silverado is driven by one of the carpenters. And boy, doesn't that business owner live large.
Our tester was equipped with the Vortec Max 6.0L V-8 and four-speed transmission. It ran even with the Ram on the quarter-mile and stayed barely ahead of the Ram and F-150 in fuel economy. Its exhaust note was noteworthy whether the engine was idling (more like loping) or under load. The Sierra came with navigation-again, it's a toss up over whether the GM or Ford system was the best. Refinement of the interior tracks with the Silverado and Avalanche as far as quality and design, but it certainly takes interiors to the next level. Its seats topped the leather seats in the Silverado, Avalanche, and F-150 as far as comfort and their ability to smooth the rough edges of its leaf-sprung rear end. The pricey Bose audio system doesn't sound as good, or at least as loud, as the Titan's Rockford Fosgate setup-a shame when you consider its diversity of media playback options (CD changer, iPod jack, DVD in the back) and the fact that it's a $2,500 option. The exterior is certainly improved, but it is not as distinctive as the Silverado's and gets blown away by the upgraded Denali version.
Honestly, though, if you want a Sierra, then go for Denali. It's the ultimate expression of the Sierra; offers an exclusive powertrain and unmistakable appearance; and starts at $40K and ramps up sharply from there. That's a lot of dough, and if that makes you nervous, then you might want to consider sticking with a Chevy.
Always a bridesmaid but never a bride? The Nissan Titan is the reliable, plain-Jane friend to the pretty bride who has been asked to stand up front many times but has yet to garner her own engagement. A solid performer, the Titan was the fastest of our trucks in the quarter-mile and has the most useful interior room (especially in the back for cargo and passengers). The Titan comes with aggressive and sort-of-traditional body styling and possesses strong brakes and good maneuverability. We like the storage scheme in the center console; there is plenty of capacity there, including the "lip" that extends along the side of the console and abuts the front seats and catches dropped pens, coins, and French fries. The Titan and the Dodge were probably the best off-roaders in the group, thanks to their power and appropriate tires.
The domestic brands have defined what a fullsize truck is supposed to look like, so it's no surprise that it might take time for the Titan's body style-different, yet still aggressive-to grow on some of our staffers. But that's OK, it still has appeal...until you sit inside of it. The concept behind the spartan interior probably looked great on a designer's sketchpad, but its rendering in reality fell flat. The truck's interior is certainly functional but only passably interesting. The other trucks certainly pull ahead in this area. Now, the SE that we drove is the mid-tier trim level, so we weren't expecting a limo here. But, we have driven and seen Titans before and came away with the same impression. The wide A-pillar affects visibility a tad and creates extra wind noise, but the wide, blocky, side mirrors erase blind spots behind the driver. The Titan 5.6L got 10.79 mpg, abysmal when compared to the Ram's 14.03 mpg from its 5.7L.
The Titan offers no surprises, but then maybe we shouldn't expect much change since this is, for all practical purposes, the first generation of this truck. It is a well-intentioned, solid, meat-and-potatoes pickup. It certainly gets the job done. In a market where everyone can pretty much "get the job done," however, you need some sizzle to go along with that steak.
We might be making a relative judgment here. But in our opinion, the Silverado stands at the top of the heap. Now, this isn't based entirely on the technical merits of the truck, although that's a huge part. There is also the value proposition that the line presents, and the position of the Chevy brand in the market. The Silverado prices range from mid $23K to close to $45K, with five engine displacements that range from 4.3L to 6.0L (most run on gasoline and E85 and offer cylinder deactivation). The Silverado's offerings also include: a choice of two four-speed trannies, 2WD and 4WD; tow capacity of up to 10,500 pounds; two distinct "pure pickup" and luxury interiors; touchscreen navigation; satellite radio; rear seat DVD; power sliding rear window; standard traction/stability control; close tolerances between interior and body components; quieter cabs; ultrasonic rear parking assist; EZ lift tailgate; and more.
Our extended cab 1500 LTZ starts with nice standard features, but it wasn't packaged with many options. Its 5.3L V-8 put out it in the middle of the pack on the quarter-mile, but achieved a whopping 15.07 mpg-the best of the trucks. It drove well on the road, more than adequately off-road, and handled amazingly well for a fullsize truck.
The redesigned exterior combines Chevy's signature split grille with an assertive edge that looks cleaner and more refined then the Sierra (the Denali, though, takes that to the next level in both style and money), and certainly more so than the other trucks on the market. Its interior borrows the best from the luxury SUV models.
At the moment, the Silverado offers the widest range of capabilities on the freshest platform that exhibits the best-looking design for reasonable prices. Granted, the GMC is pretty close, but in our opinion you get enough from the Silverado and still walk away with some cash in your pocket. Plus, the Silverado is likely to have the greater impact on trends in the pickup market then the Avalanche or the GMC will, among both the OEs and the aftermarket. The Chevrolet Silverado is the Truckin' 2007 Truck of the Year.
The redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe almost won SUV of the Year. The Tahoe's styling looks more cohesive than before, with integrated bumpers and improved panel gaps that make it look like it could be an Escalade. Inside, its dash no longer looks like it belongs on a work truck. And, the Tahoe is extremely livable with features including: navigation (again, Ford and Chevy have good systems right now); satellite radio; auto-ride suspension; a rearview camera; rear-seat video entertainment; power liftgate; head curtain side airbags for all rows; and more.
The third row was actually comfortable for grownups, but only because the two captain's chairs in the second row of our tester made them easier to access and took up less space. Granted, the third row seats weren't as cush as the second row's, and legroom was more limited, so they are probably better suited for kids during road trips. The rear seats don't fold flat, although you can remove them to make room for cargo (not an ideal solution). Really, a better configuration might be to go with the 60/40 bench in the second row, and ditch the third, allowing you to carry five instead six passengers, but at least the expanded cargo space can be used without manhandling third row seats.
Our tester's 5.3L didn't fair so well in the quarter-mile (it did practically the same as the Expedition); and the mpg on this vehicle wasn't so hot, either. The Tahoe's tow rating is about the same as the Chrysler Aspen's, but is trumped by the Expedition, according to specs. It's a shame that you can't get the 6.0L with the Tahoe, but that's been reserved for the Suburban, which, apparently, is intended to be more the beast of burden for the Chevy line.
Any way you look at it, the Tahoe deserves to rake in lots of lucre for GM. The improvements endowed upon the Tahoe from the new GMT900 platform blow away its previous-generation and make it a powerful player in a very competitive segment.
Chrysler brand's first SUV-yes, really, its first-is based on the Dodge Durango. The Aspen, like its other cousin the Dodge Nitro, is primarily an attempt to keep brand-loyal customers from cross shopping. In this case, those would be the wealthier buyers who want an SUV decorated with higher-end cues such as: chromed accents; 20-inch wheels; ridged hood reminiscent of the Crossfire; Limited trim level with leather seats and faux wood; and more. The Aspen is supposed to complement the Pacifica and Town & Country. Chrysler touts this as the 300C of SUVs, as it tries to borrow from the design-heavy, bling-forward success of the sedan.
Aspen buyers get one trim package, the Limited, and a variety of features and options to choose from. These include a choice between two engines, the 5.7L Hemi and 4.7L V-8s with cylinder deactivation; and a five-speed transmission in 2WD and 4WD. Other features include three rows of seats; AM/FM radio; 6-Disc CD; Sirius; navigation; Alpine speakers; rear-seat DVD video entertainment; UConnect Bluetooth hands-free phone system; heated second-row seats; remote start; standard traction/stability control; side-curtain air bags; tire pressure monitoring; backing sensor; power rear liftgate; and more. Prices range from $30,745 to $41K.
If you understand the Durango, then you get the gist of the Aspen with some key differences. The Aspen is definitely trying to provide a plush and elegant alternative, and for the most part it delivers in that area. Its interior appointments are comfortable and well integrated. Accessories like the analog clock ensconced on the leather-lined dash evoke a sort of Swiss precision and Euro style. Staffers appreciated details like the girth of the leather and faux-wood steering wheel, ghost-blue LED interior lamps, and the living-room-like comfort. One staffer was attracted to it because it reminded him of the floaty ride in his classic 1970s Caddy.
The problem with the Aspen is that in some ways it's too deluxe and understated. It evokes the image of "your father's SUV." Our drivers felt completely disconnected from the road by the boat-like suspension and steering setup, despite the Hemi's assertive efforts to bridge that gap. Combine that with its lozenge-shape and an almost-generic expression of class, the Aspen evoked a kind of minivan vibe. In a way, the Aspen offers a better experience for passengers than for drivers. It's great for living in during a long haul; and the driving is not bad, but it's not great either. We would prefer the latter.
The Dodge Nitro's design polarized us almost as much as the FJ Cruiser's did, but with a decidedly more favorable result. This is Dodge's first mid-sized SUV, and it's based on the Jeep Liberty chassis. While the Nitro is a latecomer, it hardly slinks into the market so much as it powerslides-visually, anyway. Our R/T tester's 4.0L V-6 did propel it down the quarter-mile faster than the other SUVs in our test. But, while it is the Nitro line's performance model, it's no rabble-rouser. The R/T does sound like one, however, with its assertive exhaust note. It dresses like one, too, by sporting 20-inch wheels, body-color grille shell, fenders, etc.-all cut along the lines of its cousin, the Ram pickup truck.
Not all of the models look so good, though. The entry-level SXT bears a chrome grille and gray plastic fenders, bumpers and fascias, and sideboards that leave something to be desired. The only way to justify them is to remember the fact that the SXT starts at only $20,110 and maxes out at around $23K. The SLT thankfully swaps the gray plastics for body colors and retains the chrome grille, and starts at $23,295 and ranges up to about $32,500.
Our R/T tester, priced at $30,065, begins at $27,630 and ramps up to $33K. The SXT and SLT use a 3.7L V-6, while the R/T is powered by one that has been modified to 4.0L. Additionally, four- and five-speed auto, and six-speed manual trannies are available. Other available features vary depending on trim level, but notables include: stain- and dirt-resistant cloth buckets to leather seats; reclining and fold-almost-flat rear seats; rear-seat video; six-speaker to eight-speaker Infinity audio system; iPod interface; UConnect Bluetooth hands-free phone system; and a tow package (up to a respectable 5,000-pound capability). Dodge is definitely pushing the envelope with its MyGIG AM/FM/DVD/Sirius/Navigation/MP3 system that also packs audio and photos on a 29GB hard drive (unit unavailable at press time). The Load-and-Go slide-out cargo floor enables easier access to the Nitro's cargo area.
The Nitro's look is intended to run counter to the smooth, feminized lines common to many other SUVs on the market, but it's visual appeal crossed gender lines among most of the staffers who saw it, although one staffer (older than the predicted customer) didn't appreciate what he thought was an uncoordinated design.
Despite its targeted demographic of 25- to 45-year-olds earning up to $60,000 per year, the staffers on the younger and poorer end of that range were the ones that leaped for the keys first. They were lured by its exterior design, but their enthusiasm cooled a bit after spending a couple days in one. Its smallish interior cramped those of grand stature, however, and discouraged some others of average size-one staffer characterized it as sitting with his shoulder and face planted against a wall. The cloth seats were decidedly unimpressive. Luckily, the 20-inch wheels didn't ride poorly as we feared they might; and the R/T is relatively nimble and exhibits decent pep (although we would have expected more for 260 hp/265 lb-ft torque). That and the interior dimensions make for an adequate around-towner but a less-than-enticing road-tripper. Forget the 4x4 in its moniker. It may be based on a Jeep, but it doesn't try to be one. It offers a part-time 4WD, and full-time AWD (like our tester), that certainly give it some confidence in tough weather or an unimproved road, perhaps, but its low body components and the AWD didn't encourage anyone to drive multiple loops on our off-road course.
This vehicle does not offer the general-purpose utility of some of our other testers. Recent college grads will like it, but it might be a tougher sell to practical-minded 40-somethings. It's an interesting-looking SUV with an entry-level vibe.
Design polarizes. You wouldn't think that would be the case among folks like Truckin' editors. After all, we track all kinds of custom trends that swing automotive design between ecstatic heights and dismal depths without batting an eye, right? But all you need is a vehicle like the FJ Cruiser to prove that we're hardly sanguine about the aesthetic choices other people make. Some of us think that Toyota's re-imaging of the 1960 FJ40 looks like a turtle. One staffer suggested that the FJ Cruiser sport an urban camo paint scheme and dark tinted windows so he wouldn't be noticed while driving it. Other staffers appreciated what they saw as the FJ Cruiser's daring and retro design.
We can imagine the notoriously conservative execs in Toyota's global HQ white-knuckling their shots of sake on the day the FJ Cruiser hit dealerships. So far, however, the company claims it has sold 39,583 FJs as of October '06, which tracks with its expectations of 46,000 units in 2006. There have been surprises, such as the age of the buyers-many of whom are older than Toyota's target of outdoor adventurers aged 30 years and younger.
Based on the 4Runner's platform, the FJ is attempting to reclaim the off-road cachet of its predecessors-currently held by the likes of Jeep and relative newcomer Hummer. We don't know yet if it's successful there, but FJs are crowding the off-road scene right now (and the streets of trendy neighborhoods, at least in our home turf of Southern California). Whether that's a testimony to its off-road prowess or its stand-out styling, we can't say.
Disclaimer: Truckin' is not an off-road magazine and its staff are not experts at tackling very technical off-road courses. This is why we picked what we thought was terrain that wouldn't unnecessarily challenge anyone who was driving with forethought and hard-earned car-guy experience (relatively hard-packed sandy dunes and flatlands in this case). We toured the terrain a few times in the FJ, but its V-6 and ATRAC 4WD system didn't keep us from getting desperately stuck once where other vehicles were able to power through thanks to bigger engines and better tires. It was obvious to us that the FJ demanded greater knowledge of its, and our, limitations. Thankfully, the aftermarket is ramping up to provide plenty of upgrades that will likely make the FJ function better in the dirt.
On the road, all of us were put off by its blind spots. Form certainly trumped function in that the shape of the second-row and rear windows spiced the driving experience with a lack of side and rear visibility that forced us to rely less on our own driving prowess and more on the kindness of strangers driving around us on the highway. Accordingly, the backseats are claustrophobic and the back door handles are located in an awkward location that requires unnecessary feeling around. Overall, the interior feels larger than our smallish Dodge Nitro tester and, in some ways, is configured to appeal to similar customers. Cloth seats, iPod interface jacks, body-color dash and door panels, industrial-looking air vents and subwoofer enclosure are examples of the FJ's trendy, near-entry-level vibe, as is the less-than-$30K price.
Overall fit and finish is tight. And, the FJ rides as solidly as a vault, but its exterior style and some interior ergos somewhat compromise its drivability. So, while our staff concurs that you can't ignore the FJ Cruiser, not all of us agree that that is a good thing.
Ford built the Expedition EL to be the perfect family truckster, and that's exactly what it is. The fullsize SUV market is slipping, but those who still buy them feel that they need them to haul a gang of kids and their cargo. Redesigned and built on the F-150 chassis, this SUV is designed to do just that. It can tow up to 9,000-pounds-worth of toys to the lake and still manage to bring a few kids along (to help unload the boat, right?). That's the max for both versions of the Expedition, according to specs. Our 4WD tester pulls 8,750 pounds. Granted, the 5.4L barely stacks up to the Chrysler Group and GM mills that powered other testers, but the six-speed transmission, the only one in the bunch, helps. When you consider that the Suburban offers the 6.0L, Ford is really going to have to step up soon to stay in the game. As such, the 5.4L worked out just OK for the Expedition.
We liked the Expedition's sculpted body styling. It differentiates mightily from the Tahoe's and Aspen's comparatively plain vanilla-looking front ends and body lines, managing to look bold without going as far afield as the Nitro or the FJ Cruiser.
Our staff took to the plush and comfortable interior almost immediately, creating a constant psychic tug of war between the Expedition and Tahoe that the Expedition markedly won. The Aspen's interior was nice, too, but it never resonated like the Expedition's. And the FJ Cruiser and Nitro invested maybe too much of their mojo into attitude, and not enough on comfort (granted, 'tude may be enough for their target markets). The Expedition's angular shapes and odd textures of the plush interior differ from the smoother, swoopier approach in most of the other vehicles.
Taking a family on a road trip in this would almost be like putting wheels on a McMansion: You'd never have to leave the comforts of home. The air-conditioned seats can't be beat, but, the third row sacrifices cushion for fold-flat capability. The Expedition got points for extra attention to detail: Its cupholders accommodated any size of drink you might want; an iPod jack added more flexibility to the AM/FM/6-CD/Satellite/Navigation head unit; and power liftgate and power folding seats make loading cargo in the back a breeze. Automatic load leveling is an interesting feature for towers. The seating plan of the Expedition made it possible to seat a maximum of either 7 or 9 people. Of course the EL offers a lot more cargo space behind that third row.
The base Expedition starts at around $30K. The EL begins at $35K and prices up to around $52K (our tester was almost maxed out). Its closest contender in our match-up was the Tahoe, on the market and as the top two SUVs in our evaluation. Both vehicles quickly pulled ahead of the pack during the two weeks that we had these vehicles. Yes, the Expedition EL is larger than the Tahoe, but surprisingly that didn't make a difference. Both vehicles were similarly equipped and very closely priced, and whatever comparisons were made between the vehicles in evaluators' minds orbited around those factors. Once it became clear that the Expedition was the front runner, we stepped back and considered that the larger Expedition EL's price tag was actually lower than the Tahoe's. Maxing out all features on the build-and-price function of each vehicle's website still nets a slightly larger price for the Tahoe as compared to the EL. Even if we granted th Tahoe the lower price, we believe that the Expedition EL would still have the edge. Ford's Expedition EL is the Truckin' SUV of the Year.
Price (as tested): $37,079 without destination ($34,600 base, $3,379 options)
Engine: 5.3L V-8 with cylinder deactivation
Horsepower: 315@5,200 rpm SAE
Torque (lb-ft): 338@4,400 rpm SAE
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Drivetrain: Part-time 4WD, two-speed transfer case
Axle Ratio: 3.73
Suspension: Independent coilover shocks, monotube shock absorbers (f); solid-axle with semi-elliptic, variable-rate, two-stage multileaf springs, splayed shocks, monotube shocks (r)
Brakes: 12.99-inch rotor (f); 11.61 drum (r); 4-wheel ABS; traction/stability control
Wheels: 20-inch aluminum
Wheelbase: 143.5 in
Turning (Curb-to-Curb): 46.5 ft
Height: 73.7 in
Width: 79.9 in
Approach Angle: 16 deg
Departure Angle: 23.3 deg
Ramp-Over Angle: 19.3 deg
Minimum Ground Clearance: 9 in
Curb Weight: 5,265 lb base
GVWR: 7,200 lb
Max Trailer Weight: 7,000 lb
Payload: 2,013 lb
Cargo Bed (length x width between wheelwells): 78.7 in x 50.6 in
Acceleration (0-60 mph): 9.65 sec (adjusted to sea level value)
Quarter-Mile: 16.82 sec at 86.55 mph (adjusted to sea level value)
Braking (60-0 mph): 145.49 ft
MPG : 16/20 EPA, 15.07 as tested
Features & Options: LTZ Package that includes front and rear audio controls, dual headphone jacks, power outlet, Bose speakers with eight speakers and subwoofer, heavy-duty differential with automatic locking rear, 5.3L V-8 aluminum engine with cylinder deactivation, power-adjust and folding outside mirrors with heat and body-color and turn signal and driver's-side auto-dimming, two front and frame-mounted recovery hooks, remote start and keyless entry, heated leather front bucket seats with 12-way power adjust and driver memory, rear 60/40 bench, Heavy Duty Trailering (hitch platform, seven-wire harness with seven-way sealed connector, high-capacity air cleaner, external transmission oil cooler), universal home remote, heated windshield washer fluid, Rainsense automatic wipers, power slide rear window, 3.73 rear axle, 20-inch aluminum wheels, Safety Package, EZ liftgate, cargo management system, XM Satellite Radio, 5th wheel wiring.
Price (as tested): $50,260 without destination (base $42,575, options $7,685)
Engine: 5.4L Triton V-8
Horsepower: 300@5,000 rpm SAE
Torque (lb-ft): 365@3,750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drivetrain: 4WD with two-speed transfer case
Axle Ratio: 3.73
Suspension: Independent, double-wishbone, short- and long-arms design with coilover shocks, stabilizer bar (f); Independent, multilink design with coilover shocks, stabilizer bar (r)
Brakes: 343mm rotor (f); 334.5mm rotor (r), 4-wheel ABS, traction/stability control
Wheels: 20x8.5-inch chrome-clad aluminum
Wheelbase: 131 in
Turning (Curb-to-Curb): 43.93 ft
Height: 77.2 in
Width: 91.8 in
Approach Angle: 23.1 deg
Departure Angle: 20.1 deg
Ramp-Over Angle: 17.6 deg
Minimum Ground Clearance: 8.7 in
Curb Weight: 6,053 lb
Max Trailer Weight: 8,750 lb
Payload: 1,775 lb
Interior Cargo: 130.8 cu ft (behind 1st row, 2nd and 3rd rows folded), 85.5 cu ft (behind 2nd row, 3rd row folded), 42.6 cu ft (behind 3rd row)
Acceleration (0-60 mph): 9.86 sec (adjusted to sea level value)
Quarter-Mile: 16.91 sec at 77.84 mph (adjusted to sea level value)
Braking (60-0 mph): 145.79 ft
MPG: 14/19 EPA, 13.61 as tested
Features & Options: Daytime running lamps, power moonroof, Convenience Package (reverse sensing system, power adjustable system, sunvisor w/UGDO, power quarter flip windows), heavy duty trailer tow, navigation, electronic rearview mirror with microphone, power liftgate, Sirius Satellite Radio, 20-inch wheels, RR load-leveling suspension, rear-seat DVD video system.