Finalist: 2014 Buick Encore

By: Benson Kong

We Like: Eccentric, intriguing personality; amazing back seat.

We Don't Like: Button-palooza center stack. Needs an extra kick everywhere in the powerband.

You know that stupid friend of yours who's a magnet for mischief, but it's impossible not to love him anyway? He's like the Buick Encore, which Loh described as "super tall and goofy-looking," but there's plenty more to this SUV than meets the eye. The noggin-friendly cabin is high on wow factor and impressed everyone. The accommodating back seat makes the most of the 100.6-inch wheelbase. The Encore lays claim to the brand's second-best second-row legroom-to-wheelbase ratio, and the rear seat cushions intelligently flip forward to maximize cargo space when the back seat is folded (48.4 cubic feet). "Miraculous packaging makes the rear-seat area super comfy and roomy," said Markus.

Leggier drivers found the front footwell cramped. Strangely, the driver's seat power-adjusts for fore/aft position and lumbar support, yet the seatback rake is altered via a hand-cranked lever. Evaluators deemed the interior materials above average, but had mixed opinions on the very brown interior color.

There are way too many buttons on the center stack, and none juices up the wheezy 138-hp engine. The 1.4-liter turbo I-4 will never be mistaken for a Nailhead, and the six-speed transmission's wide individual gear steps didn't earn any fans. Even worse, the 9.4-second 0-60-mph time was accomplished with the front-drive Encore -- all indications point to the heavier all-wheel-drive version being even less sprightly.

At least it's quiet, which is expected with Buick QuietTuning touches including an acoustic-laminated windshield and spare tirewell sound-deadening. The ride is smooth, but still affected by the occasional heaving motions symptomatic of short-wheelbase vehicles.

Strong early demand for the Encore confounded the Buick corporate office, but the jury's still out on the efficacy of the $25-30K premium compact CUV segment. So the Encore receives the Heart of Gold award, just like the one your friend would get.

Buick Encore Premium FWD
Base price $24,950
Price as tested $29,735
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 1.4L/138-hp/148-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 138 hp @ 4900 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 148 lb-ft @ 1850 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 9.4 sec
Quarter mile 17.1 sec @ 79.5 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 113 ft
MT figure eight 28.2 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3193 lb (61/39%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 25/33 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 135/102 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.69 lb/mi

Finalist: 2014 Dodge Durango

By: Rory Jurnecka

We Like: Hugely spacious and modestly priced, with R/T power.

We Don't Like: Lacks refinement, has excessive road noise.

While not all opinions were unanimous about the Dodge Durango, there was one factor all the judges agreed on: The Durango is a true sport/utility vehicle by anyone's definition.

"It's refreshing to drive a real-live, go-anywhere, tow-anything, three-comfy-rows 'ute," opined Markus. Harwood: "This is a terrific compromise between crossover needs and SUV needs."

Yes, the Durango proved a strong contender, breaking into the finalists' camp by virtue of its honest, hard-working nature. And for such a large three-row SUV, it was surprisingly good to drive.

"More planted on the road than the Jeeps, due to the longer wheelbase and more stable ride," remarked Loh. True enough, the Durango shares a platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, stretched a few inches in order to accommodate a third row of seats. But while several judges preferred the more relaxed, planted ride of the Durango to that of its Jeep cousin, there was plenty we wished Jeep would share with the Dodge. Even the rear BluRay entertainment systems in our Citadel and R/T testers couldn't make up for an interior that was markedly cheaper, less refined, and noisier once the SUV was underway. That said, the wholly usable third row (even for adults) and easy rear-seat access make the Durango a great choice for parents and others who require plenty of people-hauling capability.

Moreover, the 2014 Durango finally loses its five-speed for a new ZF eight-speed automatic. Paired to the Pentastar V-6 in the Citadel version, the Durango shifted quickly on its own, but not all judges were impressed with the responsiveness of the manual-mode paddles. The R/T and its firmer suspension showed a little better control when the going got twisty.

Unfortunately, the Durango's lack of refinement kept it from top honors this year. We're left to wonder what the Durango could be with a little more of the Jeep's polish.

Dodge Durango R/T Dodge Durango Citadel AWD
Base price $39,990 $44,390
Price as tested $46,570 $49,575
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, RWD, 6-7-pass, 4-door SUV Front-engine, AWD, 6-7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L/360-hp/390-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8 3.6L/290-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 8-speed automatic 8-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 360 hp @ 5150 rpm 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 390 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm 260 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 6.6 sec 8.0 sec
Quarter mile 15.0 sec @ 93.2 mph 16.1 sec @ 86.9 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 127 ft 127 ft
MT figure eight 27.9 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) 27.9 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 5234 lb (50/50%) 5125 lb (49/51%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 14/23 mpg 17/24 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 241/147 kW-hrs/100 mi 198/140 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 1.14 lb/mi 0.99 lb/mi

Finalist: 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

By: Ron Kiino

We Like: Value proposition, V-6 refinement, quiet cabin.

We Don't Like: Stubborn to downshift; midlevel dynamics.

Wait, didn't the all-new Hyundai Santa Fe participate in the 2013 competition? Well, yes and no. Last year's vehicle was the two-row, five-passenger Santa Fe Sport, built in West Point, Georgia, and offering a 6A with your choice of two I-4s: a 2.4-liter making 190 hp and a 2.0-liter turbo dishing out 264 hp. The Santa Fe you see here, while bearing a striking resemblance to its smaller Sport sibling, replaces the slow-selling Veracruz and thus comes as a three-row, six- or seven-passenger crossover that hails from Ulsan, Korea, and uses a 3.3-liter, 290-hp DI V-6 paired to a 6A. So, one pod, two very distinct peas.

One claim they do have in common is neither won the prized Golden Calipers. For the sans-Sport Santa Fe, the reasons were simple: a lack of low-end grunt, a 6A that was stubborn to drop gears, clumsy and vague handling when driven aggressively, and second-row captain's chairs that developed worrisome squeaks and rattles after just two days of evaluation. Reynolds noted positives after the figure-eight test, but left disappointed following the road drive: "All in all, I'm a bit let down after doing the figure eight, where it felt solid, all of a piece. On the road, it felt clumsy at times and vague and a lot more like an assembly of parts than a unified whole." Lieberman logged, "There are at least three other seven-passenger SUVs that do a better job than the Santa Fe: the Mazda CX-9, Dodge Durango, and Nissan Pathfinder."

Still, there was plenty to admire in the new Santa Fe. Most judges found the interior serene, even eerily so. In fact, we were hard-pressed to notice a discernible difference in cabin quietness from the upmarket MDX. Further, we lauded the refinement of the V-6, the model's impressive content and overall value (a base FWD GLS starts at $29,455; our loaded AWD Limited cost $38,990), and the interior's quality, ease of use, and space.

But when you're not even best in segment, it's impossible to be Sport/Utility of the Year.

Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD
Base price $35,955
Price as tested $38,990
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 6-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.3L/290-hp/252-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 252 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 7.3 sec
Quarter mile 15.8 sec @ 89.1 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 125 ft
MT figure eight 28.4 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4291 lb (55/45%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 18/24 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 187/140 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.96 lb/mi