Because not everyone wants a minivan, sport/utility vehicles have assumed the mantle of all-purpose family expeditor. There's a special breed of full-size SUV out there with three rows of seats, a truck-based ladder frame, V-8 power, a macho stance, and a tractor-beam tenacity to tow something really, really big. Oh, and don't forget four-wheel drive, even though most of these big rigs will go to their second owners without low range ever being engaged.

The point is, you would if you could, but you won't if you don't have the hardware for that life-defining remote rendezvous. We're talking battlestars here. Whether you define adventure as parasailing off El Capitan or visiting the jump house in Uncle Milt's driveway, a well-kitted utility wagon can come in handy. Three-hour fertilizer sale across town? Bring it on. Running cupcakes to the season finale peewee football game? Got it covered. Sunday family drive to Stuckey's for Moon Pies? What's in those things anyway?

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when the only full-size utility wagons were the Chevy/GMC Suburban and the International Travelall, the emphasis was more Sears & Roebuck than Abercrombie & Fitch. Families sweated it out on prairie-flat bench seats, played Chinese Checkers, or sang "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." But today's buyers expect large SUVs to offer all the latest conveniences and sophistication cars do--perhaps even more so, considering the average $40K-plus price point.

We gathered three of the top-selling and two of the newest entries in this specialized segment for a road trip. Our two-week evaluation would take us over icy mountain passes, across sandy desert dunes, deadheading down mind-numbing Interstates, threading through freaky freeway gridlock, and parking in even scarier shopping-mall lots. Here's what we found.

Fifth Place: Chevrolet Tahoe LT
Our last-place finisher has passed its freshness date. Now in its fifth year, the Chevy Tahoe is the oldest of the five full-sizers tested. Practical and unpretentious, the Tahoe still tops the full-size SUV sales charts. But other, fresher designs are gaining fast.

Bumper to bumper, the Tahoe measures about a foot and a half shorter than Chevy's super-size Suburban sport/utility, making it considerably easier to fit in a garage. Third-row seating was added as a Tahoe option with the 2000 redesign. Adults in the third row must make do with tilt-your-noggin'-to-one-side headroom, knee-scraping legroom, and a short cushion that makes you feel you're stuck beyond reach of the cranberry sauce at the kids' table. Getting in and out requires stepping on the lumpy, thinly padded backs of the folded second-row seats. Put the kids or adults you don't like in the aft section.

As a five-seater with 63.6 cubic feet of cargo space, the Tahoe works just fine. The Chevy's tall, boxy shape results in generous interior space. Fold the second-row seat cushions forward and the second-row seatbacks down, remove the 50/50 split third-row bench, and you can create a 104.6-cubic-foot bowling alley. The Tahoe's best dynamic qualities are its quiet cabin and settled highway ride.

As one staffer writes, "If I were considering a lot of long-distance Interstate driving, the Chevy would be on my short list." It cruises well. In 965 miles of driving, the 5050-pound Tahoe test vehicle averaged 15.7 mpg--the best of the bunch. But in the cut and thrust of suburban motoring, the Tahoe's numb and sloppy recirculating-ball steering reminded us of how imprecise super-size utility vehicles used to be when turning. There's lots of disconcerting body roll, too. The Tahoe's brakes, upgraded in 2004 from solid to vented rear discs, manage to feel mushy and require extra pedal effort at the end of a stop.

The interior of the Chevy is its greatest disappointment. Despite front seats that staffers ranked high for comfort and support, GM cost accountants showed little mercy as they nickeled and dimed other Tahoe fitments. With toylike switchgear and cheesy plastic material choices, the build quality of the rest of the cabin doesn't measure up to $40K expectations.

Packed to the gills with options such as a Bose stereo with six-CD in-dash changer, OnStar communications, XM Satellite Radio, power-adjustable pedals, first- and second-row leather seating, electric sunroof, trailering package, side-impact airbags, and much more, our Tahoe stickered out at $46,575, several thousand dollars pricier than the other test vehicles. For that kind of money, we'd like our Tahoe to have had butt-saving features such as StabiliTrak dynamic stability control (extra cost) and head-curtain airbags (not available).

Midpack among our five-way group in acceleration, braking, lateral grip, and just about every measure of performance, the Tahoe neither embarrassed nor distinguished itself at the track. But the generic Chevrolet shape's getting a bit stale, and, despite the fact that the Tahoe remains a strong seller, we think there are competitors that offer a higher level of driving enjoyment, a better-crafted cabin, and more features for the dollar.

Fourth Place: Ford Expedition NBX
Our fourth-place finisher, the Expedition has a nicely crafted interior, some inventive seat-configuration solutions, and four-wheel independent suspension. The exterior design of the Expedition is tasteful and understated with a strong family resemblance to the midsize Explorer. The Expedition was overhauled from stem to stern for the 2003 model year.

Ford markets this SUV as a step-up vehicle for buyers moving from Explorers and other midsize 'utes. Climbing aboard (literally, courtesy of the runningboards standard on most trim levels), passengers are treated to a roomy, well-kitted cabin. As one staffer puts it, "The Expedition's interior is fluid and attractive, not overly stylish, and everything's well-placed and useable." Editors generally gave the Ford high marks for seating comfort and material choices. "Seems screwed together well," says one. Classy flourishes such as the round metallic-look dash-panel vents and thoughtful touches like the large bins in the console garnered praise, while the seemingly out-of-sync manual recline lever on the power front seats come in for some criticism.

The Expedition is the only full-size in our test group with six-foot-adult accommodations in every row of seats. A three-passenger third-row seat is standard. Simply depress a single lever at the rear of the second-row seat cushion, and the seatback tilts down and the cushion flips forward in a single fluid movement. Access to the third row is ample. The big Ford will carry up to nine passengers when equipped with the base XLS trim 60/40-split front bench seat.

That largess does have a penalty: the Expedition is the heaviest among our group by some 400 pounds. Combine that mass with the second-lowest horsepower of the five, and performance will suffer. Around town, the Ford's ample low-speed torque is more than enough to deal with the ebb and flow of traffic. But when challenged to merge onto a fast-moving freeway or pass a large vehicle on a winding two-lane highway, the 5.4-liter makes more noise than thrust.

We figured that the big Ford's new independent underpinnings would give it an edge against its full-size SUV competitors. One look at the gorgeous aluminum lower control arms on the front and rear suspension dispels any notion that the Expedition is old-school utility. One editor reports, "On well-paved suburban lanes, the ride is smooth, yet roll and bounding are well-controlled. The suspension communicates what's going on underfoot, too." The Expedition's steering and brakes also were praised for their responsiveness and crispness. But as roads become twistier and bumpier, the Ford starts to feel heavy and chassis communication gets intrusive with the sounds of the suspension going about its work. A sport sedan it is not.

The Expedition is at its best in cruise mode as an all-weather shuttlecraft probing the outer reaches of suburbia. Ford's full-size SUV offers class-exclusive features, such as a second-row seat with a Centerslide middle section that allows parents to move that portion of the seat forward to tend to a child in a safety seat. A Powerfold option for the third-row seats raises or lowers the seatbacks flat to the floor with the flick of a switch.

The Expedition NBX replaces last year's FX4 Off-Road package and basically dresses a midlevel XLT with tubular step bars, skidplates, high-pressure Sachs shocks, heavy-duty floormats, chromed steel wheels, and the larger of Ford's two Triton V-8s. The Expedition, though heavy, underpowered, and outgunned in several other areas, remains a nice piece, and the power third-row seat thing is trick.

Third Place: Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE
If there's a full-size SUV equivalent of an NBA power forward, it might just be the all-new Pathfinder Armada. Large, imposing, and unconventional, the Armada is the Dennis Rodman of SUVs. Like the "Pierced One," the Armada isn't shy about itself. It's built big, looks big, feels big, and, come time to squeeze into a tight parking spot, is big. From road to roof and bumper to bumper, the new Nissan is the biggest SUV in our comparo. Thank goodness for the Armada's standard rear-proximity sensors (optional on some competitors) that beep ever more fervently the closer the SUV's rear bumper comes to committing a parking-lot foul.

With its plus-size flanks, toothy grimace, and rotund roof, Nissan's new full-size SUV is about as subtle as the Spanish Armada in Biscayne Bay. Its looks are polarizing. One editor dubbed the Armada "fresh and bold," while another compared its profile with "an armadillo protruding from a lean-to."

Big outside means big inside, too. The cabin is tall and wide with generous-sized chairs, standard three-row seating, and a forward-thrusting cab-forward windshield. Not only are the driver and front passenger treated to the big easy; the three-passenger second-row seats offer near limousine-like spaciousness. Less so, the third row, which provides marginal head- and legroom. Large storage pockets populate the Armada's interior, on the doors, center console, dash top, and rear-quarter trim panels. More compartments bedeck the headliner all the way into the third-seat area. The problem with these and most of the rest of the interior is the preponderance of hollow-resonating hard plastic.

We expected big things from Nissan's first-ever full-size SUV. After all, Nissan's been able to take a long, hard look at the market, noting what manufacturers have aced and what they've been stubbing their toes on. The Armada shares most of its underpinnings (except the rear suspension), dash, windshield, and front-end sheetmetal with the equally Brobdingnagian Titan pickup.

Under the hood is the best engine/transmission duo in the full-size segment. The published 305 horsepower of the Armada's all-aluminum DOHC 5.6-liter V-8 feels more like 350. Much credit goes to the standard five-speed automatic that serves up buttery-smooth shifts and gives the Armada a lower first gear and smaller steps between gears than the four-speed boxes in most of the other rigs. The well-placed cogs mean the Armada is less likely to get caught flat-footed. Throttle response is awesome, with mountains of torque and a great-sounding exhaust rumble just a toe-tap away. It's as if the Armada came straight from the factory with an aftermarket- tuner's touch and a big bag of whoopass. In our testing, the Nissan charged from rest to 60 mph nearly a full second quicker than the next fastest competitor, the Dodge Durango. Even in towing capacity, the Armada is tops at 9100 pounds.

But the Armada feels rough around the edges. As a staffer notes, "The ride quality is jouncy and impact harshness sharp." While some editors like the directness of the steering, others bemoan the "numb and mushy brakes." Though the Armada proved second best in overall stopping ability in our tests, the binders' nonlinear feel was an issue in real-world driving. Chassis quake was another bugaboo; on uneven road surfaces, chassis noise was significant. Over rougher sections of road, the doors actually banged against their strikers. Excessive wind noise around the door glass was yet another negative as the weather stripping lost its seal at speed. Did we mention ergonomic flaws or the squeaks, rattles, and buzzes emanating from the acres of hard-plastic trim?

The noise, vibration, and harshness shortfalls are unfortunate, because the Armada offers a lot of value for the dollar. Our SE-trim 4x4 came standard with such items as 18-inch alloy wheels, rear-proximity sensors (the only SUV in this group to make them standard), dynamic stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, three-row seating, an overhead console for all three rows, adjustable pedals, front-seat side-impact airbags, full-length head-curtain airbags, gated shifter, runningboards, six-disc in-dash CD player, and lots more. Yet it costs thousands of dollars less than many of its comparably equipped competitors. And it's the only full-size SUV available with a choice of XM or Sirius Satellite Radio.

We love that the Armada is going straight for the sudden-death overtime three-pointer with power, attitude, and serious chutzpah. But until Nissan finesses some of the NVH issues, we're staying on the sidelines.

Second Place: Toyota Sequoia SR5
Finesse, Toyota be thy name. Sometimes it's the quiet ones that you have to watch for. The Sequoia first came on the scene in 2001, quickly eclipsing Toyota's long-standing SUV flagship, the Land Cruiser. The Tundra-based Sequoia has racked up its share of accolades in the ensuing years from product-ranking services such as J.D. Power and IntelliChoice.

Parking a Sequoia in your driveway isn't likely to draw many curious onlookers. Nor will a dry-cleaning run empty out a nearby Starbucks. Inside and out, the Sequoia is generic Toyota. If you like the down-home look of Camrys and Tundras, the Sequoia won't disappoint. There are no nasty surprises; just solid, take-it-to-the-bank Toyota goodness.

The key is product development and superb execution. Even though the Sequoia is the second-oldest SUV in this comparo, it nails second place without working up a sweat. Its specifications--fully welded and boxed ladder frame, double-wishbone front suspension, multilink coil-spring suspension with a live rear axle--could describe any number of its competitors' SUVs. It's not so much the pieces as the way Toyota puts them all together.

Thanks to a cacophony-free cabin (tied with the Durango for quietest in our testing), Lexus-quality ride comfort, as well as pleasantly balanced and predictable road handling, the dark-horse Sequoia earned more editorial praise as the miles piled on. Notes one staffer, "The Sequoia shifts smoothly and corners with composure and tenacity." Another says, "Although the Sequoia's 4.6-liter V-8 has the smallest displacement of the bunch, it's happy to work hard and likes to rev quickly when asked to." In our testing, the Sequoia's grippy Dunlop AT20 Grandtrek tires helped the large SUV best its competitors in lateral grip and stopping distance.

The Toyota's driving environment also received generally high marks. Cushioning on the Sequoia's standard power front seats was noted for its comfort. One staffer comments that "the wipers, cruise-control stalk-mounted on the steering wheel, and dual-zone electronic climate-control buttons are fingertip close, and the carlike dash design won't intimidate those not accustomed to piloting large trucks." The only quibbles regarded a lack of rearward travel for the front seats and hard-to-reach audio system buttons. Otherwise, premium-grade materials and good assembly quality predominate.

Moving aft, the Sequoia's third seat is snug on headroom and even stingier with legroom. But the Sequoia is the only SUV in our test group with third-row seats that slide fore and aft to help owners apportion people and cargo space as needed. The 50/50 split third seats can be removed to gain maximum space.

At a base price of $35,155, the SR5 4x4 offers a generous level of standard equipment and some crowd-pleasing traditional features such as a power roll-down liftgate window, a power-retracting radio antenna, and an honest-to-goodness floor-mounted transfer-case lever on four-wheel-drive models that may be unavailable elsewhere.

Now in its fourth year, the Sequoia may not be the flavor of the month nor the hottest performer, but it does what it does extremely well. If you want a large SUV that may never see the inside of a repair garage or one you can recommend to friends or family without ramifications, the Sequoia is a good way to go.

First Place: Dodge Durango Limited
The winner of our big-'ute comparo surprised us. Going in, we figured we'd like the power of its newly optional Hemi V-8 engine. And we were sure the Durango's not-quite-full-size status would make it just a little more pleasant than its competitors to navigate the galaxy. Lingering doubts, however, remained about its build quality and noise, vibration, and harshness levels, based on our experience with the previous-generation (1998-2003) version. And that new look, which took the previous Durango's athletic stand-alone front fenders and bold cross-hair grille through a "Queer Eye for the Ram Guy" process, had us squinting. But as the behind-the-wheel time added up, and the new Durango's dynamics and aesthetics emerged, it all started to come together.

The Durango isn't just Dodge's newest sport/utility vehicle, it's Dodge's only sport/utility vehicle. While competitors such as Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet each offer five different SUVs, Nissan, GMC, and Mitsubishi field four and Honda, Jeep, Isuzu, Lexus, and Land Rover have three, Dodge soldiers on with one. With the 2004 redesign, the Dodge has crept up a few notches in size, gaining seven inches in length, three inches width and height, and roughly 250 pounds in curb weight. More important, it's gained 15 percent more cargo capacity and, thanks to the availability of the 335-horse 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 for the first time, top-notch towing ability. Courtesy of a low hoodline and fast windshield, the Durango looks smaller than the other full-size SUVs in this test.

Don't be fooled. The wheelbase of Dodge's SUV now spans a greater distance than the Ford Expedition's. The new Durango is a few inches longer and a couple dozen pounds heavier than the Chevy Tahoe. Third-seat leg- and headroom best that of the Armada, Tahoe, and Sequoia. Where the previous Durango shared a lot of its parts with the Dakota pickup truck, the latest version has moved to a stand-alone platform. There's a new Watt's Link coil-spring suspension for the live rear axle. Huge four-wheel disc brakes with trashcan-lid-size rotors come via the Ram pickup.

The Durango's shape is based on the Dodge Power Box concept that made its debut at the 2001 Los Angeles auto show. The Power Box drew much of its inspiration from the World War II-vintage Dodge Power Wagon. Editor reactions were mixed. "The large-mouth-bass look is dorky, not powerful," scribbles one. "It's a fresh design that advances the art of the SUV," notes another.

Our staff closed ranks when it came to the interior. From the new electroluminescent gauges to the metallic-look center stack, Venetian-blind-like positive closing dash vents, and rich leather seat trim, there is plenty to like. And here's a switch. The new Dodge impressed many of our editors with its fit and finish. Better yet, instrumented testing confirmed what our ears were telling our doubting minds--the Durango tied with the Sequoia for the quietest cabin.

Where the Dodge put away the competition for good, however, was on the highway. Even though the Durango didn't especially distinguish itself at the track, it morphed from battlestar into Millennium Falcon on long Interstates, twisty two-laners, and suburban boulevards alike.

A perfect storm of generous power, delightful ride quality, and precise handling combined to make the Durango a favorite over-the-road loafer-holder for editorial hot-shoes. A full-throttle matchup of our acceleration champ, the Armada, and Durango at 70 mph was no contest--the Dodge simply engaged warp drive and walked away from the Nissan. "By far, the best dynamically," says one editor. "The steering is agile and the ride quality is delightful--absorbent without any float," says another.

All said and done, the Durango had the stuff, inside, out, and under the hood, to carry itself among this large and ultra-competitive gang of sport/utilities. So the next time you're cruising in your Durango for Moon Pies, we'll understand if you just keep your foot in it right past Stuckey's. Nobody knows what's in those things anyway.

Battlestars: What's Behind You Does Matter
By: Kim Reynolds

Backing a large vehicle such as a minivan, truck, or SUV can be a perilous adventure, but how much can we not see? To find out, we measured our five SUV's rear vision as seen through the center mirror, using the height of an average four-year-old (about 37 inches) as our standard for comparison. Each vehicle was considered in two configurations--with all seats and headrests ready for passengers and again with the second- and third-row seats folded out of the way to give the best possible view. To further dramatize these best- and worst-case scenarios, when the seats were up, we intentionally captured the vision-blocking consequences of center headrests, whereas, with seats stowed, we allowed a realistic smidgen of off-center viewing to peer around such things as the rear-wiper placement.

As you can see, the Tahoe offers the best view. Conversely, the Expedition can be a genuine rear-vision struggle, seats up or down. In the Ford's case, the culprit is its tall, view-obscuring power third-row seatback, a problem exacerbated by the lack of a driver-accessible switch for lowering. Of our group, only the Nissan Armada was equipped with a standard reverse-sensing device. Surprisingly, only the Ford also offers such a system, even optionally. The system uses radar to detect the distance to the nearest object in harm's way of the bumper, giving off audible beeps that increase in intensity as the object draws nearer. The Armada's sensor sounds off at 6.5 feet.

Our advice? If available, pony up for the reverse sensors (they're available in the aftermarket as well), and remember that, ultimately, it's your job to know the path is clear before slipping the shifter into "R."

TEST DATA
 2004 Chevrolet
Tahoe LT
2004 Dodge
Durango Limited
2004 Ford
Expedition NBX
2004 Nissan
Pathfinder Armada SE
2004 Toyota
Sequoia SR5
0-60 mph 8.88.09.67.19.3
1/4 mile, sec @ mph 16.41 @ 83.5215.80 @ 87.7316.91 @ 80.7915.34 @ 88.6116.85 @ 82.41
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 137140139130125
600-ft slalom, mph56.856.756.556.555.5
200-ft skidpad, lateral g0.690.680.690.700.71
Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph17501500175015002000
CONSUMER INFO
Base price$37,000$34,255$38,165$36,100$35,155
Price as tested$46,575$40,700$42,925$39,950$41,388
Basic warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles7 yrs/70,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance3 yrs/36,000 miles7 yrs/70,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 milesNoneNone
EPA mpg, city/hwy14/1813/1813/1713/1814/17
Range, miles, city/hwy364/468351/486364/476364/504365/444
Recommended fuelRegular unleadedMid-grade unleadedRegular unleadedRegular unleadedRegular unleaded