Cell-phone toting, latte sipping, warehouse shopping, morning jogging, after-hours volunteering, home improving, and chainsaw juggling: We've become a nation of multitaskers, balancing career and family, work and recreation on a teeter-totter of disappearing time. So much ground to cover. Not enough hours in the day.

So it makes sense that car companies come up with a product that meets such a diverse set of needs. Forget those big and clumsy, hard to park, tough to maneuver behemoths; no one has time for that. Hence, the car-based midsize SUV.

In this test, we examine three such SUVs that owe more of their DNA to passenger cars rather than trucks. Though the Nissan Murano, Mitsubishi Endeavor, and Toyota Highlander are available in base form with front drive, we're looking at versions equipped with optional all-wheel drive to determine just how multipurposeful they are.

All three take basic sedan architecture and add a cargo quotient. That means unitized body construction, four-wheel independent suspension, and compact, transverse-mounted engines and transmissions. With less vehicle length needed for powertrain items, there's more left over for people and all of their stuff.

Tossing the full ladder frame as on truck-based SUVs nets these vehicles lower step-in and liftover height, easing passenger ingress/egress and cargo loading. And because the truck frame is deleted, these SUVs are lighter, aiding performance and fuel economy. Lighter suspension components are a plus for handling, too.

Serious trailer towing or off-road rock-hopping don't factor into this SUV equation. Leave that for Uncle Bert and his turbodiesel Super Expediter. None of these nouveaux sport/utilities has seven-passenger pretensions, either. We doubt many adults are interested in hiking, ducking, and dodging past second-row seats, armrests, and shoulder belts as they're being crammed into a kiddie-size third row, chins resting on knees atop a bouncy rear axle. No, many buyers just want a vehicle with a front seat, a back seat, and a large, flexible space under roof, lock, and key in the rear that says, "Yeah, I got that covered."

Toyota Highlander Limited 4x4
The cabin is awash in cupholders, map pockets, and storage compartments, but there's not really anything here to excite or offend, just the bare wonderfulness of Toyota sobriety.


The Highlander is the Martha Stewart matching-tablecloth-and-napkins approach to sport/utility design. It blends into everyday life quietly, capably, adding a measure of pack-it-up-and-take-it-with-you utility without offending anyone's sensibilities. No one's going to fantasize about running (or decorating) the Baja in it, either.

Presently in its third model year, the Highlander is the best-selling car-based midsize SUV--more than 110,000 were sold in the U.S. during calendar year 2002. It's also Toyota's best-selling SUV, big or small, just last year surpassing the more trucklike, robust, and rugged 4Runner.

In concept, the Highlander is a more affordable, less-stylish version of the SUV that pioneered the crossover wave: the Lexus RX 300. Before the RX, if you wanted carlike attributes and AWD, the choices included an Audi or Subaru wagon or a Chrysler minivan. Now, you can get into something that kinda, sorta looks like an SUV, but drives like a car. Bumper to bumper, the Highlander is a surprising five inches shorter than the Camry, but stands 10 inches taller, the better to accommodate clunkier cargo.

Our fully kitted V-6-powered Highlander Limited 4x4 stickered above $35,000. Four-cylinder, front-drive versions of the Highlander base model start under $24,000.

Aside from the slightly higher vantage point the driver and passengers enjoy, the experience behind the wheel of the Highlander is Camry-like. It's exceptionally quiet and familiar inside. Big climate-control buttons and audio dials cut to the chase of what Toyota buyers want--comfort and ease of use. Rear-seat passengers can recline their seatbacks. The cabin is awash in cupholders, map pockets, and storage compartments. Material choices and fit and finish are top-notch. Outward visibility is excellent. Long-legged drivers may wish for a bit more seat travel, but there's not really anything here to excite or offend, just the bare wonderfulness of Toyota sobriety.

Sober is how we'd characterize the Highlander's whisper-quiet all-aluminum 24-valve DOHC V-6. At 3.0 liters, it's the smallest engine in our trio of testers. Though Toyota tuned it to a healthy 220 horsepower and endowed it with VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence), its 222 lb-ft of torque is the lowest of the bunch. While the power felt sufficient for normal driving, it dawdled some when asked for a quick burst of opportunity in traffic, and the transmission didn't downshift as responsively as we'd like.

The 4x4 model is equipped with a full-time all-wheel-drive system that uses a viscous coupling to divide drive torque 50/50 front to rear. If a wheel or wheels at one axle begin to lose traction, the system apportions a greater percentage of the available drive force to the wheels at the other axle. Nearly half of all Highlanders are equipped with all-wheel drive.

Dynamically, the Highlander mirrors the Camry experience with good ride isolation and reasonably linear steering. Toyota endows this SUV with large-diameter anti-lock disc brakes at all four corners. Included with ABS is Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which automatically adjusts hydraulic pressure between the front and rear axles based on vehicle load. Also standard is Brake Assist, a system that senses rapid or panic braking and applies maximum brake force when needed short of wheel lockup. Regardless, our test Highlander's brake performance could've been better, with high pedal effort and longer-than-average stopping distances the rule.

Still, the Highlander is more than adequate for everyday use trolling the suburbs of Middle America. We doubt most Highlander owners will seriously tax the dynamic capabilities of their SUVs. What they'll likely pay more attention to is that the Highlander was the recipient of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study award in 2002 for midsize SUVs, just one more in a string of third-party accolades. When an all-new second-generation Highlander makes its debut for the '04 model year, we have every reason to believe that it'll continue the winning tradition.

Mitsubishi Endeavor XLS AWD
While the segment the Endeavor competes in is mainstream, its design is anything but. Mitsubishi designers have crafted a cortex-stimulating, forward-thinking theme that refuses to blend into the SUV woodwork.


Though Mitsubishi was one of the first carmakers on the scene with a credible midsize SUV in the early '80s, its race-winning Montero never garnered many press accolades--or sales. In recent years, its pickup-truck-based Montero Sport developed a modest following based on low price and truck-tough styling. Late last year, Mitsubishi ventured into the realm of car-based SUVs with the compact, four-cylinder Outlander. For the '04 model year, the midsize V-6 Endeavor sets its sights on the sweet spot of the market.

The Endeavor is Mitsubishi's first mainstream car-derived midsize SUV. In fact, it's so new that the significantly larger '04 Galant sedan it's based on won't be introduced until later this fall. A rigid unitized body structure with hydroformed crossmembers and front and rear steel subframes form a solid basis for this new SUV.

All three Endeavor models, base LS, mid-level XLS, and range-topping Limited, are powered by a transverse-mounted version of the 3.8-liter/215-horse SOHC V-6 found in the full-size Montero. Though its power output isn't best in class, the throttle-by-wire engine develops a healthy 250 lb-ft of torque at an easy 3750 rpm, more than enough to get the Endeavor away smartly from rest without working up a sweat. In fact, from zero to 30 mph, the heavier Endeavor outaccelerated the 245-horse Nissan Murano in our testing. But at higher revs, the 3.8-liter V-6 gets a bit rough and noisy. The Endeavor's four-speed Sportronic automatic is the only transmission in our test group with manumatic shifting capability, great for holding gears in stop-and-go traffic or driving hilly sections. Endeavors with full-time all-wheel drive get an extra measure of surefootedness courtesy of a center differential with a viscous coupling. The system has a baseline 50/50 front/rear torque split. Like the Highlander, the system will deliver all available drive torque to one axle set, even if the other set of wheels loses traction.

Regardless of trim level, each Endeavor is available with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, with the front-drive LS model starting just under $26,000. Our mid-level XLS AWD test model stickered at $31,692.

While the segment the Endeavor competes in is mainstream, its design is anything but. Mitsubishi designers have crafted a cortex-stimulating, forward-thrusting theme that refuses to blend into the SUV woodwork. Large wheel flares become broad shoulders, the fronts lunging upward to merge with the top of the hood at the base of the windshield, forming a wide stance reminiscent of Mitsubishi's '99 SSU concept vehicle. An extra large, dramatically sloped windshield and A-pillar windowlets give a Cab Forward feel to the front end, finished off with a Mitsubishi split grille punctuated by a large, squarish snout. The Endeavor's posterior also avoids business as usual, with a bowed liftgate beltline, triangular taillamps, and upward-jutting bumper end caps adding even more surface excitement. It's an in-your-face look.

The Endeavor's wide body, steeply sloped windshield, and low-profile dash translate into a roomy interior feel. Part of that is visual, the other tactile as the interior occupants luxuriate in wider-than-normal, upright seats with thick cushions and great support. Accompanying the commodious front chairs is a sturdy, multi-tiered console with superb cupholders, dual 12-volt outlets, and a concealed compartment deep enough to stash a laptop computer.

Front and center, a metallic-look center stack reminiscent of a Bose wave radio dominates the interior. Among quality touches here are Venetian-blind-like positive-shutting ventilation ducts and precision-feel knurled knobs for the climate and audio system controls. Atop the center stack on all but the base LS model sits a small (4.9 inch) LCD screen with a compass and readouts for audio/climate-control information. Unfortunately, the screen isn't bright enough to read easily in daylight, especially if the headlamps are on because of fog or dust in the air. And there's a plethora of geomechanical-textured surfaces on the dash and door panels, from a rubbery-feeling dash upper to a urethane steering wheel so abrasive you might imagine it exfoliating your hands as you drive.

Amazingly, despite the large look and loud styling, the Endeavor's road manners are buttoned-down. Off-road-ready looks aside, Galant pixie dust sprinkled gingerly here and there helps make this SUV take to pavement with alacrity. Big-diameter anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution scrub speed with easily modulated precision. And a rigid body structure gives a solid platform for the underpinnings to go about their work.

At 62.4 mph, the Endeavor was the fastest to weave through the cones in the 600-foot slalom test among our trio, matching the BMW X5. And at 126 feet, it also stopped from 60 mph in the shortest distance. The Endeavor's got moves.

Nissan Murano SL AWD
With a fresh dose of sport-coupe-like energy and style, the Murano takes the car-based midsize SUV beyond errand-runner status.


Every now and then, a new vehicle comes along that's so right for its market and so original, it must have product planners at rival car companies scratching their heads and muttering under their breath, "Wow, why didn't we think of that?"

Like the other SUVs in our test, the Murano owes its basic structure to a front-drive midsize sedan, the Nissan Altima in this case. But the Murano blends technology and Technicolor in such an intriguing way it elevates the midsize SUV to the level of modern industrial art. Like the first Apple Macintosh computer or Edison light bulb, we wouldn't be surprised if the first Murano ended up in a museum somewhere. There's nothing else like it on the road. And that's not easy to do these days.

Nissan hasn't exactly been a hotbed of new SUV product in recent years. With the exception of the low-tech, trail gorp-oriented Xterra introduced four years ago, the only other SUV in Nissan's garden was the aging, largely ignored Pathfinder. But with the alliance of Nissan and Renault now bearing fruit, the bare spots in Nissan's model coverage are starting to green up nicely. After all, this is the year of the Z.

Compared to an Altima, the Murano is 4.0 inches shorter, but 3.5 inches wider and 8.5 inches taller. With the Murano, Nissan reapportions the space allotted to passengers and cargo so that rear-seat passengers have plenty of stretch-out room. A steeply sloping rear-roof section steals cargo space above the beltline, especially acute when the rear seats are in the up position. But drop the rear seats and suddenly all that rear-passenger space transfers to the cargo side of the ledger. A 60/40-split, reclining rear seatback allows Murano Mission Control to mix and match passenger and cargo space to suit the occasion. Nifty pullout handles to fold down the split rear seat are located just inside the liftgate door where you can reach them when loading cargo.

Notably finished in manner, polished, even suave, the Murano's interior is a treasure trove of interesting details. There's real brushed-aluminum trim covering the console, gauge surrounds, steering-wheel spokes, and some door items. The console is chock-a-block with flocked, jewel-case-like compartments--a deep, narrow one for a cell-phone, a wider, shallow one for keys and loose change, and so on. Switchgear feel is top notch. As on the Z, a superbike-like pod houses the instruments with stunning bone-colored gauge faces. The top of the dashboard is an expansive, well-crafted organizer for odds and ends. The cabin is a complete sensory experience--shapes, colors, textures that surprise and delight. Although the placement of some switchgear takes getting used to and the thick, American Motors Gremlin-like rear roof pillars rob rearward visibility, the overall impression is "thoughtful." In perceived quality, we can't help but imagine the hand of the plucky French here.

The boldness that first surfaced in the 350Z and Altima is evident in this unexpected SUV. You see it in the Cheshire Cat smiling chrome grille and vertical-stack headlamps up front and the Cinderella pumpkin coach bustle-back liftgate at the rear.

Like the other SUVs in this test, the Murano is available in front drive or all-wheel-drive forms. Prices start just over $28,000 for the well-equipped front-drive SL model, ranging to nearly $31,000 for the luxury-oriented AWD SE version. Every Murano is fitted with a full complement of safety gear, such as dual front airbags, front-seat side airbags, and inflatable side curtains. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are standard fare.

The Murano's Altima-based suspension is compliant, yet it patters some on rippled surfaces. The standard 18-inch wheels, great on smooth surfaces, are partly to blame here, as the 65-series tires won't absorb much harshness on broken pavement. Steering effort seems a bit heavier than on the Highlander and Endeavor, not terribly crisp, but agile enough. We did, however, run out of steering boost sometimes during quick turns at slow speeds. Nevertheless, on smooth pavement the Murano's suspension felt the most sophisticated of our three testers, with a wonderful balance of damping and compliance versus ultimate grip. A Sport Suspension option for the Murano offers even stiffer springs and shocks, but we feel the base setup is the right one.

Depress the throttle, and the Murano's 3.5-liter/245-horse V-6 brings plenty of power to the party to reinforce the SUV's sporty looks. Continuously variable valve timing helps keep the sidewinder VQ V-6 "on the cam," and dual exhaust outlets trumpet an enthusiastic tune. In our testing, the Murano consistently took 0-60 mph and quarter-mile acceleration honors.

In keeping with the SUV's distinctive design, the Murano's specification includes a unique continuously variable transmission called Xtronic. Instead of a series of stepped gears, the CVT uses a belt that rides on two cone-shaped pulleys. The position of the belt on the pulleys determines the gear ratio at any given moment, infinitely variable depending on throttle position, road speed, road load, and other factors. Nissan is no stranger to these transmissions, having introduced its first CVT in a production car in Japan in 1992. In a way, it's the ultimate automatic transmission, completely responsive to the driver and vehicle situation, unencumbered by having to step through or hunt for the right gear ratios. Despite roaring to the 6200-rpm redline and staying there on a wide-open-throttle freeway merge, the CVT never feels strained.

Next to the Saturn Vue, the Murano is the only SUV equipped with this innovative transmission here in the States. But don't stray too far from pavement. There's a soft underbelly of aluminum castings, heat exchangers, and other vitals underneath. And the Murano's CVT takes only special "green" transmission fluid not readily available in the hinterlands.

Murano's all-wheel-drive system works differently from those of the Highlander and Endeavor. It's an on-demand setup, operating in front-drive mode unless the front wheels begin to lose traction, at which time a multiplate clutch pack will send up to 50 percent of the available drive torque to the rear wheels as needed to maintain traction. An AWD Lock mode for slippery, low-speed conditions can be activated by a console-mounted switch. In AWD Lock mode, the drive torque is split evenly between the front and rear wheels, but only up to 19 mph. Above 19, normal operation resumes. As a side benefit, the Murano's AWD system seems to mute the torque-steering problem that other V-6-powered FF-L platformmates such as the Altima and Maxima experience under wide-open- throttle acceleration.

With a fresh dose of sport-coupe-like energy and style, the all-new Nissan Murano takes the car-based midsize SUV beyond errand-runner status.

Conclusion
They're not just for off-roading anymore: the new Mitsubishi Endeavor, Nissan Murano, and the Toyota Highlander represent the latest in an updated class of car-based SUVs.


Car-based SUVs are where the action will be in the marketplace as buyers discover the multitudinous ways these vehicles support multifaceted lifestyles. Though each of the testers examined here springs from the loins of front-drive midsize sedans, three very different looks and personalities result.

In every sense, the Toyota Highlander is a surrogate Camry station wagon, as squarish, practical, and low-key as the suburban lifestyles its buyers lead. Dial in Toyota's traditional penchant for quality, reliability, and strong resale value and the Highlander's as sure to please as flowers and chocolates on Valentine's Day.

The Mitsubishi Endeavor suggests tough SUV imagery with aggressive-looking wheel flares and side sculpturing, a wide stance, and unexpected geometric details. Pant legs rolled up, it looks like it's ready for the mud, but it does amazingly well on pavement, too. We'd call the Endeavor L.L. Bean with attitude. A strong second place.

Nissan's new Murano explores a modern direction that's more hot hatch than clunky SUV, boldly pushing the design envelope into the artistic realm. The Murano manages to strike an alluring balance in that age-old quandary of velocity versus volume. We found it simply irresistible -- and the clear winner of this three-way midsize-sport/utility evaluation.

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