Third Place: Suzuki XL-7 EX III
Despite the lowest as-tested price ($27,749), the Suzuki XL-7 EX III boasts the longest list of base-level equipment here (note the empty "Options" column). Some standard items on the XL-7 EX are either individually optioned or part of a package on the Jeep or Kia. For instance, four-wheel ABS, heated front seats, leather, AM/FM/CD6 stereo, rear air-conditioning, and steering-wheel-mounted controls are just some of things the XL-7 serves up gratis. What you don't get are side airbags, traction or stability control, or rear disc brakes. The XL got a substantial remodel this year, including a new front fascia, upgraded instrument panel and interior materials, and a reengineered third-row seat.

The Suzuki tries to be, and largely succeeds at being, a highway-minded sport/utility, giving up a measure of off-road ability. The XL-7's acceleration and braking are on par with the Jeep's and Kia's, but its at-the-limit handling, illustrated by good slalom speed test numbers, is noticeably better. Yet the qualities that make it work on the road are among those that conspire against it when the assignment calls for off-pavement maneuvers.

A modified-strut suspension up front is fine for the slalom course, but the Suzuki can't provide the kind of articulation or maneuverability (turning radius) either the Jeep or Kia exhibit with their double-wishbone front suspensions. All three use similar live-axle/multilink arrangements for the rear suspension, but with two open differentials and limited articulation, the XL-7 lifted and spun tires where the others stayed grounded and/or routed power through locking or limited-slip differentials side to side and front to rear.

The Suzuki is powered by the smallest, most economical, but least-powerful V-6 of this roundup. Rated at just 185 horsepower, the engine faces some inline-fours that match or exceed its output. Suzuki makes the most of the size deficit with a variable induction system to enhance the engine's low-end torque. The XL-7 also has a five-speed automatic where the others feature four-speeds. This means the XL-7 can keep the revs up under full throttle and hit its peak operating rpm more often than the four-speed boxes. But most people find driving at wide-open throttle annoying and unnerving. The seven-passenger Suzuki has to work extra hard to keep up the pace, as we noticed on our highway drive to the off-road park. Where the Jeep and Kia seemed happy pulling up a grade, the Suzuki was laboring, spinning the tach, and often shifting gears to maintain speed. Further, at just under 17 gallons, the Suzuki's fuel tank will need to be replenished more often than the 19.5-gallon Jeep tank or 21.1-gallon unit in the Kia.