Got dirt? Then don't buy a small, car-based, all-wheel-drive sport/utility crossover demi-wagon thingy. Nobody with true trail experience would consider one of them a true 4x4 sport/utility. A rutted, rocky, and off-pavement excursion will leave those four-cylinder pantywaists at the trailhead.
This comparison is reserved for rugged conveyances with a low-range transfer case and more than a few inches of ground clearance. The three we picked feature V-6s ranging in size from 2.7 to 3.7 liters, automatic transmissions, the aforementioned low-range gears, and workaday sticker prices.
What might surprise you is that they also cater to your desire for luxury, comfort, and convenience with split-folding, second-row seating and a full complement of power accessories and safety equipment. What's more, they each have some of the industry's best warranty packages. After some worthwhile track testing, trail-busting, commuting, and button punching, here's how they stack up.
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.
The XL-7's generous cargo bay is made less useful by its curb-blocking barn door.
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.
With the smallest engine of the group, the Suzuki needed to work extra hard to keep up.
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.
Suzuki's XL-7 is the largest of this group of compact off-roaders, boasting the longest wheelbase and overall length and the greatest interior volume. It's also the only one here that has a third-row-seating option. However, pushing that interior package to fit the third row adversely affects first- and second-row passenger accommodations. Second-row legroom in the seemingly smaller Jeep is nearly six inches greater than in the XL-7. The Suzuki cashes in on cargo-carrying ability and is almost as large as some minivans.
Off-road abilities were merely adequate among its exceptional peers.
At 72.0 cubic feet of cargo volume with all seats stowed, the Suzuki is 3.0 and 5.6 cubic feet larger than the Jeep and Kia, respectively. The Suzuki rides lower than the others, which is a good thing for its center of gravity and ease of access. This quality/liability hampers off-road clearance, though. The front and rear overhangs, ground clearance, and break-over angle aren't as well suited as the others to off-roading. The long body-on-frame XL-7 has the lowest ground clearance of the trio at 7.6 inches, which causes it to high-center or scrape its runningboards on berms and ruts.
Push-button high-range four-wheel drive is available up to 60 mph.
What hurts the Suzuki most is that it tries too hard to be the ultimate, seven-passenger compact 'ute, but does so with trucklike architecture that would be better suited to take on the Jeeps of the world--doing neither job particularly well. Its full ladder-style frame is rugged and crashworthy, but the chassis-shuddering ride qualities associated with it are not as refined as a unibody might be. Liquid-filled engine mounts do their best to isolate engine vibrations, but you just can't ignore that busy little V-6.
In the end, the Suzuki makes the best of what it has, but it's neither cute 'ute nor rock-crawler. Most people would be better served either with a minivan, a more dedicated off-roader, or a car-based utility vehicle like the Honda CR-V, which is quicker, gets better fuel mileage, and is less expensive.
|Suzuki XL-7 EX III|
|What's Hot ||· Seven (tightly packed) passenger seating|
· It's the handler of this threesome
· Fully transferrable powertrain warranty
|What's Not ||· No rear disc brakes or side airbags|
· Not the off-road trail boss of this trio
· Car-based sport 'utes are better on-road
|Don't Miss||Subtle new sheetmetal and interior changes|
|Bottom Line||Overly rugged seven-passenger alternative to a capacious mommy-van or car-based cute 'ute|
Second place: Kia Sorento EX
The Kia Sorento came in under the radar in 2003. It was larger and more powerful than its four-cylinder-only Sportage sibling, thus putting it in a different competitive class. Further, the Sorento set a new quality and styling standard for the South Korean company.
We were pleased with how well it performed in last year's Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year contest, saying, "The Sorento exceeded our expectations." Had one of the Big Three or a Japanese manufacturer introduced and mass-marketed such a vehicle, far more people would've taken notice. Yet Kia has found a modicum of success with the often-overlooked Sorento, and we thought it deserved to be evaluated against some of its new peers.
Kia opts for a rear hatch; lift up for access to the midsize cargo area.
For 2004, Kia has augmented the lineup with the availability of a five-speed manual transmission and a Sport package.
For the purposes of this story, we chose a top-of-the line four-speed automatic EX 4x4 ($25,490) dressed with the Luxury package, optional ABS, and a rear spoiler for a total of $28,285. Our first impression of the Sorento EX is that its packaging and presentation are superior to what one might expect from a manufacturer with such limited exposure or experience in this competitive midsize segment. In fact, some people mistake it for a Toyota or Lexus.
Inside is a tasteful mix of textures and colors, but they're still not quite up to Toyota standards. The handsome two-tone paint and moonroof are included with the EX trim level, as are the roof rack, foglamps, alloy wheels, and overhead console consisting of a thermometer, compass, altimeter, and barometer--nifty, unexpected details. Adding the Luxury package nets auto climate control, heated front seats, leather package, auto headlamps, and a premium sound system with steering-wheel controls. Glancing at the base price will have you thinking the Kia is less-expensive than the Suzuki, but the as-tested prices favor the XL-7 by about $500.
We expect a Jeep to be a leader when the roads disappear, but on all but one particularly nasty obstacle, the Kia was breathing on the Jeep Liberty's bumper. Because of its generous clearances, 2.48:1 reduction gearing, and limited-slip differential, the Sorento takes almost any hill in stride. Having 217 pound-feet of torque to climb and an ample 10.0:1 engine compression to descend hills contributes to the Sorento's exceptional composure. That added engine grunt comes at the expense of fuel economy, however. The 3.5-liter Sorento posts 15-city/20-highway mpg--the poorest efficiency of the bunch. And the 4317-pound curb weight and 4.67:1 axle ratio aren't helping.
We previously tested a Sorento that wasn't equipped with the optional ($595) ABS, and it took 17-20 feet more to stop from 60 mph--and that was on the second try. While it does have the largest four-wheel vented-disc brakes in the test, spend the extra money on no-brainer anti-locks. You may need them when you least expect it.
The Sorento's handsome styling draws favorable reviews.
Like the Suzuki, the Kia rides on a ladder frame, but with double-wishbone front/multilink rear suspension instead of a strut/multilink setup. Yet the Kia's shorter wheelbase and taller height conspire to produce a less-settled highway ride. The chassis shudders more after hitting abrupt road imperfections, and there's secondary suspension movement not present in either the Jeep or Suzuki. Combine that with an unusual amount of resistance when the steering is loaded, and the Kia can't keep up the pace in the slalom test. Considering that the Kia is an old-school truck-like-approach to building a sport/utility--actually excelling in an off-road environment--it rides and steers appropriately for what it is.
An in dash-mounted knob engages 4WD and has "shift-on-the-fly" ability.
In the end, the capable Kia Sorento finishes ahead of the smoother Suzuki XL-7 mostly because of its abilities in the dirt. Personal styling preferences and seating capacity needs might force you to make a different choice. But as we said earlier, this test is focused on balancing on- and off-road prowess against price and available options. In this way, the Kia is a real multitasker. We find it attractive for its packaging, performance, price, and trail-ready mechanicals. Kia could've made the Sorento more carlike, but then it would've fallen into the same "what's it for?" dilemma as the noncommittal Suzuki.
|Kia Sorento EX 4x4|
|What's Hot||· Outstanding packaging and interior quality|
· Works well outdoors despite pretty face
· 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and standard front/rear head-curtain airbags
|What's Not||· Thirsty for its size· Heavy steering in gentle cornering|
· Could be more refined without giving up off-road abilities
|Don't Miss||Five-speed manual and Sport model added|
|Bottom Line||In a world of pretenders, the Kia Sorento 4x4 is a true off-roader with a dash of unexpected style at a good price|
First Place: Jeep Liberty Limited
Some of you may think that placing the Jeep first in a comparison that requires off-road skills is a foregone conclusion. Not so. Jeep likes to promote the fact that everything it builds, the Liberty included, has the ability to traverse the legendary Rubicon Trail from Loon Lake Dam to South Lake Tahoe in California. Problem is, you'd never want to commute in most vehicles that can make this claim. We're happy to inform you that the Liberty Limited 4WD is, indeed, liveable and likeable in almost every situation we encountered.
The rounded Liberty replaced the boxy Cherokee in mid-2001 as a 2002 model. At first, some criticized the unibody-constructed Liberty with the brand's first independent front suspension (say it ain't so!) as a caricature of a real Jeep, but brisk sales and our experiences off-road say otherwise.
The separate glass and left-hinged door earn points.
There's a wide variety of models available in rear or four-wheel drive with either part- or full-time mechanicals. Our loaded Limited ($24,870) is the most off-road-dedicated available and is augmented with optional skidplates, tire-pressure monitoring, locking differential, full-time 4WD, tow hooks, and an ABS system that changes calibration when low-range gears are selected. Standard equipment on the Limited is comprehensive, but suffice to say it has the comforts and conveniences of the others (minus a moonroof) at an as-tested price just $5 more than the Kia's. On the other hand, there's a $1665 discount if you opt for the "Quick Order Package 28G," which is reflected in the Liberty's $28,290 as-tested total.
All the controls, materials, gauges, and doodads with which a person interacts feel and work with a sense of purpose and solidity. There's nothing cheap-ish about how the Liberty presents itself. That feeling carries over to its road manners, too. The steering isn't overly boosted or heavy, the brakes feel confident and firm, the chassis isn't wallowy or burdened, and the suspension isn't punishing in the least. Unlike Jeep's blatantly purposed Wrangler, you'd never suspect the Liberty is such a dedicated off-roader from a drive to the store.
The 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V-6 is sourced from the company's 4.7-liter V-8. As such, it has an unusual 90-degree bank angle--most V-6s are 60 degrees for operational smoothness--making it sound odd and thrashy at certain revs. What you can't criticize is its ability to produce 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. While the Liberty didn't win any drag races at our test track (all effectively tied), it was the most tractable engine when we hit the trail: steady and confident, especially crawling up steep terrain in low range. Not only is the Jeep the most powerful of the three, it returns above-average fuel economy at 17-city and 21-highway mpg, nearly as good as the one-liter-smaller Suzuki. Furthermore, if you need to tow a boat, the Jeep outpulls the other two by 1500 to 2000 pounds with a 5000-pound rating when properly equipped.
Generous ground and fording clearances, tidy proportions, and a capable 4WD system make th
Opting for the $600 ABS accompanied by 4WD means you get a nifty system that allows the brakes to "skid" in the dirt in 4-low range, building up a small mound in front of the tires. Anybody who's cursed ABS while freewheeling down a loose or slippery surface, waiting for the ABS to apply the brakes will know why this feature is so thoughtful and necessary for serious, safe off-pavement excursions.
Without a doubt, the Jeep is designed for more than an occasional dirt road. At 36 and 32 degrees, the Liberty's approach and departure angles allow it to go up and over most obstacles without snagging its bumpers or the spare tire that's hung on the back. We never found ourselves in a situation where the Jeep couldn't maneuver, pull, or otherwise extricate itself from a tight spot. In fact, we used the Jeep to free the stuck Suzuki, which had high-centered on a sandy berm.
Jeep goes old school with a hand-operated 4WD lever.
The Jeep Liberty Limited can't haul seven passengers around town. It doesn't slalom like a sports car. It's not even the least expensive. Yet, the Liberty is the clear winner here. It offers around-town performance, comfort, and efficiency on par with the others, but goes a country mile further when you leave the city. Jeep has an image and reputation to uphold, and the Jeep Liberty does so with charm, confidence, and skill.
|Jeep Liberty Limited|
|What's Hot|| · Attractive and upscale interior|
· Right size to hit the trails and not rocks
· Most dedicated 4x4 hardware and design
|What's Not||· False "that's-not-a-real-Jeep" perception|
· Thrashy engine
· Small cargo area with all seats up
|Don't Miss||Tire-pressure monitor on Renegade or Limited|
|Bottom Line||The Liberty fulfills the original, go-anywhere mission of sport/utilities without fail or compromise|
If this were an on-road-only comparison test, specifically forgoing our search for an unconquerable trail, we'd be hard-pressed to ignore any of these three as a possible winner. Our usual test data would indicate a tie; the winner being decided by the presence of a third-row seat, cargo capacity, value, fresh styling, or design. Early in the process, each vehicle had its own advocate with his set of justifiable merits.
It wasn't until we hit the off-road park that a clear winner emerged from the dust. If you're looking for a genuine sport/utility in the purest sense of the universally overapplied term, there remains one clear choice among this trio. The Jeep Liberty can proudly wear the family crest, showing off its circular headlamps, seven-slat grille, and a "can do!" attitude.
| ||2004 Jeep Liberty Limited||2004 Kia Sorento EX||2004 Suzuki XL-7 EX III|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, 4wd||Front engine, 4wd||Front engine, 4wd|
|Engine type||90° V-6, iron block/alum heads, ULEV I||60° V-6, iron block/alum heads, ULEV||60° V-6, alum block/heads, LEV II|
|Valve gear||SOHC, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Displacement, ci/cc||225.8 / 3701||213.4 / 3497||167.0 / 2737|
|Max horsepower @ rpm||210 @ 5200||192 @ 5500||185 @ 6000|
|Max torque @ rpm||235 @ 4000||217 @ 3000||184 @ 4000|
|Max engine speed||6000||6000||6500|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic||4-speed automatic||5-speed automatic|
|Axle/final/low ratio (:1)||3.73 / 2.57 / 2.72||4.67 / 3.29 / 2.48||4.30 / 3.39 / 1.65|
|Suspension, front; rear||Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|| Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, multilink, coil springs, brace, anti-roll bar;|| Modified MacPherson struts, strut tower live axle, multilink, anti-roll bar coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes, f;r||11.3-in vented disc; 11.2-in solid disc, ABS/EBD (opt)||11.8-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS ||11.3-in vented disc; 10.0-in drum, ABS, EBD|
|Wheels||16x7.0 cast aluminum||16x7.0 cast aluminum||16x7.0 cast aluminum|
|Tires||P235/70R16 104T M+S Goodyear Eagle RS-A || 245/70R16 106H M+S Michelin Cross Terrain||235/60R16 99H M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/T|
|Track, f/r, in||60.0 / 59.7||62.2 / 62.2||59.1 / 59.1|
|Overall height, in||71.1 (includes rack)||71.3 (includes rack)||68.5 (includes rack)|
|Ground clearance, in||9.4||8.2||7.6|
|Apprch/depart angle, deg||36 / 32||28 / 27||29 / 23|
|Turning circle, ft||35.9||36.4||39.4|
|Max towing capacity, lb||5000||3500||3000|
|Headroom, f/m/r, in||40.7 / 42.1 / NA||39.7 / 39.5 / NA||39.1 / 39.2 / 38.9|
|Legroom, f/m/r, in|| 40.8 / 37.2 / NA||42.6 / 36.1 / NA ||41.4 / 31.4 / 31.3|
|Shoulder room, f/m/r, in||56.5 / 56.5 / NA||58.9 / 58.4 / NA|| 52.8 / 53.0 / 49.6|
|Cargo volume, cu ft||29.0 / 69.0 (behind 2nd row/1st) ||31.4 / 66.4 (behind 2nd row/1st)||6.6 / 41.6 / 72.0 (behind 3rd row/2nd/1st)|
|Curb weight, lb||4115||4317||3825|
|Weight dist, f/r %|| 53/47||56/44||53/47|
|Fuel capacity, gal||19.5||21.1||16.9|
|1/4 mile, sec @ mph||16.89 @ 80.58||16.96 @ 79.75||17.00 @ 80.56|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft||134||135||136|
|600-ft slalom, mph||59.9||58.9||62.4|
|200-ft skidpad, lateral g||0.74||0.73||0.72|
|Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph||1900||2400||2500|
|On sale in U.S.||Currently||Currently||Currently|
|Base price||$24,870||$25,490 ||$27,749|
|Options||Quick order pkg ($3345), AM/FM/CD6 ($200), 4-wheel ABS ($600), front-side airbags ($490), locking rear differential ($285), skidplate group ($155)|| Luxury pkg ($2000), 4-wheel ABS ($595), rear spoiler ($200)||None|
|Price as tested||$28,290||$28,285||$27,749|
|Stability/traction control||No / yes (locking differential)||No / yes (limited-slip differential)||No / no|
|Airbags||Dual front (std), front-side (opt)||Dual front, front/rear head curtain||Dual front|
|Basic warranty||3 yrs/36,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty||7 yrs/70,000 miles||10 yrs/100,000 miles||7 yrs/100,000 miles|
|Roadside assistance||7 yrs/70,000 miles||5 yrs/unlimited miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|EPA mpg, city/hwy||17/21||15/20||17/22|
|Range, miles, city/hwy||332/410||317/422||287/371|
|Recommended fuel||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|