Large and lumbering SUVs, with their gas-guzzler rep and oversized swagger, have always been a buzzkill, at least for me. But after some prodding from automaker colleagues, I decided to test a bevy of these brutes. Turns out many Leviathans have evolved into gentle giants, with an unexpected emphasis on agility, amenities and fuel economy.
NISSAN ARMADA PLATINUM RESERVE 4WD
Mpg: 13 city/18 highway
Zero-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Cargo capacity: 95.4 cu. ft.
With a complete redesign last year, the Nissan Armada gets a leg up on the Toyota Sequoia — almost. Sure, the Armada exterior is jazzier, and the interior borrows heavily from upscale Infiniti. But those knobs and switches aren’t the latest iteration, which means the cabin could use a “Queer Eye” makeover.
Another nit to pick: Sequoia has the better infotainment system, with smartphone capability. But the Armada has plenty of plusses, including a nifty new V8 engine with a pleasing exhaust rumble. Step on the gas, and this SUV is as fast as a Nissan Maxima sedan. I found the suspension and cornering as sharp and nimble as the Ford Expedition.
There’s also a novel rearview-camera feature, where the backup camera is projected onto the rearview mirror. And the Armada (and its high-end cousin, the Infiniti QX80) have the highest towing capacity at 8,500 pounds of the SUVs here. I also test drove an Infiniti QX80, and the performance, storage space and other stats are identical to the Nissan Armada. But the QX80 has a sleeker, quieter cabin, with more comfortable seats. Of course, the QX80 also costs about $20,000 more.
FORD EXPEDITION PLATINUM 4X4
Mpg: 17 city/24 highway
Zero-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Cargo capacity: 104.6 cubic feet
So there I was, debating whether or not to squeeze a compact crossover into an itty parking spot in an underground D.C. garage. But as soon as I spotted a Ford Expedition in a similar space, it was game on: No way was I going to be shown up by a hulking hauler. Still, I was impressed. A few months later, when actually test-driving an Expedition, I was impressed again.
Despite being built on an F-150 truck platform, the Expedition handles more like a Mercedes S-Class sedan. Sprinting around curvy backroads was as fun as a theme-park thrill ride, and I was driving in Normal mode, not the more athletic Sport mode. With clever nips and tucks, today’s Expedition looks like a smaller, stylish Explorer.
Pricing for a base-model Expedition costs $54,000, while the top-end Platinum 4X4 model is another 20 grand. But it’s worth the extra cash for the excellent 400-hp V6 turbo, with a stop/start engine feature that conserves fuel. Gobs of other goodies include 22-inch wheels, power-adjustable pedals, power-folding third-row seat, hands-free power liftgate, panoramic sunroof and running boards that automatically deploy when getting in and out of the vehicle.
There’s also a suite of safety features, with airbags everywhere. The Sync voice-control system includes Wi-Fi hotspot and wireless phone charging. As for navigating in and out of tight spaces, it turns out the Expedition comes with an automated parking system.
TOYOTA SEQUOIA PLATINUM 4WD
Mpg: 13 city/17 highway
Zero-60 mph: 6.7 seconds
Cargo capacity: 120.1 cu. ft.
Did Toyota miss the memo on redesigning vehicles every few years? After all, the current Sequoia is based on the second-gen version launched back in 2008. Gas mileage lags similar SUVs, and there’s definitely no wow factor in the old-timey cabin. Still, the exterior gets a refresh, with three new colors, an updated front end, and snazzier headlights and taillights.
There’s also a flashy new TRD Sport trim, with metallic black mirror caps, black/chrome badging, black interior treatments and a sport-tuned suspension. Built on the Tundra full-size pickup chassis, the Sequoia’s cargo capacity is hard to beat. And with three rows of seating, there’s abundant headroom and legroom for eight adults.
I was surprised how quiet and composed this sport-ute handled over potholes and minor off-roading. Acceleration and braking also were smooth and precise. Many optional safety features are now standard, including lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection. Expect high reliability (this is Toyota, after all). And remember, there’s a nice upside to a dated design: It’s often easier to negotiate a decent price at the dealership.
RANGE ROVER V8 SUPERCHARGED
Mpg: 16 city/21 highway
Zero-60 mph: 4.8 seconds
Cargo capacity: 71.7 cu. ft.
Talk about getting the royal treatment: Where else can you find a ritzy Brit box on wheels, with 20-way power-adjustable seats, electronic air suspension to lower the vehicle for easy access, soft-close doors to prevent any harsh slamming sound and an automatic facial-massage feature.
OK, so there’s no facial massage, but you get the picture: The Range Rover V8 Supercharged is a superior SUV. It all starts with the engine, a burly, 518-hp supercharged V8 that rockets this chic chariot from zero-60 mph in less than five seconds.
Swing sharply into a hairpin curve, mash the accelerator on the straightaway and (surprise!) there’s virtually no body roll despite the tall stance and high chassis. Inside, opulence is the word, with premium wood trim, a gesture-controlled sunblind for the panoramic sunroof and a high-tech infotainment system with two 10-inch touchscreens.
My main beef was when the infotainment system froze up a few times, an unfortunate nod to Range Rover’s reliability issues. Another concern: cargo capacity was limited compared to other SUVs. Still, along with superb driving capabilities, it was hard not to appreciate this Rover’s blend of old-world craftsmanship and modern comfort.