Join Date: Mar 2001
Comparison: 07 Ford Edge, 07 Hyundai SantaFe, 06 Nissan Murano, 07 Toyota Highlander
Comparison: 2007 Ford Edge vs. 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe vs. 2006 Nissan Murano vs. 2007 Toyota Highlander
Car-based trucks are the market darlings of our day. The propaganda suggests if you're willing to sacrifice a smidgen of the towing and off-road capability the Marlboro-Manly pickup-based trucks offer, you can enjoy similar space and styling in a vehicle boasting the fuel efficiency and comfort of a large sedan. They're billed as the metrosexual Renaissance men of the motoring scene. Of course, the hype is often hooey. Tall, blocky styling creates truckish aero drag, however slippery the shape, and ladling on the comfort and convenience gear buyers demand bloats the curb weights of midsize crossovers to two tons and up, at which point any hope of carlike fuel economy hinges on exotic hybrid or diesel powertrain technology. Nevertheless, the market is buying the message and flocking in droves from "real" SUVs to these emasculated ones. Traditional sport/utility sales declined 12 percent in 2006, while crossovers climbed nine percent to win the sales race by about a quarter-million units.
By what yardsticks should midsize crossovers be measured? Clearly trailblazing beyond snowy gravel roads and towing anything larger than a pop-up camper are off the list. A high seating position with good visibility seems important, as does having the space and flexibility to carry a family and/or bulky items, otherwise a dynamically superior car would be preferable. Comfort and efficiency (or at least the appearance thereof) must be priorities, or today's worthy crop of redesigned midsize 'utes wouldn't be languishing on dealer lots for 70-plus days on average. Finally, style and cachet have elbowed their way into a high spot on the gotta-have list, or the other criteria would lead any rational buyer to choose a minivan.
Right. Using these rationales as our roadmap, let's examine the creme de la creme of midsize crossovers. The spotlight-grabber is Ford's new Edge, which charges onto the market with the unenviable tasks of (A) lassoing the folks abandoning their off-lease Explorers and (B) U-turning business out of the Crossovers "R" Us import dealerships next door. This Mazda6-based chassis is powered by a lusty 3.5-liter four-cam V-6 teamed with a six-speed transmission and front- or on-demand all-wheel drive. Standard roll-stability control promises to keep the Edge out of the class-action lawsuit headlines, and a full complement of front, front side, and curtain airbags are ready to step in when bad driving exceeds RSC's capabilities. A topline four-wheeler with nearly everything on it, including "look-at-me" orange paint, bears the Ford banner in this contest at a cost of $36,710. On the specifications sheet, it's apparent that Ford benchmarked Nissan's Murano extensively when designing the Edge, and as the segment's leader in terms of style and driving dynamics, the Altima-based 'ute received an invite to play, even though its 2008 replacement arrives later this year. Nissan sent a loaded SL model with lockable AWD, leather, sunroof, Bose audio, and chrome wheels priced at an eye-watering $39,075.
The other major newbie is Hyundai's Santa Fe, which rides on much modified Sonata underpinnings, wearing sleek styling that no longer looks like it's been T-boned. Its smartly dressed interior can be had with three-row seating and the cushioning safety of six airbags. Stability control is standard, too. Scrutinize the spec sheets again, and you can see the Korean engineers were cribbing Toyota's Camry-derived Highlander. Engine displacement, transmission gearing, wheelbase, length, and height of this pair are all within a whisker, while the base price is marked down $3000-$6000, depending on the trim level. Our top-drawer Limited model came with few options (it's the only player without a sunroof), wearing the fire-sale price of just $28,810. Let the record show that a maxed-out seven-seat Santa Fe with DVD entertainment and all the trimmings costs $33,950, which would still undercut the average price of the other three by $3500. Here again, it seemed only fair to bring along Hyundai's target, the perennially strong-selling Highlander, also due for renewal within a year. Like Nissan and Ford, Toyota couldn't resist lending us a leather-lined Limited V-6 model with three-row seating and most of the available options ringing in at $36,663. We excused the similarly priced Suzuki XL7 because it's enough bigger to compete with the Honda Pilot class.
To assess the relative merits of these four birds of a feather, we trekked north to the high-Sierra ski resorts of Mammoth and June Lake. The five-hour drive up provided ample opportunity to assess comfort and visibility. All proved comfortable cruisers, with great sound systems, though the Nissan's Bose speakers sounded sweetest. The Hyundai's cabin admitted more wind and road noise at highway speeds, though a peculiar whistle afflicted the Murano just between 20 and 30 mph. The Santa Fe drew the only criticism on the comfort front, from a judge who found the seat cushion too short and the backrest uncomfortably shaped. On the visibility front, however, the Santa Fe trumps all, with a high eye-point, tall greenhouse, and low window sills. Even the shortest drivers can see much of the hood clearly. Drivers in the Highlander enjoy nearly as commanding a view, while the Murano and Edge present huge dashes to look out over. Even tall drivers see little or none of the Edge's hood, while fat pillars and a slim rear window all contribute to a sense of confinement and tunnel-vision when changing lanes. The Murano's rearmost pillars are large, but the rest of the greenhouse is airier.
Toyota wins the space-flexibility race running away, though a Hyundai equipped with the optional third-row seat would nearly match it. Square, yesteryear styling pays off with the largest cargo capacity behind the middle-row seat by a wide 5.5-cubic-foot margin. And with that seat positioned four inches forward, the Highlander's way-back bench was serviceable for this editor's 5-foot-11 frame during a 30-minute ride to dinner. The Murano actually boasts the largest cargo hold with all seats down, but the second smallest in five-passenger mode, thanks to its bee-stinger bum. That rakish rear window slices badly into the Edge's cargo space, leaving the smallest overall volume-a noticeable 10 cubic feet less than the average of the others-and the smallest seats-up space, too. Furthermore, there's no roller-shade cargo cover even offered. As a consolation, the Ford's rear seat is the roomiest, but a slightly low, hard cushion and an uncomfortable center-seat position compromise its comfort. Our judges deemed the Nissan's thrones comfiest, praising soft but supportive padding, a habitable hump-seat, and four height-adjustable shoulder belts. All four trucklets offer reclining rear backrests.
On the style and cachet front, our judges were unanimous: The Ford looks coolest, from its chromed Cheshire-cat grin to its blocky, broad-shouldered stance, this one lets you know it wears the pants in Ford's crossover family. Inside the look is similarly cool, but is let down by hard plastics and visible mold-parting lines. Nissan's colors, sheens, and grains are similar, but nearly everything within reach of the driver feels soft, which makes a much better impression. And although it's been in production for four years, the Murano ranks a close second on the cool scale. The Hyundai's look is fresh and cheerful, light and airy-especially inside. Except for a cheesy gauge font and wood trim that looks like its grain was applied with a Sharpie, the materials all appear upscale. The build quality seems to fit the low price, however, with some misaligned components in the center-stack and uneven gaps around the driver airbag. Toyota's six-year-old Highlander comes off dowdy outside and positively Baroque inside, but it's impeccably assembled.
After two days of slogging down the highway and crawling around back seats and cargo holds during various photo shoots, no favorites had emerged. So we donned our enthusiasts' goggles and thrashed them around the June Lake Loop and then subjected them to our rigorous objective tests, hoping that dynamic brilliance might produce a winner. Once again, two camps emerged. The Ford and Nissan goaded their drivers to ever more miscreant behavior on twisty roads and skidpads alike, while the Hyundai and Toyota seemed always to urge caution. Special commendation is due the Ford engineers who recalibrated the Edge's stability-control system since our December test drive. The current setup allows just enough wheelslip and drift angle to please the enthusiast while keeping him out of trouble. The Toyota's nanny is far stricter, continuing to work the brakes unnecessarily even after the road and steering wheel have straightened out. Ford's steering seems artificially heavy at times, but communicates reasonably well. The general feel is sporting, but the driver is always aware that this vehicle weighs 300 pounds more than the next chunkiest Hyundai (which, by the way, feels like the lightest). The widest, lowest-profile tires in the test paid off with big numbers on the skidpad and figure eight (0.79 g and a best time of 28.2 seconds), but weight conspired against the Edge in quick transitions on the road and in our slalom, where the Nissan managed a blistering 62.5 mph-3.7 quicker than the Ford. June Lake drivers dubbed the Murano the sports car of the group.
The Toyota's worst-in-test handling and "lifeless, rubberband steering," as one editor damned it, was at least compensated by a smooth, comfy ride. The Hyundai's chassis was more astutely tuned, combining equivalent ride quality and supple control over bumps with strong, midpack handling performance-slalom and figure-eight results were second best at 60.9 mph and 28.8 seconds. Some found the Hyundai's steering calibration nonlinear off-center, however. The test's only four-wheel vented disc brakes offered the best pedal feel and halted the Nissan in a curt 121 feet-13 sooner than the next-best Toyota and 28 short of the portly Edge.
In a four-way drag race, the short-geared Toyota leaps out of the blocks first while the Nissan lumbers initially. The lowest ratio in its continuously variable transmission is 25 percent taller than the others' first gears, and the tranny is programmed in such a way that it doesn't reach its power peak until past 60 mph (7.7 seconds, a first-place tie with the Ford). After that, it pulls away from the pack, reaching 90 mph between 0.3 and 1.3 seconds ahead of the rest. The Ford's engine note is a bit coarse, and its six-speed automatic disappoints with oddly spaced gearing (third and fourth are too close, fourth and fifth too far apart, which leads to noisy, dramatic downshifts), there is no intelligent shift-control algorithm to prevent upshifts when lifting for a corner, and there's no way to manually control the gear selection. Despite the Santa Fe's 27 extra horses, each of which pulls 1.7 fewer pounds than the Highlander's do, the Hyundai was slowest at the track. Its 0-to-60-mph time of 8.3 seconds trailed the Toyota's by three-tenths. But the Santa Fe's engine note sounds sweeter and smoother than the Highlander's.
Finally, at the end of the trip we tallied the fuel economy and were surprised to realize that the hot-rod Nissan nearly tied the prim, proper Toyota at just over 19 mpg. The Santa Fe managed 18.3, while the husky Edge delivering a manly 'ute's 16.8 mpg.
So how did they finish? Truth told, no clear favorite emerged, no runaway winner. Innate, unavoidable jingoism had us all subconsciously pulling for the stylish Edge, and its improved driving dynamics bolstered its case. But in the end, we couldn't forgive its inefficient packaging, excessive weight, iffy fit-and-finish, and lack of any standout surprise-and-delight features. It takes fourth. The Toyota is the hands-down winner in every Consumer Reports category, but it fails to deliver any of the style, cachet, or driving enjoyment needed to justify its purchase over a roomier, similarly priced Sienna AWD minivan, so Motor Trend awards it third place. Hyundai delivers most of what Toyota is selling for 80 cents on the dollar and throws in a killer warranty. The Santa Fe even trumps the Highlander in a few places, like soft-roading capability (with an all-wheel-drive lock system and modest underbody shielding). But build quality that doesn't quite live up to the promise of those Toyota-slaying J.D. Power ratings and performance figures that trailed the pack kept this Korean up-'n'-comer out of the winner's circle. And so the overpriced but gracefully aging athlete, which still delivers all the right moves, wins this contest-if only by a nose.
1st Place: Nissan Murano
The high-rise fashion statement that best preserves its donor car's ample dynamic capabilities.