A tour deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to determine which full-size sport/ute is the best of the bigs.
With the price of crude oil hovering around $100 per barrel, auto analysts are once again questioning the continued existence of the large sport/utility. And why not? These big rigs, some of which can haul nine passengers and tow 10,000 pounds, tout large-displacement V-8s and three-ton curb weights. While that can equate to a full load of family, friends, and gear, as well as a fishing boat in the rearview, it also means fuel economy in the low-teens and fill-ups that exceed $80. No wonder minivans are alive and crossovers are kicking.
But while some of these so-called experts are ready to bury the full-size sport/ute six feet under, we’re not ready to grab shovels-at least not until the Smiths and Joneses of America stop saturating parking lots with theses huge/utes. Sales of the Ford Expedition, for xample, actually increased least year, swelling from 87,203 in 2006 to 90,287 in 2007. Several other large SUVs, including the Cadillac Escalade ESV, Chevrolet Suburban, Mercedes GL, and Infiniti QX56, also exprienced year-to-year sales hikes.
If bigger is better, which big is best? To find out, we sent invitations to the major players, Chevy, Ford, Nissan, and Toyota. Caveats? Fourwheel drive and price tags around $50,000. Chevy, hampered by a thin selection, answered with a $40,460 Tahoe LT fitted with a $2160 LT2 equipment group (leather, tri-zone automatic air-conditioning, remote start, power-adjustable pedals, rear park assist), $1830 Z71 suspension package (monotube dampers, off-road tires, locking rear differential), and $860 third-row seat. At $45,310, the Tahoe was the cheapest of the group, although a more fitting, well-equipped LTZ would’ve easily crested 50 large. Ford sent us the new $44,265 Expedition King Ranch edition, replete with a leather-adorned cabin, wood trim, and power-folding third row. A slew of options, including $995 power runningboards and $1995 nav system, bumped the bottom line to $52,840. From Canton, Mississippi, rolled up a $45,375 Nissan Armada LE, a topline example that comes standard with 20-inch wheels, leather, and power liftgate. With nearly $7000 worth of add-ons, notably a $2400 Technology Package (nav, 9.5GB hard drive, XM NavTraffic), the Nissan demanded $52,350. Last but certainly not least, Toyota shipped us a mid-level $49,135 Sequoia Limited, which boasts standard leather, power-folding third row, and 14-speaker JBL audio system. Our tester tacked on another $5000 worth of extras, including a $1650 nav system, raising the tally to $54,140.
With the fleet complete, we headed for snowy Mammoth Lakes, an outdoor Mecca for skiing, hiking, fishing, and, best of all, off-roading. Along the way, we would chase cars up and down congested city freeways, empty desert highways, twisty back roads, and, in order to reach our 8000-foot destination, severe elevation climbs.
The Tahoe entered this grouping as the second youngest to the all-new Sequoia; yet, despite its newness, it quickly impressed us as the most aged. Take the transmission. Paired with a 5.3-liter V-8 whose 320 horsepower trailed only that of the Toyota, the Tahoe’s four-speed proved its Achilles heel at the dragstrip, delivering the weakest 0-to-60 time (8.3 seconds) and the slowest quarter-mile trap speed (85.6 mph). The Chevy’s four-speed struggled on mountain roads, as well, its tall ratios making it difficult to find the ideal gear. Notes editor at large St. Antoine, “Where you particularly miss the extra cog is rolling briskly downhill, where second is too low and third is too high.” Manual mode? Not offered. Note to Chevy: Install the Cadillac Escalade’s Hydra-Matic 6L80 six-speed or, at the very least, its nifty gear-lever-mounted manual-shift buttons.
The sole possessor of a four-speed, the Tahoe was also the only one to sport an old-school live axle, a feature that behooves off-road maneuvers but tends to degenerate on-road motions. Add in steering that was judged too light and not particularly communicative-a “Twirl-O-Matic” feel, according to St. Antoine-and the Chevy’s chassis was downgraded further. Per Truck Trend editor Mark Williams, “It’s the most fun to take to the back country and romp around in, but next to these other family-friendly haulers, it just doesn’t keep up.” Further, by eliminating the possibility of a flat floor, the live axle compromises interior efficiency, forcing Chevy to utilize removable third-row seats rather than fold-flat units like the others. Not only is it burdensome to take out those heavy seats, but it’s also a burden to sit in them, as they offer the least legroom. And if you need to tote gear with a full passenger load, the Tahoe trails again, offering only 16.9 cubic feet behind the third row.
Of course, it’s not like the Chevy is without merits. Despite the Z71 package, the Tahoe provided an impressively compliant highway ride as well as a surprisingly hushed cockpit, even at near-tripledigit speeds. Moreover, the interior, while comparatively Spartan and monotone, did offer the most comfortable front bucket seats and the most front headroom. Plus, with Active Fuel Management that switches between V-8 and V-4 power, the Tahoe, at 13.4 mpg, tied with the Toyota for best-in-test fuel economy.
If you’re looking for a solid off-road toy that’s still laudable on-road, or a cavernous five-seat sport/ute that can swallow seven in a pinch, the Tahoe won’t disappoint. But if you’re looking for more from a three-row full-size SUV, like a higher tow rating than 6200 pounds, there are better options.
Boasting the least horsepower (300) yet the most pounds (6104), the Expedition seemed a lock for slug of the group. But thanks to a six-speed automatic, 365 pound-feet of torque, and four-wheel vented disc brakes, the Ford managed to outhustle the Tahoe to 60 and outbrake it back to zero. Nevertheless, even with 20-inch wheels wearing 55-series Pirellis, the Expedition was unable to cheat the laws of physics, at least in a curved line, posting the slowest figure-eight time (31.0 seconds) and the lowest lateral acceleration (0.68 g).
Out on the twisty roads through Kennedy Meadows, the Expedition’s moves supported these numbers, its soft suspension responding with plenty of roll and dive. And squat? Not enough oomph for that. “Feels sluggish right out of the gate,” opines Williams. “You can tell there’s a lot of weight here, and the engine doesn’t seem interested in compensating.” Sure, there are six speeds, but without a true manual mode, the tranny hunts with the same fervor as Dick Cheney.
Still, the Ford handles well for such a big girl. Says St. Antoine, “Although it rolls into corners, it doesn’t plow like a tractor — it hangs on impressively and even shrugs off mid-corner undulations that can set the other rigs heaving up and down.” The steering, while heavy in feel and slow on turn-in, did deliver linear response, and the brakes felt strong and a match for the cumbersome curb weight. Off road, the Expedition handled the snow with aplomb. “This is where the massive weight helps push the tires to the ground for grip,” claims Williams. Senior editor Loh adds, “It’s reassuring over snowy roads-no slipping, no sliding.”
Inside our King Ranch tester, every editor was impressed by the luxurious “Chaparral” leather, the ultraquiet ambiance, the rearview mirror with integrated backup video screen, and the capacious cabin, the last trumping the others’ third-row headroom and legroom. For transporting Eddie and the entire Bauer clan, the Expedition is tough to beat. Plus, the third row comes with a powerfolding feature, alleviating any back-breaking exercises, and the second row boasts a useful “Cargo Mode,” which lays the middle row flat with the pull of a lever.
From the driver’s seat, though, the view is somewhat disappointing. The instrument panel, with its mix of round and rectangular gauges and chrome, plastic, and wood trim, appears retro for the sake of being retro and at the expense of good function. With its roomy interior, clever packaging, and commendable offroad performance, not to mention being the only one with cooled front seats and power runningboards, the Ford presents a strong case. Just not as strong as the next two.
“An Armada of one? Is that even possible?” queries assistant art director Mike Royer prior to our departure from L.A. Well, after clipping 0 to 60 in a mere 6.8 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.3 at 88.9 mph, the Armada conceivably has more horses on-board than the claimed 317. Not only is the Nissan, with its 5.6-liter V-8 and five-speed automatic, quick, it’s also agile. The lightest by two pounds but the longest by 1.2 inches, the Armada consumed the figure eight in a best-in-test 28.8 seconds and the skidpad at a sedanlike 0.76 g. Says Loh, “The Armada offers the best balance of the pack, with great grip and no drama when cornering. It feels like a sports car in comparison — like a 560Z!” Through our test loop, it exhibited the most confidence-inspiring handling, moves heightened by the organic steering and ergonomically sound interior. “This is the nicest cabin of the bunch,” claims St. Antoine, adding, “I love the big, clear gauges and controls, the nice matte finish with appealing chrome accents, and, by far, the best/easiest nav system here.”
When it came time to drop anchor, the Armada, again, rose to the top. It needed only 128 feet to erase 60 mph, superior to the other SUVs here as well as its sedan sibling, the Altima 3.5 SE, which required 131 feet in a February 2008 test. Unfortunately, you’ll have to drop anchor often for fuel, as it recorded 11.9 mpg during our soiree in the snow. At least its parched Endurance V-8, like the Tahoe’s flex-fuel Vortec, will drink regular unleaded or E85. Perhaps the Armada’s unquenchable thirst was due to its wild time in Mammoth’s winter wonderland. With a full-time automatic setting, not to mention its sporty chassis, the Nissan proved the most entertaining in the fluff.
In any case, the Armada’s handsome body makes it easier to accept its fat fuel fix. “The exterior is the most tidy-she hides her weight well,” notes Loh. St. Antoine concurs: “I like this exterior the best-it’s chunky, modern, and sporty, and the big wheels and tires look great.” As we mentioned before, the Nissan’s smart styling flows into the interior, too, a space that surprised everyone with its functionality and room. The fold-flat second row not only tumbles forward with the pull of a lever for easy ingress and egress, but also outclasses the others’ in headroom and legroom, while the third row, which is split 60/40 and can be folded flat, delivers decent mid-pack measurements.
Need to tow a boat? This Armada is capable of adding a 9000-pound vessel to the end of the line, well more than that of the Tahoe. Given its athletic handling, strong acceleration, and striking styling, the Nissan places ahead of the Ford. But there’s one it couldn’t outpace.
Like its namesake, Toyota’s Sequoia is big. Surprisingly, though, at 205.1 inches long, it’s stubbier than the Ford and the Nissan, and, at 74.6 inches tall, it’s the shortest of the bunch. Due to intelligent packaging and Toyota’s usual dose of overengineering, the Sequoia’s tidy exterior dimensions don’t translate to tight interior quarters. In our second- and third-row useability tests, all four judges scored the Toyota, which provided the most shoulder room, as the roomiest and most comfortable, even though it trailed some of the others’ dimensions for headroom and legroom. Moreover, the fold-flat second row not only features a relaxing recline function, but also a slide mechanism for effortless entry and exit. And the power-folding third row? Passengers can recline back there, too.
Not that the Sequoia’s seats really need a recline function. With 381 horses and 401 pound-feet emanating from a 5.7-liter i-Force V-8, the Toyota can push passengers into their seatbacks with what seems like enough energy to recline to the floor. Mash the throttle, and the Sequoia eclipses 60 in only 6.2 seconds and the quarter mile in just 14.7 at 93.7 mph. Remember the comparison-winning Camry SE V-6 from February? It wasn’t any quicker to 60 and only 0.1 second speedier in the quarter. If we hadn’t filled the Sequoia with 87-octane ourselves, we’d have thought it runs on Miracle-Gro. Amazingly, however, even with the largest, most powerful engine and the second heaviest curb weight (6003 pounds), the Toyota matched the Chevy for best fuel economy, a testament to the well-sorted six-speed automatic.
That six-speed, by the way, was the only auto of the group to have a dedicated manual mode. “It lets you summon up- or downshifts with a proper fore-aft sport gate,” notes St. Antoine. Even when running the gears to redline, the 5.7 remains smooth and seductive, unable to disturb the cabin, which, along with the Ford’s, was deemed most serene. More important, the manual mode, which lets your right hand to keep a tight rein on all 381 horses, allows you to fully appreciate the sporty capabilities of the Sequoia’s control-arm independent suspension. “The chassis is poised,” adds St. Antoine, “with little roll unless you carry way too much speed into a bend.” And should you carry too much speed, the Toyota’s four-wheel vented disc brakes are the largest of the foursome and the only ones utilizing fixed four-piston front calipers.
Drawbacks? The Toyota has a few, namely, light and numb steering, an overwrought dash with questionable ergonomics, and the absence of an Auto four-wheel-drive mode, although with its center locking differential, the Sequoia never slipped-up through the snow and ice. And considering the Toyota tops the others in towing capacity (10,000 pounds), interior functionality and comfort, and acceleration, it’s easy to see how it leads this snow patrol.
1st place: 2008 Toyota Sequoia Limited
Sport-sedan acceleration, luxury-car comfort, and tugboat towing make this new Toy the best of the bigs.
2nd place: 2008 Nissan Armada LE
Poor fuel economy, a snugger third row, and slower acceleration prevent the Armada from docking on top.
3rd place: 2008 Ford Expedition King Ranch
Quiet, roomy cabin and off-road adeptness overshadowed by cumbersome curb weight, soft suspenders, and a tacky dash.
4th place: 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe LT
Clean looks and commanding Z71 package can’t overcome unsatisfactory four-speed and substandard interior packaging.
| ||2008 CHEVROLET TAHOE 4WD LT||2008 FORD EXPEDITION KING RANCH 4×4||2008 NISSAN ARMADA LE 4×4||2008 TOYOTA SEQUOIA LIMITED 4×4|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, 4WD|
|Engine type||90 Vv-8, iron block/alum heads||90 Vv-8, iron block/alum heads||90 V-8, alum block/heads||90 V-8, alum block/heads|
|Valvetrain||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||SOHC, 3 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Displacement||325.0 cu in/5328 cc||330.4 cu in/5414 cc||338.8 cu in/5552 cc||345.6 cu in/5663 cc|
|Power (SAE net)||320 hp @ 5200 rpm*||300 hp @ 500 rpm||317 hp @ 5200 rpm||381 hp @ 5600 rpm|
|Torque (SAE net)||340 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm*||365 lb-ft @ 3750||385 lb-ft @ 3400 rpm||401 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm|
|Weight to power||17.9 lb/hp||20.3 lb/hp||18.0 lb/hp||15.8 lb/hp|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic||6-speed automatic||5-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|Suspension, front; rear||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, load-leveling shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, load-leveling shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes, f;r||13.0-in vented disc: 13.5-in disc, ABS||13.5-in vented disc: 13.2-in vented disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc: 12.6-in disc, ABS||13.9-in vented disc: 13.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|Wheels||8.0 x 18 in, cast aluminum||8.5 x 20 in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 20 in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 18 in, cast aluminum|
|Tires, f;r||265/65R18 112S M+S, Bridgestone Dueler A/T||275/55R20 111H M+S, Pirelli Scorpion STR||265/60R20 114H M+S, Michelin Latitude||275/65R18 114T M+S, Michelin LTX A/S|
|Wheelbase||116.0 in||119.0 in||123.2 in||122.0 in|
|Track, f/r||68.2/67.0 in||67.0/67.2 in||67.5/67.5 in||67.9/69.1 in|
|Length x width x height||202.0 x 79.0 x 77.0 in||206.5 x 78.8 x 77.2 in||207.7 x 79.3 x 77.2 in||205.1 x 79.9 x 74.6 in|
|Ground clearance||9.0 in||8.7 in||10.4 in||10.0 in|
|Apprch/ deapart angle||17.0/21.9 deg||22.6/21.5 deg||26.2/22.7 deg||27.0/21.0 deg|
|Turning circle||39.0 ft||40.8 ft||40.8 ft||39.0 ft|
|Curb weight||5715 lb||6104 lb||5713 lb||6003 lb|
|Weight dist., f/r||52/48 %||50/50 %||51/49 %||51/49 %|
|Headroom, f/r||41.1/38.5/38.2 in||39.6/39.8/38.3 in||41.0/40.0/35.9 in||38.3/38.9/36.0 in|
|Legroom, f/r||41.3/39.0/25.4 in||41.1/39.1/37.7 in||41.8/41.9/32.2 in||42.5/36.4/35.3 in|
|Shoulder room, f/r||65.3/65.3/57.9 in||63.2/63.7/51.9 in||65.0/64.7/58.8 in||66.4/65.6/60.6 in|
|Cargo volume||108.0/60.3/16.9 cu ft||108.3/55.0/18.6 cu ft||97.1/56.7/20.0 cu ft||120.1/66.6/18.9 cu ft|
|Acceleration to mph|
|0-30||2.8 sec||2.6 sec||2.2 sec||2.0 sec|
|Passing, 45-65 mph||4.5 sec||4.5 sec||3.7 sec||3.2 sec|
|Quarter mile||16.1 sec @ 85.6 mph||16.1 sec @ 85.9 mph||15.3 sec @ 88.9 mph||14.7 sec @ 93.7 mph|
|Braking, 60-0 mph||140 ft||139 ft||128 ft||139 ft|
|Lateral acceleration||0.71 g (avg)||0.68 g (avg)||0.76 g (avg)||0.72 g (avg)|
|MT figure eight||30.0 sec @ 0.52 g (avg)||31.0 sec @ 0.49 g (avg)||28.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)||29.8 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)|
|Top-gear revs @ 60 mph||1700 rpm||1600 rpm||1700 rpm||1800 rpm|
|Price as tested||$45,310||$52,840||$52,350||$54,140|
|Airbags||Dual front, front side, f/m/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/mr curtain||Dual front, front side, f/mr curtain||Dual front, front side, f/mr curtain|
|Basic warranty||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|Roadside assistance||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||N/A||N/A|
|Fuel capacity||26.0 gal||28.0 gal||28.0 gal||26.4 gal|
|EPA city/hwy econ||14/19 (gas) 11/14 (E85) lb/mile||N/A||12/17 (gas) 9/13 (E85) mgp||13/18 mpg|
|CO2 emissions||1.22 (gas) 1.12 (E85) lb/mile||N/A||1.40 (gas) 1.30 (E85) lb/mile||13.1 lb/mile|
|MT fuel economy||13.4 mpg (gas)||12.2 mpg||11.9 mpg (gas)||13.4 mpg|
|Recommended fuel||Regular of E85||Regular||Regular or E85||Regular|