The SUV is Dead. Long Live the CUV!!

Aug 22, 2007

The Bottom Line Today's buzz is all about "crossover utility vehicles" --- CUVs. Here's how to choose one and five picks for "best in breed CUV". Read on!

Sales of oversized, inefficient, hard-to-drive, big SUVs have been in a long overdue downward spiral for many months now. On an opposite upwards spiral are sales numbers for models that go by the name CUV --- crossover utility vehicle --- instead of sport utility vehicle. What are these things? Which are the best CUVs for the 2007 and 2008 model years? And most importantly, Is a CUV "right" for your driving needs? Let's talk about what to look for in a CUV and then we'll stroll through a few virtual showrooms to pick out my favorite "best of breed" CUV models from a crowded cast of contenders.

First off...What's the difference between a SUV and a CUV?

Essentially, a CUV takes the SUV's looks and interior seating and cargo configurations and puts them on a car-based platform that drives better, is more efficient, and that incorporates fundamental construction differences, like lower mass and a unibody design, to improve some of the chronic safety problems in SUVs. That's the theory anyway.

CUV is a new buzz-phrase and a newly coined "market niche", but it's hardly a new concept.The Honda CR-V has always been a CUV, since its first introduction way back in 1997, and Subaru has been doing their all-wheel drive performance with genuine occasional off-road potential since....well...since forever! Most new car buyers have always had a car choice that would fit comfortably in today's CUV marketplace...they just weren't called CUVs. (Does anybody remember the AMC Eagle??)

So, what makes for a "good" CUV???

Factors to Consider When Choosing An SUV or CUV...
Although the CUV drives better, looks better, and is easier on the pocketbook than an old-style SUV, there are still reasons to prefer the SUV over a CUV and there are reasons why both may be worse bets for you than a sedan or hatchback passenger car. Let's take a look at some things to think about before you go shopping: know what your real needs are (daily real-world use --- not the "once in a while" things that make people overbuy), and you'll be miles ahead when it comes time to slam some doors and kick some tires.

* Interior Comfort: You want a car that's comfortable for you, and for your passengers. How many passengers are you planning to carry regularly? Are they big or small folks? Do you do mostly long trips, or short trips to the mall? Buying a vehicle with a 3rd row seat and space for 7 or 8 passengers is just plain silly if you're single, or even if you only have a couple of kids. If you have teens or older, nobody is going to ever sit in that 3rd row anyway --- aside from the 3rd row seats in minivan-style vehicles, the 3rd row seats in almost ALL SUVs and CUVs are totally useless and impractical --- try to sit there yourself before you buy an SUV or a CUV to handle real-world seating needs for 7 or more! Too many people find out later that those 3rd row seats don't really seat anyone older than 5. Make a list of interior perks that are important to you. Rear A/C vents? DVD screens? Power outlets for the kids' handheld games? Center consoles? Seat pockets? Check the legroom too...

* Towing: A lot of people buy SUVs because they "tow a boat"...or a trailer of some kind. (Even though they may only do it once in the 5 years they own the vehicle.) Keep in mind that many recreational boats are fairly light in weight and don't require anything near the overkill of mammoth V8 engines and cargo hauling suspensions. Most CUVs are more than capable of handling light towing requirements (so are some passenger cars, for that matter --- especially on only the occasional need).

* Cargo: Take a look at the amount of space behind the rear seat. Is it going to fit the amount of stuff you usually carry on weekends or vacations? Even if it might look a little tight, have you thought about a roof rack for the occasional use instead of bumping up to an oversized vehicle that wastes your money and drives poorly? One thing to consider with the vehicles that do give you the 3rd seat is that you may have little (or no) cargo capacity when the seat is in the upright position. Look at it and think about your real needs.

* Safety: Most CUVs outperform SUVs in safety tests, and they tend to have better safety features standard. There are some exceptions, so research first. Also, remember that most truck-based SUVs have seats that don't protect you against whiplash, while CUVs often do, and that the larger the SUV, the more and the larger the blind spots. Also, the higher the ground clearance, the more likely you are to have a vehicle that will rollover easier, endangering you and your passengers. Know the risks. Research your options: start off at web sites like

* Fuel Economy: Although CUVs trend towards smaller and lighter, their fuel economy is still fairly poor. Almost all have city mileage estimates under 20MPG with highway numbers clustering close to 25. If fuel economy is important to you, there are better vehicle choices out there than CUVs.

* Driving Dynamics: All SUVs handle poorly. It's the nature of the beast. They're ponderous at best, and downright painful to drive for anybody who really appreciates any kind of performance or fun factor in their vehicles. The CUVs tend to be a bit better. They ride better, they handle better. One thing to think about though is whether your own regular needs include any genuine off-road capability or mud, snow, or mountain handling ability. Most CUV models have AWD options, but if you actually use things like low gear ranges, or the ability to lock a differential into 4WD mode, then many of the CUVs will prove a poor alternative to a real SUV. Although the CUV is built on a car platform, it generally performs worse than a passenger car configuration on the same platform, and although a CUV may borrow looks and body styling from the SUVs, it generally has no real truck-like or genuine off-road capabilities (despite rugged, outdoorsy-looking TV commercials to the contrary). The CUV is really only for drivers who expect undemanding, mediocre suburban driving dynamics. That's not necessarily a ding though, since that's what most driver really need.

* Value: As the market gets more and more crowded, there's more options at every price point, from about $20K on up to about $40K. Once you get above or below that point, you're probably not in the CUV niche, though you may well find vehicles that are more appealing to you and that better meet your real driving needs. The most expensive vehicles are not the ones with the best value. Some are quite nice, and perform well in certain key areas, though the best combination of features, dependability, safety, and driveability happens to be one of the least expensive models. As with most things in life, you don't really get what you pay for --- there's people who get great deals, and there's a sucker born every minute. Know before you drive and you'll drive away with a smarter deal.

So, now that we've figured out what kinds of things to look for in a CUV, which models are the strongest contenders? The ones where we should start our new CUV quest...

Five Outstanding CUV Models...
Truthfully...I have no idea just how many vehicles today are sold as CUVs. There must be dozens by now. But in my opinion, there's five top CUV models that are among the best bets for a new car buyer to consider. I'll rank them in order of MSRP as listed on, least expensive to most expensive...

* Honda CR-V (MSRP starts around $20.6K)
Re-designed for the 2007 model year, the CR-V was actually a better and smarter vehicle for 2006...the changes are mostly "keeping up with the Joneses" by fattening up the curb weight and lengthening the vehicle to make it perform as poorly as its competitors. Despite its increased bulk, it's still one of the smartest buys in the CUV market, owing mostly to its Civic heritage with its more fuel efficient in-line 4 cylinder engine. More than ample space for a family of 4 with vacation acoutrements, it's a well-equipped vehicle that gets the best mileage of any of the gas-fueled CUVs while also delivering the best long-term dependability ratings and one of the lowest depreciation rates. It will be the best choice for most CUV buyers.

* Mazda CX-7 (MSRP starts around $23.8K)
Mazda's sporty-looking new CUV is a strong candidate for the buyer who would normally opt for a larger, more feature-laden CUV --- like the Nissan Murano. I like the CX-7 better than the Murano because its styling is stronger, I like the performance numbers on Mazda's turbocharged 4-cylinder a lot better than the gas-hungry 6 that Nissan uses, and I feel that Murano's lack of now-common safety features, like electronic stability control and daytime running lights, make it a less attractive family hauler than CX-7's more updated feature list. Besides, of the vehicles listed here, the CX-7 is in the top 2 in terms of any possible claim to the "fun" side of the driving dynamics question. I think most CUV buyers will find a lot to like in Mazda's sporty new entry.

* Ford Edge (MSRP starts around ($25.3K)
Ford dominated the SUV market for several years with its Bronco and then Explorer nameplates, and the Edge is their SUV-oriented CUV (together with sister-vehicle, the Lincoln MKX). With its 3.5 litre V6 engine cranking 265 horsepower, the Edge is also a viable candidate for the driver who wants SUV-like seating and cargo space configuration with some reasonable potential for light towing and hauling. Buyers without a need to frequently tow would, in my opinion, be better served with the stronger value proposition of the CR-V, or perhaps even the CX-7. Buyers who want a third seat will need to look to GM.

* Saturn Outlook (MSRP starts around $27.6K)
General Motors has an extremely strong entry with their new CUV platform (dubbed "lambda" in GM-speak). Together with sister cars, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia, the Saturn Outlook is among the largest and most powerful of the CUV class. If your criteria include any kind of towing, hauling, or cargo packing, then this is the CUV to look at most closely. All three vehicles feature clean, aggressive styling, powerful V6 engines, class-leading cargo space, 3rd row seating, plus a 4500 pound towing capacity that makes it a solid choice for the buyer who really does regularly tow even a fairly large recreational boat or RV. The gas mileage stinks and the Outlook is heavier and more ponderous to drive than some of its competitors in the CUV class, but if you really want that extra space and brawn, then its a tradeoff you might want to make.

* Lexus RX (MSRP starts around $37.4K)
One of the strongest contenders in the upscale SUV/CUV/luxury/performance market is the mature Lexus RX. While BMW's X5 and X3, and Porsche's Cayenne, continue to market to the oxymoronic "performance SUV" niche, Lexus plays a much more sedate, but ultimately satisfying hand with its focus on interior luxury. This is a very nicely appointed vehicle for the upscale CUV driver. Sized and proportioned like the Mazda, it's 270 horsepower V6 gives it plenty of power to boot.

Those five are the "best of breed" at this particular point in time....but maybe you don't even need to confine yourself to the "CUV niche"...

Viable Alternatives to the CUV...
After looking at a few CUVs and driving them for yourself, you might wonder whether there are other vehicles that don't call themselves CUVs, but that would give you near-CUV looks and configuration practicality with perhaps better bang-for-the-buck when it comes to the value proposition. There are indeed. Remember, it's not marketers or car magazines that determine what vehicles are "competitive"'s you, the buyer, and your real-world needs. Remember that. Scoff at salesmen who suggest otherwise, and you put yourself in the drivers seat when it comes time for negotiation and competitive banter.

Here's three vehicles that I'd personally think about and take a second look at before actually signing on the bottom line for any of these CUVs:

* Subaru Forester: Same passenger space as the CUVs, plenty of cargo space behind the second seat, better safety engineering with lower tip potential than many CUVs, plus Subaru has a great track record when it comes to the light off-road potential of its very mature AWD technology. Priced lower than most CUVs with better fuel economy to boot, it's got strong bottom-line potential.

* Toyota Matrix: I honestly have no idea why Matrix doesn't outsell the Camry. Matrix is a great little car with bulletproof reliability based on the Corolla frame, plus its a sporty looking little package that feels good to drive and gets incredible good gas mileage --- 50% better than many of these CUVs, but with no loss of passenger space (in fact, Matrix actually has more rear seat legroom than some of the bigger CUVs!! Add a roof rack to a Matrix and there's no family weekend or vacation jaunt that the Matrix can't handle. And with prices starting in the mid teens, it's a car that everyone can afford!

* Chevy Silverado: Let's face it. There are some drivers out there who really do need towing power, hauling power, available 4WD, cargo handling potential, and just plain brawn. These drivers might choose a big SUV, though I personally like pickups better. In my opinion, you just can't buy a better all-around full-size pickup than Chevy Silverado. And in their work truck configurations, you can usually snag a Silverado 1500 for less change than some of these CUVs. Worth considering, any way.

So, what's the bottom line on all this??

The Two Best CUVs Money Can Buy...
Okay, you've done your homework, you've looked at the cars, you've come up with your own list of "must haves" and "nice to haves". These should dictate what CUV best meets your needs given your own financial resources.

In my opinion, the two CUVs that really stand out as much better or significantly differentiated from the pack are:
* Honda CR-V
* Saturn Outlook

I like the CR-V because it's got the best value proposition going for it. Quality is the big reason: this is probably the most dependable, durable vehicle of all those mentioned in this piece (take a look at the long-term reliability ratins in Consumer Reports and you'll see what I mean). Bulletproof reliability --- CR-V has it. It's also got the best fuel economy of the CUV-labeled vehicles, it's got one of the lowest MSRP entry points, and to top it off, it's got some of the most precise, stable, performance-oriented driving dynamics of the pack. Its downside is in the power plant: Honda hasn't overhorsepowered this car and it lacks the suspension and torque needed to do any useful towing. As family conveyence, the inline 4 cylinder engine is perfectly adequate, though it won't win any races and it would be a poor choice for the driver who has real needs for towing or hauling....but you and I both know perfectly well that we don't normally do that, so why should we pay for an extra half ton of iron and an extra hundred horsepower that we don't need?? If you understand the practical logic of that statement, then the CR-V is the CUV for you. Otherwise, read on for my second "best CUV" choice...

The Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave are great looking vehicles, each and every one. Their styling is impeccable, their initial quality outstanding, and their feature list is the envy of the CUV market. This is really your only choice if you really want that 3rd row seating option. More people hauling space than any CUV in its class. A powerful 270 horsepower V6, plus best-in-class rear seat leg room with 38-1/2 inches in a seat that really can viably seat 3 adults across. With a gas-guzzling mileage rating of only 16MPG, it's not exactly an efficiency improvement over the huge hulking SUVs, but if your point was really better styling and a more car oriented ride, and not saving money or saving the planet, then this might be the CUV for you. And while all three new GM vehicles are essentially the same, they all have trim level differences, and they all have pricing differences. Naturally, I focused on the Outlook since it's the least expensive of the three. Your mileage may vary.

If I were buying a CUV today, I'd probably break out of the mold and go for a Toyota's the practical side of me (though I could probably learn to live with a CR-V in a pinch....)

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