Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Base price: $26,499
Hyundai managed to get the Santa Fe entered in two SUV categories at this year's TestFest: this one, and those priced below $35,000. It was a strong contender in both categories, but the over-$35,000 model represents less vehicle for the money.
What you're getting here is a turbocharged version of the regular Santa Fe, and a few other odds and ends, and the price goes up by $5,000.
Aside from more top end power, there isn't a lot of performance difference between the two. I also think a V-6 engine would be a better choice; it offers more low-end power and could be tuned to deliver comparable fuel economy. That said, the Santa Fe can hold its own against anything else in this category.
It had arguably the highest standard equipment content of all eight models entered in this year's competition, and its assembly quality and NVH is on par with everyone else – better than some, in fact. Power for this version is set at 264 hp, which is among the leaders here, and you get all-wheel-drive and a proper six-speed automatic transmission, not a CVT, as was the case with those models entered by Nissan/Infiniti.
My test car with the SE package, also had one of my favourite features: a heated steering wheel. Not a big deal, and optional, plus other models have it as well, but it's welcome just the same.
Base price: $29,998
Completely redone for this year, the Pathfinder is more refined than before and has entered the upscale SUV arena. It used to be a rough-and-tumble off-roader and still has an AWD system, but it represents a market shift for Nissan. Too bad about the CVT.
Base price: $44,900
I'm sorry, but any SUV that approaches the 60-grand mark (before taxes and extras) should have more than a CVT transmission. Similar in size and purpose to the new Pathfinder, the JX is overpriced and not noticeably superior to its Nissan kissing cousin. Nicely done interior, though, with a high comfort level.
GMC Terrain Denali
Base price: $39,935
Also available with a four cylinder engine, the Terrain had the most distinctive styling treatment in this group and stands out in a crowd. I really liked the 3.6-litre V-6 engine, and it's only another two grand more than the base version. All-wheel-drive, traction control and GM's Stabili-trak all come as standard equipment.
Base price: $32,995
This one was a nice surprise. More traditional looking than its GMC counterpart, I found it to be quieter in operation, with better peripheral visibility and a smoother ride. If it wasn't for the fact that it's front-drive, this would have got my vote as the pick of the litter.
Ford Escape 2.0L
Base price: $37,499
As tested: $42,329
Again with the EcoBoost engine. Memo to Ford: this powerplant ain't that great, and fuel economy for the EcoBoost is unexceptional in town, although pretty good on the highway. I think a nicely tuned V-6 would be a better choice here. Loved the hands-free power liftgate, but did not care for the Sync, as usual.
Base price: $44,950
The RX350 was my pick here. Although a little pricey, it offers the tightest construction quality and arguably the highest comfort level. With a 270-horsepower V-6 and an eight-speed transmission, it's also got the perfect drivetrain combo. Not to mention, I got along famously with its stationary mouse driver interface system. A very agreeable SUV.
Base price: $43,990
As tested: $43,990
Where most of the entries in this category are happy with regular fuel, the RDX's V-6 requires premium. That's one strike against it. On the other hand, the variable cylinder management system works a treat and is unobtrusive and virtually unnoticeable. Even so, not the best fuel economy in this category.