In 2013 large SUV models formed the fourth most popular segment in the country. Fast forward to first quarter 2014 and the large SUV class is now the second most popular, overtaking utes and light cars. Australians clearly love big, high-riding practical cars, purchasing more than 10,000 large SUVs each month.
Seven of the top 10 selling large SUV models are tested here. Seven seats was to be a requisite for this test until we realised the top seller in the class is the five-seat-only Jeep Grand Cherokee.
It is the exception that proves the rule, because (listed in popularity order) seven seats are standard in the Holden Captiva 7, Ford Territory (base TX excepted), Toyota Kluger, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9 and Kia Sorento.
The catalysts for this comparison test are the new Kluger and Pathfinder. Their availability only with six-cylinder petrol engines meants ruling out the four-cylinder petrol or diesel Hyundai Santa Fe (though not as a worthy consideration) to keep a truly even playing field.
Both start at about $40,000, another entry criterion for this comparison that meant also ruling out the more expensive Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota Prado that complete the top 10 sellers list.
Despite bluff SUV bodies, two-wheel drive rules at that price point with the the single exception of the Holden Captiva 7 that comes standard with all-wheel drive.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
It’s worth noting there are essentially two sizes within the large SUV class.
The Holden Captiva 7 and Kia Sorento measure less than 4.7 metres long, where the others here range from almost 4.9m to beyond 5.1m. Both Korean-sourced models compensate by delivering high-end specification to rival larger rivals’ base models.
Although only a $35,990 Holden Captiva 7 LT could be supplied for this test, the $39,990 Captiva 7 LTZ would still have been the equal-cheapest model here. It would also have been the best-equipped – the only SUV standard with 19-inch alloy wheels, satellite navigation and an electric sunroof. (The tested LT misses out on the latter two items and gets 18s).
The $40,990 mid-grade Sorento SLi joins the Captiva 7 LTZ by being the only similarly priced model with full leather trim. Sat-nav is a $1500 optional extra on the Kia.
Similar levels of equipment can be found on the $39,990 Pathfinder ST, Territory TX, and $40,990 Kluger GX.
The $43,000 Grand Cherokee Laredo and $44,525 CX-9 Classic also have similar kit levels, so the costliest entry-level models here need to justify their up-front expense in other ways.
The Territory TX is the least well-equipped car for the money, and Ford asks $2500 for third-row seats.
It gets 17-inch alloy wheels that are a size smaller than its rivals here, and a monochromatic infortainment display instead of the colour touchscreens offered by both its competitors and the $47,790 Territory TS that could only be supplied for this test.
Choosing the TS also brings a reverse-view camera that should be standard on the TX.
Although the middle-grade model has a higher RRP, our research in caryards found the Territory is the most heavily discounted SUV here, with some dealers quoting $40,000 driveaway for the TS – worth bargaining hard, then.
At least the Territory TX gets a four-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat. The Kluger GX and CX-9 Classic are the only models here to get manual height adjustment, while the Captiva 7 LTZ, Pathfinder ST, Sorento SLi and Grand Cherokee Laredo all include an eight-way electrically adjustable driver seat.
The Jeep exclusively offers a four-way electrically adjustable passenger seat and (along with the Captiva 7 LTZ) front seat heating, in addition to automatic wipers and costly features such as bi-xenon headlights with auto high-beam.
The Toyota is the only model to get manual air conditioning, though it curiously gets a split-zone system with second-row passengers able to adjust the fan speed and temperature dial for the roof-mounted vents in both back rows.
Only the Nissan and Mazda get tri-zone climate control, though the CX-9 lacks rearmost vents.
The Kia joins the remaining models to get dual-zone climate control, and it is the only other SUV here to provide vents for both back rows and it also gives its rear-right passenger a manual fan control for the furthermost row. The Ford only get vents in the second row; the Holden lacks them for both rows.
All SUVs here come with dual-front, side and curtain airbags, though only the Toyota, Ford and Jeep also gets a driver’s knee airbag, and only the Kluger and Pathfinder extend their head protection airbags all the way to the sixth and seventh passengers in the third row (more on that later).
Despite the Grand Cherokee’s extra airbag protection, it is the only model here to score a four-star NCAP/ANCAP safety rating rather than the full five stars achieved by its rivals, scoring well except for a slight dip in the frontal-offset test.
All models also get USB, iPod and Bluetooth phone connectivity, though all also lack internet app capability that is fast becoming more common on mainstream cars. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that the Nissan lacks Bluetooth audio connectivity, which isn’t even available on the $50,990 Pathfinder ST-L middle-grade model.
For the money, though, the climate-controlled, leather-wheeled Nissan otherwise looks like terrific value, while even the Toyota that lacks those items appears better value than the Ford and Mazda that demand more outlay for those features. The Jeep better justifies its price than those latter rivals. And the Kia and Holden? On paper, they’re the value stars…
INFOTAINMENT AND CONNECTIVITY
While you’ll have to find extra in the wallet for higher-spec model grades to score DVD entertainment screens for kids in the back, in the mostly entry-level grades assembled here, those up front get infotainment systems that come in different colour-touchscreen sizes– 7.0 inches is the norm, except for the 5.0-inch Jeep, 6.1in Toyota and 8.0in Ford (in TS specification here; the TX has a monochrome 5.8in screen).
Kia leads the way with its infotainment system. A high-resolution screen and intuitive interface are backed by a TFT speedometer and tachometer that looks a class above.
The Jeep also has a TFT speedo and tacho, and its smaller centre screen features a light-wood wallpaper that matches the actual dash inserts to look nicely integrated.
The Toyota system is simple and intuitive though it has a generic look, while the Mazda’s Bluetooth system takes the longest to boot-up but has similarly fine usability.
Although the Holden’s mismatched displays appear the cheapest of the group, the LTZ model offers the touchscreen unavailable on the LT provided here. A few testers had issue with the Ford placing its touchscreen two levels above dashboard buttons that control similar functions.
In addition to missing Bluetooth audio streaming, the Nissan’s phone connectivity interface is so incredibly difficult to first access then sync that it sparked an intr-office competition. Most failed to even pair; the winning time was still four minutes! It also has a low-resolution screen and myriad controls for other functions that is confusing.
INTERIOR QUALITY, SEATING AND PRACTICALITY
The emphasis with the Toyota Kluger (above) is on functionality, and here it scores more than any SUV rival. There’s some terrific interior touches – the centre console bin is massive and the storage tray that runs across the full length of the dash is inspired.
Measuring 4.87 metres long, the Toyota is also the best-packaged contender, affording middle row passengers up to 34cm of legroom with the sliding centre bench all the way back, and a still-reasonable 22cm with it all the way forward.
In a body length comparison the Nissan Pathfinder (below) stretches 5.0m while the Mazda (the longest car here) extends 5.1m. Yet the Pathfinder in the middle row only offers slightly more legroom than the Kluger (between 35cm and 22cm, the most here) and the CX-9 delivers less (between 27cm and 16cm).
The Ford and Jeep measure an almost identical length to the Toyota, too, at 4.88m and 4.83m respectively. Yet the Territory’s middle row affords between 25cm and 16cm of legroom, while the Grand Cherokee with its non-sliding middle bench delivers a fixed 26cm.
Difference is, up front the Mazda and Jeep look and feel a cut-above up front, with their leather-wrapped steering wheels, liberal use of chrome and proper climate controls. By contrast, the Kluger in GX trim doesn’t look much more inspiring than a $30,000 Camry Altise, while the Pathfinder has too many hard plastics to appear high-quality. The Territory, though, has poor fit and finish – our test car had an ill-fitting glovebox lid, doorgrab cover and driver’s power window switch – in addition to dated plastics.
Given the other two models here are about 20cm shorter in length, the 4.67m Holden and 4.69m Kia appear well packaged at least for middle row occupants. Both with fixed centre benches, the Captiva offers a Territory-matching 25cm of legroom while the Sorento trails it slightly with 23cm.
There’s a bigger difference in quality up front where the vinyl-like dash surfacing and sticky controls of the Captiva (above) pale against the neatly designed Sorento dashboard and its high-resolution screens.
It’s when you start delving into the third row that both the shorter SUVs most clearly struggle to compete with the big units.
The Nissan, with a brilliant seat-folding mechanism that flips the middle seat base up against the backrest then slides the whole bench forward to rest against the front seats, blitzes the bunch for third row access and dominates for room. Depending on where the middle row is positioned, the Pathfinder offers between 31cm and 18cm of legroom for occupants perched on a plushly padded rearmost cushion.
There’s near-equal back row legroom in the even longer-bodied Mazda (above) – between 29cm and 19cm. Although seat comfort is good, the CX-9’s back pews are the most awkward to access (via a backrest tilt-and-slide mechanism), it has the second least amount of headroom (after the Sorento) and lacks ventilation.
As with the second row rankings, the not-as-long Toyota trumps the Mazda for third row comfort, with less legroom – between 27cm and 12cm – offset by easier access (via a similar tilt-and-slide middle row), roof vents and extra shoulder width.
The Ford (below) may technically have the most third row legroom here, affording between 34cm and 25cm of space, but the figures are deceptive because the Territory has the shortest and thinnest seat cushion of the bunch. More like a scatter cushion than an actual seat, it forces occupants into a legs-up seating position that is the least comfortable here.
The Kia and Holden are a balancing act of abilities within their shorter frames. The Captiva has 21cm of legroom, a simple tumble-fold middle row bench to access it, and reasonable headroom but no ventilation.
The Sorento (below) offers just 1cm more legroom and proper ventilation with fan speed control, but the worst headroom of the bunch and a middle row that only rolls forward on the passenger side – meaning the driver’s side rearmost passenger has to first climb in through the passenger rear door.
All of these large SUVs will fit a shedload in their boots – but what will fit in each contender is dependent on what’s in your shed and how many seats you need up.
The Kluger, CX-9 and Pathfinder will allow some larger sporting equipment behind their third rows, for example, where the Territory, Sorento and Captiva will be more restricted to folded fishing lines. The Holden’s 85-litre capacity is less than half the Toyota’s 195 litres, for example.
Use these SUVs as five-seaters, as Jeep (below) mandates you do, and all are similarly expansive, and the Kia (at 1047L) even eclipses the Mazda (928L). One thing that is worth noting with all contenders is their high loading lips – because other models in the range are designed to accept all-wheel-drive hardware under their boots, it makes lifting up and loading in items trickier than in your average wagon.
Also, if you have a particularly thirsty family, it’s worth noting the Pathfinder offers a benchmark 10 cupholders and six bottleholders!
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
Load up two-tonne SUVs with bodies and holiday gear and high engine torque is what you want (to make the vehicle feel effortless) rather than outright power (good only for flat-out drags at the traffic lights).
This is partially why diesels drink less fuel, as they produce more torque, and why they are so popular in heavy SUVs, because they feel effortless. Still, these petrol contenders mostly do an efficient job of hauling.
The 4.0-litre Ford has the largest engine here (and the only one whose cylinders are in a straight line as opposed to the more common ‘V’). The Territory also has the most torque here – 391 Newton metres (Nm) at just 3250rpm. This is more important than its fifth-placed power output 195 kiloWatts (kW) that isn’t provided until 6000rpm.
Unsurprisingly it is the second-largest engine, the 3.7-litre V6 Mazda, that produces the second most torque here. Its 367Nm at 4250rpm sits closer to the 3.6-litre Jeep and 3.5-litre Toyota, Kia and Nissan than the Ford.
Despite its larger capacity, the Grand Cherokee’s 347Nm produced at 4300rpm is not significantly more than those smaller-engined cars.
The Pathfinder’s 325Nm at 4400rpm is 10Nm less than the Sorento, but the Kia doesn’t provide its maximum load-lugging torque until 5000rpm, so the driver’s right foot will have to work harder in between eating lollies on the way to the camping spot.
The Kluger calls in with more torque (337Nm) than both, and at more relaxed revs (4700rpm) than the Kia.
Those V6 engines all offer more than 200kW of power, except for the 190kW Pathfinder and Captiva. The 210kW made by the Grand Cherokee is the most here, but it comes online at a lofty 6350rpm where only keen-driving parents will find it. It’s a similar story for the 204kW Sorento, which makes that peak at 6300rpm.
The CX-9 makes the same power at an only slightly lower 6250rpm, while the Kluger finds its 201kW at 6200rpm.
The 3.0-litre V6 Holden engine may be made in Australia as with the Ford’s, but they have contrasting characteristics. The Captiva’s 190kW is competitive, but it is produced at 6900rpm so it needs to be flogged to deliver straight-line speed. Its 288Nm is also delivered at a high 5800rpm, meaning it needs big throttle inputs to maintain momentum on hills.
As the only all-wheel-drive model here the Captiva also weighs a hefty 1920kg. As a consequence it feels strained, in addition to being noisy, and its six-speed automatic dithers to find the right gear.
Over a 350km test loop of mostly freeway and country driving (the SUVs were tested independently on an urban loop) the Holden used by far the most fuel here – 14.9 litres per 100 kilometres – almost certainly because a smaller engine needs to work hard in a weighty car.
The six-speed automatics in the Toyota, Ford and Mazda are superb (rated in that order).
The V6 powering the 1935kg Kluger is the sweetest engine of the lot, the automatic faultlessly finds lower gears to make it feel more effortless than its torque number suggests, and together they helped deliver the best economy of the lot – 10.6L/100km.
The marginally heavier CX-9 (1939kg) feels faster but is noisier, while the Territory (1976kg) proved quiet thanks to the engine noise reduction measures implemented in 2011 for the arrival of the diesel.
The Kia may not have the smartest auto – it holds one lower gear on hills but no more – and its engine can be raucous, but the relatively light 1831kg Sorento was nicknamed the trafficlight dragster among the group. It feels the gruntiest and fastest SUV here.
With the same weight and power as the Captiva (but an extra 17Nm of torque) the Pathfinder is not fast, but its engine is smooth and refined.
Nissan also produces among the best automatic continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) in the world, and this one is no exception. As with the Kluger, the Pathfinder feels more effortless than its numbers suggest, though it is less potent.
That leaves the Jeep, heaviest of the bunch at 1998kg. Perhaps that’s why its 3.6-litre occasionally struggles and is slow to rev. The eight-speed automatic, despite having the most gears here, sometimes stumbles during full throttle kickdown, though it is otherwise fluent.
The Grand Cherokee joined the Territory in placing second last for economy, too, recording 12.2L/100km on test, only slightly behind CX-9, Sorento and Pathfinder that all posted an equal 11.8L/100km result.
We’ll tally up what that means for the hip-pocket towards the end of this test…
TOWING AND OFF-ROAD
For those wanting to extend the length of their big SUVs even further with a trailer, boat or caravan, towing capabilities vary between models, and in this case more torque doesn’t necessarily mean greater towbar-attached maximums.
The Nissan trumps the field with its 2700kg braked towing capacity, and it is the only SUV here to have a tow mode for the automatic transmission to specifically adapt its shift points.
The Jeep’s 2268kg maximum can, however, be extended to 3500kg if buyers choose the 3.0-litre turbo diesel V6 Grand Cherokee all-wheel-drive that costs $8000 more.
The Ford just slides into second in this test with a 2300kg capacity, followed by 2000kg for the Kluger, Sorento and CX-9, and the 1700kg Captiva.
While these are mostly two-wheel-drive models designed for urban use, the Captiva’s standard all-wheel drive means light off-roading is possible and snow chains aren’t required in some high-altitude national parks in winter. The Holden system typically sends 100 per cent of drive to the front wheels, but can move to a 50:50 split when a loss of traction is detected in a claimed 100 milliseconds.
Experience with the rear-wheel-drive Jeep has proven that it can go light off-roading, too, partially justifying the use of the badge of a brand renowned for offroad ability.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
The Ford and Jeep share fundamentals – they are the only rear-wheel-drive SUV models here. Perhaps not coincidentally they have the lightest, smoothest and most incisive steering of the group.
This is an important point as the other models (with the exception of the all-drive Captiva) direct hot-hatch levels of power to front tyres that don’t have as much grip as a hot-hatch and also have to manage the steering.
The results are mixed. You mostly wouldn’t know the Pathfinder and CX-9 are front-drive, such is their ability to find traction. But the Nissan’s steering feels heavy when parking and needs plenty of arm twirling to navigate such a large SUV around town. The Mazda’s feels connected out on the open road, yet it is curiously too heavy around town, and it doesn’t get rear sensors to back its standard camera, which might be handy for what is the longest SUV here.
If you’re a bit heavy with the right foot, both the Kluger and Sorento like to spin their front wheels, especially in the wet. The Toyota is the worst in this respect, because its otherwise pleasant steering kicks back at times violently when attempting to turn out of a T-intersection uphill, for example. The Kia has decent, fluent steering that can at least be switched to a featherweight Comfort mode to provide easy urban manouevrability, though it too can tug at the steering wheel during acceleration.
The Toyota’s airy glasshouse and medium steering weight means it is easy to park, but the Sorento and Captiva being considerably smaller and coming with front parking sensors makes them easier to shuffle in and out of tight spaces. The Holden’s dull and heavy steering does mean it gets beaten by the Kia that has light and accurate steering, in a final parking showdown.
If the Territory TX had a standard reverse-view camera to match the tested TS it may have even beaten the Captiva in the parking race thanks to its slick, quick steering and good visibility. A tall beltline makes the Grand Cherokee hardest to see out of when looking over your shoulder.
Not just for parking, if you live around tight city streets, navigating the Captiva (and Sorento and Territory) is much easier than the CX-9 and Pathfinder, so that’s something to keep in mind, too.
The Captiva delivers the firmest ride quality of the lot, prioritising control over big bumps rather than soothing over small ones. The Sorento, conversely, smothers the small ones but crashes out over larger ones. Over a lumpy urban route our middle- and third-row testers rated the Holden well for comfort, though it jars over big potholes, while the Kia is jittery over corrugated roads, and floats over speed humps then thumps back down again.
The Pathfinder lacks both comfort and some control, being slightly restless at low speeds with a terse reaction to potholes and bottoming out over big bumps.
The Kluger feels the rolliest of the bunch, and although it is more comfortable than the Pathfinder and Sorento, it is nowhere near as plush-riding as the Territory. It does, however, share the Ford’s slight propensity to float over speed humps. The CX-9 trades a bit of comfort for control to place third overall on our urban loop, while the five-seat Grand Cherokee more finely balances those attributes to place second behind the Ford.
The Mazda, Jeep and Ford continue their impressive urban runs on the open road.
From the driver’s seat, the handling of the CX-9 and Territory in particular will impress. The Ford is a delight to drive in all conditions – effortless, smooth, reasonably sharp – where the Mazda only really starts to excel when driven harder, revealing itself to be the most dynamic car here outright.
The Jeep feels very stable and planted, particularly after swapping out of the Kluger, which in front-drive base model form can feel a bit dicey, especially in wet conditions. All-wheel-drive versions on bigger wheels eliminates this issue, though the extra traction also requires an extra $4000 spend.
The Nissan feels heavy and lardy even in slight bends, where the Kia conversely feels light on its feet and relatively compact – though it lacks the suspension control and tyre grip to be truly enjoyable.
Thanks to its tight suspension and all-wheel-drive traction, the Holden finds itself up there with the Jeep for country road stability, and it is more agile than the Kia, Nissan and Toyota.
Based on our fuel figures (which admittedly are biased to open-road conditions), current fuel prices ($1.40 per litre of 91RON) and the 15,000km Australians drive on average each year, the Kluger will cost $2226 each year to fill.
The Pathfinder, Sorento and CX-9 cost a couple of hundred dollars more, the Territory $336 more, and the Grand Cherokee requires premium unleaded that at 10 cents more per litre, results in a $519 extra spend overall.
The Captiva, though, will ask another $900 per year of driving.
Jeep is the only manufacturer here to not offer a capped price servicing program.
The Mazda, Toyota and Nissan require servicing every six months or 10,000km, where the Jeep requests the same half-yearly intervals but every 12,000km.
The Ford and Kia have industry-benchmark annual or 15,000km workshop visits, while the Holden works to the same kilometre limit but needs a check-up every nine months if it comes first.
To three years or 60,000km the Captiva only asks for four $245 services, its $980 total the lowest of any SUV here. It places just ahead of the Kluger (six services at $170 each, totalling $1020), Sorento ($1013 over three years, or $1579 if 60,000km comes first) and Territory ($1030/$1400 as with the Kia).
It’s then a hefty jump to service the Grand Cherokee ($2045 over three years, or $1743 if 60,000km comes up first), Pathfinder ($1919) and CX-9 ($2214).
In addition to being one of the cheapest to service, only the Kia offers a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, versus three year coverage to either unlimited kilometres (Mazda) or 100,000km (the rest).
There’s likeable aspects to all seven SUVs. Equally, however, there isn't a standout performer.
The smaller and solid-handling Holden Captiva clearly resonates with buyers, being the second most popular car in the class. It is cheap to buy and service, too, though its tacky interior, lack of any rear ventilation and harsh and thirsty V6 places it last here.
In contrast to the Captiva, the Nissan Pathfinder has sheer size appeal backed by clever seat folding theatrics. It’s the talents of the CX-9 and Kluger – better infortainment and interior quality, more comfortable suspension, and very nearly as big… - that place it sixth in this test.
Falling just shy of the podium in equal-fourth is the Kia Sorento, which compensates for being smaller in size by offering a loaded model grade for the price of rival base models and a terrific warranty. Its third row is as compromised as the Territory’s, however, and it isn’t as comfortable for occupants or enjoyable for its driver.
The Kia shares its fourth place with the Mazda CX-9, which is knocked off the podium by the Toyota because it is more expensive to buy then maintain.
You do, however, get a classier cabin with the Mazda and a more dynamic drive, if those are priorities.
The top three all have clear highlights, and it’s rare in a test a trio would finish so closely.
That is the case here, however, and depending on your priorities their positions could easily be swapped around.
The best seven seater here is the Toyota Kluger, teaming excellent packaging with a sweet and frugal drivetrain, but you’ll have to accept that the GX is basic and it needs an extra $4000 for the all-wheel-drive to get the finer-driving model – though even then it’s only marginally more expensive than the front-drive CX-9.
The Ford Territory is the pick if you occasionally need a sixth and seventh seat but not for larger bodies, because it is also the most effortless, comfortable and enjoyable car here.
It is a testament to Aussie engineers that 10 years after the Territory first came to market, the way it drives is still class leading. Equally, though, its interior needs the September update – the model’s last ever – and it’s worth bargaining hard to get the TS over the spartan TX.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee, meanwhile, in being the most popular car in the class, clearly shows buyers don’t mind forfeiting a third row of seats. Accept that, and the American SUV wins outright by best blending fine driving abilities, a semi-premium interior and plenty of equipment for the money.
Photography by Easton Chang.