Got a big family? Here are five seven-seat SUVs designed to move you.
First published in the September 2015 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
Can’t wait to see the final scores? Jump to the verdict now.
THE realisation hits at the exact moment I lose the feeling in my fingers; we’re admiring a Kia. At first I dismiss our migration towards the Korean SUV as a need for communal warmth, given that it’s dawn and we’re ankle deep in snow, but the furtive glances at the Kia’s chiselled grille and Batman-esque tail-lights betray the real reason. We’re here because the Sorento looks fantastic.
Writing those words a decade ago, especially about a slab-sided seven-seat SUV, would have been laughable, but today the rapidly improving Koreans are on a roll. Suddenly, parking a Sorento on your driveway, especially in the glitzy, range-topping Platinum spec we have here, has become a statement. Like wearing a Rolex, or buying your daughter a pony.
The fact the equally desirable Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander with its new stormy chrome fascia and local suspension tune is lurking nearby hammers the point home: in the status stakes, the Koreans have arrived. They scream value, too; the Hyundai ($53,240) and particularly the newer Kia ($55,900) have the equipment, depth of engineering and aftersales support to take some big scalps.
The people’s favourite
Doing so means trumping the most popular people-lugger here, Toyota’s Kluger. In the sales race, the Kluger is a behemoth, its 6780 sales in the first half of this year monstering this group’s next-biggest seller, Ford’s evergreen Territory, by more than 2000 units.
But changes are afoot with this new, third-gen Kluger. It’s now made in America, not Japan, it’s bigger and heavier, and unlike the Koreans, which share a frugal yet deliciously punchy 2.2-litre turbo-diesel, power comes from a carryover and relatively thirsty V6 petrol. Then there’s the question of price. With no mid-spec $53,990 GXL variant available, Toyota has instead provided a range-topping Grande, which in all-wheel-drive form costs $67,130.
Grande spec adds a suite of equipment extras including adaptive cruise, lane departure, blind spot detection, LED headlights, bigger 19-inch wheels and a nine-inch roof-mounted entertainment system. This might sound impressive in isolation, but for a car nudging $70K the Kluger only matches what the two Koreans offer as standard at more than 10 grand less.
Roll this around your cranium and suddenly the Kluger’s recipe becomes less appealing, but there is a potential silver lining. Perhaps wary of its American DNA, the boffins at Toyota Oz have spent the last two years tuning the Kluger’s suspension and steering for our roads and taste.
That’s a caveat that can’t be applied to the Nissan. Like the Kluger, the Pathfinder is now made in America but is the only SUV here without a local suspension tune. It also represents a drastic change in philosophy.
Where the previous Pathfinder was based on a ladder chassis and boasted off-road credibility, this new model is now a fully fledged urban SUV with monocoque construction, petrol-only engines and even the option of front-drive variants. Also worth mentioning is that, while the Pathfinder feels new on Aussie roads, this ‘new’ generation has been on sale in the US since 2013.
Filling the diesel void in the Pathfinder range is the $57,490 ST-L Hybrid variant we have here and, for tech-heads at least, it has the most interesting powertrain of this group. Most of the propulsion comes from an eager supercharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, supplemented by a 15kW lithium-ion power-pack hidden under the third-row seats that boosts the Nissan’s combined output to 188kW/330Nm. The 144-volt electric motor captures energy normally lost under braking to not only provide a welcome shove of electric grunt under hard acceleration but improve economy. Nissan claims the Hybrid is 15 percent more efficient than a front-drive V6 petrol-powered Pathfinder. An added bonus is the battery is so small and so neatly packaged that it hasn’t compromised interior space by a single millimetre.
All of this means the Pathfinder is a showcase of futuristic tech and it makes sliding into the Territory something of a time warp with its dated interior and ageing 2.7-litre V6 diesel lump.
Ford refreshed the Territory last year with some new chrome and its SYNC2 infotainment system, but even in top-spec $56,740 Titanium trim, it’s obvious the Broadmeadows battler is the oldest car here.
Also front and centre is the Territory’s undeniable Aussie DNA. The first (and still the only) SUV to win Wheels COTY, the Territory is renowned for its crisp dynamics and superb body control.
On Victoria’s icy alpine roads the Ford is in a league of its own. Mid-corner bumps are dealt with disdain, the steering is light yet direct and the six-speed automatic is smooth, resulting in a package that feels tuned and honed for Australian roads. Which it is, of course. The Territory is also a master at hiding its mass during frenzied changes of direction, so it actually feels the lightest car here despite being the heaviest by more than 100kg.
Power to move you
If only the engine was so convincing. The 2.7-litre turbo-diesel is frustratingly laggy from standstill and not what you’d call rapid on the move, either, with an 80-120km/h time that’s nearly a second slower than the other diesels here. Tall gearing engineered for efficiency rather than performance magnifies the oiler’s laziness and means the Territory often feels a gear too high on tight, twisty roads. Add in a noise that’s clattery and unrefined and the Land Rover-sourced diesel is the weakest of the trio in this test.
There are no such drawbacks with the Korean diesels. The Kia and Hyundai share identical 2.2-litre four-cylinder powerplants with marginally different outputs (147kW/441Nm for the Kia, 145kW/436Nm for the Hyundai) and in both cars it’s strong, eager and responsive with a fat, torquey mid-range. The pair share the same quick-shifting six-speed automatic, too, but the similarities stop when it comes to dynamic ability.
Where the Kia’s ride is controlled and its handling fluid, the Santa Fe’s firmer suspension and 80mm-shorter wheelbase means it has a sportier edge that is almost hot hatch-like. With a sharp three-stage steering system (light in Comfort, better in Normal, too heavy in Sport), the Santa Fe is remarkably easy to place on challenging, twisty roads and even, dare we say it, fun. But this emphasis on driver enjoyment has a drawback, which is an unforgiving, unsettled ride that shudders over sharp edges.
An exterior design dominated by that sexy, upswept window line also makes the Santa Fe feel like a selfish dad’s SUV, chosen for its looks and performance over passenger comfort and rear visibility.
Yet, as sporty as it is, even the Santa Fe is decimated by the Kluger in a straight line. The beefy Toyota is the quickest car here thanks to its muscular 201kW/337Nm V6, which is wonderfully linear and sounds good, too. But such petrol-powered performance comes at a price, literally, with the Kluger drinking 13.3L/100km on test while the frugal diesels sipped just 9.3 (Sorento), 9.4 (Santa Fe) and 10.4 (Territory).
Turn and turn about
In terms of dynamics, the Kluger stays true to traditional Toyota values, meaning safe, predictable and an overeager electronic nanny that intervenes before you can fully exploit the potential of either the chassis or the engine.
The Aussie steering tune is well weighted, but the local suspension calibration feels pattery and never settles. That shouldn’t undermine the effort of Toyota’s Aussie engineers but rather make you question how terrible the ride could have been if left unchanged. Toyota’s local arm deserves kudos for tuning the Kluger into an SUV better suited to Australian roads.
Sadly, the Pathfinder has no such saving grace. While the Nissan’s hybrid drivetrain is zingy, engaging and surprisingly quick (only three-tenths separate it and the Kluger over the quarter), things unravel when you throw its nose at a corner.
The Pathfinder has one of the worst steering set-ups of any car currently on sale. It is inconsistently weighted and so lacking in feedback it feels like it has overdosed on anaesthetic. Cruising in a straight line at three-figure speeds, the steering is actually reassuringly firm, but begin to apply lock and that connection falls off a cliff, which is not a pleasant feeling when you’re hustling two tonnes of SUV. Worse still, the steering provides the one type of feedback you don’t want: rack rattle.
Brakes that struggle to contain the Hybrid’s power and 2073kg weight are another weakness and cement the Nissan’s place at the bottom of the dynamic pack.
Despite that, the Pathfinder does reward you with some dynamic ability. Set it up for a corner and the chassis feels balanced, and Nissan Australia earns brownie points for shoeing the Hybrid with grippy Continental Cross Contact tyres. The sharp response of the hybrid drivetrain is another highlight. But there’s no escaping that the Nissan lacks dynamic polish.
Our fuel figure of 12.1L/100km looks steep on paper, particularly against the thrifty diesels, but our test route’s heavy emphasis on country driving failed to exploit the Hybrid’s potential economy benefits. The Nissan’s petrol-electric tech is designed to shine in stop-start city traffic.
Where the Pathfinder does claw back some ground is the flexibility of its interior. Each car here boasts a 60/40 folding second row, but the Nissan’s one-touch design is the only one that conveniently flips up the bottom cushion to increase the distance that the middle row can slide forward. It’s a clever system and means the Nissan has the best access to the third row. There’s also plenty of space for third-row passengers, who are additionally spoilt with air vents, cupholders and, crucially, excellent vision.
But if the basic interior framework is solid, it’s the details that let down the Pathfinder’s cabin. Second-row occupants sit high on slippery leather seats that lack lateral support, cheap plastics adorn an uninspiring button-infested dash design, and a poorly executed panoramic roof with saggy trim and an intrusive centre beam reek of penny-pinching, especially compared to the slick and airy glass roofs in the two Koreans. The lack of an electric tailgate is another oversight.
Things are decidedly more upmarket in the Hyundai and Kia. Both boast premium-feel interiors with comfortable leather seats, one-touch third-row access and a middle bench with 40/20/40 configurability. They also bristle with an armoury of standard equipment: reversing camera, electric tailgate, panoramic roof, lane assist, front and rear parking sensors, auto lights, LED running lights, cruise control, heated seats, sat-nav and auto wipers.
The pick of the two is the newer Kia, which has blind spot detection and a heated steering wheel, and an interior design that feels a generation ahead of the Hyundai’s. The Sorento was penned by Kia’s design studios in Frankfurt and California and the Euro influence is obvious in its sweeping Audi-esque dash cues, a clean, logical layout, and beautifully tactile leather-bound steering wheel. In a Kia!
Second-row passengers in both Koreans have the luxury of heated seats, but the Kia’s lower window line means it’s the stronger choice for those who plan on lugging passengers in the back. The Hyundai may have comfortable seats and air vents with fan control back there, but its third-row visibility is atrocious.
The opposite applies to the Territory. While vision is brilliant due to its low window line, third-row space and comfort is compromised due to no air vents and hard, narrow seats that are difficult to erect. In contrast to the one-touch designs of the others, the Territory uses a convoluted, multi-stage system.
It’s inside where the Territory betrays its age most. Mismatched, scratchy plastics dominate an interior that even in this range-topping Titanium spec feels meanly equipped. Like the Nissan, there’s no electric tailgate, and the Ford has none of the surprise-and-delight features found in the Sorento, Santa Fe and Kluger, like blind spot detection, lane assist, heated seats or glass roof. The steering wheel buttons don’t illuminate at night.
So, which pleased us most?
Sitting still, the Territory therefore lacks the showroom sizzle of its competition, a negative that could cause buyers to walk away from what remains a truly great Australian road car. With excellent seats, a spacious second row big enough for three adults, superb vision and supple ride, the Territory’s still the best grand tourer of this group.
If it’s space you’re after, though, look no further than the Kluger. In keeping with its meaty exterior design, the Toyota feels enormous inside. It also has the best third-row comfort thanks to easy access, supportive seats with plenty of headroom, roof-mounted air vents and excellent vision. A split tailgate is another win, a positive it shares with the Territory. As you’d expect given its near-$68K sticker, the Kluger matches the Sorento for equipment (aside from the panoramic roof) yet trumps it for interior storage due to a colossal central bin and handy shelf under the floating dash.
There are faults, though. Despite its space and equipment, the Kluger’s interior design is heavy-handed and its execution also lacks finesse. Compared to the Sorento’s premium Euro-inspired interior, the Kluger’s cabin feels like an economy car dressed in electronic tinsel. A prime example is the Grande’s chunky roof-mounted DVD system, which feels cheap and is mounted so low that middle passengers are inclined to hit their heads.
Like the Nissan, the Toyota fails to evoke taste or expense. Only the Kluger’s Australian suspension and steering tune save it from finishing equal last in this comparison with the Pathfinder.
It’s a frustrating result for the Nissan given that the Hybrid does hold real appeal. Its front seats are supportive and comfortable, vision for front and second-row passengers is excellent, and for a car built to carry seven it has the best third-row access. Sticky Continental rubber and a drivetrain that promises efficient city driving and is responsive, seamless and dynamic are other strengths. It’s just a shame the Pathfinder’s execution is so hit and miss. Compared to the polished, all-round ability of the Koreans, the Pathfinder feels half-baked. And in this company, that doesn’t cut it.
Separating the Territory and Santa Fe is harder. On paper the Korean car has the edge thanks to its equipment, efficiency, four-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and $53,240 price tag, which is $3500 less than the Ford’s. Its sporting focus and sharp dynamics also impart an unexpected sense of fun. But if the Santa Fe is an SUV that focuses on the driver, the Territory is a car for everybody, a grand tourer capable of hauling five adults in comfort.
There are faults with the Territory. The interior plastics are truly dismal, the diesel is agricultural and the third row is clumsy and really only suitable for occasional use. A question mark also hangs over the value of the range-topping Titanium, which for a $6000 premium over the mid-spec TS offers only negligible gains such as leather, chrome trim, sidesteps and a roof-mounted entertainment system. The cheaper $50,490 TS AWD diesel or $42,240 rear-drive TS petrol are better buys.
Yet what sets the Territory apart is its intrinsic Aussie DNA. Even against newer rivals, the Ford remains an SUV built by Aussies for Aussies, with a loping ride, brilliant five-seat comfort and car-like dynamics, which is why the Territory finishes its final comparison with a well-deserved second place. It also leaves us with a landmark winner: the Sorento.What once was up is now down, and down is up, courtesy of a seven-seater from Kia that shatters preconceptions about Korean build quality, design and dynamics. The Sorento isn’t just the first Kia ever to win a Wheels comparison test, it’s the first class-leading Kia in history. While the harder and focused Santa Fe is more involving and ultimately more fun, there isn’t another seven-seater in this group that comes close to the Sorento as a complete package. It hammers a large flag in the sand, stamped with the message “Kia has arrived” and in doing so has turned everything on its head.
IF YOU want a Santa Fe with an even sportier feel, Hyundai has you covered. A harder, tauter, more athletic SR variant was launched last month, boasting H&R performance springs and bigger (340mm front, 302mm rear) Brembo brakes. It also rides on unique OZ Racing wheels wrapped with stickier Michelin Latitude tyres, but power remains unchanged at 145kW/436Nm. More performance equals more cash, with the SR costing $59,990.
THE SUV tipped to replace Territory at the end of 2016 is the Edge, which debuted in North America this year.
Touted as Ford’s most advanced SUV to date, it shares underpinnings with the new Mondeo and bristles with tech features including front and rear cameras, self-parking capability and adaptive steering.
A glaring difference is the Edge only seats five, so those wanting a third row will need to look at the new Ranger-based Everest (see First Drive this issue). A stretched seven-seat Edge does exist, but Ford says it is strictly a China-only variant. For now.
Still being debated is whether Ford will rebadge the Edge as a Territory given the name’s local heritage and reputation, or start afresh.
IN NEWS smacking of irony, Nissan has axed production of the American-made Pathfinder Hybrid for the US market due to lacklustre demand. So does this mean the Hybrid will get bonked on the head here as well? Absolutely not, says Nissan Australia. Hybrid production will continue unchanged for overseas markets and Nissan Oz says it remains a core part of its Pathfinder line-up. Currently the Hybrid makes up 6.5 percent of local Pathfinder sales.
KIA SORENTO PLATINUM
Price as tested: $56,585 *Includes: Premium paint ($595)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 9.3L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 9.5sec (tested)
Plus: Handsome design; interior ambiance & equipment; punchy diesel; warranty
Minus: Second-row vision; body roll when pushed hard
FORD TERRITORY TITANIUM AWD
Price as tested: $57,240 *Includes: Prestige paint ($500)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 10.4L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 10.0sec (tested)
Plus: Handling & agility; superb body control/ride; seats; Aussie DNA
Minus: Interior plastics; compromised third-row; agricultural diesel
HYUNDAI SANTA FE HIGHLANDER
Price as tested: $53,835 *Includes: Metallic paint ($595)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 9.4L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 9.2sec (tested)
Plus: Strong drivetrain; hot-hatch handling; comfortable, well-equipped interior
Minus: Firm, uncompromising ride; interior a step behind Sorento
TOYOTA KLUGER GRANDE
Price as tested: $67,680 *Includes: Metallic paint ($550)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 13.3L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 7.9sec (tested)
Plus: Creamy-smooth V6; local steering and suspension; interior space
Minus: Design that lacks elegance; feels American; V6 thirst
NISSAN PATHFINDER HYBRID ST-L
Price as tested: $57,985 *Includes: Metallic paint ($495)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 12.1L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 8.0sec (tested)
Plus: Zingy drivetrain; smooth, intuitive CVT; clever design of second and third rows
Minus: Anaesthetised steering; sloppy body control; interior feels cheap