As much as we’d like to see the entire world driving diesel station wagons, we realized that it’s not going to happen. That’s because most consumers don’t want to buy them and manufacturers aren’t selling them in this country, despite the fact that diesel-powered station wagons are the most popular family vehicles in Europe.
When Americans aren’t buying pickup trucks and sedans – the two best-selling body styles in the country – they’re buying medium-sized, medium-priced sport-utility vehicles built on automobile chassis.
Over the past six weeks, we requested a sampling of four such vehicles, including the 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring FWD ($30,640 as tested), the Kia Sorento SX FWD ($36,900), the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK250 BlueTEC 4Matic ($50,485) and the 2013 Infiniti FX37 rear-wheel drive ($55,800). Well, at least one of them had a diesel engine.
We concluded that all four vehicles are practical, all-around suburban family transportation modules. They all share attributes important to the female decision-maker in this market niche: a high seating position, good all-around visibility, ease of access to the second-row seats, good cargo capacity for big-box shopping expeditions and reasonable fuel efficiency.
In addition, when we think about the vehicles we’ve been testing for the past 10 years, what stands out is the behavior of these four and their many counterparts in freeway driving.
A decade ago, the price of driving a sport-utility vehicle was a rough ride at best, with unpredictable, even dangerous handling at worst, and limited acceleration to cope with traffic give-and-take. Now built on automobile chassis, equipped with electronic stability control and antilock braking, and powered by high-efficiency engines, these crossovers offer all the comfort of sedans with the space and visibility of the bigger, higher utility vehicles.
No, you can’t run the Rubicon Trail above Lake Tahoe or challenge the off-road tracks in Hollister Hills in these four new models, but all the surveys indicate that off-roading is the least likely thing you’ll want to do with your people and cargo hauler.
Beyond that, the choice of what to buy is pretty much going to depend on your eye for styling and your pocketbook. Three of the four vehicles have that rounded-off look that always makes us think that the stylists just inflated a standard SUV until it no longer had any sharp edges. The fourth, the Mercedes GLK, carries over from the first generation the functional SUV styling of its highly popular larger siblings.
Fuel for thought
Two other attributes are worth comment: First, the three Asian vehicles that we were given to test were all two-wheel drive, though each could be purchased with all-wheel drive for a few thousand dollars more.
We have no reservation recommending that anyone buying a sport-ute in California should opt for all-wheel drive; this configuration is more stable on wet pavement, and can get you past the chain controls for those winter ski trips up to the Sierra (provided you have winter tires).
Second, Mercedes is the only one of these four manufacturers offering a diesel version of its SUV. In the past two years, we’ve become great fans of the modern diesel engines now penetrating the U.S. model lineups of the European manufacturers. After a decade of development in response to European fuel taxes and pricing subsidies, these companies have solved both the noise and emissions problems Americans associate with diesels, while preserving the higher fuel efficiency, greater acceleration and towing power, and better longevity that are prime attributes of diesel engines.
As a measure of the power and efficiency of the diesel, only one other of these small SUVs, the Kia Sorento, would be up to towing a boat or horse trailer, and the Sorento’s V6 engine gives up 8 mpg in order to match the GLK250’s 3,500-pound towing rating.
On the subject of fuel efficiency, the four cars range from a low of 19 mpg in combined city and highway driving on the most expensive and most powerful car in the range, the Infiniti FX37, to the other extreme of 28 mpg combined for the Mercedes-Benz diesel. In between, the four-cylinder Mazda CX-5 delivers a nearly equivalent 27 mpg combined, while the V6 Kia Sorento comes in at a much lower 21 mpg.
However, the Sorento does have an advantage to counter its limited fuel efficiency: It’s the only one of the four that has a third row of seats and can carry seven passengers or 72.5 cubic feet of cargo with both rear rows of seats folded down.
For a family that doesn’t want to invest a lot of money in transportation but has frequent occasion to haul the soccer team to an away game or a boat or snowmobiles to the mountains, this is one of the few vehicles on the market that can do that for less than $40,000.
Of course, when it comes to interior appointments, you get what you pay for.
The Infinity FX37 and the Mercedes-Benz GLK250 both provide the satisfaction of driving a luxury marque – even when the interior is filled with kids and soccer balls. This is one area where Mercedes listened to criticisms about the first-generation GLKs and has adapted the interior look and feel of its more luxurious mid-range sedans.
This isn’t to criticize the Sorento or CX-5 for their interiors; in fact, you might even feel that if you’re buying a sport-ute, it should look, well, utilitarian. We’d probably opt for vinyl ourselves if we expected to use our crossover for serious work, rather than the leather that is available on the Mercedes and Infiniti. But at least there is much more quality and much less hard plastic in the two lower-priced vehicles than was the case when crossovers were first introduced.
The bottom line is that we are being won over to the idea that a mid-range crossover may actually be a practical choice for the busy family that needs extra space for weekend activities and prefers a sportiness not offered by minivans.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.