With summer events now on the calendar, families often find themselves needing a big vehicle that can haul a group and its gear or maybe even pull a trailer to a distant vacation spot.
For such occasions, an SUV with room for six to eight people and good towing capacity is the only answer. But how much to spend on such a vehicle?
The four SUVs that we drove last month are each an excellent value at their price points: the Toyota Highlander SE AWD and Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring (each priced at approximately $45,000), the Audi Q7 2.0T Quattro ($65,000) and the Mercedes-Benz CLS450 4Matic ($85,000).
The vehicles are similar in size, and each offers all-wheel drive; the differences in price come from engine power, ride and handling quality, and, frankly, the relative status of the brands.
The Mazda CX9 is, by only a few hundred dollars, the least-expensive model in the group. The major difference between the CX9 and the Toyota Highlander is the engine. The Mazda opts for turbocharging to produce 250 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque from a 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, compared to the Toyota Highlander, which uses a 3.5-liter V-6 without turbocharging to produce more horsepower, but slightly less torque. Fuel efficiency is nearly identical between the two, and at 20 mpg in combined driving, is reasonable considering the size and weight of these vehicles.
The primary result of the drivetrain decision is that the Highlander can pull a 5,000-pound trailer, while the CX9 is limited to 3,500 pounds. The Highlander also has a maximum cargo capacity of 83.7 cubic feet, while the CX9 can manage only 71.2 cubic feet of cargo.
If trailer towing and cargo hauling weren’t primary requirements, we’d probably opt for the CX9 because it’s more stylish on the outside and has nicer trim on the inside. To get the same quality of interior trim in the Highlander, you’d have to spend another few thousand dollars, but we consider the CX9 to be more attractive.
If style and brand cachet are important, consider the Audi Q7 Quattro. In all respects – except for the slightly overbearing Audi grille – the Q7 is a well-styled car on the outside. It also has the most attractive interior of the four cars. Ride quality and handling in the Audi is also superior to both the Toyota and Mazda – another characteristic where higher costs mean higher quality.
The powertrain on the Q7 is similar to that of the CX9, with a 2-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder engine producing 252 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Cargo space is about the same as the CX9, but it is rated for towing 4,400 pounds, a tow weight between the two less-expensive vehicles.
It’s worth nothing that each of these cars is considered a mid-sized SUV. If you want a top-of-the-line, full-sized SUV, then the Mercedes-Benz GLS is the only one that fits the bill, and its relative size and luxury trim are part of the explanation for the additional $20,000 over an above the Audi Q7.
But with that cost comes a gain in power, with the GLS 3-liter turbocharged V-6 engine producing 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Remarkably, with modern technology, the GLS450 can still manage to go 19 miles on every gallon of gas in combined driving.
This additional power buys 93.8 cubic feet of maximum cargo space and a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds. That means the entire family, and all gear and a camping trailer – or a horsebox or boat trailer – can head out in comfort for a major summer event several hundred miles away.
While the price may seem to be up in the clouds, comfort is, too. Long distances can easily be handled with little driving fatigue. When we drove the GLS450 on back roads in Alabama, we were impressed with how easy it was to drive. The ride is smooth, the cabin is quiet and it handles like a smaller vehicle.
In addition, at the price, the vehicle is equipped with the full range of new driving safety and convenience systems, including semiautonomous driving assistance to make commuting and long-distance trips as easy and safe as possible. Of course the GLS is equipped with rear entertainment stations to keep the family from having to rely on interminable driving songs or games of count-the-cows for entertainment.
The bottom line is that if you really do need both passenger space and hauling capabilities, you can find an excellent SUV that will match both your needs and your budget.
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.