Full-size SUVs are an American institution. There's nothing quite like having seating for nine, 15 cup holders, and enough power to tow Rhode Island. Plus, there's the seating position that lets you perch tall above the other cars with nothing obstructing your view of the road ahead -- or the gas station where it's going to cost you $90 to fill up. Yes, Americans love their full-size SUVs, even if right now what they love is trading them in for Priuses.
Four-dollar gas has effectively brought the "large SUV as accessory" era to an end, leaving the segment to those who actually need (not just want) practicality and space in a rugged package. While our Affordable Large SUV ranking list can help you find the best all-around large SUV, there are a number of other things to keep in mind when shopping this class.
The logic that large SUV buyers don't care about gas mileage overlooks people who truly need a large SUV. For some jobs, a Honda Fit just isn't going to cut it. Needing a lot of capability doesn't take the sting out of filling up, however, and in this class that sting is likely to be a big one. Gas mileage in the class ranges from 21/22 mpg city/highway for the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid to 12/18 mpg city/highway for the Ford Expedition. While most of these SUVs are meant as workhorses and can take regular fuel, fill-ups are bound to be expensive.
Though the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is the lowest-ranked SUV in the class, it's the clear gas mileage winner. It has all the capabilities of a regular Tahoe with the highest fuel economy (by five miles per gallon in the city and two miles per gallon on the highway) in the segment. No, the Tahoe Hybrid won't end our dependence on foreign oil, but it will add a smidge of breathing space in gas budgets for families who really need its capabilities.
A large SUV has become the vehicle of choice for hauling around large numbers of people in comfort (though a minivan will likely hold just as many people and use a lot less gas, if you can put up with looking significantly less cool). All of the Affordable Large SUVs have three rows of available seating, though some third rows are more useful than others.
The Chevrolet Suburban has the most space in the third row, but removing those seats for more cargo space is akward. The seats, at about 50 pounds each, have to be muscled out of the Suburban. The Ford Expedition EL has a similar amount of space in the third row, but the seats fold flat into the floor. For some in this class, buyers can choose between having two captain's chairs or a bench in the third row, but most have a bench. The SUVs from GM (the Tahoe, Suburban, Yukon and Tahoe Hybrid) also allow buyers to choose between first-row captain's chairs or a first-row bench. The Chevrolet Suburban has the highest seating capacity of the class -- nine people -- when configured with bench seats in all three rows.
Almost all of the SUVs in this class are truck-based, meaning they use body-on-frame construction. Only the Mazda CX-9 doesn't (technically, the CX-9's construction makes it a large crossover, not an SUV). Body-on-frame construction makes the vehicle structurally more sound and capable of handling rough terrain and towing heavy loads. It does impact performance, however.
SUVs in this class will not ride as smoothly as cars. With their extra weight, they won't deliver breakneck acceleration. That same weight means that they require longer braking distances, and their extra height makes them more likely to roll over than cars. Also, visibility, particularly in the rear, can be problematic. Before purchasing a large SUV, make sure you're prepared to drive one. This is not the car to give your kid on their 16th birthday. Handling a vehicle this large requires attention and driving experience.
That said, affordable large SUVS are easier to drive than ever before. While they are by no means zippy, they can be handled by most experienced drivers who keep the limitations of the SUV in mind -- and are willing to take a couple of tries to fit into parking spaces.
As truck-based vehicles, almost every SUV in this class is suitable for some form of off-road driving, though their sheer size makes them a poor choice for hard-core rock crawling. Still, every vehicle in this class can be equipped with either all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and should perform competently when the road gets rough, provided the driver doesn't exceed their own experience or the vehicle's limits. Keep in mind too that four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are usually optional. If you plan on going off-road or want extra performance during inclement weather, you'll have to pay for the privilege.
The same construction that makes large SUVs tough off-road makes them competent towing vehicles. As most are based on their manufacturer's full-size trucks, vehicles in this class can tow up to 7,000 pounds, depending on configuration.
Large SUVs are great at demonstrating the laws of physics. Their size means it takes longer for them to stop than cars, and they can't move as nimbly. However, their size also protects the occupants inside (often at the expense of other vehicles), providing plenty of crumple space as well as height to keep passengers above some impacts.
As mentioned above, large SUVs have some special safety concerns, including stopping, rollover, and visibility, but on the whole, this class tends to have high safety ratings. New technologies, including traction and stability control, make it easier for large SUV drivers to avoid accidents. Plus, a boost in safety equipment, including airbags for all three rows of seats, adds to passenger safety if the unthinkable happens.