Affordable Midsize SUVs make up one of the largest vehicle classes -- and with more manufacturers turning to car-based crossovers, the competition is fierce. Leading the class are the tried-and-true Honda Pilot and the newer GMC Acadia, while the Isuzu Ascender trails the pack with a mediocre score. However, the Ascender is one of the very few in this segment that don't stand out. Let's take a look at the midsize SUVs that shine, those that don't, and two that are worth a second glance.
The Top Four
The Honda Pilot earns the top spot in the class with its solid performance, comfortable interior and excellent reliability. One of Car and Driver's "5 Best Trucks" every year since its debut, the Pilot's very good safety scores and well-equipped cabin add to its appeal. A bland exterior is the SUV's only major imperfection, but even that could be remedied with an upcoming redesign for the 2009 model.
The Pilot may beat the competition in many categories, but when it comes to interiors, the Buick Enclave takes the cake. Though it's more expensive than its rivals, the Enclave's upscale, spacious and exceptionally quiet cabin is worth the dough. The icing on the cake is a stylish exterior and smooth ride, although several test drivers complain about the heavy SUV's sluggish V6 engine.
The GMC Acadia doesn't rank first in any of our categories, but it wins out in seating capacity with room for up to eight and a third row that's spacious enough even for adults -- a very rare find in this segment. Motor Week's "Best Crossover Utility" for 2008, the relatively new Acadia offers an affordable combination of functionality and luxury -- provided you can deal with its somewhat underpowered V6 engine.
Toyota Highlander Hybrid
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid ties for third with its quiet interior, seamless hybrid powertrain and useful third row. However, some poor-quality interior materials and disappointing fuel economy (especially for a hybrid) bring its score down. Also, the Highlander Hybrid costs more than other hybrids -- including the Ford Escape Hybrid and Saturn VUE Green Line -- and commands a premium over the conventional Toyota Highlander. Still, its position as the only hybrid SUV in its class makes it a unique offering.
The Bottom Three
GMC may have had a winner with the new Acadia, but its older midsize SUV isn't faring as well. The GMC Envoy ranks near the bottom of the class due to sluggish handling and sub-par seating comfort. However, if you're not interested in creature comforts, the Acadia is a good buy for its better-than-average towing capacity and off-road abilities.
The Chevrolet TrailBlazer struggles to keep up in this competitive class, ultimately falling behind due to a low-quality interior and soft, unresponsive handling. Another concern is that the TrailBlazer continues to under perform most rivals in crash tests, despite the addition of standard side curtain air bags for 2008.
The Isuzu Ascender takes the bottom spot in the Affordable Midsize SUV class because of its low fuel economy and poor-quality interior. Like the TrailBlazer, it also doesn't perform as well as competitors in crash tests. The Ascender's strengths are an affordable price and outstanding warranties, but they aren't enough to offset its faults -- especially now that Isuzu is closing its doors in the United States, which means servicing the Ascender could be difficult.
Worth a Look
Toyota FJ Cruiser
The eye-catching Toyota FJ Cruiser ranks at number 10 on our list because it can't quite match the interior comfort and quality or car-like ride of top rivals. However, when it comes to its exterior, this fun, retro-styled truck ranks at the very top of the list. It's also a bona fide off-roading machine and costs less than all five of the more highly-ranked competitors.
Though it's too new to rank on our list, the Hyundai Veracruz is an affordable fresh offering that delivers solid performance and a luxurious three-row interior. Reviewers especially note the excellent fit and finish in the cabin, with BusinessWeek exclaiming, "When you hop into a higher-end version of this vehicle, you can't believe it's a Hyundai."
To read more about the winners and losers, or to see where your favorite SUVs rank, check out our full list of Affordable Midsize SUVs.