July 18, 2024


Automotive pure lust

2008 Mid-Size SUV Comparison in Time-Worn Arizona

From the June 2008 issue of Car and Driver.

Every road cut tells a story. When the interstate goes in, road builders slice away hills and mountains, leaving walls of soil and rock assembled over millions of years. Each wall tells a story of earth’s evolution. All you need is an interpreter. Geologist and author Wayne Ranney joined our trek in Flagstaff, Arizona, as we headed west on Interstate 40. He snicked his seatbelt and began reading the cuts panning by the side windows as if they were ancient billboards.

“We’re cutting through a lava flow now,” he said, gesturing toward the chunky brown ledges looming gloomily on each side of the highway. “This is basalt, earth’s most common type of rock.”

The area around Flagstaff was hyperactive volcanically, he explained, 600 vents in the 30-some-mile space west to Williams. Dark and forbidding rocks pepper the ground when they aren’t actually laced into the terrain. “The last eruption was only 940 years ago.” No need for satellite radio when Ranney is riding shotgun.


Arriving from various compass points, we’d gathered in Sedona, Arizona, the night before, five staff drivers and two dudes from the art department. With crude oil rising past $110 per barrel, there was an urgency about this mission. Car buyers are shunning old-style body-on-frame SUVs; too heavy and fuelish. Oddly, we’d never compared their logical replacements, the mid-size car-based utes called “crossovers.” Until now.

Two of the five choices on this drive are hot-from-the-oven 2009 models. Dodge has the freshest idea, the Journey, based on Chrysler’s mid-size Avenger/Sebring platform. Arguably, given the passenger-car soul, crossovers are the return of the family wagon. With its sharp-edged roofline and high-definition body sculpting, Dodge has expressed crisp in this new model in a way that says “no way” to the other oh-nine in the bunch, Nissan’s rebake of the Murano.

Formerly a soft shape, the redesigned Murano has morphed into a me-too Mich­elin man, all puffy and over-inflated, like 50 psi in a balloon intended for half that.


The pressure is up inside, too, with huffed-up shapes on the dash and door panels. With Nissan’s muscular 3.5 V-6 as standard equipment, you can be sure of one thing: This bubba will boogie.

The three other crossovers in our quintet have been around long enough since their 2007 intros to have become thoroughly familiar faces in traffic. The blocky Ford Edge seems to stand tall on the road, a tidy, muscular look that sold 130,125 copies in its first full year in the stores. A discreet distance behind at 92,421 sold is the Hyundai Santa Fe, substantially enlarged during its last redesign. Well behind at the checkout counter is Mazda’s CX-7, a sweetheart to look at, powered by the only four-cylinder of the group, a turbocharged 2.3-liter with direct injection.

All our test crossovers have the option of all-wheel drive. The Dodge and the Hyundai are available with third-row seating, although we did not include that capability in this test.


What about fuel economy? Federal watchdogs rate the Nissan highest for city driving at 18 mpg. The Dodge and the Ford tie for thirstiest at 15 mpg. On the highway, the Hyundai tops the tote board at 24; the Dodge, the Ford, and the Mazda bring up the rear in a three-way tie at 22 mpg.

When we picked up geologist Ranney in Flagstaff, elevation 7000 feet, we were on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, a relatively stable area of the continent where the Four Corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah come together. Immediately to the west is the Basin and Range region, where a stretching of the earth’s crust in ancient times resulted in the sinking of a broad area including Phoenix and Las Vegas. So we’d be driving downhill over the 144 miles to our destination that night, Kingman, Arizona, elevation 3300 feet. Along the way we would take notes, change cars, and stop to hear Ranney read off the geological stories captured in the many road cuts along I-40.

Fifth Place: Dodge Journey R/T AWD


Dodge tops the imagination poll with this 2009 Journey. Clever details abound. Hiding within the cushion of the right-front bucket is a storage cubicle. In the second row, under the floor, are two lidded stowage compartments. Up front, the high placement of the navigation screen allows your gaze to stay close to the road ahead. As in the 2008 Grand Caravan, the pinpoint overhead reading lights come on with a touch of their bezels, and there’s a rechargeable flashlight docked into the side wall of the way back.

HIGHS: Wall-to-wall cubbies and compartments, distinctive styling, quiet inside.
LOWS: Bone-hard leather seats, too many interior seams, dash bumps driver’s knee.


But when the ratings came in, the weight of these imaginative details was offset by one unfortunate option: the leather upholstery. Concrete stuffing, or what? Park benches are more supple, more resilient than these top-option seats. Avoid them. They kill comfort in the second row, too, where the high, well-shaped 60/40 split bench would otherwise score well. The contours are actually quite good for three across, too, if only the “padding” would yield a bit.

The Journey is the big guy of the group, almost four inches longer than the second largest, the Murano. It has the largest cargo space behind the rear seat, 40 cubic feet, a third more than in the Mazda.

This Dodge is an easy rider, surprisingly solid in its structure, and it’s quieter than the others, both for road and powertrain noises. By the numbers, performance is on the leisurely side, fourth best in acceleration at 8.3 seconds to 60 mph, a full second behind the quickest Nissan. Still, this group is quite closely matched in all the track-test numbers, and too much shouldn’t be made of them when the whole point of this category is utility, at which the Journey excels.


Stylistically, there’s a radical attitude to this car, and our jury is resisting. The dash organizes the center-stack controls on a ramp just to the right of the wheel, with the nav screen at the top. Ergonomically, this is promising as it keeps most of your reaches short. But the bottom corner of the ramp crowds the driver’s right knee, and the entertainment controls clustered at the subterranean end are too far from the normal sightlines. Then there’s the matter of the look. The contours everywhere are abrupt; seams run helter-skelter; materials and colors raise eyebrows—and they don’t quite match from seats to doors to dash. In the case of green-caramel leather, maybe that’s a good thing.

Lose the leather, choose a happier hue from the interior palette, and the Journey deserves another chance.

THE VERDICT: Fitments and features galore, the Swiss Army knife of crossovers.

2009 Dodge Journey R/T AWD
235-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4364 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,295/$34,300
Interior volume, front/rear: 53/43 cu ft
60 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 @ 84 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 189 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Fourth Place: Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD


Even within our group of car cuckoos, this Mazda is controversial. The CX-7 is a sexy-looking ride, a gracefully curvaceous shape that’s decidedly feminine and appealing, almost a relief compared with the hard-edged and challenging forms of the Dodge. And it’s decidedly sporty to drive. But how highly should these qualities be rated in this class of utilitarians?

HIGHS: Sensuous style, steering cuts sharply, athletic suspension, EZ-swing doors.
LOWS: Rough and noisy engine, way too many interior textures, noisy cruising, hard seats.

For sure, the CX-7 makes numbers at the test track. Its 0.82 grip on the skidpad topped the rankings. Its 173-foot stops from 70 mph were substantially shorter than the others, too. Acceleration is also better than average once you get the boost up on the 2.3-liter turbo four, 0.1 second quicker than the group average in the sprint to 60 mph, at 7.8 seconds.

But there’s a price for this small-motor athleticism. The ride is firm; road impacts send shivers into the structure, particularly the steering column. You get noise, too. The CX-7 is clearly louder than the others at freeway speeds, and the engine sends four-cylinder tingles through the body. This engine strains where the others loaf.

We see no efficiency payoff to the small-engine approach. Our trip fuel economy was 20 mpg, same as all but the Nissan.


Like the exterior, the interior is carved into pleasing shapes. The steeply sloped windshield rakes back at a racy angle. But the details raise questions. Why so many textures on the black plastic moldings? Why the blither of red markings on the dials? What’s with the plastic fuzzy-gator stripe on the seats?


A few details stand out. The doors and the hatchlid swing exceptionally easily, a tip-off to low weight. In fact, this Mazda is the lightest of the five at 3946 pounds, more than 500 fewer pounds than the heaviest here, the Ford Edge. There’s a Lean Cuisine feel to the hospitality as well. Rear passengers sit low with little thigh support, and everything they touch is hard and confining, another way of saying sporty rather than luxurious. The flavors of this car are strong; you’ll know if you like them.

THE VERDICT: Looks sporty, drives sporty, but delivers more questions than fun.

2008 Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring AWD
244-hp inline-4, 6-speed automatic, 4180 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,635/$32,640
Interior volume, front/rear: 58/47 cu ft
60 mph: 7.8 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 @ 86 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 173 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Third Place: Ford Edge Limited AWD


This Ford scores only four points above the Dodge out of a possible 255, hardly a decisive triumph, but unlike the former, it stirs no controversy. The styling is cleanly chiseled and pleasing in the test car’s French vanilla coloring; the engine is quite strong, but there’s no pleasure in the sounds; the ride is fairly harsh, with noticeable road noise; and the leather seats are not much softer than the Journey’s.

HIGHS: High driver’s eye point, EZ maneuvering, bright and sunny inside, spacious feel.
LOWS: Harsh ride, gritty-sounding engine, unyielding leather seats, back seat is nasty for the center passenger.

We like the combination of a high driving position and low beltline. You sit in a watch tower. The crisp steering gives you the confidence to carve tightly around any obstacle you encounter. The instrument panel and the interior detailing are much reminiscent of the F-150 pickup’s—strong, unfussy shapes. The steering wheel has big buttons for cruise and entertainment. The cabin is sunny and generously wide, no crowding at the knees and elbows.

Second-row passengers feel as if they have a huge space, especially down around the Reeboks. But you sit oddly close to the floor, surely a decision aimed at creating a flat load floor when the backrest is folded for cargo space. As in the Dodge, the hardness of the leather-covered cushions suggests poverty instead of plush. Friends don’t make friends sit in the Edge’s middle position where one’s back is forced against the folding framework of the center armrest.


Considering the Edge’s relatively short overall length of 185.7 inches, we find that this vehicle excelled in two of our cargo measurements: It swallowed 48 beer cases (the Hyundai was next with 43), and it accepted a 137.0-inch length of pipe, two inches longer than the Dodge could accommodate. Fuel economy was 20 mpg on our 600-mile test trip, in a four-way tie with the Dodge, Hyundai, and Mazda.

THE VERDICT: Competent and passionless, the Kenmore of the crossovers.

2008 Ford Edge Limited AWD
265-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4468 lb
Base/as-tested price: $33,010/$34,505
Interior volume, front/rear: 55/53 cu ft
60 mph: 7.6 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 @ 88 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 187 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Second Place: Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD


Visually, this Hyundai seems the least inspired of the five and the most dated. Exterior styling is softly noncommittal. The dash is low and bland. No offense taken, inside or out, yawn.

HIGHS: Luxo materials inside, plush-feeling leather, extra-sharp nav screen.
LOWS: Sit-on-the-bubble driver’s bucket, Novocain-numb steering, squishy brakes.

There’s little pleasure in the driving. The steering mails in your corrections and always needs more. The brake pedal has a long, soft entry to the effective zone. The suspension reports road blight with tremors up through the steering column. Wind noise sounds close, within a few inches of the driver’s left ear.

But the Santa Fe grabs your attention with its fits, finishes, and high-quality materials. The leather is soft, the matching dash panel has an elegant sheen, and carefully shaped accent pieces of bright metal fit perfectly into their recesses. The intensely blue electronic displays sprinkled about the instrument panel seem like a cheap trick to add excitement. Where some cars have wood trim, this Hyundai has shiny plastic with an abstract pattern inked black, woodlike but not quite.


Each front bucket feels as if you were sitting on a bubble. Much better is the rear, where the cushion is moderately high off the floor to provide good thigh support and carved just right to give two passengers their own personal places. The center position has supple padding, too, which is agreeably shaped.

Acceleration is slowest to 60 mph, a fraction behind the Dodge, but midrange passing is slightly quicker. Skidpad grip is weakest of the group at 0.74 g. The feds credit the Santa Fe with 24 mpg on the highway, highest of the test subjects here, but it delivered 20 mpg on our trip.


Back in the cargo hold, this vehicle has a wide floor space within its smoothly contoured walls. The second row folds easily out of the way. A bonus is a huge storage compartment under a tilt-up panel in the floor. On Santa Fes with the optional third-row seating, this would be foot space.

THE VERDICT: Quality thoroughly disconnected from joy.

2008 Hyundai Santa Fe Limited AWD
242-hp V-6, 5-speed automatic, 4238 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,495/$32,365
Interior volume, front/rear: 59/49 cu ft
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 @ 86 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

First Place: Nissan Murano SL AWD


Whereas second through fifth places in this comparison clustered in the 180-to-185-point range, the Murano broke from the pack to score 199. The combination of strong acceleration and excellent fuel economy is impressive, the passenger compartment is roomy and rich, and the Murano is an agile and satisfying machine to drive. The steering brings prompt, accurate responses, and the 18-inch Michelins roll along silently. The quivers and thrums of lesser cars have been banished from this Nissan. All our ride jurors agree: This is the luxury liner of the mid-size crossovers.

HIGHS: Plush seats, great back seat, annoyance-free CVT, punchy V-6, confident steering.
Annoying soap-bar key fob, boomy sound on impacts, torque steer at passing speeds.

We can sum up the negatives in a short paragraph. The chrome leer across the front encourages us to always approach from the rear, the body is surprisingly boomy inside on tire impacts, and the suppository-shaped electronic key pops out of its dash dock onto the floor about half the time we try to insert it. Some of the seams around the seats’ perforated inserts looked a bit sloppy, too.

But virtue is everywhere. Assembly is solid and rattle-free. The driver operates from a high position, with an excellent view out. When the going gets urgent, the Murano outruns all the others. It sprints to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, 0.3 ahead of the next best Edge, 1.1 in front of the tail-ender Santa Fe. It’s a strength that doesn’t fade as the fence posts blur—only the Murano breaks 90 mph in the quarter-mile; 91 mph compared with 84 for the out-of-steam Dodge.


The ample power brings with it an occasional torque-steer surprise at passing speeds, a surprise because, in a better world, the all-wheel drive would send some of that torque to the more tolerant rear wheels.

Nissan seems to be the only maker in the whole auto industry to have mastered the CVT. The Murano’s does the right thing at the right time with no irritating noises. And some very right things for efficiency, too, given the 23-mpg score in our 600-mile test trip, a 3-mpg margin over the others.


Passenger accommodations are best of the bunch. In back, you get a Wyoming of foot space. The cushion is high and plush to the tush with a wide-body sense of psychological roominess all-around. Our measurement of hauling capacity ranks the Murano about midpack, perhaps a slight disappointment given the relatively large external dimensions. Our conclusion: The design decisions here favor people over cargo, and the driver is the most favored person of all.

THE VERDICT: Everybody will want to ride with you.

2009 Nissan Murano SL AWD
265-hp V-6, CVT, 4180 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,225/$33,995
Interior volume, front/rear: 58/47 cu ft
60 mph: 7.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.8 @ 91 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 191 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg

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