What’s the Best 7 Seater SUV?
The Definitive Guide to 7 Seater SUVs
Seven-seater SUVs are incredibly popular. A kind of new, de facto family station wagon. They’re generally not cheap (but there are a few discount options available). There is also a vast breadth of choice available to you today. This report is aimed at getting you to a rational short list of the best options.
This review is right for you if...
This review of the 7 seater SUV options is aimed at actual buyers in the market now - not car nuts. If that’s you, in the market now, or thinking about it, great. Just be aware, I don’t review vehicles like anyone else.
Who am I?
I’m a qualified mechanical engineer, and I’ve been reviewing cars for more than 20 years. Other reviews are all about the drive experience and the features (and keeping car companies happy - more on editorial review corruption here >>).
I know that buying a vehicle like this is a big financial commitment - and that’s why a lot of my recommendations are based on things that really matter to actual owners (as opposed to reviewers).
This is why I consider things like reliability, resale, and how well the carmaker will support you (and obey Australian Consumer Law) if you experience a problem - either in, or outside, the warranty period. These factors weigh heavily on my assessments.
No money changes hands with my reviews
I accept no car company advertising revenue or financial kickbacks. My reviews are simply my expert assessment of the 7 seater SUV market.
If particular car companies don’t like what I say, I’ll sleep like a baby knowing that this has helped get you into the right vehicle.
This report is divided into four basic parts:
- Introduction >>
- Don't buy these 7 seater SUVs >>
- Mediocre 7 seater SUVs >>
- Recommended & verified 7 seater SUVs >>
Looking for a particular SUV?
- Fiat Freemont >>
- Ford Territory >>
- Holden Captiva >>
- Infiniti QX80 >>
- Mercedes-Benz GL-Class >>
- Nissan Pathfinder >>
- Ssangyong Rexton >>
- Audi Q7 >>
- Ford Everest >>
- Holden Colorado 7 >>
- Isuzu MU-X >>
- Nissan X-TRAIL >>
- Toyota Fortuner >>
- Toyota Kluger >>
- Toyota Prado >>
- Toyota Landcruiser >>
- Hyundai Santa Fe >>
- Kia Sorento >>
- Mazda CX-9 >>
- Mitsubishi Pajero >>
- Mitsubishi Pajero Sport >>
- Mitsubishi Outlander >>
INTRODUCTION: WHAT SUV BUYERS WANT
I get dozens of 7 seater SUV enquiries every month - and they demonstrate to me that many people (understandably) simply don’t think entirely logically when it comes to formulating a suitable shortlist. Here is just one of those enquiries:
Hi John, we are looking at purchasing one of those 7 seater SUV cars. We’d like a good, reliable car that will last a few years. We’ve looked at the Fiat Freemont & Isuzu MU-X. (Pictured right: Fiat Freemont, red, and Isuzu MU-X, towing caravan.)
I have seen your comments on the Fiat and have now decided not to look any further into that one. We don't want a 7 seater van (people mover) as we would use it to go camping and for towing a trailer, caravan. What’s the best 7 seater SUV in your opinion?
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS PICTURE
Kylie's typical question (above) is interesting because - by whatever tortuous process - Kylie has evaluated one of the market’s least reliable ‘soft’ SUVs (the Freemont) against a trumped-up ute with hardcore off-road ability and heavy towing potential (the Isuzu MU-X).
This is hardly an apples-for-apples choice, right? It highlights the fact that people need to think logically first. If you want to tow a heavy boat (2.5 tonnes or more) or drive through extreme off-road terrain (water more than half a metre deep, steep ascents or descents requiring low-range gearing) then your choice of vehicle will be different than if all you want is a glorified family wagon for the domestic runaround and the occasional family holiday.
If you buy the heavy-duty 7 seater SUV (like a Ford Everest or Mitsubishi Pajero Sport) it simply is not going to be as well equipped, as nice to drive, or as refined for ordinary driving - around town or on the highway. If you buy the softer style of 7 seater SUV (like a Hyundai Santa Fe or Kia Sorento) with the intention of crossing the Simpson Desert or towing the QE2, this is also a path to extreme frustration. The vehicle has to be fit for purpose: Your purpose.
So, in a sense, choosing the right 7 seater SUV depends fundamentally on you, and what you want to do with the vehicle. If you’re definitely into that hardcore towing or extreme off-roading, you’ll choose a very different ‘right’ SUV than if you need the domestic-duties focussed ‘Swiss Army knife’ of seven-seater wagons.
WHAT DOES 'SUV' MEAN?
The literal meaning of SUV is ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’. We imported this term from the USA. In the olden days (before the 21st Century) we had only cars and 4WDs - and those 4WDs were clunky, hard-core off-road machines. Then a softer version of the same thing came along, led by the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. These things needed a new name - and SUV became that name.
Interestingly, the term SUV has become semantically promiscuous: it has grown to mean anything that looks like an SUV - from hard-core all-terrain wagons like the Toyota Landcruiser and Land Rover Discovery to front-drive compact wagons with no all-terrain aspirations whatsoever, such as the (very soft) Nissan Qashqai.
Above: Hyundai Santa Fe (left) and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (right). Santa Fe is a soft-duty SUV designed essentially in the manner of a car, with additional ground clearance and AWD, but not with serious off-roading in mind. Pajero Sport rides on Triton ute underpinnings (with a few nips and tucks) but it's aimed at severe off-road terrain and serious towing.
Either vehicle (but not both) might be the right tool for you.
CARVING UP THE MARKET
The reviewed vehicles are below - I’ve categorised them ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ in relation to usage, but the fundamental three categories are ‘Don’t Buy’, ‘Mediocre’ and ‘Recommended/Verified’.
Even if you’re strongly leaning towards a ‘Don’t Buy’ or ‘Mediocre’ vehicle, I urge you to consider the potential downside, and also to drive at least two of the ‘Verified’ vehicles against the one(s) you’re considering - if only to confirm that you are actually on the right track.
To be entered in the 'don't buy' category the vehicle must have a serious deficiency that makes purchasing it a bad idea. I view investing the kind of cash that vehicles like this command as (in part) a risk-management exercise. This means if there is a serious question about reliability, or the ability of the importer of manufacturer to support you if there is a problem, or if the vehicle is likely to represent a serious resale value disaster, it's on the 'don't buy' list.
SUVs on the 'mediocre' list don't suffer from any of the deficiencies that plague the 'don't buy' category. These vehicles don't make the 'verified' list because they just don't measure up in terms of value, warranty/service or performance - or any combination of the above. The process is therefore one of elimination - and the cream rises to the top of the 7 seat segment.
Make sure you consider the vehicles on your short-list objectively, as well as emotionally. Buying a vehicle on emotion and/or instinct alone is an excellent way to get it horribly wrong.
Check the spare tyre:
Is it a space-saver?
A compact spare tyre (a so-called 'space saver') is increasingly common in all classes of vehicle including seven-seat SUVs.
Space saver spare tyres are limited to 80km/h top speed, which in my view is dangerous on Australian freeways, and they’re insufficiently durable for towing or dirt-road driving, and not all that good if you are towing regularly.
Don't discover your vehicle has one the first time you get a flat tyre, at night, on the freeway, towing a caravan... Always check on the showroom floor.
PART 1: DON’T BUY THESE 7 SEATER SUVS
Watch part one as a video report (right). Some SUVs are designed by sadists, for masochists, and this video report lists the most categoric mistakes you can make in the 7 seater SUV domain. Bear in mind there is considerable power built up in brand loyalty, and even more in the astounding amount of money tipped into marketing the worst vehicles - if you buy into any of that, or if you ask for advice at a dealership, or if you read reviews on websites where car company advertising is the main source of income, you are likely to make the wrong choice and end up profoundly disappointed with your lemon SUV.
Don't Buy: Fiat Freemont
Type: Soft-duty SUV
The Fiat Freemont is a discount seven-seater SUV. The price is its sole virtue. It is a hastily re-badged Dodge Journey with very few redeeming features outside of that low price. It’s imported into Australia by Satan’s preferred car manufacturer, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. With management by Mephistopheles, it’s perhaps unsurprising to learn Fiat Chrysler is one of the Australian auto industry’s grubbiest operators.
Even the normally reserved ACCC chairman, Rod Sims, has labelled this company the most complained-about carmaker in Australia (as a proportion of the number of vehicles sold). This is because the vehicles themselves are unreliable to the point of malevolence, and the company’s ‘commitment’ (if that’s the right word) to customer ‘care’ (if that’s the right word) is beyond just malicious. If this vehicle were beer, it would be bottled in the brewery in Hell.
I have personally seen letters from Fiat Chrysler to its customers, and from Fiat Chrysler’s arsehole lawyers to Fiat Chrysler’s customers, and as a result I’ve formed the definite view that this is an organisation lacking any capacity for ethical or moral proportionality, and also embodying complete disrespect for Australian Consumer Law.
I wouldn’t do business with Fiat Chrysler even if every Freemont came with a hot tub full of Swedish nymphomaniac cheerleaders, which would be a potent sales incentive. (I’ve seen all their movies. It’s amazing what those cheerleaders can do. Gotta love teamwork.) Perhaps, instead of the Freemont, you should just cut out the middleman and order in a plague of locusts.
Fiat Chrysler is a specialist at gagging its customers. More about gag orders and how they affect you >>
Don't Buy: Ford Territory
Type: Soft-duty SUV
There are two basic problems with the Ford Territory: a) it’s outdated, and b) It’s made by Ford. In Australia. They’re both comprehensively bad problems to have.
Let’s take them in order:
Territory is the Joan Rivers of 7 seater SUVs. It still drives well, but when it takes off its bra, it can have a mammogram and a pedicure on the same level. (Don’t get your back up: Joan Rivers actually said that, of herself. In this case it’s a metaphor.) Buying a Territory in 2016 is like buying a brand new 16-year-old SUV. It has the worst tacky plastic interior and (in particular) pathetically outdated set of engines.
Times change. (I blame entropy. Look it up.) I heaped praise on the Territory when it was newly released, modern and contemporary. That was in 2004 - 12 long years ago. Memorably, early on, on Channel 9 in Sydney I said: “Territory is what happens when you spend hundreds of millions of dollars and you get it right”. (Two million people saw me say that.) At that time it was quite true.
What was true then does not necessarily apply today. In 2016, the Territory is a prime example of what happens when you start with a good vehicle and fail to invest the hundreds of millions of more dollars in R&D required to curate it and keep it competitive. It’s a matter of historic record that this investment was simply not forthcoming - and if you look at the post-2004 economics of Ford generally, you can see why this is so.
Ford Australia was - and remains - rapidly circling the drain, and Ford globally teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years (narrowly escaping this fate by selling Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo during the GFC, and slashing expenditure, including R&D reinvestment across the board). In addition, the OneFord policy was enacted - the final nail in the coffin for Falcon and Territory.
Today the Territory factory is on death row, deciding on its last meal. The vehicle is being built by people who all know their jobs are gone, sales have tanked despite numerous price cuts, and the fat lady’s on in five. The rest of the market, full of newer, stronger entrants, has just overtaken the Territory.
That appalling 2.7-litre Territory diesel deserves a special mention: It’s a boat anchor that should have been pensioned off years ago: It has the same outputs as a 0.5-litre smaller (lighter) Hyundai-Kia 2.2-litre diesel. (And the Hyundai 2.2 is stronger in the mid-range.) In fact, the Hyundai-Kia 2.2 is 14 per cent more economical, and in a Santa Fe Highlander it’s also 14 per cent quicker in a straight line.
Just to put this in perspective, today a Santa Fe is much better equipped, has more third row seat space, significantly better crashworthiness, a longer warranty, and better customer support in the event of a problem. It also costs $2000 less.
I’m using the Santa Fe as a point of comparative reference because back in 2004 when the Territory was new, the original Santa Fe was a particularly nasty little shitbox, and you would have needed rocks in your head (or at least, severely constrained cash flow) to buy one instead of a Territory. Times have certainly changed, mainly because the GFC was a near-death experience for Ford and a Springboard to the big time for Hyundai-Kia.
The other problem is: Ford. To put it bluntly, Ford clearly does not give a shit about its customers, which is very bad for you if you experience problems. This seems to be a particular US carmaker mindset because Fiat-Chrysler and GM Holden are cut from exactly the same cloth, philosophically. They wear one-size-fits-all arsehole jumpsuits.
The best example of Ford’s cavalier attitude to its customers is the 60,000-plus Focus, Fiesta and Ecosport customers currently in a class action against Ford over the deplorable engineering disgrace of a transmission in those vehicles. This is, ultimately, what happens when carmakers leave their customers out in the cold. It’s absurd to expect Ford to support you if your Territory is problematic.
Don't Buy: Holden Captiva
Type: Soft-duty SUV
If ‘worst SUV available today’ were an Olympic Sport, Captiva would go for Gold. It’s that bad. I’ve reported a million dissertations about exactly why this is so. It’s a card-carrying shitbox that suffers the terminal disease known by medical professionals as early-onset underdoneR&D-treosis. Very sad. The gates to hell are in fact guarded by a two headed dog named Cerberus - as you know. But it’s only recently been established that one head is the Fiat Freemont and the other is the Holden Captiva.
In short, the Holden Captiva is a cheap, mean, and ultimately shiity import built in the old Daewoo factory in South Korea, which was so on the nose from a quality standpoint that they had to change its name to ‘GM Korea’ in a failed, under-done attempt to get the stench of poor quality off the products.
This Craptiva is the poster boy for under-done engineering. The failure rate is astronomical, the litany of recalls longer than Lebron James’ arms. Add to this the fact that GM Holden is extremely poor at customer service - keeping Ford and Chrysler, and Volkswagen, company at the bottom of the customer support cess pool. They’re like an unholy quaternity of customer-bashing imbeciles who took Mick Jagger’s enduring musical dissertation on satisfaction as a roadmap for the preferred customer experience. It’s mad, because a happy customer is much more likely to back up for car numbers two, three, four and five…
The Captiva is so outrageously crap, and the company’s ‘jam it into you in the prison showers’ approach to customer service so profoundly amoral and insensitive that there’s even an apparently thriving, engaged Facebook community of disgruntled Captiva owners whose only path to closure appears to be online spleen venting. Smoke, meet fire. The Facebook community is called, somewhat literally, My Holden Captiva is Crap. Very little room for misinterpretation there. Nobody I know has ever asked what it’s about. These people prove that ownership can actually become possession if you buy a Holden Captiva. Demonic possession. Instead of Captiva, they should have called the damn thing the Christine. That heap of Holden SUV shit really is that bad.
Captiva really is that bad. Here's the proof >>
Don't Buy: Infiniti QX80
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
The Kim Kardashian of SUVs: an over-done, trumped-up, big-arsed 99-per-cent Nissan for ‘just’ $120k, drive-away. And when you look it, from every angle, all you see is Kim Kardashian’s arse. Anyway, it’s all I see. (I failed the Rorschach test. I blame them - I mean, they’re the ones who kept showing me the filthy pictures.)
This premium priced shitbox with the absurd name weighs nearly three tonnes. It is a rolling advertisement for climate change. A ‘hark the herald angels sing’, ‘let’s melt the Greenland Ice Shelf’, ‘halt the thermohaline conveyor’ and ‘destabilise the deep-ocean methane hydrates’ anti-climate ambassador. Planet Zargon, here we come.
Thankfully, I guess, CO2 is clear and odourless, otherwise everyone would know what a filthy emitter you are, in conjunction with you knowing Jack-shit about both aesthetics and choosing the right vehicle. Maybe the QX80 should go on a diet. Like the Kardashian diet - that’s the one where you only eat stuff Kim Kardashian can spell. Like cat. And anal sex.
Technically the nonsense-named QX80 is an eight-seater, but I mean, Jesus: who in their right mind would buy one? Two words: Depreciation disaster. It’s the Hyundai Genesis of SUVs. Who buys a $120,000 Japanese tank that makes ugly look rootable without needing 15 drinks - a purportedly prestige offering, but really from a brand with no prospect of real prestige momentum for at least a decade. A pug-ugly wannabe Lexus with an absurd pricetag.
Look me in the eye and tell me you can really see an orderly queue of buyers stretching over the horizon in three-to-five years for your ex-lease QX80. Neither can I. If you think this is a good idea, it’s mirror time. (No - I am not having a shot at Asian-English pronunciation.) Get a mirror: it’s time you had a good, hard look at yourself.
Don't Buy: Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
Type: Soft-duty SUV
That badge. Everyone wants one. Chicks want it. Guys want it. Chicks want guys who have it. Mercedes-Benz is so aspirational. It’s the sex with a supermodel gestalt of brands, right? People say: “I’ve wanted that all my life. Now I’ve got the dough, I’m gunna buy the big, bad Benz.”
In news just in: This is in fact not a big, bad Benz, but a big, bad idea billed by Benz as a “king of the jungles”. It’s actually the automotive equivalent of contraception - like anti-Viagra in terms of your erotic attraction to the three-pointed star. The fantasy is likely to out-point the reality, which is that the GL-Class is just another shitbox.
According to Consumer Reports in the USA (where the Australian Jungle King is built) the list of faults that typify the GL-Class ownership experience include: defective collision-warning sensors, power steering failures, infotainment catastrophic failure, voice recognition failure, rattles in the doors and tailgate, transmission - lock-in-one-gear syndrome (that Benz SHITBOX-tronic logic…) and the engine ECU making like the Titanic, which if memory serves, sank on April 15, 1912, after Kate Winslett ate three whole baked hams and leant on the starboard railing for a good, old-fashioned chunder. But aside from that … the overpriced GL-Class is all good.
Don't Buy: Nissan Pathfinder
Type: Soft-duty SUV
This is an SUV that truly betrayed its heritage. Previous Pathys were decent four-wheel drives. This one has unfortunately impacted itself in Nissan’s ascending colon. The back-story: Nissan owns a transmission factory - 75 per cent of it, anyway. It’s called Jatco, of which, unless you take an interest in these things, you may never had heard.
Lately, and I mean R&D ‘lately’, so over the past several years, Jatco has been doing especially unreliable work, and routine transmission failure of the Pathfinder’s slut of a CVT is just part of the breathtaking panorama that is the Nissan Pathfinder ownership experience.
Here’s what happens: When you’re a prospective customer on the showroom floor, someone who’s done the research, and you say to the sales guy: ‘I’ve read about the transmission failures,’ or somesuch, you get told. ‘It’s all good. We fixed that. No longer a problem.’
Now, an unkind person would categorise the sales guy as a lying motherf%&ker at this point, but he’s really just doing everything he can to sell that second-rate crap - that’s his job. And as far as I know there’s no law against lying, thankfully, because if there were, we’d all be in prison. So I guess I’m saying if the sales guy’s lips are ever moving, assume it’s bullshit.
Then when the transmission ultimately shudders its way to complete exhaustion, a few weeks down the track, after purchase, don’t expect a look of shock and awe from the service manager. You’re the hundredth Pathfinder transmission failure this year. It’s simply disgraceful.
But the Pathfinder has its place. It is an SUV designed by sadists, specifically for masochists. For everyone else, there’s the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, which, miraculously enough, statistically, tend not to shit themselves at all. And if they do, you get actual support, which is another point of difference.
But if you’ve always thought it would be kinda cool to be dunked in honey and staked across an ant’s nest, but been too afraid to follow through, Pathfinder ownership is a more conservative way to experience approximately the same level of pain.
Don't Buy: Ssangyong Rexton
Type: Soft-duty SUV
Seriously. You’re not really considering it, are you? Not really? Who’s going to want a used Ssangyong in three to five years? The warranty will be toast in three. Hyundai has five, and Kia has seven. They’re all South Korean; but only this one is grossly under-done.
If you just look at engine tech, the Hyundai-Kia 2.0 diesel makes almost 20 per cent more peak power and almost 11 per cent more peak torque. And the Hyundai-Kia 2.2 … it’s just not a fair fight.
Here’s the rub: the Rexton a guaranteed hole in the road to tip money into. Guaranteed. Your Shitbox-yong Rexton RX270 XVT SPR Auto 4x4 was about $48,000 brand new in 2012. The top-whack trade-in you can hope for today is about $18,000 - that’s being generous. A good way to burn $30,000 in four years, retaining just 38 per cent of its drive-away value.
If you’d bought a Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander in 2012 - first of the new shape - okay, it would have cost you about $54,000 drive-away. You’d trade it in now for an equally optimistic $30,000, both according to redbook.com.au
So, let me get this straight: The Shitbox-yong would have cost you $30,000 over four years, in depreciation. The fully loaded Santa Fe - a far superior SUV - would have cost $24,000, despite costing more and being an infinitely better SUV to drive. Pretty simple choice, huh?
PART 2: MEDIOCRE 7 SEATER SUVs
Mediocre Choice: Audi Q7
Type: Soft-duty SUV
The Q7 is probably the best option among the premium German seven-seaters. But that doesn’t mean it’s a great option. It’s an allegedly German vehicle, but it’s actually manufactured in the Slovak Republic. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel has immense outputs, ensuring good performance, but as a commercial proposition, the Q7 sucks. Fully loaded it will cost you upwards of $110,000 - and even then, the options list is staggering (including a $15,000 audio upgrade option, shockingly enough…) Premium paint is $2499. Adaptive cruise control (packaged with lane-departure warning in a so-called ‘assistance package’) is $4075, and it’s worth remembering that these features are standard on vehicles like the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander and Kia Sorento Platinum - at around half the cost. The ‘cheap’ Q7 (around $106,000) comes with an engine downgrade - and the same staggering array of outrageously priced options.
Mediocre Choice: Ford Everest
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Everest is basically a Ranger ute with a wagon body, seven seats and a rear-end re-jig. Although there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the package, which really delivers on extreme off-road ability and heavy tow capacity, pricing is extortionate. Top-spec Everest Titanium nudges an incredible $84,000 drive-away … while a top-spec Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (essentially the same thing, with a Mitsubishi badge) is almost $24,000 cheaper.
The poverty pack Everest (Ambiente) is actually more expensive than the fully-loaded range-topping Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed.
My other problem with the Everest is: Ford. Ford has a disgraceful track record of not looking after its customers, and of continuing to sell defective products even after those defects are well known. If you have a problem with your Everest, getting support from Ford will be like getting blood out of a stone. (Look at the class action lawsuit covering Focus, Fiesta and Ecosport’s defective transmissions. That lawsuit is not proceeding because Ford put customer service first in respect of those vehicle owners.)
Mediocre Choice: Holden Colorado 7
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Colorado 7 is the wagon hastily spun off the back of the Colorado ute. Excellent engine outputs from the VM Mottori 2.8 diesel make it a real goer (500Nm and 147kW) and it ticks the substantive boxes in terms of features and price.
Colorado 7 is also right at home in that extreme off-road adventuring environment and its tow capacity puts the softer SUVs to shame as well (it’s just like the Everest and Fortuner in those respects).
The biggest issue with Colorado 7 is Holden. Like Ford and Fiat Chrysler, Holden’s track record of customer non-support in the event of a problem is simply epic. (Philosophically, it’s a real ‘US carmaker’ thing.) So - if you have a problem with your Colorado 7, you’ll likely have a fight with Holden to achieve a reasonable outcome.
Holden is also struggling profoundly for relevance in the Australian landscape. Our increasingly multicultural population mix doesn’t ‘get’ the typical Aussie jingoistic support for Holden, and the demise of the factory means that, soon, typical Aussies won’t, either.
Mediocre Choice: Isuzu MU-X
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
MU-X is the wagon version of the D-MAX ute - and that means it’s platform shared with the Colorado 7. The engines are different, however, the the Isuzu 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel is way behind the eight-ball in comparison with all the competition, and the auto is a five-speed, not six like much of the competition (and this serves to highlight the engine’s performance deficiency).
On the plus side, the D-Max has an excellent warranty (five years or 130,000km) and because of its ute underpinnings it’s another seven-seat SUV that’s excellent at heavy towing (albeit slower than most of the competition thanks to the outdated engine) and/or extreme off-road driving.
At least the Isuzu MU-X has a reputation for reliability and longevity.
Mediocre Choice: Nissan X-TRAIL
Type: Soft-duty SUV
The Nissan X-TRAIL seven-seaters (there are also five-seat alternatives) aspire to nothing more than adequacy. And they get there - just. In a field where Mazda and the South Koreans have adopted the latest ‘direct injection’ technology for their petrol SUV engines, Nissan sticks with the dated ‘multi-point’ system, and performance/economy takes a hit.
The diesel engine is only a 1.6-litre and it can’t hope to keep up with the Hyundai-Kia 2.2 in Santa Fe and Sorento (or the 2.0 in Tucson and Sportage). And the notionally ‘seven-speed’ CVT-style of transmission is not nearly as good to drive as a conventional six-speed epicyclic auto (as in Santa Fe, Sorento and Kluger).
Final quirk in X-TRAIL (and it’s a big one) is this: You can’t have an all-wheel-drive seven-seater. They just don’t come that way, which is absurd. If you want AWD, your X-TRAIL will be a five-seater.
And the third row of seating is for occasional use only - or for regular use by people you really hate.
Mediocre Choice: Toyota Fortuner
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
You’ll pay a premium for a Fortuner (compared with a Colorado 7, MU-X and Pajero Sport) but at least the pricing is not as outrageous as Everest. Toyota reliability is up there, too. (Not as good as they claim, but still pretty good.) And Toyota will look after you if your Fortuner has a problem - they’re quite ethical, as carmakers go.
This Hilux derivative offers similar levels of performance to the Colorado 7, etc. In other words, if extreme off-road capability and/or heavy towing is your thing, Fortuner will ace it. Like all these vehicles, it’s not as refined on road as a Kluger, Santa Fe or Sorento.
The reason Fortuner is here in the ‘mediocre’ seats, as opposed to the ‘recommended’ category is this: It’s just not competitive with the Pajero Sport, which is (in general) about $8000 cheaper, has two more years’ warranty (five, against Toyota’s three) and it’s still stuck at services every six months or 10,000km (whichever occurs first) while Mitsubishi (as well as Hyundai-Kia) offers servicing every 12 months or 15,000km.
Mediocre Choice: Toyota Kluger
Type: Soft-duty SUV
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Kluger. (OK - 2WD models spin the front wheels at the drop of a hat, the V6 petrol is thirsty-as, and there’s no diesel option.) But the Kluger is already showing its age, despite the latest model being released in just 2014.
Kluger is expensive, has a short warranty and service interval, and is comparatively bereft of standard equipment compared with the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento.
Kluger is quiet and composed (too quiet and composed for some more engaged drivers) but it fails to enter the ‘recommended’ list because it just can’t compete on those critical consumer criteria: Value, service and warranty. It’s simply been overtaken by the competition.
If you’re looking for a Kluger ‘silver lining’ it’s this: Retained value. Used Toyota SUVs are well sought after in the marketplace and this pumps up the retained value.
Mediocre Choice: Toyota Prado
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Prado is a solid all-terrain wagon with more overall civility than the ute-derived SUVs out there - if you have the cash. It’s an expensive machine - and in many ways hard to justify against its closest competitor - the Mitsubishi Pajero.
It’s hard to recommend a Prado when a Pajero is essentially the same thing … with two more years’ warranty, a longer service interval, and $20,000 lower entry pricing.
On the plus side, you get that Tonka-tough look (if you’re into that) plus hardcore off-road performance. Tow capacity is just 2500kg, however, which is only 500kg more than a Santa Fe or Sorento, and the vehicle weighs almost two-and-a-half tonnes - before you start loading it up. It has only a 545kg load capacity (that’s roughly the weight of seven people and a cut lunch…)
The diesel is quite fuel efficient, but the 4.0-litre inline petrol six can be as thirsty as a sailor on shore leave. At least the retained value should be OK.
Toyota Landcruiser 200
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Frankly, a Landcruiser is even more outrageously bulky than a prado and almost impossible to justify buying. At $120,000+ the top-spec Sahara is more expensive than the top-spec Audi Q7. It weighs an incredible 2.7 tonnes before you load ‘er up and the only redeeming features are the extreme towing capacity (3.5 tonnes) and the dirty big twin-turbo V8 intercooled diesel with 200kW and a mind-blowing 650Nm.
There’s a 4.6-litre V8 petrol as well: 227kW and 439Nm. It needs a direct connection to OPEC to run effectively...
Landcruiser is perhaps the off-road machine for the adventurer who has it all … and wants to take it all with him, while adventuring.
Perversely enough, the base-model Landcruiser GX auto is a very basic machine, yet (because of its approximately $83,000 drive-away pricing) still manages to incur the Federal Government’s Luxury Car Tax. I’ve experienced luxury, from time to time. A Landcruiser GX doesn’t qualify. Not even close.
PART 3: VERIFIED & RECOMMENDED 7 SEATER SUVs
Verified: Hyundai Santa Fe
Type: Soft-duty SUV
The Hyundai Santa Fe is one of those rare ‘sweet spot’ vehicles. It does just about everything right. Back when this platform was launched in 2012, it demonstrated just how far Hyundai had come since the GFC - and what that company could do, in terms of marketplace disruption.
When the financial gravity bomb hit, in 2008, Hyundai was the number eight seller in the Australian market. Today, it is number three, having more than doubled its sales in the intervening time. In fact, while those monkeys at Ford and Holden were fighting over the increasingly irrelevant large car banana - with little if any thought to that segment’s increasingly anorexic sales, year after year after year, seven-seater SUVs is the bouncy ball they should have been chasing. (Because this segment rocks. There’s a lot of profit in seven-seat SUVs, and demand is through the roof.)
The Hyundai Santa Fe's 2.2-litre diesel engine is a real cracker, and matched to a great six-speed auto. To put this engine’s technical advancement in perspective, compare the dated 3.2-litre direct-injected diesel in the Mitsubishi Pajero, which makes the same outputs (but needs almost 50 per cent more displacement to do so) and consumes about 20 per cent more fuel. The antiquated 2.7-litre diesel is the same kind of story - an outdated embarrassment.
Santa Fe is very civilised to drive, and far more engaging than a Toyota Kluger. (Kluger is like looking at driving through Valium-coloured glasses. Hyundai Santa Fe offers the right amount of engagement for seven-seat SUV buyers.) It’s also much better equipped than a Kluger, and the price is much more affordable.
Santa Fe Highlander is fully loaded - the equipment on offer is extremely impressive. This vehicle features as standard equipment the kinds of tech (like adaptive cruise control) that remains optional on (for example) the Audi Q7, and which would see you forking out several thousand dollars more on the Audi showroom floor - a disgraceful misrepresentation of the term ‘premium’.
Hyundai has a huge warranty - of five years, with unlimited kilometres - plus capped-price servicing (every 12 months or 15,000km - whichever occurs first) and 10 years of roadside assistance all as standard. There’s even a full-sized alloy spare wheel and tyre, not one of those hateful space savers (such as on the Mazda CX-9, Nissan X-TRAIL, et. al.).
If you’re only carrying seven people occasionally, the third seating row folds completely flat, leaving a cavernous cargo space in its wake. If you’re only going to short-list one seven-seat SUV for a test drive - this is the one.
More Santa Fe Reports
- Read my report on the meteoric rise of Hyundai in Australia >>
- Read about the 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe model upgrade here >>
- Read my Hyundai Santa Fe road test report here >>
- Hyundai Santa Fe versus key competitors >>
- Read why Hyundai Santa Fe is one of the safest SUVs you can buy >>
- Can a robot out-park a human? Find out in this real-world Hyundai Santa Fe reverse parking test >>
Verified: Kia Sorento
Type: Soft-duty SUV
It’s so difficult to separate the Sorento from the Santa Fe. There are very few differences, apart from the cosmetic. And the cosmetic is important - but to get the basics out of the way, Hyundai and Kia are two brands owned by the one parent company. The brands compete, but to amortise R&D cost, they share a lot of common underlying engineering. This is why you’ll see exactly the same powertrain elements, etc., if you dig to an even moderate depth in the course of your research.
Santa Fe relies on the underlying strength of the 2.2 diesel as one of Santa Fe’s core selling propositions, and offers a 2.4-litre petrol in the base-model only as a concession to price. Kia offers a much gruntier 3.3 V6 in the entry-level Si and the mid-spec SLi (but not the range-topping Platinum). However, the petrol remains front-wheel-drive only, and the grunt from the V6 easily overwhelms the grip at the front.
V6 Sorento has 2WD Kluger right in its sights - it’s cheaper and better equipped. The petrol is definitely an option if you’re disinclined to tick the diesel box.
Sorento also has 90mm more wheelbase than the Santa Fe - and this translates to better second and third row space and access. Apart from this, however, the two vehicles might as well be twins.
Kia has a seven-year warranty, which is outstanding. And the reason the range looks so good these days, compared with just a few years ago, is: headhunting. Kia realised it had a styling problem and went after (and acquired) automotive styling legend Peter Schreyer - he’s the guy who designed the Audi TT. Schreyer is not the design boss for the whole Hyundai-Kia automotive group.
More on Kia Sorento >>
Verified: Mazda CX-9
Type: Soft-duty SUV
The Mazda CX-9 is the reason the Toyota Kluger is not on this ‘verified’ list. CX-9 is what Kluger should be but, thanks to complacency, isn’t. Brilliant technology underpins the CX-9, which has a petrol engine with many of the same characteristics of a diesel.
It’s overly simplistic to say Mazda just strapped a turbocharger to the well-sorted 2.5-litre petrol four that powers the CX-5, Mazda6 and Mazda3. (They did - but the result is outstanding.) Turbocharging plus direct injection means three things: 1) strong performance, 2) outstanding low-rpm power, and 3) brilliant fuel economy.
While the market’s average petrol engines deliver peak torque between 3000 and 400 rpm, the CX-9 delivers its peak of 420Nm at just 2000rpm, which feels insanely strong at low revs. (Low rpm power is a traditional diesel strength - the Hyundai-Kia 2.2 diesel makes 440Nm at the same kinds of revs.)
Peak power of 170kW occurs at a low 5000rpm, and it’s 16 per cent higher than the Santa Fe or Sorento diesel - making the CX-9 a brilliant device for overtaking on the highway. And in the combined cycle economy test, the CX-9 returns 8.8 L/100km, which isn’t as frugal as the Sorento on 7.8 L/100 - but it’s an outstanding result for a petrol engine.
Mazda hasn’t cheapened its drivelines in the manner of Nissan, Mitsubishi and Honda with CVT transmissions. It’s still using the superior conventional auto transmissions - another significant big tick.
CX-9 is big, too, with 240mm more wheelbase than a Santa Fe and 150mm more than a Sorento - so there’s plenty of interior space on offer for rows two and three. Pricing is sharper than Kluger, but more expensive than the South Korean pair.
The only things not to like are the space-saver spare tyre, which is flat-out absurd on a vehicle this size, in Australia, and the warranty (3yrs/100,000km) and service intervals (12mths/10,000km), which are humiliated by Hyundai and Kia.
Verified: Mitsubishi Pajero
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Pajero is dated - sure. But Mitsubishi is at least saddled with an ageing vehicle that has rock-solid fundamentals. And this is good news for you if you need that heavy-towing, off-road capable 4WD for touring the Outback, or whatever, because to keep Pajero commercially viable, the company has had to slash the price.
Buying a Pajero is, in a sense, somewhat like buying a brand new eight-year-old 4WD. But the underlying engineering is excellent and Pajero seems reasonably bulletproof. I guess the best news of all is that it’s about $20,000 cheaper than a Prado. So, the options are: Buy a Prado, or, for the same cash, buy a Pajero and a caravan/boat and be totally set up for exploring out great inland/waterways…
Mitsubishi’s Super Select 4WD system is well engineered, too. The other significant Pajero plusses include a five-star ANCAP safety rating (like all the recommended vehicles in this list) and a 12mth/15,000km service interval that’s twice as long as the Prado (on a time basis) and 50 per cent greater on distance.
Tow capacity is a hefty three tonnes, and even with that massive weight slung behind, there’s still almost 700kg of payload capacity onboard the vehicle without blowing the gross combination mass. Foe towing assignments up to about 2.5 tonnes, the Pajero is a brilliant - and brilliantly priced - alternative to a Prado.
Pajero is in this list because of these fundamental advantages. It’s not really an alternative to a Santa Fe, Sorento or CX-9. If you want an urban runaround that can take you on a basic touring holiday and tow up to two tonnes, then these softer SUVs are better options. Pajero is here for the extra off-road and towing envelope - for people who don’t want to shoulder the burden of a ute-based wagon’s underlying lack of civility.
Verified: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport
Type: Heavy-duty SUV
Speaking of ute-based wagons … Pajero Sport is the pick. Ford’s Everest is perhaps the sexiest, Toyota’s Fortuner has its devotees too, but the Pajero Sport is the smart call.
Everest and Fortuner are extortionately priced (and although Toyota looks after its customers well, Ford does not). Holden’s Colorado 7 is dated but OK, not that Holden has any great rep as a champion of customer support, and the Isuzu MU-X, although reliable, is simply out-gunned on performance fundamentals.
This leaves Pajero Sport with its reasonable pricing, excellent warranty and well thought out rear end and driveline rejig (eight-speed auto and coil sprung rear end).
If you can’t stretch to a Pajero, and you need that hardcore off-road envelope and the ability to tow up to 3.1 tonnes, you’ll save $8,000-$12,000 if you opt for the Pajero Sport. There will, of necessity, be a tradeoff in terms of civility (ride-quality, etc) because at the end of the day it’s riding on a ute platform while the Pajero has a full unitary body construction, a tradeoff that is doubtless offset by the $8-$12k you just saved.
And, unlike Ford and Holden, Mitsubishi does a decent job supporting its customers - definitely an asset if you’re sitting in the Meekatharra Hotel and you need tech support in order to get going again...
More on Pajero Sport >>
Verified: Mitsubishi Outlander
Type: Soft-duty SUV
Outlander is here for one reason and one reason only: it’s the ‘budget’ seven-seater SUV option of choice. It’s about $10,000 cheaper than a Santa Fe or Sorento. It’s not as good as either, but the monetary saving is a consolation - and it’s better than a Nissan X-TRAIL (its logical competitor).
Seven-seater Outlanders (there are five-seat versions as well) are all AWD. (X-TRAIL seven-seaters are all front-drivers.) And the options are a multi-point 2.4-litre petrol four mated to a CVT transmission or a 2.2-litre diesel with a conventional auto.
Mitsubishi has tried hard to make the CVT behind the petrol engine a bit more responsive in this second iteration of the Outlander - successfully. It’s better than previously, but still not as good to drive as a conventional auto. Unfortunately the 2.4 can’t match the performance of the 2.4 in the Hyundai Santa Fe, nor can the Mitsubishi diesel hold a candle to the Hyundai-Kia diesel of the same displacement.
Outlander is a decent, though not outstanding, seven-seater SUV, which exemplifies that in this segment you really do get what you pay for. It’s the most reliable way to get into a cheap seven-seater SUV - and you get an excellent warranty, affordable servicing and high levels of company support if there’s a problem.
Of course, you will need to make friends with the distinctive (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers-inspired) front end styling...
More on Mitsubishi Outlander >>
Maybe you want a vehicle that is even better at moving people and luggage than any 7 seater SUV could ever hope to be?
If that's the case, now is the time to consider whether or not you really, truly need an SUV at all, or whether you're just following the trend: SUV = default family wagon; therefore I want one. Provided you don't want to conquer mighty rivers or tow the QE2, the Kia Carnival is a beast at moving people and stuff.
Kia Carnival Full Review >>
At this point you should also read my guide to
test driving a new car like a pro >>