Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Top 10 most fuel-efficient luxury SUVs

New breed that's bursting onto car scene, 'crossover' tops the 2008 list

All of the most fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles forsake their truck roots for car-like qualities that not only improve fuel economy, but make for a better ride on the road. A lot of people, from automotive analysts to manufacturers to marketers, are pretty excited about the growth prospects of this new breed of SUV called the “crossover.”

Sales of these vehicles are climbing while traditional SUV sales are declining. One reason often cited in these times of lofty gas prices is crossovers’ better fuel economy. But there are other factors at play.

“This year, the traditional SUV market will fall below 2 million units sold in the U.S. for the first time since 1995,” says George Pipas, U.S. sales analysis manager at Ford, the company that perhaps reaped the most rewards from the 1990s SUV craze with its then best-selling Ford Explorer and Lincoln Navigator. “At the same time, the crossover utility market this year will be 2.7 to 2.8 million,” a fivefold increase since 2000.

Back then, the term “crossover” didn’t even exist, unless you were talking about a basketball move; these in-between vehicles were often dubbed “sport-cutes” or “cute-utes” by industry insiders. Now they can be called crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs. Regardless of the name, it’s an incredible growth rate considering the slight decline in overall SUV sales since then. “Crossover utility vehicles have been, and, in our view, will continue to be the fastest growing category in the U.S. industry,” Pipas says.

What are crossovers?
Named for the way they blend the characteristics of cars, minivans and SUVs, crossovers are often touted for combining the high seating position and utility of an SUV with the better on-road handling and less stigmatized image of a car.

There’s another meaningful, if less visible, difference: Like cars, crossovers are built on unibody platforms, which are typically smaller and lighter than traditional SUV body-on-frame designs that are based on pickup trucks.

Both crossovers and SUVs usually offer four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) systems; 4WD is intended more for serious off-road use, while AWD implies a system designed more for foul-weather security and traction on paved roads.

In exchange for their better ride and on-road handling, crossovers lose some of the ruggedness of traditional SUVs, such as the ability to tow or haul extremely heavy loads and, in some cases, the ability to tackle rough terrain. Considering that most SUV buyers rarely, if ever, go off road, the compromises crossovers create aren’t an issue for many drivers.

Are crossovers really better?
Traditional SUVs might be brawnier, but crossovers tend to get better gas mileage. All of the vehicles on our list of Top 10 most fuel-efficient luxury SUVs are crossovers. See the full list in the slideshow.

To illustrate the fuel economy differences in a fair comparison, we looked at crossovers and traditional SUVs of similar size, weight and specifications. According to the latest EPA fuel-economy data, two crossovers — the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano — have a 3-mile-per-gallon advantage in combined city/highway driving over comparably sized and equipped traditional SUVs — Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder.

Here’s how the Edge stacks up against the Explorer: The base Ford Edge with a V6 engine and front-wheel drive gets 19 mpg overall, while the rear-wheel-drive Explorer with a V6 engine achieves 16 mpg, according to the EPA. Both figures drop by 1 mpg with optional four-wheel drive.

Likewise, the Murano bests the Pathfinder: The front-wheel-drive Nissan Murano with its V6 engine returns an estimated 20 mpg, while a similarly equipped Pathfinder gets 17 mpg. Fuel economy for both Nissans also drops by 1 mpg with the addition of four-wheel drive.

Much of the Ford Edge’s and Nissan Murano’s (the two crossovers) advantage in fuel economy lies in their smaller V6 engines and more efficient transmissions.

“It is clear that crossovers achieve better mileage, and often mileage that is within 2 to 3 miles per gallon of the figures achieved by the sedans that they are based on, particularly if they are two-wheel drive versions,” says NADA’s Taylor.

But keep in mind that the EPA’s fuel-economy estimates are produced in a lab. Real-world numbers are a function not only of the vehicles, but of their drivers — as well as the terrain.

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