The domestic automakers have taken a lot of flak through the years for building fuel-sucking behemoth truck-based SUVs. Go back 10 years and any honest auto executive would have told you that they were going to continue to build them as long as customers would buy them, and customers would buy them as long as gas stayed cheap.
Well, gas isn't cheap anymore and that has prompted a shift in what Americans use for the family truckster. The revolution started in 2006, when General Motors began releasing a series of large midsize crossovers based on its then-new front-wheel-drive Lambda architecture. The GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook were first out of the chute, and the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse followed.
The other domestic automakers soon followed. Ford was first with a new-think Explorer that traded its truck platform for a more agile and car-like front-wheel-drive unibody structure. Dodge wasn't far behind with a Durango that followed the same formula, taking its bones from the new rear-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz ML.
So now that America has completely rethought what the family SUV should be, the questions must be asked: "Which one is best, or at least, which one is best for me?"
Below we'll compare the strengths and weaknesses of America's three 3-row midsize crossover SUVs in an attempt to answer those questions.
Round One: Driving Character
Until the Dodge Durango and Ford Explorer were released, the Chevrolet Traverse was far and away the most impressive of the midsize SUVs in terms of driving dynamics. Despite a two-and-a-half ton curb weight and a footprint approaching full-size SUVs, the Traverse handles more like a family sedan than a Chevy Tahoe. The steering is direct and responsive, not flaccid and slow like in GM's big SUVs. The ride is comfortable and stable, and it lacks the floppiness and bounding that often annoys in truck-type SUVs. Given its size, however, the Chevrolet Traverse is somewhat bulky in parking lot and parallel parking maneuvers.
The Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango are even better. They even tend toward sporty. The Durango feels more stable in a straight line and when entering a turn than does the Explorer, which tends to wobble a bit and feel like it's going to lean. Thankfully, that body roll really isn't there. The Explorer rolls to a point then firms up nicely and tracks sharply through turns. Thanks to pleasingly quick steering response, the Durango might dive into that turn a tad quicker, but the Explorer rotates better and gathers itself quicker to change directions again. Given its lighter weight and quicker acting suspension, the Explorer would be a better choice for a slalom run.
All three vehicles offer all-wheel drive. The Ford Explorer features a Land Rover-inspired Terrain Management system that helps the vehicle adapt to various surfaces. We drove it in some pretty challenging off-road situations and it performed admirably. The Dodge Durango has a more common AWD system with low-range gearing that'll help dig you out of ruts. The Chevy Traverse has a more road-oriented AWD system without low-range gearing. All three will get you through snow and rain, but the Dodge and especially the Explorer has real off-road capability.
Round Two: Engine Performance
All three rivals offer V6 power, and those are the engines that should be considered in a head-to-head comparison. The Chevrolet Traverse features a 3.6-liter V6 making 288 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. The Ford Explorer 3.5-liter V6 produces 290 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, and the Dodge Durango Pentastar 3.6-liter cranks out 290 horses and 260 pound-feet of torque.
On the road, the engines are as evenly matched. Each delivers a 0 to 60 mph time in the mid eight-second range, but there are differences. The Explorer and Traverse use six-speed automatics while the Durango has a five-speed auto. All are smooth, but the six-speeds are quicker to downshift when power is needed, making their engines feel more responsive. The Durango's five-speed often feels like it's a gear or two too high, making passing a bit tougher and robbing the engine of some power.
Speaking of fuel economy, the Ford Explorer is the winner in this regard, though not by much. It is EPA rated at 17 mpg city/25 highway with front-wheel drive and 17/23 with AWD. The Traverse comes in second at 17/24 with FWD and 16/23 with AWD, while the Durango V6 is EPA-estimated at 16/23 with either rear-drive or AWD.
Both Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango offer alternative engines. New for the 2012 model year is the EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Explorer. It makes a bit less power at 240 horses and 270 pound-feet of torque, but delivers about three mpg better overall. Durango buyers can opt for the 5.7-liter Hemi V8, with 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. It makes the Durango much quicker but sucks gas to the tune of 14/20 mpg with FWD and 13/20 with AWD.
The Dodge Durango V8 also boosts its generous towing capacity to 7,400 pounds versus 6,200 with the V6. By comparison, the Traverse can tow up to 5,200 pounds and the Explorer can haul 5,000 pounds.
Round Three: Interior Space and Amenities
The competition has been very close so far, but in this category the Dodge and Ford distance themselves from the Chevy, at least in interior quality. Both vehicles replace hard, thick plastics with soft-touch surfaces in more thoughtful, more elegant layouts. The Ford Explorer's environment is far better than anything we've seen from Ford for years and Dodge is even better with appointments, approaching that of a luxury vehicle.
The Chevrolet Traverse, on the other hand, is saddled with far more hard plastics. There are some nice touches, though. The dual-cockpit design theme is attractive and is set off by contrasting silver plastics and chrome trim, but it lacks the richness of the others. Dodge and Ford have upped the game and it's time for Chevrolet to follow.
The Ford Explorer dashboard features an ultra-modern design with available touch-sensitive controls and a cutting edge but controversial infotainment system called MyFord Touch. MyFord Touch can be controlled through a pair of five-way controllers on the steering wheel or by voice command to handle the trip computer, radio, navigation and climate controls, as well as devices like MP3 players and phones. The system is great in theory, but not so much in reality. The ever-evolving state of voice command technology makes it frustrating, it can often be hard to find the right route to various commands, the cadence is too slow, and the system has had issues with locking up. We often found ourselves swearing at the voice responses like we were arguing with a stubborn sibling.
Thankfully, the Dodge Durango and Chevrolet Traverse navigation systems are far easier to use, if not as ambitious.
When it comes to space, the Traverse easily bests its rivals. It has more room behind the third row (24.4 cubic feet) than the others, there's a handy underfloor bin, and cargo volume maxes out at an impressive 116.4 cubic feet, most in the class and 7.5 cubic feet more than in the full-size Tahoe. The Traverse is also offered with a second-row bench to allow seven- or eight-passenger configurations, while the others seat no more than seven. That second row slides fore and aft to maximize second- or third-row legroom, a handy feature.
The next most handy is the Dodge Durango. It has a second row that slides and tilts forward to allow access to a useful two-passenger third row. The Durango also has a nearly flat load floor and more total space than the Explorer (84.5 to 80.7 cubic feet).
The Ford Explorer's second row doesn't slide, which limits second-row legroom when tall occupants are seated up front. The rear load floor is also funky. The load floor isn't flat. Behind the third row is a well that extends about 10 inches under the seats; it's a perfect place to lose small items such as groceries that have fallen out of their bags.
Round Four: Overall Value
All three Big 3 crossover vehicles are priced similarly. The 2012 Dodge Durango starts at $28,995, the 2012 Ford Explorer at $28,995, and the 2012 Chevrolet Traverse at $29,510, and each adds $2,000 for all-wheel drive. At first blush, the Ford and Dodge would both seem to be the best deal, but it's really the Dodge Durango when you consider standard equipment. Over and above the others, the Dodge comes standard with alloy wheels, USB port, Bluetooth cell phone link, dual-zone automatic climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a rear cargo cover. You have to go up the $31,000 range in the other models to get most of those features. Pricing remains similar up through the lineup and all three top out at around $48,000.
Unique options on each vehicle include the Explorer's dual-panel panoramic sunroof, Terrain Response system, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine (only for 2012) and second-row inflatable seat belts. The Durango is offered with adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, the 5.7-liter V8, and a heated steering wheel. Both the Dodge and Ford have a blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic alert. The Chevy has a panoramic dual-panel sunroof, OnStar and the eight-passenger seating option.
So which Big 3 3-row crossover SUV do we recommend? The good news is we could gladly recommend all three, because they all offer a pleasant ride, impressive handling, plenty of power, and useful interiors.
Based on its extra equipment, sharper steering, and nicer interior appointments, the Dodge Durango is our top choice in a really close call. The Dodge is also the clear choice for those who want V8 power or need to tow. We'd opt for the Ford Explorer next thanks to its better fuel economy, higher level of technology, and interior materials. Chevrolet need not be embarrassed, though. The Chevy Traverse is the pick for those who need more space and more seating capacity, and it rides and handles as well as the others. It just needs better interior appointments.
Buyers can't go wrong with any of these vehicles. They are all more engaging to drive and more efficient than their truck-based forebears. The American SUV needed a wake-up call, and the domestic automakers have responded the right way.