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Few types of vehicles present as confusing a selection today as sport-utility vehicles. That's because there's now a wide array of different versions, each with advantages and disadvantages.
In the past few years, CONSUMER REPORTS testing has reinforced the fact that for everyday driving, car-based models--those built on a carlike, unibody platform with fully independent suspension--are almost always better than traditional truck-based models. They tend to provide more ride comfort and better handling, and they typically get higher gas mileage.
The trade-off is that with lower ground clearance and all-wheel-drive systems that don't have low-range gearing they're not equipped for serious off-roading (something most SUV owners don't do anyway).
Traditional models, which use a heavier-duty body-on-frame construction, are usually better for towing and difficult off-road conditions. But they typically deliver a stiffer ride, cumbersome handling, and, because they tend to be heavy poor fuel economy.
Increasingly SUVs of both types are serving as minivan alternatives, with many models offering a third-row seat. This increases capacity from five passengers to six, seven, or eight, depending on the model. But the third-row seats are typically small, hard to reach, and suitable mainly for kids. When used, they also dramatically reduce cargo capacity.
The six midsized SUVs we tested for this issue represent all these types. Three are car-based models: the Nissan Murano, the Mitsubishi Endeavor, and the Chrysler Pacifica. Two, the Toyota 4Runner and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT, are truck-based SUVs, while the Mitsubishi Montero incorporates features from both.
Three models--the Pacifica, Montero, and TrailBlazer EXT--have third-row seats; the Murano, Endeavor, and 4Runner seat only five. The prices, as tested, ranged from $30,792 for the Endeavor to $38,422 for the Montero.
All the models are new redesigned, or upgraded.
The new-for-2003 Nissan Murano topped the scores here and, overall, is one of' the best SUVs we've tested. But we experienced a steering problem, detailed in CloseUp on page 59, that detracts from its appeal.
The Mitsubishi Endeavor and Chrysler Pacifica were both introduced last spring as 2004 models. The Endeavor is derived from the next-generation Galant sedan. The Pacifica is somewhat lower than the others here and resembles a tall wagon. It's typical of the so-called crossover vehicles that are becoming more prevalent.
The 4Runner received a major redesign for 2003 and is now the top ranked of all traditional SUVs in this price range. In this test, it was essentially tied with two car-based models in overall score.
For 2003, the Mitsubishi Montero was updated and received a standard stability-control system. The last time we tested the Montero, for our August 2001 report, it earned a "Not Acceptable" rating because of its pronounced tendency to tip up on two wheels m our emergency-avoidance-maneuver course. The stability-control system has helped improve the vehicle's emergency handling, but it earned only a poor rating for emergency handling and a fair for routine handling (see CloseUp on page 59).
The Chevrolet TrailBlazer (and its GMC Envoy cousin) went on sale in 2001 as a 2002 model. The EXT model that we tested is an extended-length version that came out last year. Unlike the original. which seated five, the EXT includes three rows of seats.
Ratings midsized SUVs In performance order. (@@) indicates a Recommended model. Blue key number indicates a Quick Pick. Make & model In this Overall score Price as Issue tested @@ 1 Honda Pilot EX $32,980 2 Nissan Murano SL @@ $35,063 @@ 3 Toyota Highlander Limited V6 $33,885 4 Mitsubishi Endeavor XLS @@ $30,792 @@ 5 Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 @@ $32,418 6 Chrysler Pacifica AWD @@ $32,980 7 Ford Explorer XLT V6 $34,765 @@ 8 Nissan Pathfinder LE $35,487 9 Buick Rendezvous CXL $33,745 10 Mitsubishi Montero Limited @@ $38,422 11 GMC Envoy SLE $31,665 12 Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT LT @@ $35,650 13 Dodge Durange SLT Plus $36,880 14 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 6-cyl. $32,205 Make & model Reliability @@ 1 Honda Pilot EX ** 2 Nissan Murano SL NEW  @@ 3 Toyota Highlander Limited V6 * 4 Mitsubishi Endeavor XLS NEW  @@ 5 Toyota 4Runner SR5 V6 ** 6 Chrysler Pacifica AWD New  7 Ford Explorer XLT V6 @ @@ 8 Nissan Pathfinder LE * 9 Buick Rendezvous CXL ## 10 Mitsubishi Montero Limited NA  11 GMC Envoy SLE @ 12 Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT LT @ 13 Dodge Durange SLT Plus ## 14 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 6-cyl. @ No reliability data on new model. Sufficient data not available. * Excellent ** Very good # Good ## Fair @ Poor NISSAN MURANO VERSION TESTED TRIM LINE SL PRICE: BASE/AS TESTED $29,799/$35,063 DRIVETRAIN Engine 3.5-liter V6 (245 hp) Transmission CVT Drive wheels AWD MAJOR OPTIONS Stability control, sunroof, Premium plus TIRES TESTED Goodyear Eagle LS, Model & size size P235/65R18 104T TEST RESULTS PERFORMANCE Acceleration ** 0 to 60 mph 8.0 45 to 65 mph 5.4 Quarter-mile, sec. 16.4 Transmission * Routine handling ** Emergency handling # Avoid, maneuver, max. spd., mph 49.5 Braking * Distance from 60 mph 134 COMFORT & CONVENIENCE Ride # Noise # Driving position ** Front-seat comfort ** Rear-seat comfort * Access * Controls & displays * Interior fit and finish ** Cargo area # PREDICTED RELIABILITY New FUEL Overall mpg 19 City/highway mpg 14/26 Type premium Capacity, gal. 21.7 Cruising range, mi. 445 Annual cost, 15K mi $1,335 ($1.70/gal.) SAFETY CRASH TESTS IIHS frontal offset NA NHTSA front, driver/pass **/** NHTSA side, driver/rear NA/NA AIR BAGS Side, front/rear std./no Head protection standard SAFETY BELTS Center-rear belt 3-point Adj. upper anchors. f/r yes/yes Pretensioners, f/r yes/no ACTIVE SAFETY Antilock brakes standard Traction control included with stability Stability control optional SPECIFICATIONS DIMENSIONS AND WEIGHT Length/width/height, in. 188/74/67 Wheelbase, in. 111 Turning circle, ft 40 Ground …