On Autos: Pair of SUVs put brawn over space efficiency

The Chevrolet Tahoe looks like a Secret Service ride, but think of it as a big luxury vehicle that’s too bulky to be sensible — yet whose high comfort levels and powerful image lend it high levels of potential appeal. (Brady Holt/The Current)

With SUVs pulling away from passenger cars as the default choice for more buyers, it is not too surprising that most of them are more like cars than trucks. Best-sellers like the compact Honda CR-V, midsize Kia Sorento or full-size Ford Explorer are front-wheel-drive crossovers that prioritize smooth, quiet rides and space-efficient interiors.

But a handful of models continue focusing on more traditional SUV strengths, such as off-road capability or a high towing capacity. Even for buyers who do not necessarily plan to take advantage of those strengths, such vehicles present a counterpoint to the purely sensible family-friendly sales leaders or the most car-like luxury crossovers.

Two recently tested SUVs in this vein are the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe and the midsize Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Tahoe looks like a no-nonsense Secret Service ride, while the Jeep is prepared to power through mud and scramble over boulders.

Both are essentially luxury cars. The base price of a 2018 Tahoe is nearly $50,000, despite the all-business government-work vibe. You are paying for an imposing silhouette, effortless V8 engine, commanding seating position and extra-comfortable front seats. The Tahoe (along with its mechanical twin, the GMC Yukon) also boasts the strength to haul a trailer weighing more than 8,000 pounds and the durability to withstand emergency-services work. Northwest buyers probably will not need that capability, but some will appreciate a big SUV that avoids any sort of minivan vibe.

The Tahoe also delivers unexpectedly respectable gas mileage: up to 19 mpg in mixed driving. And although it is undeniably bulky, light steering takes some of the effort out of maneuvering the Tahoe.

However, the Tahoe is not as spacious and functional as it looks. The heavy-duty suspension takes up a lot of space under the skin, elevating the interior floor of the vehicle. Five adults can be pretty comfortable, but third-row passengers end up in a surprisingly cramped space, sitting uncomfortably knees-up.

Also, there is almost no cargo space with the third row in place. The second and third rows fold easily flat, but you have to hoist your cargo high above waist level to get it into the vehicle.

Chevrolet would encourage buyers interested in more space to buy the Suburban, an extended-length version of the Tahoe. But competitors like the Ford Expedition and Nissan Armada already do better even at the Tahoe’s size. And from a purely functional standpoint, car-based crossovers such as the Honda Pilot and Chevrolet’s own Traverse provide more usable space in addition to tidier footprints and better gas mileage.

The Grand Cherokee

The Grand Cherokee, meanwhile, also delivers five-passenger comfort and luxury — but in a smaller, less expensive and more fuel-efficient package. There is no available third-row seat and less total cargo space, but it is perhaps the more sensible choice if those aren’t requirements.

Like the Tahoe, the Grand Cherokee is cleanly styled, avoiding the low-slung shapes and dressy ornamentation that makes many of today’s high-end crossovers look sporty yet delicate. And with prices starting at $31,690, it is possible to get one without spending all-out luxury money. Add on all the premium options, though, and you can pass $60,000. The tested car approached $50,000.

Also like the Tahoe, the Grand Cherokee is pleasant to drive without abandoning a truck-like vibe. While it does not beat you over the head with rough edges, the Jeep does give up the truly decadent luxury vibe and the polished on-road driving dynamics of a Mercedes-Benz GLC or BMW X3 crossover. Tastes will vary.

And as with the Tahoe, the Grand Cherokee will not be a purely logical choice. A Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue compact crossover has just as much passenger and cargo space. You can also get the Jeep’s quiet ride and powerful engines from a Ford Edge, Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano or even Subaru Outback. The Grand Cherokee and the Tahoe are both luxury models with intangible qualities — a brawny character rather than the polished perfection of a Mercedes-Benz.

If what is what you are looking for, keep both of these SUVs on your radar along with the similarly hardy but less cushy Toyota 4Runner.