TWO MAMAS AND A PAPA
Running the highways of Texas this past month afforded insight into the evolution of three-row SUVs, their current state, and their future trajectory.
For a weekend in North Dallas we enjoyed the potent power and lavish luxury of a 2024 Infiniti QX80. A Saturday jaunt to a favored hiking trail let us experience the surprising athleticism and seamless digital integration of a Kia Telluride. Finally, an out-and-back journey through rolling hills to Gilmer in a Toyota Highlander Hybrid demonstrated that a vehicle can be roomy and comfortable, yet fuel-efficient.
Significant engineering differences among the three illustrate how far automotive engineering evolved over the past decade and hint at where it may go in the next.
The Infiniti QX80, for example, rides on the same body-on-frame, truck-like architecture as the Nissan Armada. The Chevy Suburban and Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia, and more ride on that same type of foundation. Big, heavy, and tall, it is easy to see why these lumbering creatures attract so many buyers. They feel safe.
This is, sadly, another example of our visceral impressions misleading us. Not a single domestic full-size SUV earns top safety ratings comparable to, say, the Telluride and Highlander. In crash testing, they surrender points because steel frames do not absorb energy efficiently as unibody construction. Also, because of their height and weight, they are much more prone to rollovers, statistically the most lethal accidents of all.
Several studies of late point to the height and mass of large SUVs as the chief cause of alarming increases in pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the United States. In Europe, where vehicles are smaller, this is not occurring. Not only is it harder to see folks in front of high riders, but the flat frontal surfaces are far more lethal on impact.
INFINITI QX80: PLUSH GAS HOG
It would be a lie to say that we did not enjoy the Infiniti’s 400-hp, 5.6-liter V8 engine linked to a seven-speed automatic transmission. It was smooth as thick ice on a windless winter pond. On the other hand, getting only 15 mpg, the big SUV cost as much in fuel as we spent on a decent hotel in Frisco.
Both the QX80 and Armada cousin (the Armada is priced similarly to the Kia and Toyotas shown in the chart) saw redesigns in 2013. A fresh design is due out in 2024 for the 2025 model year. One will not speculate on what that will hold beyond noting that the existing model lags sharply in fuel economy and technology.
As an aside, we should also note that the QX80 failed to earn a Consumer Reports ‘buy’ recommendation, a score of 70 or greater. This year, no body-on-frame SUV earned better than a 60.
Like all truck-like SUVs, the QX80 still employs rack-and-pinion steering rather than drive-by-wire. That means they cannot keep themselves centered in their lanes, which helps prevent both head-on and rollover accidents. Start to leave the lane and all the QX80 can do is provide an annoying signal, which most drivers choose to turn off.
We found the Infiniti’s additional mass and height, plus the lack of lane-centering, made it more stressful to drive.
|Infiniti QX80||Kia Telluride||Toyota Highlander Hybrid|
|Price Range||$74,150 – $88,450||$35,990 – $53,185||$43,320 – $53,125|
|Seating||7 or 8||7 or 8||7 or 8|
|Max Cargo Capacity (cubic feet)||95.1||87.0||84.3|
|Cargo Volume behind third row (cubic feet)||16.6||21.0||16.0|
|Curb Weight (lbs.)||5,677-5,838||4,112-4,482||4,145-4,595|
|Driver Assist Technology:Adaptive Cruise Control Forward collision Warning Lane departure warning Lane Centering Assist|
|EPA fuel economy (mpg)||13 city/19 highway Observed: 15 mpg||19 city/ 24 highway Observed 19 mpg||36 city/35 highway Observed 35 mpg|
|Gas tank volume (gal)||26.0||18.8||17.1|
|Range (miles)||338 city/494 highway||457 city/ 451 highway||616 city/ 600 highway|
|EPA Greenhouse rating (1-10 scale, 10 best)||2.5||5.5||7.0|
|EPA estimated annual fuel cost||$3,450||$1,800||$1,050|
|Predicted Reliability per Consumer Reports(1-5, 5 best)||2||3||4|
|Emergency Handling (1-5, 5 best)||1||4||3|
|IIHS Top Safety Pick +||No||Yes||Yes|
|Warranties||4-year/60,000-mile basic, 6-year/70,000-mile powertrain||5-year/60,000-mile basic, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain||3-year/36,000-mile basic, 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain, 8-year/100,000-mile hybrid-related component coverage|
|Consumer Reports overall score (0-100)||49||87||86|
Still, the QX80 is a nice ride. It showcases its luxury roots with a plush cabin adorned in premium materials. Its spacious seating arrangement provides ample legroom and headroom for all passengers, ensuring a luxurious and relaxed experience.
KIA TELLURIDE: ATHLETIC AND SOPHISTICATED
Kia’s Telluride offers a refined and composed ride, with a well-tuned suspension that absorbs road imperfections effectively. Nimble for its size and weighing a good 1,500 lbs. less than the Infiniti, the Telluride draws plenty of power from its 291-hp V6 engine and is downright athletic tackling curvy roads through wooded hills.
The Telluride impresses with a well-designed and ergonomically sound interior. It offers comfortable seating for up to eight occupants, with supportive and well-cushioned seats. The Telluride also excels in noise insulation, creating a serene environment for occupants.
User interface is where the Telluride shines. Kia and its corporate cousin Hyundai lead the industry in digital integration. Rather than lurching from side marker to side marker, the way lane-keep in most domestic vehicles does, Kias stay nicely balanced in the middle of their lanes. One still needs to keep both hands on the wheel and pay attention, but it is nice to know the car has a copilot whose focus never waivers. Want to glance at the scenery? If it is just a glance.
Cabin electronics – including the gauge cluster and infotainment system – ride on the same circuit. Adjusting dash lighting to the desired level, for example, simultaneously sets the map brightness. A head-up display on our tester also detected and alerted us to vehicles in blind spots. An intuitive infotainment system features a crisp touchscreen display and an easy-to-navigate interface.
TOYOTA HIGHLANDER HYBRID: GOLDILOCKS
If Toyota still built the Avalon, we think it would look and feel very much like our tester, a top-of-line Highlander Platinum Hybrid AWD. Price: $53,125.
For that, one gets a three-row vehicle rich in features and luxurious appointments, like leather-trimmed seating heated and ventilated for driver and passenger, a hands-free power liftgate, and a 12.3-inch Toyota Audio Multimedia touchscreen and 11-speaker JBL Premium sound system.
High-end details like wood door and ornamental dash trim, high output LED fog lights, and puddle lights with integrated Highlander logo also come standard. The Premium grade adds even more features including 20-inch alloy wheels, a power Panoramic Glass Moonroof with sunshade and front power tilt/slide function, an eight-way power adjustable passenger seat, panoramic view monitor.
The Highlander strikes a balance between comfort and performance, with a smooth ride and responsive steering that instills confidence behind the wheel. It may not offer the same level of power as the QX80, but it compensates with versatility and ease of handling.
That is especially true of AWD models, which come with a rear-mounted electric motor to send power to the rear wheels. Going through curves, the SUV sticks like a GT sedan.
Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD does not simply react to wheel slippage. Rather, a sophisticated AWD system manages steering, throttle control, transmission shift control, and drive torque distribution to continually help optimize handling. A Multi-Terrain Select-control dial on the console lets the driver maximize traction for prevailing conditions. Mud & Sand mode works well for beach driving, while Rock & Dirt mode optimizes AWD traction for trails. The driver can monitor torque allocation and slip control.
Toyota offers a non-hybrid Highlander which raises one simple question: why? We know why. Some people are fearful of modern technology, but Toyota’s hybridization is now old-hat and low-tech. It has been around for 26 years now, long enough to build an unchallenged claim to reliability. We know. We have a 17-year-old Highlander Hybrid in our driveway because a) it still runs like a top and b) the old guy who owns it – that would be yours truly – refuses to part with it.
Here is the abridged version of this story. Electric motors are much more dependable than gas ones because they have fewer moving parts. In hybrids, electric motors do their thing on peak demand, on take-off and heavy acceleration. This sharp reduction in demand for the internal combustion engine is the chief reason that six of Consumer Reports’ top 10 recommended used cars are hybrids.
In 2024 models, Toyota is asking about $1,500 more for a hybrid. That is less than the amount owners will save on fuel costs in the first two years.
The Toyota Highlander embraces technology with its user-friendly infotainment system, complete with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa integration. It also excels in safety features, offering a comprehensive suite of advanced driver aids as standard across all trim levels.
We are still a few years away from the deployment of solid-state batteries, which will extend the range of electric cars while making it feasible to use smaller batteries for plug-in hybrids. Until that day, though, Toyota seems to have built the better mousetrap. The Highlander Hybrid is a family-sized vehicle that gets twice the fuel economy of the first generations of SUVs.