SUV ski-trip showdown
No car can be all things to all people, yet the SUV has emerged as the Swiss Army knife of the automotive world. Hatchback convenience, a secure ride and space for a family make the SUV a perfect solution for that weekend getaway.
But not all SUVs are the same. The Globe Drive team tests 4 different SUVs at different price points for different family needs - a GMC Acadia AWD Denali, Hyundai Tucson, Range Rover Discovery Sport and Lincoln MKX. Each vehicle is loaded with ski gear in Calgary and driven to Fernie graded on comfort, storage, handling, infortainment, favourite feature and pet peeve.
With world-class terrain, abundant powder snow and moderate temperatures, Fernie Alpine Resort attracts skiers and riders from North America and Europe via Calgary International Airport. The scenic old town of Fernie, B.C. – carrying cargo from the mines, to this day the freight train's mournful whistle echoes off the mountain walls – is also a playground for Calgarians who cram restaurants such as Yamagoya Sushi on Saturday nights.
Whether coming from the airport or elsewhere in Calgary, most drivers follow 22 south to Highway 3, before heading west. We chose the destination to test four SUVs because the route conjures the topography and/or driving conditions of other popular Canadian ski roads – Autoroute 15 from Montreal to Mont-Tremblant, Que., Highway 10 or Airport Road to 26 from Toronto to Collingwood, Ont., and the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler, B.C.
A weekend ski trip provides an excellent all-round vehicle evaluation – space for skis, boots and luggage, the ability to claw through snowdrifts and handle an icy ski-hill road, infotainment to keep the peace between the offspring in the back seat. Globe Drive contributors tested four SUVs with varying price points and attributes by making the trek to Fernie from Calgary. After more than 650 kilometres of driving that included everything from multi-lane highways to snow-covered back roads, check out how these vehicles may match up to your needs.
- Tom Maloney, Globe Drive editor
- Peter Cheney, Globe Drive columnist
- Joanne Elves, Globe Drive contributor
- Amee Reehal, Globe Drive contributor
2016 Lincoln MKX
Price as tested: $65,090
Cheney: In this four-vehicle shootout test, the MKX emerged as my favourite. It was just the right size, and the 2.7-litre V-6 provided torquey, lag-free power. The interior was comfortable, and the exterior is a stylistic home run, with crisp, timeless lines. The MKX was loaded with options that added more than $19,000 to its $45,980 base price. Some were worthy additions – like the adaptive LED headlights, and the concert-hall-worthy Revel stereo. But the 22-way power drivers seat, which costs $1,175, was an overly-complicated gimmick – only after reading the owners manual did I figure out how to stop the bolster adjustment from hammering me in the kidneys. And then there was the Matthew McConaughey factor: you can't drive a Lincoln without picturing those commercials where the actor cruises the road while delivering understated soliloquies against a soundtrack of cool jazz.
Maloney: Outside on Highway 22 near Alberta's Bar-U National Historic Ranch, the wind cascading from the mountains has coated the road in snow, and the gravel and sand dumped by the plows is jumping away from the tires. Inside the quiet cabin, you have the feeling of being sheltered from the storm. Heated leather seats dressed in two-toned Terra Cotta are adjustable 22 different ways. There are individual climate controls, heated rear seats, leather all-around and an unparalleled Revel sound system. It's like sitting in the library of an Old West mansion, missing only the crackling fireplace.
Elves: Did not like the driver's seat. I gave up after an hour trying to get it set to where I was comfortable.
Reehal: Lincoln and the notion of ultra-comfort have become synonymous – the mid-size MKX is no exception. The beefy, heated steering wheel feels good in the hands and the seats feel plush yet secure.
Maloney: There's room to seat five passengers and easily one bag for each person in the cargo area. Sixties-style transmission push-buttons are mounted imperceptibly on the dash aside the infotainment system, freeing up space in the console for well-positioned cup holders.
Elves: Needs a roof top storage if the family is going but there was adequate space for skis with half the back seat flipped down for two passengers. With the skis on top there was plenty of room to pile in the skiwear and overnight bags. Replacing the stick shift with dash mounted buttons opened up console for more storage space in the front.
Reehal: With rear 60/40-split rear seats but no folding centre armrest, a roof-mounted ski-rack is the way to go. Otherwise, rear cargo luggage space for a family of four won't be an issue.
Maloney: Voice-activation is a distraction-free option from the touchscreen. However, the GPS wouldn't provide directions to a location in Alberta when we were located in British Columbia.
Elves: Sound system was incredible. Plug-ins to keep the front and the backseat occupants happy. The blind spot warning system on the side mirrors is a nice feature but shouldn't replace the shoulder check.
Reehal: Our 2016 MKS still had the long-running MySynch Touch, now being replaced with Ford's all-new Sync3, which is offered in the smaller 2016 MKC compact crossover.
Cheney: On-the-money styling.
Maloney: Excellent stereo system.
Elves: Lovely panoramic roof, quiet drive.
Reehal: Styling, Sport-mode driving dynamics
Cheney: Impenetrable Sync infotainment menus, push-button shift controls.
Maloney: Couldn't make me as cool as McConaughey.
Elves: Complicated heated seat controls.
Reehal: Too many seat adjustments.
2016 Range Rover Discovery Sport HSE Luxury
Price as tested: $56,540
Cheney: This is a Louis Vuitton bag on wheels – yes, you're paying extra for style. The Discovery has a just-so look, and an air of fashionable exclusivity. Its ineffable is underpinned by a beautifully-engineered all-wheel drive system that lets you plow through almost anything. The suspension is well tuned, the turning radius is tight, and handling is superb. Pull back the sunshade, and the panoramic glass roof turns the interior into an airy cathedral. But there are flies in the ointment. The transmission may have nine gears, but shifting quality isn't the greatest. The power delivery of the turbocharged four is compromised by frustrating turbo lag. And if you were expecting the kind of private-jet interior you find on top-of-the-line Range Rovers like the Autograph Long Wheelbase, you'll be disappointed. The Discovery's cabin is pleasant, but devoid of burled wood and sumptuous hides – and the multifunction screen is a throwback to the days of the Pong video game. But I loved the all-wheel-drive system's sure footedness, and I never tired of ogling the Discovery in the parking lot.
Maloney: It feels comfortable and secure behind the wheel – from Fernie, I would have been confident embarking on the 940-kilometre journey along the steep Crowsnest Highway to Castlegar and Trail, then wildly up and down to Osoyoos in the Okanagan Valley, and ultimately to Vancouver … without feeling a twinge in the back or rear. Should one of the kid brings a friend along to sit three in the back, the three-hour ride from Calgary to Fernie, though, might be max-out time, without inciting a riot. The five-plus-two option in the back – which leaves no room for gear – is good only for tykes.
Elves: Loved the exceptional utility features combined with the luxury. The dial on the centre console instead of a stick shift created more perceived space. The heated seats in the back row would be appreciated by the kids after a day on the slopes.
Reehal: In true Land Rover fashion, the cabin is streamlined, spacious, and void of any bulk. The front console design and layout is straightforward with luxury in mind.
Maloney: The skis must be stored up top, though there's room enough in the back for a weekend's worth of bags and boots.
Elves: A storage box on the top is necessary if there is a family of four but the cargo could easily handle the rest of the gear. It has this cool ambient lighting feature laminating the side panels, making it easy to find anything stored in the door pockets.
Reehal: The flat storage behind the second-row will hold ample luggage and the anchor points will keep everything in place whether you're traversing mountains or parking lots. And the large, flat-folding pass-through between the second-row seats will hold your skis just fine. Though a roof-rack would be better, especially for the snowboarders.
Maloney: With the switch from steel to an aluminum body for 2014, the vehicle feels nimble on the north-to-south Highway 22, whether climbing and descending, or avoiding the deer on the long, flat straightaway. High ground clearance (22-inch wheels) and a two-speed, four-wheel drive system combine for secure traction on snowy roads.
Elves: It may be dressed up to look like a fancy city commuter but it handled the mountain roads and the snow covered backroads like an SUV should. Driving the dark mountain highway during a storm was no problem, it handled the changing terrain confidently.
Reehal: Unparalleled road handling and performance especially at the sub-$55,000 price.
Maloney: It's a rolling man cave (or tranquility oasis), as we fissure Alberta ranch land, the vision replete with mountains to the West and Prairie grass to the East, pumpjacks alongside Highway 22 working in constant rhythm, the Sirius radio tuned to a no-commercial country station, and Willie Nelson crooning, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys."
Elves: Easy to quickly understand gauges and controls. The navigation system was easy to use as were all the other features on the huge centre touchscreen infotainment system with touch spots big enough for larger fingers to press quickly. Plugin ports were bountiful.
Reehal: The user-interface is not terrific and the cheesy menu image graphics don't help.
Cheney: One of the best all-wheel-drive systems in the business.
Maloney: Distinctive style.
Elves: Adjustable rear seat accommodates long-legged kids.
Reehal: Handling dynamics
Cheney: Multifunction screen looks like a 1972 Atari console.
Maloney: It drinks a lot of gas.
Elves: Simplistic dash.
Reehal: Infotainment user-interface.
2016 Hyundai Tucson 1.6T Limited
Price as tested: $36,649
CHENEY: If you're old enough to remember the Hyundai Pony of the 1980s, with its wavy body panels, pull-out choke knob and lawnmower-worthy engine, it's hard to believe that the Tucson is made by the same company. But Hyundai has come a long way since its days as a maker of el-cheapo econoboxes, and the Tucson epitomizes the Hyundai of today – it has a quality feel, excellent mechanics, and high reliability ratings. The Tucson is a solid, high-value machine – it was the least expensive vehicle in this test, but didn't feel cheap. The Tucson handles well, the controls are properly laid out, and the infotainment system is intuitive and easy to use. But this is an appliance, not a dream car. Front seat comfort is good, but the interior has all the of a dental waiting room. The optional all-wheel-drive system will get you through the snow, but doesn't have the sophisticated torque vectoring found on machines like Subaru.
Maloney: The heated front seat provided sufficient comfort for the drive.
Elves: Comfortable front seats but the back row was limited for head space for a tall person. Longer road trips would be uncomfortable even for kids.
Reehal: Despite the smaller size, the cabin feel spacious with decent legroom for rear passengers.
Maloney: While longer and wider in 2016 than in prior year models, and slightly larger than the likes of Honda's HR-V and Maxda's CX-3 among subcompact crossovers, by nature of the segment you'll need rooftop capacity for the weekend away.
Elves: For the road trip a storage box on the roof is mandatory. With a family of four, you'd be lucky to get four overnight bags, winter wear and ski boots in the back.
Reehal: A bit tight for a family of four, but with a ski-rack and respectable space behind the second-row, the Tuscon makes for the perfect day-trip chariot. The large side door storage spaces are convenient, providing extra room to stash your gloves or garbage.
Maloney: The 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder has plenty of power and Eco mode boosts fuel efficiency into compact car zone. Stability and traction control kicked in nicely on mucky, undulating roads.
Elves: I loved the manoeuvrability on the highway, it had good pep for the up-hills and passing lanes. Starting at intersections, it seemed to jump through the gears quickly.
Reehal: On the road, the all-new Tucson drives exceptionally well – the AWD is optional but a must-have for those hitting the snowy mountains.
Maloney: An eight-inch screen on the Limited model looks equivalent to a 65-inch TV in the den of your home; the standard five-inch touchscreen seems adequate. Bluetooth, USB connectivity and satellite radio are standard.
Elves: Easy to understand. The instrument panel is compact so eye contact with the road was not lost while searching for buttons. Flipping a thumb on the steering wheel would scroll through important trip and engine details conveniently displayed in the middle of the instrument panel. The navigation lady talked way too much when we were still in the city.
Reehal: The eight-inch touch-screen navigation system is well-laid out, the interface is easy to work around, and the extra buttons below the screen means less menu fiddling when you should be driving.
Cheney: Solid value.
Maloney: Panoramic moon roof.
Elves: Excellent backup camera.
Reehal: Extra buttons on the infotainment system mean less menu fiddling.
Cheney: Uninspired interior.
Maloney: High-tech transmission exhibits occasional shifting lag.
Elves: GPS navigation lady talked way too much.
Reehal: Longer trips may require an extra stop or two to stretch out.
GMC Acadia AWD Denali
Price as tested: $59,895
Cheney: If you like the feel of a traditional SUV, this is your ride. The Acadia has the substantial, big-car presence that has defined GM machines since the Mad Men era – the hood stretches out before you like an aircraft carrier flight deck, and the interior has the deep, cosseting comfort of a wheeled Beautyrest. Instead of feeling the road, you are insulated from it by soft springs, bountiful sound-deadening, and sheer mass.
The Acadia tracks down the highway like a Pullman luxury train, unmoved by crosswinds and pavement irregularities. Unfortunately, these traditional GM strengths are accompanied by a set of traditional GM weaknesses: numb steering, tone-deaf styling, and clunky interior design. That said, it must be noted that the Acadia had one of the finest centre armrests: it glides into your preferred position with the silken smoothness you'd expect from a Rolls-Royce component, and the lid flips up to reveal a storage bin big enough for a laptop computer. The Acadia is noticeably larger than the other SUVs in this test, and with three-row seating, it would be the preferred choice for a family of four or more. The Acadia is exactly what you'd expect from GM, a company that made its name marketing capacious, distinctly American vehicles that play to North America's endless hunger for lebensraum.
Maloney: On the short ride from the ski-in, ski-out Snow Creek Cabins to the Northern pub in downtown Fernie, we flip down the back-seat screen and put on a cartoon, with the effect of the two adults in the second row seat and one other in the power-folding third-row seat being placed under the Maxwell Smart cone of silence. Imagine what it'll do for the kids. The comforts-beyond-home include a heated steering wheel, heated second row seats, automatic triple-zone climate control, and noise reduction via triple-sealed doors, laminated windshield/front-door windows and a valved exhaust system.
Elves: If you are heading to the mountains every weekend, this is the vehicle you want so everyone has lots of elbow room. The front and second row were equipped with heated captain chairs. The third row could handle a few kids but long drives might have them fussing.
Reehal: The mid-size Acadia with three-rows is comfortable enough for the longer road trips, but the Denali trim steps it up with more premium materials and distinct styling.
Maloney: There's enough room in the back to house a month's worth of luggage, gear and groceries and, with the hands-free liftgate, there's no worry of snow migrating from the ground into your ski boots.
Elves: With a storage box on the roof for the skis and boards, there is space for loads of gear. Without a roof rack, the skis could still fit comfortably in the back, reaching between the two back seats.
Reehal: With the third-row folding flat, there's more than enough cargo space.
Maloney: While we experience relatively mild dustings of snow during the test, you get the feeling this vehicle would bulldoze through a blizzard as though a plow is buckled to the fender.
Elves: This is a big vehicle and it's going feel like one. But that's the beauty of it. On dry roads, it is quiet and tracks the lane gracefully. If the road is in rough shape, it is going to handle it confidently.
Reehal: For a larger crossover, the Acadia handles well both on the highway and in the city. Again, the Denali version adds better, more comfortable driving dynamics with AWD as standard.
Maloney: With Apple CarPlay, entertainment, communication and mapping transitions seamlessly from iPhone to the eight-inch touchscreen display.
Elves: Over the years, the controls on GMC's seem to only change slightly so it was easy to settle into this vehicle quickly. The IntelliLink displays everything from sat radio to the navigation system so you can easily touch through to the feature you want or download many more. The navigation system was average. The backup camera display was fantastic, showing you the ground directly below the bumper.
Reehal: The advanced technology is all standard in the Acadia Denali. But the best part? Onboard 4G LTE WiFi. It's a road-trip game-changer, especially with kids.
Cheney: The Ferrari of centre armrests, rock-solid highway ride.
Maloney: There's enough room in the back to house a month's worth of luggage, gear and groceries.
Elves: Drop down DVD screen is a parent's dream.
Reehal: Cabin comfort and technology.
Cheney: Styling rooted in the Brady Bunch era.
Maloney: You'll want a Chevy Volt to go with it.
Elves: Nothing. Some might find it too big for the parking lot, but there's always room at the end of the lot – and an extra walk never hurt anyone.
Reehal: Heated steering wheel is half wood – no heat.
The Cast of Reviewers
Born in Nova Scotia, Drive's feature columnist grew up around the world as the son of a Canadian military officer. He has lived in, and experienced driving conditions in Germany, Belgium, Africa, the United States and cities across Canada, including Calgary.
A Calgary-based freelance writer, Joanne writes the weekly Gadget item for Drive. As an avid skier and the owner-operator of windmills in Pincher Creek, Joanne has abundant winter-driving experience.
A senior editor in Report on Business and responsible for Drive, Tom lived in Calgary for six years. To ski and report, he's driven throughout Western Canada.
Based in Calgary, Amee is the publisher of, and contributor to TractionLife, a website for driving enthusiasts. His photography, along with Cheney's, is featured in this package of stories.