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What to buy? The rundown on nine mid-sized SUVs

Chevrolet Equinox.

General Motors

Canadians swoon over Toyota RAV4s, Honda CR-Vs, Hyundai Santa Fe Sports, Ford Escapes, Nissan Rogues, and Volkswagen Tiguans as 197,800 compact SUVs sold in Canada through the first six months of this year.

But we're also pretty hot for intermediate SUVs, with 96,975 sold during that same period.

In fact, nearly one of every three new vehicles sold in Canada (908,094) so far this year has been either a compact or mid-size SUV. The savvy shopper should not overlook the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota Highlander and Kia Sorento. They're good, useful, affordable rigs that often get overlooked in the stampede to compact SUVs.

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Someone looking for a super-safe, well-priced and roomier-than-a-compact SUV should scratch around for the latest offers. But given these are family rides, also note the mid-size overlap crash testing done earlier this year by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The IIHS tested nine intermediates in the stringent small overlap front crash test and the results show that not all mid-size SUVs are created equal. In this test, designed to replicate what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole, the Equinox, its sibling, the GMC Terrain, and the Toyota Highlander, were the only ones to earn the highest rating – Top Safety Pick+. The Honda Pilot, meanwhile, was the worst performer.

"When it comes to mid-size SUVs, General Motors is showing the way forward. The Equinox and Terrain score well in all components of the small overlap test – structure, restraints and kinematics, and injury measures for four body regions," said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer.

The Pilot is an older design, with a new version expected in 2015. So it's not overly surprising to see its overlap crash score lag the segment leaders. And in tests for side impact, roof strength and head restraints and seats, the Pilot scored well.

The Equinox and Terrain are also older designs due for a refresh next year, which makes their test scores impressive. The other top-scoring mid-size was the Highlander, which enjoyed a major makeover last year.

Now, no one is declaring those mid-size SUVs with lower overlap crash scores unsafe. All meet government safety standards and all nine on this particular list are available with a broad range of standard safety features. As Zuby says, "SUVs have gotten much safer over the past few generations, but some are better than others at providing comprehensive front crash protection."

Some are also better on price. Here's a rundown of the nine tested earlier this year by the IIHS, from crash test ratings to quality scores to the deals on offer:

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GMC Terrain. General Motors General Motors  


Base price: $26,375 for the front-drive Equinox, with AWD starting at $28,575. The Terrain has similar pricing.

On crash: The IIHS gave both a Good score across the board, from the robustness of the vehicle's structure, to protection of bodily parts.

On quality: The Terrain won its segment in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, with the Equinox a runner-up. Consumer Reports also rates both well above average for reliability.

On offers: General Motors Canada has its Canada Wide Clearance event in place, with advertised discounts of up to $3,000. Bargain hard and you should be able to score $700 or more in dealers discounts.

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On point: The Equinox and Terrain are functional SUVs and they're also among a shrinking pool of vehicles still assembled in Canada. They come with a five year/160,000-km warranty, seating for five, the four-cylinder engine is rated a 6.1 litres/100 km using regular fuel, cargo space is good and the tow rating is 1,599 kilograms. The Equinox looks a little old-fashioned, though inoffensive enough. The Terrain looks like a tool box on four wheels.

Toyota Highlander. Toyota Toyota  


Base price: $31,680 for the front-drive version, with all-wheel drive starting at $34,180

On crash: This Toyota, like the Terrain/Equinox, is a Top Safety Pick+, though in the small overlap test it earned only an Acceptable overall rating.

On quality: Toyota and the Highlander share an excellent record for reliability and durability. Some of that stems from Toyota's careful, measured approach to introducing new technologies. Indeed, while many parts of the Highlander were redone last year, the powertrain pieces were essentially carried over from the previous generation.

On offers: A 2.9 per cent finance rate for three years is available. Many other mid-size SUVs come with richer discounts. Highlander sales were up sharply in July, as they were in June. There's no need to slap on incentives when the metal is moving off dealer lots.

On point: The Highlander won its class in J.D. Power's latest "things-gone-right" APEAL study, which suggests that mid-size SUV buyers like what they see here. The looks is modern, ride quality is excellent and the V-6 is a strong engine. If you value fuel economy, there's an AWD hybrid version which starts at nearly $10,000 more than the least expensive gasoline-only, AWD Highlander.

Jeep Grand Cherokee. Fiat Chrysler Fiat Chrysler  


Base price: $39,995

On crash: An overall Marginal rating from the IIHS is a surprise, given the Grand Cherokee is Jeep's flagship model. However, in many of the individual IIHS ratings, it rated Good.

On quality: Fiat-Chrysler still has work to do if it plans to top the important third-party quality studies. The Jeep brand ranks fourth from the bottom in the latest J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study or VDS – exactly the same as in CR's mid-size ratings.

On offers: There's a $2,500 factory-to-dealer incentive in play, but it has conditions; ask the dealer for details. The factory also has a credit for buyers of the EcoDiesel engine.

On point: The Grand Cherokee was a runner-up to the Highlander in J.D. Power's APEAL study. What's interesting is that the Grand Cherokee is almost the antithesis of the Highlander. The Toyota is all about quality and reliability while the Grand Cherokee is all about styling, comfort, features and rugged capability. Jeep also sells a diesel version of the Grand C.

Toyota 4Runner. Toyota Toyota  


Base price: $37,900 for the SR5

On crash: A Marginal overall offset crash rating matches the Grand Cherokee and Ford's Explorer.

On quality: Consumer Reports ranks the 4Runner highest among the mid-sizers in its reliability reports. J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Study also gives the 4Runner a high score.

On offers: Toyota does not push the 4Runner too hard in the marketplace. Perhaps that's because it's a truck-like SUV and the real sales are had in car-based rigs like the Highlander. A 1.9 per cent finance rate for three years is the best the factory has to offer.

On point: The 4Runner is family-friendly for families who need something a bit more rugged than a Highlander.

Ford Explorer. Ford Ford  


Base price: $29,999 for the front-drive version, with all-wheel drive starting at $32,999.

On crash: The Explorer earned a Marginal rating in the IIHS overlap crash test. In breaking down that score, the Explorer's structure earned a Poor rating, as did the Toyota Highlander.

On quality: The Explorer has not shown well in any of the major quality studies and Consumer Reports ranks it at the bottom for reliability, just above the Nissan Pathfinder.

On offers: Ford's Employee Pricing Event should be worth about $3,200 in factory discounts.

On point: Ford made a lot of noise about the Explorer's EcoBoost engine availability, but turbocharging combined with direct fuel injection do not always deliver outstanding real-world fuel economy – especially in an SUV that might be used for towing and hauling. The Explorer drives well, but it's not cheap.

Kia Sorento. Kia Kia  


Base price: $27,895 for the front-drive version, with all-wheel drive starting at $29,895.

On crash: The Sorento earned a Poor overall rating in the overlap test, though there were a couple of bright spots – Good measures for head, neck and chest protection.

On quality: Kia and Hyundai from the combined Hyundai Motors aced the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. The Sorento is also ranked above average for reliability by Consumer Reports.

On offers: The factory has a $4,000 cash incentive on the table and, in some cases, can be combined with attractive financing.

On point: The Sorento had a facelift a couple of years ago, but this rig is starting to look dated. On the other hand, the pricing is spectacular. This Kia is comfy enough and really useful. If you want a real deal on a reliable mid-size SUV, the Sorento is worth a look.

Mazda CX-9. Mazda Mazda  


Base price: $33,995 for the front-drive version, with all-wheel drive starting at $36,995

On crash: The Poor overall ratings for the overlap test is slightly redeemed by Good measures for chest, hip and thigh protection.

On quality: Mazda's largest SUV is well rated by Consumer Reports for reliability. Mazda does not excel in J.D. Power's quality studies, overall.

On offers: Mazda has a $4,250 factory sweetener on the table.

On point: The CX-9 is highly entertaining, at least from the driver's seat. The V-6 is strong enough, but not the most fuel efficient, though it does ask only for regular. The design is eye-grabbing and seating can be had for up to three rows. The controls and instrument layout is nice and clean and the seats are supportive. The cabin feels a little tight, however.

Honda Pilot. Honda Honda  


Base price: $34,990 for the front-drive version, with all-wheel drive starting at $38,045

On crash: The Pilot scored lowest in this batch rated by the IIHS.

On quality: Consumer Reports ranks the Pilot with the Toyota Highlander for reliability. But J.D. Power's quality studies does not rank the Pilot so highly.

On offers: A $5,000 factory discount is in play, which only partially offsets the high sticker pricing.

On point: This version of the Pilot is coming to the end of its lifecycle. That explains the fat factory money on the table and the Poor overlap score from the IIHS. The Pilot is a big, solid, boxy-looking SUV that has had its fans over the years. But its handling feels cumbersome. The seats are well-padded, and the gauges are excellent. The V-6 has enough power and fuel economy is okay, but not great.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More


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