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car review

2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac Credit: Ford

Do you have a cottage in the boonies? Need to tow a small boat or trailer?

You'll need something with available four-wheel-drive and a good-sized engine – four-cylinder models aren't going to cut it. A little elbow/storage room inside the vehicle would be nice, as would a decent reliability record, plus the ability to take a few bumps and bruises along the way.

To make things more manageable, we've narrowed the options down to three: a 10-, five– and three-year-old model, representing three different manufacturers. Prospective buyers should bear in mind that these kinds of vehicles are often put to work and see off-road duty – "run hard and put up wet," as they say. Low-mileage models are recommended, as is a thorough mechanical checkup.

2003 Toyota Sequoia Credit: Toyota  

2003 Toyota Sequoia

With a smooth 240-horsepower V-8 engine, four-speed automatic transmission and available 4WD, this generation of the Sequoia will seat at least six – including their luggage – and features a 2,850-kilogram towing capacity for the 4X2 version, with a vehicle stability control system and traction control.

Weak points include the fuel system, body hardware, brakes and audio system. Transport Canada has three safety recalls on file for this one, which should have all been dealt with by now. They include a passenger-side airbag that could inflate too quickly/harshly in an accident, software issues with the stability control system, and lower front ball joints that could wear prematurely. This generation of the Sequoia gets a "better-than-average" rating from Consumer Reports. Some comments from owners: "Twice the room of a van," "very comfortable on long trips," and "better than the domestic SUVs owned previously." J.D. Power, meanwhile, gives it an "about-average" grade for overall quality. Not the cheapest full-size SUV for this year, but arguably the most dependable; you can expect to pay $10,000-$12,000 for the SR5 and another $2,000-$3,000 for the upscale Limited.

2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac Credit: Ford  

2008 Ford Explorer Sport Trac

As well as offering seating for five, this one has a smallish pickup bed for carrying awkward loads. After a major re-do in 2007 and the addition of a 292-horsepower, 4.6-litre V-8 and six-speed automatic, the Sport Trac upped its reliability and useability, garnering a "better-than-average" grade from Consumer Reports in the process. Towing capacity for the V-8 version (there is also a 4.0-litre V-6/five-speed automatic) is 2,376 kilograms and you could get this generation of the Sport Trac with or without 4WD.

Some problems have been reported with the suspension and power equipment, but overall this generation of the Sport Trac is head and shoulders above its predecessors. Just one safety recall to report from Transport Canada and it concerns a possible transmission fluid leak caused by improperly fitting lines to the transmission cooler. Owners comments: "Electric adjustable pedals are a nice feature," "the switch to an independent rear suspension is a welcome one," and "quite an improvement over the earlier models." J.D. Power gives the '08 Sport Trac an "about-average" grade for overall quality, but "among the best" for overall performance and design. Prices for a five-year-old Sport Trac range from the low teens for a base V-6 2WD, to the high teens for a loaded 4WD V-8 Limited. Of the three models, this represents the biggest bang for the buck.

2010 Mazda CX-9 Credit: Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail  

2010 Mazda CX-9

Mazda's largest SUV slips under the radar, but with a refined 3.7-litre V-6, 273 horsepower on tap, mated to either 2WD or 4WD, it provides up to 1,450 kilograms of towing capacity. This engine, incidentally, is not a Ford powerplant, but Mazda's own proprietary unit.

Transport Canada has but one safety recall on file, and it concerns a potentially troublesome front-seat warmer that could overheat and start an electrical fire – it needs a better ground. With high marks in just about every category, this one rates a "better-than-average" grade from Consumer Reports and receives this organization's "Good Bet" designation. J.D. Power gives the '10 CX-9 a "better-than-most" grade for powertrain and overall dependability. Comments from owners: "Great handling, comfortable on long rides," "Mazda refuses to fix the leaky sun roof," and "some rattles come and go from time to time."

Thanks to its crossover origins, the CX-9 offers the most civilized driving experience of these three and you can expect to pay in the low to high-$20,000s for this one. As is the case for all these SUVs, the 2WD version is substantially cheaper than its 4WD stablemate – in this case, $3,000-$4,000 less.