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We want a safe, fuel efficient SUV for less than $20,000, what should we get?

We have a 2006 Mercedes B-Class but want an SUV or crossover that is newer and family-friendly (two kids) – . Safety, fuel efficiency and value are the most important considerations and we want to spend less than $20,000 and would purchase used. We are leaning toward an American brand to decrease maintenance costs, and have looked into the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain. I also like the Ford Escape. - Jacquie

Richardson: First, let’s dispel the misconception that American brands are cheaper to maintain than Japanese or European. The true cost of maintenance is more about reliability and the initial value of the vehicle, not its source. A “premium” car such as the B-Class will cost more to maintain because the dealer usually adds extra service, such as a loaner car during an oil change, and this needs to be paid for whether it’s used or not.

Leeder: A great sanity check to see if your gut matches reality when it comes to car brand quality assumptions is J.D. Power, which publishes free online car ratings, research and reports (Consumer Reports is also a good resource, but you’ll need a subscription to access its best info). With your budget, you’re likely going to want to look at 2013 models and newer. Interestingly, J.D. Power ranked the 2013 Equinox as tops in vehicle quality and dependability, ahead of Toyota’s FJ Cruiser, the Honda CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4.


Richardson: The 2013 Equinox has a better V-6 engine than the 2012, with the same fuel consumption, and you’ll want that engine over the underpowered four-cylinder if you’re routinely carrying three or four people. It also has a sliding rear seat for more family-friendly space. That said, the similarly priced Ford Escape was entirely new for 2013 and a better all-around vehicle than the Equinox – more satisfying to drive and uses less fuel. Don’t bother with the four-wheel-drive versions if you live in the city.


Leeder: Among reviewers, the 2013 Escape got top points for its driving dynamics over the RAV4 (which felt underpowered) and the CR-V (better than RAV4, but still lacking in oomph at some points). That’s worth knowing if you’re the sort of person who values the feel of the ride. On paper, the Equinox stacks up. What I can’t get past is its old nickname: the “Squeak-winox.” A friend who used to work on the line building Equinoxes once told me that’s what it was referred to in GM’s plant. Knowing that alone would send me over to Ford.

Richardson: Jacquie mentions the GMC Terrain, which is much the same as the Equinox but usually has a bit more content. There should be a better deal to be found with it – a bit more SUV for your money. That said, the Dodge Journey was extensively redesigned in 2013 and is a better vehicle than the first generation. Don’t expect any excitement and it’s a bit thirsty, but is reliable, well-equipped and comfortable, and right on the money for the basic model. Forget the pathetic four-cylinder though – don’t even look at it unless it’s the V-6.


Leeder: Wrong, wrong, wrong. Don’t waste your time with the Journey. It’s ugly and boring. Blah. Test drive the Escape, which is peppy and has a fantastic infotainment system. Then head across the street to GM and take the Terrain for a spin, which is edgy so far as this category goes. While you’re out on the road, look for people driving Journeys. Look at their faces. Are they bored? Are they sad? Both? Yep, I thought so. Go with Ford or GM on this one.

Having trouble deciding what car is the best fit for you? E-mail, placing “What Car” in the subject area.

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