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Consumer Reports Rates Toyota Highlander Tops Among Three-Row SUVs

Buick Enclave also impresses, Ford Taurus X improves; New Chrysler minivans disappoint

The redesigned Toyota Highlander received top scores in a new Consumer Reports test of four midsized three-row SUVs, though it did not earn the organization's Recommended designation. Still, the Highlander now tops a field of 14 similar vehicles. The Buick Enclave and Ford Taurus X didn't score as well in this test, but both bested the Subaru Tribeca.

In a test extra, the new Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans proved disappointing. Details are available in the January issue of Consumer Reports magazine, on sale December 4, and to subscribers to http://www.consumerreports.org/.

The Highlander is the first model to feel the effects of a decision by Consumer Reports that it would no longer automatically award Toyotas with its Recommended designation because its Annual Car Reliability Survey showed several other models had problems. In the past, Consumer Reports automatically Recommended new and redesigned Toyotas based on the company's excellent reliability history. If the reliability of Toyota vehicles improves to those levels for a sustained period, automatic Recommended designations could return.

Consumer Reports only applies its Recommended label to vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on Consumer Reports' Annual Car Reliability Survey of its seven million subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

"All four of the SUVs scored 'Very Good' or 'Excellent' in our testing," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center. "But because we recommend only models with sufficient data to predict average or better reliability, only the Ford Taurus X and Subaru Tribeca are Recommended from this group."

Prices for vehicles in the midsized three-row SUV test group range from $34,720 for the Subaru Tribeca to $39,240 for the Buick Enclave. Aside from the Highlander, which received an "Excellent" rating, all vehicles earned "Very Good" ratings.

With its exemplary overall road-test score for refinement, quiet interior, ride comfort, power, fuel economy, and roomy second row seat, the Highlander is not without its drawbacks. Limited interior versatility and some large panel gaps, plus overly light steering, were detractions. A smooth and spirited 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine returned 18 mpg overall, good for such a big vehicle. Unlike some other three-row SUVs, the Highlander doesn't feel overly bulky in turns.

The Buick Enclave, sister to the Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia, is set apart from its siblings by a plusher interior finish, a quieter interior, and a softer ride. Consumer Reports' testers found rear visibility, awkward placement of some controls, and unimpressive fuel economy to be its weaknesses. High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights don't include a "flash-to-pass" mode to signal other drivers, a serious omission. Still, the roomy Enclave has easily-accessible second- and third-row seats spacious enough for three adults each, something few competitors can match. The 275-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 feels taxed by the Enclave's hefty 5,100-pound weight, but when pushed it delivers good performance.

The Ford Taurus X ($36,105 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price as tested) is a freshened version of the model formerly called the Freestyle. A bigger, 263-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine improves both performance and refinement, but fuel economy is worse. Its lower height makes it handle and feel more like a sedan, and it posted one of the highest speeds in Consumer Reports' avoidance maneuver among all three-row SUVs tested.

The Subaru Tribeca is among the sportiest-handling SUVs Consumer Reports has tested. Despite being comfortable, quiet, and quicker than previous models, it is not an ideal family vehicle because seating in all three rows is so cramped. The new, 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine delivers much quicker acceleration than the old 3.0-liter and gets the same 16 mpg overall as before.

Redesigned Minivans from Chrysler Playing Catch-Up

The redesigned Dodge Caravan ($33,950 as tested) and Chrysler Town & Country ($38,390 as tested) are better than the models they replace. Despite notable new features, though, they haven't risen to the level needed to compete against better models from Japan and South Korea. Though the ride has been improved, cabins are better finished, and the rear windows now roll down, braking and handling performance have dropped, and acceleration and fuel economy are unimpressive.

"Although the new minivans come with many new and innovative features, dynamically they fall way behind their competitors," said Champion. "Reliability is not yet known for this redesign."

Consumer Reports' testing showed a general lack of grip and agility, long braking distances, engine noise, and a complicated optional audio system as low points in these new vehicles. The Town & Country Limited has some nice touches, including soft leather seats with suede inserts. The Dodge is less luxurious. But panel gaps, sharp edges, and a flimsy-feeling center console cheapen the look and feel of both vehicles.

Access to the third row can be difficult with the Swivel 'n Go feature because second-row seats don't flip forward to facilitate entry. Also, child seats must not be used with the seats facing forward. You can watch video from separate sources on the optional dual DVD screens, and satellite TV is a unique option.

With more than 6,800,000 print and online subscribers, Consumer Reports is one of the most trusted sources for information and advice on consumer products and services. It conducts the most comprehensive auto-test program of any U.S. publication or Website; the magazine's auto experts have decades of experience in driving, testing, and reporting on cars. To become a subscriber, consumers can call 1-800-234-1645. Information and articles from the magazine can be accessed online at http://www.consumerreports.org/.

JANUARY 2008

The material above is intended for legitimate news entities only; it may not be used for commercial or promotional purposes. Consumer Reports(R) is published by Consumers Union, an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To achieve this mission, we test, inform, and protect. To maintain our independence and impartiality, CU accepts no outside advertising, no free test samples, and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers. CU supports itself through the sale of our information products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants.

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