By Steven Cole Smith
Scouting doesn't always happen close to home. Here are our recommendations for new vehicles that will get your kids and your stuff from Point A to Point B and back.
Scouters don’t take field trips, go camping, or journey on high-adventure trips in a meeting room. So these days, they wrangle with a major issue: how to get their guys and gear across town or across the country, safely and efficiently, and conserve energy with the fewest possible number of vehicles.
With the steep decline in the consumer market for minivans, full-size SUVs, and full-size vans due to last year’s rise in gas prices, some of Scouting’s traditional transportation choices dried up.
Though fuel prices declined toward the end of the year, auto manufacturers’ push to downsize vehicles continues. And given pump prices’ roller-coaster tendencies, who knows what’s in store for 2009?
Besides, the price of fuel alone didn’t nudge the industry’s retooling as much as you might think.
“This trend away from large vehicles like SUVs toward smaller ones has been under way for some time,” says George Pipas, chief analyst for the Ford Motor Company. “The rise in fuel prices just accelerated it.”
That said, some of the behemoth, nine-passenger Scout-movers like the Ford Excursion, with its enormous, thirsty, optional V-10 are gone. Still, sales of Chevy Suburbans, the longtime champ in the category, remain strong.
That fact suggests that when people such as Scouters need to haul a lot of kids and outdoor gear, they’ll pay what they have to, to get the job done.
Domestic and foreign manufacturers recognize that. In the new model year, they’re offering some appealing alternatives to the old gas-guzzlers for people who need to fill every last seat and every cubic foot of cargo space.
What follows represents our choices for the best, new potential Scout-movers on the market.
Note: All miles-per-gallon listings represent EPA ratings.
CHEVROLET TAHOE/GMC YUKON HYBRID
Arguably the most sophisticated vehicles GM has ever built. The hybrid power works so seamlessly, you’ll hardly notice a difference between these and the traditional models—except at the pump.
Members of the body-on-frame SUV family, the Tahoe and Yukon hybrids are essentially shortened versions of the Suburban. However, GM began offering them in 2008 with gasoline/electric hybrid powertrains. That means an electric motor supplements the gas-fueled V-8 engine, generating 332 horsepower with the fuel-efficient mileage of a full-size sedan.
Prices start above $50,000, and don’t expect big discounts, as you might for a regular Tahoe/Yukon. It will take a while for the hybrid to give you a return on your investment. Still, its higher resale value will help make up the difference.
Configuration: rear-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel drive
Tows: 6,200 pounds
MPG: 21 city, 22 highway
Powertrain: 332hp, 6.0-liter V-8, with six-speed automatic transmission
Dimensions: wheelbase, 116 inches; length, 202 inches; curb weight, 5,570 pounds
Cargo volume: 16.9 cubic feet
Safety features: head-curtain, side-impact air bags for all rows, stability-control system, roll-avoidance system, OnStar
Coolest standard equipment: assist steps and handles, dual headphone jacks, heated windshield-washer system
Coolest optional equipment: engine-block heater, center-rail luggage rack, rear power-operated lift gate
Base price: about $51,500
DODGE RAM CREW CAB
Gotta have a full-size pickup truck? Need to tow that double-axle trailer filled with patrol chuck boxes, tents, and personal gear? Check out this new-for-2009 Ram, which features the model’s first Crew Cab configuration for non-industrial applications. Towing capacity is a beefy 9,100 pounds.
Sure, you can get four doors with the Quad Cab, too. But the Crew Cab’s a worthy choice because it features larger rear doors, as well as roomier rear seats—if you don’t mind giving up a little bed length. The Quad Cab’s bed measures six feet, four inches; the Crew Cab has just five feet, seven inches.
One neat little feature: On a camp-out or hike, you can store all of your valuables in a compartment that locks—built into the rear fender.
Engine choices range from a 3.7-liter V-6 to a revised 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. If you choose one smaller than the 4.7-liter V-8, you have the option of running on E85 ethanol fuel. But the Hemi’s the more capable option.
For a big truck, the Ram’s ride and handling represents the top of its class, in part because Dodge replaced the previous, ultra-stiff leaf springs in the rear suspension with car-like coil springs.
Configuration: rear-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel-drive
Tows: 9,100 pounds
MPG: 14 city, 19 highway
Powertrain: 310hp, 4.7 V-8, with a five-speed automatic
Dimensions: wheelbase, 120 inches; length, 209 inches; curb weight, 5,368 pounds
Payload: 1,480 pounds
Safety features: side-curtain airbags, stability control, traction control, trailer-sway control
Coolest standard equipment: USB connection with a 30GB hard drive to rip your boys’ favorite tunes, heated steering wheel, rear power sliding window
Coolest optional equipment: floor-mounted shifter, rear backup camera, one-year subscription to Sirius backseat TV
Base price: about $32,500
This spacious crossover, new for 2009, packs the cargo room of a minivan into the styling of an SUV and features more ground clearance than most vehicles of its type.
Although built on the same basic platform as other GM products such as the Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook, and the Acadia, the Traverse is a little less expensive.
It comes standard with three rows of seats. In back, you’ll find 24.4 cubic feet of space behind the third-row seat, more than in most mid-size SUVs, as well as a few more cubic feet of additional storage space in compartments beneath the floor. The standard 3.6-liter V-6 engine smoothly delivers plenty of power.
Configuration: Front-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel drive
Tows: 5,200 pounds
MPG: 17 city, 24 highway
Powertrain: 281hp, 3.6 liter V-6, with six-speed automatic
Dimensions: wheelbase, 118.9 inches; length, 205 inches; curb weight, 4,790 pounds
Cargo volume: 116.4 cubic feet
Safety features: dual-stage front airbags, front-side airbags, curtain-side airbags for all three seating rows, antilock brakes, traction control, and StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover mitigation
Coolest standard equipment: tri-zone automatic climate control, deep-tinted windows (except on windshield and front doors), programmable door locks with lockout protection
Coolest optional equipment: express-open power sunroof, remote vehicle start, Bluetooth interface
Base price: about $29,000
Packaged with a peppy 3.5-liter V-6, the Pilot’s Variable Cylinder Management system seamlessly shuts down some of the engine’s cylinders when it hits cruising speed to save fuel.
New for 2009, the Pilot features more aggressive, square-shouldered styling outside but retains its amenities such as a car-like ride. Though it doesn’t look it, the Pilot’s nearly three inches longer than before and will hold eight passengers and a surprising amount of cargo.
Like the Traverse, this all-wheel-drive vehicle can tackle some easy off-road driving. But if you really need to explore the backwoods, a more traditional SUV might make a better choice.
Like most crossovers, you can ramp up the Pilot with options, up to luxury levels with features such as a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a power rear hatch. That won’t necessarily help transport your Scouts to the campground more efficiently, but it might make the trip more fun.
If you want to upgrade your present vehicle, if it’s older than five years, the Pilot’s new safety features, including stability control, antilock brakes, and side-curtain airbags, make it a worthy choice.
Configuration: front-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel-drive
Tows: 4,500 pounds
MPG: 17 city, 23 highway
Powertrain: 250hp, 3.5-liter V-6, with five-speed automatic
Dimensions: wheelbase, 109.2 inches; length, 190.9 inches; curb weight, 4,319 pounds
Cargo volume: 87 cubic feet
Safety features: dual front airbags, front-side airbags, curtain-side airbags, antilock four-wheel disc brakes, antiskid system, front-seat active head restraints
Coolest standard equipment: 12 cup holders, tire-pressure monitor, interior air filter, trip computer
Coolest optional equipment: Power tailgate, Bluetooth interface
Base price: about $28,000
Don’t expect the Flex to tackle terrain more brutal than a cow trail or tow as much as a more traditional SUV. Still, as Ford’s primary replacement for its recently departed minivan, the Flex features a workman-like 3.5 liter V-6 that manages acceptable acceleration and reasonable fuel economy.
Built on the same platform as the Ford Taurus sedan, and thus considered a car-based crossover SUV, the new-for-2009 Flex is, as Dudley Moore's character in the film Crazy People says, “Boxy but good.” It certainly has an angular shape, recalling the bygone days of the great American station wagon—both in form and function.
Beyond the debatable aesthetics, though, you’ll find the Flex downright huge inside—for a crossover. Even the third-row seat is sized to suit the average adult’s leg stretch. You’ll find a full 20 cubic feet of storage space behind that seat, too.
Configuration: Front-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel-drive
Tows: 4,500 pounds
MPG: 17 city, 24 highway
Powertrain: 262hp, 3.5-liter V-6, with six-speed automatic transmission
Dimensions: wheelbase, 117.9 inches; length, 201.8 inches; curb weight, 4,498 pounds
Cargo volume: 86.7 feet
Safety features: ABS, traction control, antiskid system, front-side airbags, and curtain-side airbags
Coolest standard equipment: 10 cup holders, compass, navigational and towing pre-wiring
Coolest optional equipment: interior refrigerator, voice activated DVD navigational system, second-row footrests
Base price: about $29,000
Automotive journalist Steven Cole Smith, the automotive editor of The Orlando Sentinel, is a former executive editor of Car and Driver and AutoWorld magazines. He has contributed to The New York Times Syndicate and The Los Angeles Times.