As SUVs become the default family car for many households, it’s easy to assume that the bigger the family, the bigger the SUV it will need.
That is to say, a small family might be fine in a compact Ford Escape or Toyota RAV4, while a larger one will need to expand to a full-size Ford Expedition or Toyota Sequoia.
But there are some important considerations before you buy the Sequoia or Expedition, or the competing Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon or Nissan Armada.
First things first: While they all offer family-friendly qualities like rear entertainment systems, three rows of seats and plenty of safety equipment, these aren’t purpose-built family cars. These are heavy-duty trucks that are being pressed into family-car duty. While that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as family cars, this situation presents some tradeoffs.
First of all, these trucks are bulky and heavy compared to the largest car-based crossover SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse or Nissan Pathfinder. Their heavy-duty suspensions are built to tackle brutal off-road terrain and handle heavy trailers, which generally results in a bumpier ride and clumsier handling. Meanwhile, their high weight and reduced aerodynamics require big, powerful engines — which, in turn, drive down fuel economy.
Second, it’s expensive to engineer and build big, heavy-duty vehicles with large engines. Automakers pass that cost along to the consumer. Expect to spend roughly $15,000 more for a truck-style full-size SUV than for even the largest crossovers, with base sticker prices generally starting around $50,000 for a mainstream badge and far more for a luxury one.
Last, these full-size SUVs’ architecture inherently results in less interior space efficiency than you’d get in a light-duty car. The body is pushed higher, constraining the available cabin space and resulting in a high lift to load your cargo. Particularly in the third-row seat and in the cargo hold behind it, full-size SUVs can be surprisingly limited.
Now that we’ve gotten the unpleasant business out of the way, there is some good news: For buyers who relish the intimidating height, mass and brawn of a full-size SUV, or who need more off-road or towing capability than they’d get from a light-duty Toyota Highlander, a newly redesigned full-size SUV has run away with the mantle of Best in Class.
That’s the 2018 Ford Expedition. Even the old model stood apart from the competition, with roomier third-row seating and an advanced turbocharged V6 engine. But Ford has now modernized the rest of the package to create a cohesive full-size SUV.
The Expedition offers more-comfortable passenger accommodations and more-useful cargo space than the competition, making it the most family-friendly of its peer group — and the model that best justifies its massive size with a spacious interior. There’s also an extended-length model called the Expedition Max, which rivals the extra-long Chevrolet Suburban and GMC Yukon XL with even more cargo space.
The Expedition also provides remarkably decent gas mileage, up-to-date technology and a myriad of clever luxury and convenience features. If it’s your type of truck, the Expedition can also serve as a big luxury vehicle, thanks to upgraded cabin trim and extra-rich leather upholstery on the tested $74,325 Platinum version.
Some drivers will miss the rumble of a traditional V8 engine, but the Expedition makes up for it at the pump. EPA ratings are as high as 20 miles per gallon in mixed driving, depending on the version you choose. The tested four-wheel-drive model drops to 19 mpg, matching the tested model’s performance during a weeklong test. And there’s no shortage of thrust from the V6, which makes 375 to 400 horsepower, depending on the trim.
Another full-size SUV with a usefully spacious interior is the Toyota Sequoia. Though the current generation dates all the way back to 2008, it trumps the newer Tahoe, Yukon and Armada in providing comfortable seating for eight adults.
Thanks to a recent update, the Sequoia also provides unusually generous standard safety equipment that costs thousands extra on the competition, helping make it a relative bargain in the class. A dismal 14-mpg fuel economy rating from its old-school V8 engine takes away some of the value gains, though.
You also feel the Sequoia’s age in other ways. It feels looser and less composed than a Tahoe, Yukon or Expedition, and more buoyant than tied to the road. Its in-dash infotainment screen also looks laughably small in a giant dashboard, its graphics don’t match the up-to-date rivals, and the shiny woodgrain dashboard trim looks dated.
The third recently tested full-size SUV, the GMC Yukon, offers comfortable front- and second-row seats and a contemporary, well-finished dashboard, especially on the tested top-grade Denali trim. Though it dates back to 2015, the GMC’s interior still feels more like that of a modern luxury car than the all-new Expedition manages.
It also handles with more agility than the competition, and it trails only the Expedition’s fuel economy in the full-size SUV class. And base versions of the Tahoe comfortably undercut the Ford’s price point. So if you value the feel of a big SUV, it’s a strong contender.
But the Yukon and Tahoe have a cramped and uncomfortable third-row seat, and there’s almost no cargo room behind it. Boxy, imposing styling lends the Tahoe and Yukon a desirable “cool factor,” and they’re unquestionably spacious for five passengers, but if you’re looking for a big function to match the big size and big style, they come up short.
So all things considered, the Expedition isn’t the cheapest full-size SUV you can buy, but it combines class-leading passenger accommodations, class-leading fuel economy, and a generally compelling overall driving experience — a winning formula. Just don’t write off the less- expensive, less-bulky crossover class if you don’t demand the full abilities of a truck.
Visittinyurl.com/suvs-18-sentinel to see more photos of the tested Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia and GMC Yukon Denali.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.