After two previous Jeep Grand Cherokees (plus a rental), you could probably call my wife and I "Jeep people". I'm still old-school when it comes to SUV's - when I was a kid, I did go off-roading with friends, and to me the term "SUV" still means "pickup truck with a roof". A "crossover" is just a big hatchback - very few real SUV's even still exist.
You wouldn't think any of that'd matter in the suburbs of New York City, and crossovers sure are popular these days for urban/suburban folk like us. But this area often has 2 to 3 feet of snow on the ground in winter, and the poor roads have a way of shredding both tires and suspensions in a way that even a decent dirt road wouldn't. When half of a paved road is missing due to potholes, it's worse than not having any asphalt at all. Our PT Cruiser went through three full sets of control arms (the third time, out of warranty, cost us $1,000), our Mini has already popped one tire in the first few months of ownership, and even our current Grand Cherokee has needed some minor suspension repairs.
That Grand Cherokee is now 10 years old. It's served us well, but it's time for it to go. I knew replacing it wouldn't be easy. We wanted something tough but the few pickup-based SUV's left are usually cruise ships and very expensive, so we did look at some crossovers too. Our bank balance only has so many zeroes, our driveway only so much square footage.
We narrowed things down to a few compact SUV's and crossovers based on a combination of price, capability and looks, and we resolved to drive them all. These are the very disparate options we looked at, and the reasons why we considered and ultimately rejected them:
1. Nissan Xterra. This is one of the last "real" compact SUV's and we almost bought one. It's the right size, it's truck-based, has good power, excellent ground clearance and is the only vehicle we looked at with tires we wouldn't need to immediately replace. The problem is that it's just old (last redesigned in 2004), and it gets terrible mileage. We were buying rather than leasing and looking at resale value 6+ years down the line, the Xterra's probably not going to have any. But we liked it, and if we were leasing we might have made a different choice.
2. Mercedes GLK and GLA. My wife's wanted a Mercedes since she was little and we thought we could maybe stretch and afford a pre-owned one, or even a new GLA. I thought I could live with one if she really wanted it. They are nice looking inside and out. But the GLA's just too small and my wife didn't feel any connection to the GLK. And both would have required too many sacrifices from us to afford, especially if we weren't gaga over either one.
3. Nissan Rogue. The newly-redesigned Rogue isn't really that ugly up close, although I still think it's basically a minivan. But it has monstrous cargo space - my jaw actually dropped when the sales guy opened the hatch. Looking back to front is like looking from the back of a 777 cabin up to the cockpit. It's the only vehicle we looked at that matched our Grand Cherokee in stuff-carrying. It drove ok but it is very car-like (a negative for me) and the CVT transmission was pretty annoying. I also didn't have confidence it'd hold up to this area's roads and weather.
4. Mazda CX-5. Everything I read told me this was the crossover to beat - the unsung hero, the sleeper hit you've never heard of because poor Mazda just doesn't have the marketing budget of the big boys. It was supposed to be fun to drive, but on the test drive it felt like pretty much every other underpowered crossover. I drove the 2.5 (the 2.0 is no longer even offered) but still it felt slow. In corners it felt like a big PT Cruiser. It did have good cargo space, but the interior was really chintzy, and even our brand new tester rattled. Its AWD system is also fully automatic and allows no driver input. I do like the exterior, though.
5. A CPO Jeep Grand Cherokee. New Grand Cherokees are out of our price range but pre-owned we could probably swing. Still, even after looking at a 2012 with only 16,000 miles that I thought was a pretty sweet deal, my wife wasn't sold on buying something caked with somebody else's dirt and grime.
We ended up going with something we initially didn't even talk about: a new Jeep Cherokee Latitude. Go on, get it out of your system - you get used to the styling. I already think it just looks normal. It's like the first-gen Ford Taurus - eventually every car's going to look even weirder.
Why the Cherokee won:
It's still a Jeep and it's built for stuff like this. Which means it's going to eat New York roads and snow for breakfast.
No, we didn't buy a top-end off-road Trailhawk with "optional Mopar wheels", but:
- A transmission upgrade to Active Drive II gives you real 4WD (with a "low" mode).
- The same upgrade also gives you heavy duty off-road suspension and 1" more ground clearance.
- You can get it with a V6, and so equipped, it totally smokes its nearest competition. (Not the Xterra, though, which moves pretty good.) This is the real "sporty" crossover, not the CX-5.
- The interior's almost as nice as the Mercedes' we looked at, minus the wood.
Long story short, while most crossovers we looked at were way more "car" than "SUV", the Cherokee's more of an SUV that just happens to be built on a shared car platform. At least if you get it how we ordered it.
Weird thing was the dealer had no idea Active Drive II even existed - they learned about it from us. It took us two visits and several hours total to figure out that neither they nor any other dealer around had one on the lot with that option, then probably another hour for them to figure out how to build one to order. (It's quick order package "27J" if you have the same problem with your dealer.)
A marathon of haggling followed that only seemed a fitting end to our 2 month-long search. We squeezed every dollar we could out of our dealer, trying to get them to match a TrueCar price (which I know only applies to in-stock vehicles) and to give us a reasonable trade-in on our current Grand Cherokee. They finally did in the end, but we were at that dealer from 3:30 to 9PM. We are a car dealer's worst nightmare. But we really wanted to make the deal, and we did.
Now we just have to wait for the custom build.