While sport utility vehicles were once designed to focus on off-road capabilities, Most of today's market-leading SUVs and crossovers are built as family cars that tend to prioritize the more everyday qualities of interior volume, gas mileage and value for the money.
Such vehicles often look and feel as dull as that description sounds. While the Honda Pilot, for instance, is often a terrific family car, such smooth, quiet, spacious minivan-like family-haulers offers little verve or personality to attract someone without plans to shuttle a carload of kids.
But a few larger SUVs – the midsize Jeep Grand Cherokee and the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe – manage an appeal that transcends the norms of their market segments.
Neither stands out as a family car. While both are decently spacious, to be sure, they’re far from the market leaders in that regard.
But the Tahoe and Grand Cherokee make up for those deficiencies by boasting uncommon levels of heavy-duty capability with the looks to match.
The Grand Cherokee is an off-road star, yet with everyday polish and glamour that's missing from a Toyota 4Runner. The Tahoe, meanwhile, offers a big, boxy imposing body along with hardcore durability – making it a go-to for such no-nonsense customers as the U.S. Secret Service and the Maryland State Police.
While Jeep and Chevrolet aren't direct competitors in the traditional sense, they're filling the same fundamental role: Both provide a luxury experience without overtly doing so – offering a different vibe and more space than a BMW or Lexus crossover, yet still available with decadent features and comfortable seating.
To be clear, not every Grand Cherokee is necessarily a luxury car. Its base price of $31,690 isn't far off an ordinary midsize crossover like the Ford Edge ($30,215) or Nissan Murano ($30,745). But the Grand Cherokee's prices soar more quickly – the tested Limited wore a sticker price of $48,230 and luxury models can surpass $60,000. That's not even counting its high-performance versions, which can beat the average sports car on a racetrack but exceed $80,000.
The Grand Cherokee also doesn't look like a luxury car, but its classy design restraint also helps justify its high price point. The Jeep SUV forgoes excessive ornamentation – no sharp creases crisscrossing the body, no giant chrome grille, no dramatically sloping windowline or roofline, no faux-aggressive tacked-on design elements. Yet despite dating back to the 2011 model year without a full redesign, the Grand Cherokee looks fresh and modern – at least from the front end, where slim headlights blaze confidently astride Jeep's traditional eight-slatted grille. The rounded rear end is more generic.
The Grand Cherokee doesn't deliver the super-smooth ride or agile handling of the best crossovers. But it's acceptable in both respects, especially considering its unstoppable off-road reputation. The standard 3.6-liter V6 engine is smooth and acceptably powerful, and returns a respectable 21 miles per gallon in mixed driving; a choice of V8 engines deliver additional acceleration.
The interior is comfortable and decently finished, if not wildly opulent. However, with just 68 cubic feet of cargo space – less than the average compact crossover – the Grand Cherokee isn't a master of functionality. A roomier, seven-passenger version of the Grand Cherokee is sold as the Dodge Durango, but many Jeep buyers would hate to give up the emotional connection from the storied SUV brand.
The Tahoe, meanwhile, has steadily morphed from a mainstream vehicle into a luxury one over the years. Its current base price of $49,005 matches other full-size SUVs, but the competition at that price point – such as the Ford Expedition and Nissan Armada – offers superior space for cargo and third-row passengers.
That difference leaves the Tahoe (and its GMC Yukon twin) to best serve buyers who seek the style, image and high-seating position of a massive SUV without needing the best family car. There's skimpy cargo room in the Tahoe behind the third-row seat, and the seat itself is low and lacking in legroom. However, five adults can sit comfortably, and light steering makes this SUV easy to drive. Fuel economy is also better than one might expect from a full-size SUV with a standard V8 engine: up to 19 mpg in mixed driving.
The tested Tahoe came with big 20-inch wheels and the ride quality wasn't luxury-smooth. Nor is the Tahoe's cabin especially fancy, even at the tested price of over $65,000; that's saved for the Cadillac Escalade variant. But extra-comfortable seats, up-to-date infotainment and user-friendly controls are welcome. And even if the boxy Tahoe shape doesn't actually deliver the interior space efficiency of a car-based crossover, it at least looks utilitarian – the hulking body and V8 rumble would never be confused with a minivan.
Keeping in mind that both of these SUVs are more about heart than head, both the Tahoe and Grand Cherokee can be highly appealing options for buyers who are taken with their intangible qualities. Both also beat car-based models for towing capacity and off-road capability. Otherwise, a sensible five-passenger crossover like the Ford Edge or Subaru Outback might be a better fit for the Grand Cherokee customer, and a Tahoe buyer might be better served by a seven-passenger Honda Pilot, Volkswagen Atlas or Chevrolet's own Traverse.