The best full-size SUVs: Haul-anything, go-anywhere family trucks

Red car in shopping cart

Families that need to haul lots of kids and a big trailer over rough or snowy roads still have a good reason to buy full-size sport-utility vehicles.

Our favorites -- the Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia and Chevrolet Tahoe -- offer the best combination of interior space and go-anywhere rugged performance that you'll find.

Of course, full-size SUVs get notoriously bad gas mileage (typically 12 to 17 miles a gallon). They practically became the poster child for wasteful driving when gas prices soared to record highs.

But their plunging popularity means you won't have to pay anywhere near the $40,000 sticker price on most well-equipped models with V8 engines and four-wheel-drive.

Automakers are offering big discounts on virtually every full-size SUV.

Ford Expedition
Other trucks might have more powerful engines, spacious interiors or better off-road stamina than the Expedition.

But when it comes to full-size SUVs, the Expedition is a pretty complete package. It has Ford's reputation for durability, enough refinement to make any trip anything but a hardship and an all-around, basic goodness that's hard to beat.

Ford has created a truck that's quiet, comfortable and easy to drive, thanks to a very stiff chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, traction and stability control.

While some of the interior appointments are no better than average, the cabin is enormous. Its roomy seating for nine includes the most comfy third row in the class, and the second and third rows fold perfectly flat.

Standard Expedition features include separate air-conditioning and heating controls for the first two rows, a 160-watt AM/FM in-dash CD audio system with MP3 capability, cruise control, lots of convenient storage areas and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Its five-star safety rating is enhanced by first-row front and side air bags and side-impact curtain air bags that extend to the third row.

A four-wheel-drive model can tug as much as 9,000 pounds with the 310-horsepower, 5.4-liter V8. With the standard six-speed automatic transmission, you can expect to get about 15 m.p.g. in combined city and highway driving.

Two-wheel-drive Expeditions start at a very reasonable $33,020, but we recommend moving up to a four-wheel-drive Eddie Bauer edition for $41,980, including delivery charges.

You'll get all the extra comfort and convenience features you can reasonable want: leather-trimmed seats, a 10-way power driver's seat, dual-zone climate control and an Audiophile Sound System with six-disc, in-dash CD changer. For families, the only vital addition might be the $1,295 rear-seat video entertainment unit.

Toyota Sequoia

The Sequoia manages to avoid the squared-off profile of most SUVs, smoothing all the corners into a reasonably attractive (if vaguely porky) shape.

Underneath the doors and fenders, you'll find it shares many structural and mechanical components with Toyota's tough-but-refined Tundra pickup.

But the Sequoia's best parts are the ones you rely on in a big SUV: the thumping 5.7-liter V8 puts out a fairly titanic 381 h.p., while the standard six-speed automatic transmission works with the soundless ease you might expect from a Toyota Camry, not a truck that can tow 9,600 pounds.

Of course, the bill for all this performance comes due at the gas pump. Expect to get 13 m.p.g. in the city and 18 m.p.g. on the highway.

Handling is run-of-the-mill for a large SUV, though the independent rear suspension, like the Expedition's, does seem to handle bumps and sharp curves with less fuss.

Buying a Sequoia is frighteningly simple: Go for the base SR5 version with four-wheel-drive and the 5.7-liter V8, and you've got a price of $38,500.

Add the base towing package at $2,630, and you get a fine CD changer/8-speaker sound system, power driver's seat and the cold-weather package. (We urge you to avoid the Sequoia's leather option packages, which are overpriced and full of fluff.)

That leaves you with a sticker price of $41,875 (including the $745 destination charge) for a finely built, but tough-as-nails full-size SUV that can seat eight and offers all the performance and quality you could want.

The Sequoia may not come with quite as many bells and whistles, but it's one of the best full-size SUVs for the money.

Chevrolet Tahoe

There are plenty of good reasons that the Tahoe is the bestselling full-size SUV, starting with its modern-but-purposeful exterior and comfortable, car-like interior.

The Tahoe is no acrobat on twisty roads, but it delivers a cushier ride than the Expedition and runs close to the creamy Sequoia, even though it lacks an independent rear suspension.

For 2009, going with a four-wheel-drive Tahoe assures you get the sweet, 320-h.p., 5.3-liter V8 that shuts down half the cylinders when not needed to save gasoline.

That also means you get General Motors' sxcellent six-speed automatic transmission -- new for this year -- that helps the four-wheel-drive Tahoe eke out 14 miles per gallon in the city and as much as 20 m.p.g. on the highway, one of the best performances in the class.

The Tahoe is slightly shorter than the Expedition and the Sequoia, which allows it to change lanes, maneuver through downtown garages and tuck into narrower parking spots.

While it can carry as much stuff as our other favorites, the Tahoe only comes with two rows of seats for just five passengers. A third-row seat is removable but doesn't fold down -- it must be jerked out like the seats from an old-school minivan to take advantage of all that cargo room.

Here's what to get: the four-wheel-drive Tahoe LT with the 1LT package, at $42,615.

That price nets the good engine and transmission combo, plus the stability control system that's standard for all Tahoes and a veritable arsenal of comfort equipment and other useful items, including side-curtain airbags for all three rows, Bluetooth phone controls, the third-row seat and standard XM satellite radio. Families might want to add the rear-seat video system for $1,295.

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