Best Fuel Saving SUV Comparison – A Gas or Diesel Engine in Your Next SUV?

If you want the best of everything in a fuel efficient SUV (except the ability to tow or go off road) The new BMW X5 35d is your kind of vehicle

If you want the best of everything in a fuel efficient SUV (except the ability to tow or go off road) The new BMW X5 35d is your kind of vehicle

Just in time for ski season and trips over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, is my post to pick the best rated SUV. I’m looking at things from a gas mileage perspective, among other things. Obviously you don’t typically buy an SUV with fuel economy as your first requirement. If you looked at things from a fuel economy first point of view, you’d be motoring around in a Mini Cooper or Honda Fit.

No, it’s typically mundane requirements such as how many kids and their gear can I fit in it for soccer practice, or can it take the whole family skiing or camping? Other considerations enter into the picture as well, if you have any off road aspirations or even have the occasional need to venture into the back woods for camping or exploration. Then there is the question of towing? If you have need of a tow vehicle, what you’re after in an SUV will obviously change a bit.

Recently some manufacturers have introduced clean diesel technology. How do those clean diesel engines compare from a power and driveability standpoint to their gas fueled brethren? Should you consider one?

Okay, here are the picks for an SUV to drive,  if you want to keep a larger share of your fuel budget in your pocket instead of your tank.

Luxury / Performance SUV – BMW X-5 x-drive35d
If you want to roll around in an SUV that actually handles and goes more like a sports sedan, the BMW X-5 is on your short list. It has almost no competition in the area. For all it’s street cred, it was short on fuel mileage with the V-8 engine. That’s nothing to be ashamed of in this category, where no mid or large sized SUVs really excel. Enter BMW’s new twin-turbo, 3.0 liter diesel, torque monster.

I’ve always been a big fan of diesel engines in SUVs, due to their amazing torque curves; perfect for towing, pulling your boat out of the water, and crawling around in the muck. The new BMW twin turbo definitely doesn’t disappoint in the torque category, furnishing 425lb-ft of beautiful twist. What does all this torque do for you? Zero to 60 in a very sports sedan like 6 and a half seconds, but it feels even faster. It’s no off roader, even with all wheels driven, what with it’s more summer oriented rubber, but it does great in the rain, as long as you’re a bit judicious with your right foot.

What’s the damage at the pump for the BMW X-5 x-drive 35d? A huge amount better than you’d expect. The EPA combined rating is a respectable (for a mid sized SUV) 22mpg, but it gets even better. The TV show Motorweek got a very nice 27+ mpg out of their X5 -x-drive 35d during its stay with them. As per the norm with journalist test vehicles, the vehicle received more than its fair share of flogging, what with the numerous 0-60 and quarter mile acceleration runs it was subjected to. You might even get better mileage out of yours. Any way you slice it, that’s great fuel economy for an SUV, especially a mid sized one that can scorch its way to 60 in almost 6 seconds flat.

Sure the X5 is a bit pricey, at around $60,000, but you can offset some of the pain with an $1,800 federal diesel vehicle tax credit.

Luxury SUV – Alternate – Lexus RX450h – Hybrid
If your preference lies more toward the luxury end of the spectrum, the Lexus RX450h is right up your alley. It’s smooth as glass, quiet, and screwed together with the top quality we’ve come to expect form Lexus. To top it off, it returns stellar gas mileage numbers, with an EPA combined rating of 29MPG. As with all hybrids, you’re distribution of highway / city mileage will have a significant influence on your mileage numbers. If most of your driving is done in town, where the hybrid drive train can strut it’s stuff, you’ll see better mileage, than if you do most of your commutes on wide open freeways.

While it’s not as sporty as the X5, the RX450h is a jewel and will save you even more at the pump. The Lexus is undoubtedly reliable for the long term, but how it will stack up against the BMW diesel after 150,000 miles or so remains to be seen. Then again, few purchasers of either of these two vehicles will probably keep them around for anything approaching that length of time.

The new 2010 CRV adresses the down on power iussue of the previous CR-v (somewhat)

The new 2010 CR-V addresses the down on power issue of the previous CR-v (somewhat)

Small SUV – Honda CRV AWD
Honda has been known for smooth, efficient power plants for decades, and the CRV uses the corporate 2.4l in-line 4, which is the very picture of unruffled, almost rev happy bliss. The small Honda covers just about the whole $20,000 price range, with the least expensive AWD CRV fetching less than $23,000, and the mack daddy, EX-L Nav version nearly touching $30,000.

Technical wizardry such as variable valve timing and a drive by wire throttle helps give the CRVa broad power band for a mid sized four cylinder. The high tech power train is also a large part of the reason  the CRV returns such great gas mileage, despite the fact the 2010 CRV has significantly more power (180hp) than the ’09 version. (166hp) The EPA says you’ll average 23 mpg in the AWD CRV, although many magazine tests have recorded substantially better fuel economy. For example a Car and Driver test of an earlier model got over 25mpg, and the 2010 is supposed to be even more efficient.

A knock on the CRV has been its lack of get up and go. The added power on board you’ll not be buying a V6 CRV anytime soon. Seeing as how this is a fuel economy oriented blog,  that’s not the end of the world, but more power is never a bad thing if it comes with too larrge of a fuel economy penalty.

The plus side for the CRV:
Great handling and fuel economy, substantial cargo room for a small SUV, Honda reliability, vehicle dynamics, and overall quality. Improved looks for 2010.

The negative side:
The aforementioned power deficit, not enough zip, could be faster, a bit more torque would help things along some, only has a tow rating of 1,500lbs.

As the Fuel economy leader among SUVs, the Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD deserves an honorable mention here. However, at over $32,000, it is about $8,000 more than the CR-V. Looking a the Escape’s thrifty, fuel sipping EPA mileage rating of 29mpg, you may well be impressed. I know I was. However, even if the price of regular unleaded hits over $4.00 per gallon, it will take you about  220,000 miles to get that money back. If gas prices stay at about $3.00 per gallon you’re looking at almost 300,000  miles before you see a return on your hybrid investment. If you buy and Escape before April Fool’s Day, 2010, you’ll be eligible for a $487 Federal income tax credit, so you’ll want to figure that in as well. Also remember to add in the cost of a battery pack replacement, because if you keep your escape hybrid for over 200,000 miles, you’ll be needing one of those, too.

For those of you who plan on keeping your vehicles that long, or just want to make an environmental statement, by all means break out with the Ford. If fuel prices should hit around $6.00 a gallon, you’ll look like a genius and be laughing all the way to the bank. The above ROI calculations ignore any interest expense you might be paying should you have financed your Escape purchase. Since the vast majority of people do finance their automotive purchases, these should not really be ignored. As for me, I’ll take the CR-V.

If you need the ginormous variety SUV, you’ve really got only one choice in something that gets any kind of decent gas mileage, the Hybrid Chevy Tahoe / GMC Yukon. If you’re up for dropping about 60 large, the Mercedes GL-350 BlueTec is almost as large as the TahUkon and gets a respectable (for the Titanic) 19MPG combined, and actually out does the Hybrid GM twins on the freeway, where it delivers a decent 23mpg. However, many folks with the new clean diesel engines actually do even better than the EPA estimates on the highway, and so may you.

I’m awaiting some developments in the SUV arena, namely the TDi Diesel powered VW Tiguan, which should deliver spectacular mileage, decent handling, and a hint of luxury at a not quite luxury price. With any luck it will have some off road prowess as well.

This proves that if you need an SUV, (although  for many folks, a mini van would actually be a better choice) and want to do your part to save gas (or diesel) you have options, and these are my picks for fuel saving SUVs for 2010.

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