2008 Toyota Highlander
18 City/24 Highway
Of the 10 vehicles on this list, three are from that supposedly oh-so-green company from across the Pacific: Toyota. This shouldn't surprise many people, but what might surprise folks is the way Toyota is able to eke impressive fuel economy from a big, wide three-row SUV with a big 3.5-liter V-6 boasting no fewer than 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.
With its 2008 redo -- its first since being introduced in 2001 -- the Camry-based crossover grew in every way, dropping the base inline-four and adding 0.2 liter of displacement and 55 more horsepower to the V-6. Length increased by four inches, width by three, and curb weight by about 400 pounds. None of these things exactly helped fuel economy, as one would expect, but surprisingly, even with the more stringent EPA testing procedure for 2008, both city and highway numbers drop only 1 mpg from last year's figures.
Credit the Highlander's slippery aerodynamics for some of that, an aspect that also yields a heroically quiet cabin at speed. Speaking of the cabin, there is plenty of room to spread out in the first two rows, and there are myriad cubbies in which to hide annoying toys from your kids. As for that third row that the Highlander grew so much to accommodate? It's still too tight for adults, but it's a big step up from the torturous jump seats in the last model. And it's standard in the gas-powered Highlander, whereas it's optional on the (much) more expensive hybrid.
In spite of the Highlander's newfound strength, driving it will hardly set your heart ablaze. But with every gas station you pass, an entirely different part of your body will be stoked: your brain.
2008 Mitsubishi Outlander
17 City/24 Highway
In many ways, the Mitsubishi Outlander is the right vehicle at the right time. For customers, it's a tidily packaged alternative to the Toyota RAV4. It offers zesty styling and a spacious cabin, qualities the previous Outlander never had. For Mitsubishi, it's a strong-selling lifesaver, as is the happy little Lancer compact sedan on which the Outlander is based.
Of course, it wouldn't be eligible to play in this game if not for its available third-row seat, which pops up from the cargo floor like a cargo organizer, only for humans. It's none too comfortable for kids, and an absolute no deal for their parents. But they're seats that would do in a pinch, and they're not that much worse than those in the Toyota RAV4 or Hyundai Santa Fe.
The third-row seat comes only with Outlanders equipped with Mitsubishi's 220-hp, 3.0-liter V-6, which sends power to the front wheels or all four wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission with (gasp!) paddle shifters. Yes, in an SUV. Similarly surprising about the Outlander is the fact that, like the RAV4, it is reasonably nimble and almost fun. The Outlander is more competitive with the RAV4 in the fuel-economy arena when equipped with its newly available 168-hp four-cylinder engine, which comes with a continuously variable transmission and fuel-economy ratings of 20 city and 25 highway but, alas, no third-row seat. Perhaps such a configuration is forthcoming. If it's not, it should be.
Regardless, driving an Outlander is no punishment, and the fact that it gets you -- and many others -- around town while letting you keep your gas card in your pocket a little longer is a real bonus.
2008 Hyundai Santa Fe
17 City/24 Highway
Hyundai made a good showing on this list with two distinct entries: the popular Santa Fe and the larger, more luxurious Veracruz, found a few pages away. Certainly, the Santa Fe is the more plebeian of the two, but in this case, less is more, as in more miles of travel on a tank of gas. Okay, so it's only one more mpg, but over time, that'll add up, and considering its much lower base price, the Santa Fe is in far better adherence to the Hyundai philosophy of providing reasonably stylish, comfortable transportation for budget-minded families.
Now, being the smaller ute of the two, its third row is for tikes and tots only, but at least there are seats there at all, and they're better than those of, say, the Mitsubishi Outlander. The Santa Fe's other seats, however, are quite comfy for kids and adults alike.
Notably, all Santa Fes come standard with V-6 power, even the base GLS model with its 185-hp, 2.7-liter mill. Unfortunately, the third-row seat is only available with SE and Limited models, both of which are powered by a smooth-revving 3.3-liter V-6 that produces a more impressive 242 horsepower and comes with a five-speed automatic versus the 2.7's four-speed partner. In two-wheel-drive form, its 17 mpg city and 24 highway fuel-economy figures are still somewhat short of the Toyota RAV4's but are nonetheless impressive for anything with so much seating. We recommend the larger engine if family size and budget allow for such extravagance.
Speaking of extravagance, the Santa Fe's combination of low price of entry, good mileage, and excellent warranty also means that customers can load it up on all sorts of goodies such as rear-seat entertainment and XM radio, ensuring that everyone stays amused over the long haul.
2008 Ford Taurus X
16 City/24 Highway
As a category between categories, the crossover comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Clearly on the car/wagon end of the spectrum is the square-jawed Taurus X, Ford's low-slung wagon/ute that has spent a year trying to emerge from a style-and-identity crisis and yet succeeds nonetheless in offering respectable fuel economy for anything with three rows of seats.
Having started life as the Ford Freestyle, the Taurus X got more than a new name for 2008. It received a serious face lift that added some much-needed pizazz to what had been terminally forgettable styling. It also got a heart transplant, upgrading to a 263-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and a six-speed transmission, which together shuttle the fam around reasonably well. Its handling is decent, and as a crossover, the Taurus X is far more enjoyable to drive than Ford's heavier, tippier truck-based Explorer, which also offers three rows (and stronger towing capabilities) but musters nowhere near the Taurus X's fuel-economy figures or driver satisfaction.
However, the Taurus X is neither as spacious for back-seaters nor as enjoyable to drive as the trio of fresh entries from GM found on the previous page. But all things are equal on the fuel-economy front, and if one's allegiance is to the Blue Oval, there is no more frugal choice for a team of six or seven.