Auto show minivans, SUVs: High-riding versatility


Don’t call them station wagons, but sport utes are Americans preferred five-door vehicles for family travel. And with their superior, high-riding visibility and improved, car-based handling they are taking over every other segment as well. Compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape have displaced sedans as the biggest volume segment — and subcompact crossovers like the Buick Encore and Jeep Renegade are the fastest-growing market in autodom.

BMW X4 M40i

What it is:

Maybe the sportiest SUV made, BMW’s “crossover coupe” X4 35i gets the brand’s M-performance treatment. That means an inline 6-cylinder power plant with 355 horsepower and 343 pound-feet of torque. The X4 M40i joins the SUV arms race against the muscle-bound Audi SQ5 and forthcoming Mercedes-Benz GLC450 AMG.

Payne’s take:

SUVs aren’t just for hauling kids. BMW obliges with a ferocious M crossover. You always wanted an M4, you say? The X4 M has better visibility and still goes zero-60 in 4.7 seconds.

Buick Envision

What it is: GM’s first Made in China automobile — but not its first vehicle made in Asia. The Korea-made, subcompact Buick Encore crossover was a segment-busting, breakout hit for the Detroit luxury maker and the compact Envision seeks to continue the momentum by filling the gap between the wee Encore and the midsize, three-row Enclave. The Envision will come with all of GM’s latest tricks, including 4G Wi-Fi and Apple Car Play/Android Auto connectivity.

Payne’s take: While the Made in China label will get headlines, the real news is Buick is making a comeback on the back of fresh SUVs like the Envision and Encore. If Buick sedans still suffer from their fuddy-duddy predecessors, the SUVs are fresh entries free of brand baggage in a market that craves all things high-riding.

Chrysler Pacifica

What it is: The King of Minivans is back with an all-new people hauler. Named after Chrysler’s segment-busting, 2004-08 Pacifica crossover (the crossover hint is intentional), the new car ditches the old Town & Country name and adopts the raked styling cues of the lovely Chrysler 200 sedan. The familiar utility is there — fold-in-the-floor seats, cavernous third-row seating — plus 37 innovations including kick-open side and rear doors, grocery bag hooks and a front drawer for your laptop.

Payne’s take: Honey, I sexed up the minivan! With its 200-sedan styling and blacked-out window pillars, the Pacifica won’t be instantly recognizable as a minivan. With its sleek, station-wagon looks, it thinks outside the SUV box with unparalleled utility. Oh, and there’s an 80 mpg plug-in version for green soccer moms.

GMC Acadia

What it is: GMC’s chiseled, midsized SUV goes on a diet with a new chassis that sheds 700 pounds. Together with a 2.5-liter four-banger, the more efficient midsize entry promises 28 mpg on the highway. A 310-horse, 3.6-liter V-6 is also on hand to haul around the kiddies in two-or-three row configuration.

Payne’s take: GM’s big, bold truck brand gets smaller and softer. The big grille and swollen fenders are gone — as is some interior room as the downsized body tries to meet fuel economy regulations. The Acadia boasts a unique safety feature to address the tragic problem of small kids forgotten in locked, suffocating cabins.

Infiniti QX60

What it is: Infiniti’s three-row crossover gets a mid-cycle refresh with an updated grille and quieter, liquid-filled engine mounts for the standard, 3.5-liter V-6 engine. Also available is a hybrid system combining a supercharged, 2.5-liter inline-four with an electric motor.

Standard, Sport, Eco and Snow modes are available for the big, AWD family ute.

Payne’s take: In the shadow of Lexus, Nissan’s luxury maker has struggled to stand out in the luxury market. But with distinctive, racy styling — and marketing support from the even racier F1 superstar Sebastian Vettel — Infiniti has at least found its muse. The QX60 brings that sporty vibe to the affordable end of the sport ute spectrum.