Detroit auto show consumer guide: SUVs and crossovers

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The automotive landscape has been transformed by SUVs since the Great Recession. Essentially the rebirth of station wagons — except more rugged-looking and riding higher for better visibility — the five-door box is America's family favorite.

New utes abound at this year’s show as automakers try to fill every niche from subcompact SUVs to giant, soccer-team haulers. Here are the latest in Detroit.

Ford Explorer ST

Ford Explorer

What it is: Where to begin? The best-selling SUV of all-time has been redesigned from stem to stern. Shared with Lincoln's Aviator, the three-row SUV chassis is now rear-wheel drive biased with all-wheel drive optional. Extensive use of aluminum saves 300 pounds, which will assist first-ever ST performance and fuel-efficient hybrid models. Inside, the Explorer bristles with high-tech gadgets from one-button park-assist to third-row access with the touch of one button. The Explorer is immediately recognizable by its signature "flying c-pillar," but the front grille is deeper with more-integrated headlights. 

Payne’s take: The Explorer has always been a poor man's Range Rover, and now with its Rover-like rear-wheel drive chassis it is more Rover-like than ever. Standard features abound, including blind-spot assist and auto high-beams. But load up the handsome $55,000 Platinum trim with seven drive-modes and park-assist. and you have Rover specs for half the price.

The 2020 Cadillac XT6 sports edition

Cadillac XT6

What it is: The three-row XT6 is Cadillac's first non-truck based, three-row ute. It slots in between Caddy's best-selling XT5 and the GM pickup-based Escalade. Based on the same architecture as the smaller XT5, the Cadillac nevertheless manages to carve out a third-row seat roomier than a base Escalade. A much-improved CUE infotainment system is standard with touchscreen and remote-rotary knob operation. The big rig is powered by a a 310-horse V-6 engine mated to 9-speed auto tranny.

Payne’s take: Every SUV that Cadillac introduces right now is important for a brand that is way behind in the SUV game. While the King of Bling Escalade will remain Cadillac's SUV flagship, expect the XT6 to draw more buyers looking for better fuel economy, ride and park-ability. The XT6 faces formidable competition from the Audi Q7 and reborn crosstown-rival Lincoln — but it should be a winner if priced right.

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Lincoln Aviator

Lincoln Aviator

What it is: Lincoln likes to talk about the owner experience, not Nürburgring lap times. Call it “quiet flight.” Approach the Aviator and the mirror projects an image of the Lincoln logo on the ground. The doors unlock. The car kneels to help you get in if you opt for air suspension. Open the door and a chime recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra plays. As for the oily bits, the Aviator will be powered by a healthy turbo V-6 pumping out 400 horses mated to a smooth, 10-speed tranny.

Payne’s take: Call it Navigator Jr. Like its extravagant big brother, the Aviator wraps you in luxury with 30-way massaging seats and tasteful touches like a tablet screen. But the Lincoln shouldn’t be shy about its chassis engineering, either. Its platform is rear-wheel-drive based (with all-wheel drive optional), which gives it Range Rover proportions, good towing capacity and lots of rear cargo room. Lincoln touts the plug-in hybrid version as the most powerful in the segment with 450 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque.

The 2020 Kia Telluride

Kia Telluride

What it is: Following sister-brand Hyundai's jump into the three-row crossover space with the Palisade (first time in Detroit after its Los Angeles Auto Show debut), Kia introduces its own jumbo-ute. Built at the same Georgia plant as Kia’s stylish mid-size Sorento SUV, the Telluride has a more rugged view with boxier styling and a more-powerful turbo engine option.

Payne’s take: While producing sexy sedans like the Stinger coupe and Optima, Kia is keeping up with the Joneses with another family ute. The Telluride brings Kia's stylish look to a growing segment with household names like the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. Boxier than its elegant Sorento sister, this bro brings an off-road Jeep Wagoneer vibe a year ahead of the Wagoneer's expected intro. Ride it on Cobo’s Telluride Torque Track.

Kia Niro EV

Kia Niro EV

What it is: The third member of the Niro crossover family after the gas-engine and plug-in hybrid versions is a 239-mile-range EV. You’ll know it by its closed-off cheese-grater grille and blue accents. True to Kia’s vibe, it promises fun-to-drive characteristics like a regenerative paddle on the steering wheel so you can bring the car to a stop without ever touching the brake pedal.

Payne’s take: The 239-mile range of the Niro EV (subtract about 30 percent in Michigan winter) is Kia's answer to the Chevrolet Bolt hatchback. The front-wheel drive EV offers an impressive 291 pound-feet of torque and can be fully recharged in about 10 hours if you have a 240-volt charger in your garage. Expect a price around $38,000 before federal tax credits.

Kia Soul X-Line

Kia Soul

What it is: The third generation of Kia’s compact hamster-mobile makes its first Detroit appearance after bowing in at the Los Angeles show. The exterior gets a cool, edgy remake with thinner headlights, horizontal upper grille and rad boomerang tail lights. The signature “island” remains in the rear hatch. The roomy millennial-friendly interior is less changed while offering lots of safety features like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise-control. New X-line and GT-Line trims are added — the latter primed for performance when matched with the top-of-the-line 201-horse turbo mill. The base engine squeezes out 147 ponies and has a hamster-friendly $18,000 starting price.

Payne’s take: Long live the box! The Kia Soul has proven resilient as other cubes hit the ditch: Nissan Cube, Scion xB, Honda Element. The third-generation Soul looks poised to boogie on with a stylish exterior remake, two sporty trims and a peppy turbo-4 option. Alas, weary winter-weather wanderers, the Soul doesn’t get all-wheel drive. For that, you’ll have to get the slightly more conventional-looking Kona ute.