By now you've probably heard who we selected our 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year. If not, I won't spoil it for you here, but will offer you my thoughts on each of the eligible competitors in this year's event. As you might imagine, a Truck Trend point of view can be a little different than a Motor Trend point of view. Look for the full story in our January/Feburuary 2009 issue, and don't forget about our Truck of the Year story in the very next issue.
BMW X6--If there's a more self-absorbed SUV on the planet, I haven't seen (or driven) it. BMW, makers of stellar automobiles, seems to be out to prove that it can make just about anything, give it tremendous handling dynamics (no matter what the weight), and BMW is pleased as punch to make it available to its loyal consumers. Are there really BMW guys out there looking for an SUV coupe that offers very little interior room and storage, yet handles a paved road like a tractor with a jet engine? How small can you slice a niche and make any money at it? If this isn't about BMW hubris, it doesn't make any sense to me.
Chevy Traverse--Probably the best execution of the highly popular seven-passenger/crossover target we've seen this year. Although the platform is shared with several other GM models (Outlook, Acadia, Enclave), this one looks unique, yet shares many of the materials and interior layout from the more massive Tahoes. Chassis and powertrain are well sorted, but this is just about one of the heaviest vehicles this size you can find. Our tester clocked in at well over 5000 lb. This isn't a tow rig, but it's well worth a serious look.
Dodge Journey--An odd little duck. On paper the vehicle looks like a good bet with its slight downsizing, weight-savings, and price advantage when compared with the Flex and Travers. However, the real competitors to this vehicle, like the RAV4, Murano, and even the Ford Edge, have something the Journey misses--driving fun factor. The Journey is as simple as A-to-B-transportation gets. Some clever interior storage compartments but no real personality.
Ford Flex--At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Flex has personality in triplicate. Typically, I'm not a fan of anything that relies on "retro" to make something "cool." What makes this cool, however, is that it handles much better than you'd think, the interior is exceptionally well thought out, and third-row storage solution is a piece of genius. Working against it is the heaviness factor, it's a bit pricey, and there will be no real "off-pavement" version. Expect the next Explorer to carry many of the Flex cues in its next redesign.
Honda Pilot--While all the world seems to be hunting down the "sleeker wagon"-looking crossover bull's-eye, Honda is searching to give its buyers something more traditional-looking. The Pilot, basically a minivan-based crossover before crossovers were the heart of the market, has gone more boxy, flatter, and taller. Extensive market research (because that's what Honda does, almost to excess) told them its buyers wanted a more rugged (ream more males) look, so it went with sharper angles. The V-6 is strong but interior and face are a mess.
Infiniti EX35--I don't understand why this vehicle exists, unless it's only because Nissan dropped a slightly different body type on top of its G35 sports sedan chassis. I truly have no idea who this buyer is. The EX35 can't tow, can't carry much, and it drives like a sports car. I'm hoping this whole sporty/coupe-like/crossover segment will just slowly disappear. Who buys a crossover because they want to pull three-quarters of a g through a corner?
Infiniti FX50--The last of our sporty coupe crossovers, our tester had the 5.0L motor that pulls like a monster but faulters just about everywhere else. The ride on our sport model was punishing, throttle tip-in much too sensitive, and pricing completely out with the times. That said, Infiniti has a four-eye camera system that offers a top-down view to drivers to help with parking and backing up. Separate software collects data from the four cameras and makes backing up and parking a spectacularly simple chore. You need to see this technology.
Kia Borrego--A nice first shot at a segment that has completely redefined itself in the time Kia started the project to the time it got to market. Well done, offering all the right inside features (simple ergonomics, easy to read buttons, solid 4x4 system), but there is something strangely familiar about everything it offers. A more correct term might be derivative, making you feel like you've seen the button, dials, and controls all somewhere else before. What I haven't felt before on an SUV in a long time is a suspension so wallowy and unrefined that it made me worry about carrying too many buddies inside.
Lexus LX 570--If there's a vehicle that acts like a granite foundation in a world of soft-roading shifting sand, it's this platform. Basically a Toyota Land Cruiser with all sorts of Lexus materials and shiny bits with an electric third-row seat. It's always worth looking at one of these four wheelers because this is usually where all the best traction-gripping 4x4 Toyota technology tends to land, even though these buyers would never dream of pushing the outer limits of the system. Still, we're taking crazy expensive.
Nissan Murano--Another one of the early crossover vehicles that enjoys a solid following, but I've never understood it much. CVT technology is probably the single piece of hardware that separates the appliances from the fun-mobiles. My only exception in the Nissan barn is the Nissan Rogue--good fun can be had with the CVT controller tuning and paddle-shifters, but the Murano doesn't get the same settings. This vehicle has always struck me that it wasn't big enough (needs a third row) and a little boring. It's a car in crossover clothing.
Subaru Forester--I'd like its common sense approach to the segment a lot more if this vehicle was pretty much the same vehicle Subaru offered three generations ago. Subaru's been watching the heart of the market come to them for several years, and now it's reaping the benefits. The rally experience and engineering overlap really helps. Stunned at how well the Forester performs on the road. AWD system is made for dirt and gravel. Right sized for the times. Worth a serious look.
Toyota Sequoia--Have to say this was my favorite coming into the competition and didn't take me too long to figure out I would have to do some hard lobbying and politicing to get any of my fellow editors to put it on the radar. Yes, it's big but the packaging is spectacular. Yes, it's expensive but you can tow 10,000 lb. Yes, it's ugly but it carries eight people easily. Unfortunately, it gets 12 mpg, cost a ton, and steers like a cruiseliner.
VW Tiguan--Maybe the biggest surprise of the test. With the sour taste of the Touareg still in its mouth, VW shoots on target this time. Fantastic interior (as long as you like small buttons and dials), plenty of optional equipment (our favorite is the big-screen-TV-size skyroof), and the superb chassis dynamics and steering feel. Fuel economy is excellent and four-cylinder power is strong. Still, with dollar exchange rates, expect steep pricing, and if you ever plan to go off road, be very careful.
This year's class is strong and diverse, but only one can be the winner. Can you guess? We debated this one for quite a while, and it even got a little heated. My top three picks (in no particular order) were the Toyota Sequoia, Ford Flex, and Subaru Forester. All three OEs are making a strong push. We hope the follow up will be just as strong. Look for all three of these vehicles to offer high-tech powertrains in their next generations to keep things interesting.
If you're interested in seeing more videos, blogs, and stories we've done already on this year's competition.. Check out these links blow: