Definitions aside, both the public and the vehicle manufacturers often ask us: "What is your testing process?" or "How do you pick a winner?" This year, we've simplified the standards we apply to recognize an of-the-Year winner. Regardless of which selection--Sport/Utility, Car, or Truck of the Year--a winner must demonstrate dominance in three major categories: Significance, Superiority, and Value. Significance incorporates mastery and innovation in engineering, technology, design, safety, and packaging, as well as envisioned sales forecasts for that model line. Is the vehicle a low-sales-volume ringer of single purpose or a truly significant, forward-thinking player we believe will affect the market? Significance also indicates how far the new vehicle moves the established industry standards as a whole.
If Significance is global, Superiority is local. It levels the playing field so a winner must display above-average levels of performance, style, and value within its specific peer group--not among all new vehicles. Thus, we're not unfairly comparing the Hummer H2's off-road abilities or fuel consumption, for instance, with those of the Honda Element. This ensures we compare apples to apples and determines whether a vehicle is designed and executed appropriately to its intended tasks. Finally, Value is universal. Whatever your budget, we use value to determine what a vehicle delivers in relation to what it costs. Are you getting what you paid for, or are you paying too much for perceived luxury? Does the added cost of all-wheel drive provide merely the image or true off-roadability?
Keep in mind "value" doesn't necessarily mean "least expensive." Nor does it mean a more expensive vehicle should be crossed off anybody's short list. We also consider the likely resale value of a contestant.
The following summarizes what we noticed in our trials and tribulations with the 14 candidates. It's in no way a comprehensive account of every aspect of every SUV in the test--we could easily fill this entire magazine with that much information. Instead, we present the standout players, for exceeding or failing to meet our expectations.