None of this dirty baker's dozen will sell in the 300,000 to 400,000-unit volumes of the GMC Envoy/Chevy TrailBlazer or Ford Explorer. All makers grab what SUV market share they can, even snagging profitable niches of fewer than 50,000 units annually. That's what makes SUVs the most interesting segment today: diversity of the highest order. Makers hunting for the Next Big Thing in sport/utilities are rushing out new model types almost monthly.

Which brings us back to our annual competition. And the many questions we must ask on the way to picking a winner. How important is off-roadability in a modern SUV? What about a third-row seat? Should sport/utility emphasize the "sport" or the "utility"? And exactly what is "sport," delightful on-road driving or competent back-country trekking? We drove this year's crop on-road and off in search of the new model that best does what a sport/utility should do in the year 2004.

The Process
Choosing the Sport/Utility of the Year from 13 models started with instrumented track tests to establish the performance numbers. That was followed by hundreds of miles of city commuting, freeway cruising, and high-speed running on California's lonely, high-desert highways. Barrels of expensive fuel were burned. At a Shell station in Panamint Springs near the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, we shelled out $3.09 per gallon of premium. The Porsche Cayenne gulped $45 worth. In the blazing heat of dusty Death Valley, windshields cracked, heat shields and skidplates chewed rock, good and bad words flew--but when the dust and flies settled in Red Rock Canyon, a consensus winner emerged.

Our selection recognizes excellence in three broad categories: significance, superiority, and value. Significance requires top grades in engineering, technology, design, safety, and packaging: Does the product advance the segment benchmarks in these areas? It also means the vehicle must have serious sales volume within its subsegment. Next, does the sport/utility demonstrate clear superiority in comparison to its direct competitors? And, critically, are you getting what you paid for?

To qualify for a shot at the calipers trophy for 2004 Sport/Utility of the Year, vehicles had to be totally new or significantly updated and on sale to the public by January 1. Of the lucky 13 that made the grade, two--the GM models--are in the significantly updated category. The Rainier takes the place of the Oldsmobile Bravada (of which a few 2004 examples will be built, as the division fades away) and is the first short-wheelbase GMT360 offered with an optional 5.3-liter V-8. The Envoy XUV features a heavily modified rear cargo area with a midgate for handling wet or dirty loads like an enclosed pickup bed. The other 11 contestants are all-new offerings, each representing a roll of the corporate dice in a quest to capture customers looking for something different.