The Dirty Dozen? Well, at least they looked that way after a day negotiating the sand traps, frame-twisters, hungry rocks, and rutted hills of our off-road evaluation course. Heat and dust and the sound of engines working hard: It must be Sport/Utility of the Year time again.
Twelve contenders made the cut for this year's judging, their widely varying technical specifications and packaging reflecting the diversity of a market segment that's come a long way from the days when four-wheel drive was a necessity for farmers, soldiers, and intrepid adventurers rather than a suburban-lifestyle statement. Engines included an I-5, a flat-six, and a bunch of V-6s. We had V-8s, too, including one with quad cams, a supercharger, 390 horsepower, and a Jaguar pedigree. We had live axles with leaf springs, live axles with coil springs, independent suspension, and air suspension. Transmissions? They ranged from four to seven--count 'em--speeds, some with low-range transfer cases, some without. Some of our contenders seated five, others seven. As-tested prices ranged from under $24,000 to more than $75,000.
They were an international bunch, too, reflecting the complex globalization of the auto industry and the U.S. market. One contender was all-Japanese (Suzuki Grand Vitara), two were all-Korean (Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage), and three were all-American (the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer twins and Hummer H3). And before you ask about the Jeep Commander, remember the Jeep guys ultimately report to Stuttgart these days. Still, in a nice piece of symmetry, the all-new Mercedes ML is bolted together near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Building sport/utes is clearly an American specialty: Despite their Japanese badges, both the Nissan Xterra and Subaru B9 Tribeca are made here (Canton, Mississippi, and Lafayette, Indiana, respectively), and while the bright-orange Range Rover Sport may be British-built, the beancounters who approved it call Dearborn home. But it's Pontiac's Torrent that gives us a real glimpse of the auto industry's New World Order: The V-6 under its hood is made in China.