It used to be easy to figure out what was an SUV: Whether it was a bare-bones rugged Jeep or a high-tech luxury Range Rover, an SUV boasted four-wheel drive, ground clearance, and the proper angles. However, as our latest group of SUOTY contenders--22 in all--gathered for evaluation at the Emergency Vehicle Operations Center driver training facility in San Bernardino, California, it became clear the segment is rapidly evolving into something less rigid and easily defined.
Only two of this year's contenders--the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota FJ Cruiser--can rightly be regarded as real off-roaders.
All the rest, in one degree or another, are biased toward road compromises, even the Mercedes-Benz GL and GM's truck-tough GMT900 vehicles (Escalade, Yukon, Tahoe, Suburban). And others like the Ford Edge, Honda's CR-V, and Suzuki's XL7 will almost certainly be popular as front-drive models where snow isn't a problem.
This year's SUOTY testing took that seismic shift into account. Although all the variants we tested featured all-wheel drive, we didn't subject the contenders to serious 4x4 conditions; instead, we focused on on-road driveability and refinement, interior flexibility and functionality, and real-world usage.
The judging began with a tech check and three days of track testing at California Speedway; acceleration and braking, the 600-foot slalom, and our exclusive Motor Trend figure-eight test. The track-testing gave the eight judges solid baseline data to work with as the back-to-back driving evaluations got underway in the scorching 106-degree heat at the 78-acre EVOC facility.
With so many vehicles in the field, the EVOC sessions were used to whittle the SUOTY competitors down to a solid 10 contenders for the crown. Those vehicles the judges felt missed the mark in terms of the criteria-superiority, significance, and value-were left behind once the team moved to our 25-mile test loop near the city of Thousand Oaks. Deciding which vehicles to cut provoked lively discussions, as you might expect.
Which of the impressively engineered GMT900s should go through? If the Edge made the cut, what about the more expensive Lincoln MKX? Did the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Suzuki XL7 stand a chance with the Hyundai Santa Fe in the Top 10?
In the end, it all comes down to trusting the process. SUOTY is about spending the time to test, analyze, evaluate, and think about how each vehicle rates against the criteria. It's a long and expensive exercise, which is why other magazines don't (can't) do it. But it works. Our winner this year is accomplished and worthy. Again.
Range of Values
Here's a snapshot of our broadest field of Sport/Utility of the Year contestants ever.
Price Range $18,765 Jeep Wrangler to$67,305 Cadillac Escalade
Power 166-hp Honda CR-V to 403-hp Cadillac Escalade
Curb weight 3554-lb Honda CR-V to 6270-lb Ford Expedition EL
Exterior size (LxWxH) 462-cu-ft Jeep Wrangler to 795-cu-ft Lincoln Navigator L
Passenger space 98-cu-ft Toyota FJ Cruiser to 168-cu-ft Lincoln Navigator L
Max cargo space 57-cu-ft Jeep Wrangler (2-dr) to 131-cu-ft Ford Expedition EL
Towing capacity 1000-lb Jeep Wrangler to 9700-lb GMC Yukon XL/Chevy Suburban
Acceleration (0-60/o-mile) 10.2/17.4 sec Jeep Wrangler Unlimited to 6.4/15.0 sec GMC Yukon Denali
Handling 36.1 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited to 67.5 Audi Q7
Fuel economy (hwy) 18 mpg Ford Expedition/Lincoln Navigator to 28 mpg Honda CR-V/Toyota RAV4 (4-cyl)