It's that time of year again -- the air is getting crisp, leaves are starting to turn brown, and Motor Trend is getting ready to pick a new Sport/Utility of the Year. This year's crop of 13 contenders features some impressive rides, including second takes on big-time players like the Honda Pilot, Infiniti FX, and Nissan Murano, along with all-new vehicles still looking to carve out a niche in the market, such as the Ford Flex or BMW's X6. But with such a disparate group to choose from, how exactly do we a pick a winner?

Well, step one begins at the track, where each vehicle is quantitatively measured through a series of instrument tests. Acceleration numbers are determined on a drag strip at the Autoclub Speedway in Fontana, California, and we run the test from the opposite end of the track to better simulate real-world conditions -- after thousands of launches there's just too much rubber built up at the strip's starting area. After that comes brake testing, conducted in the same area, along with a run through Motor Trend's signature figure-eight course to rate handling. Determining the winner in an acceleration or braking test is easy, but using instruments to measure handling prowess is a trickier business. How do we do it? By timing how fast each SUV laps our figure-eight course, along with what kind of lateral G numbers they pull along the way.

Of course, determining the very best new Sport/Utility of 2008 requires far more than just raw data -- testing is important, but so is how each vehicle performs in everyday conditions, the way you'd drive one if you owned it. And to learn which hauler performed best away from the track, we took our group up to the central coast of California for some spirited on- and off-road driving... but that's for the next installment. Check out our list of contenders and instrument testing vids here and here, and be sure to go back to our Featured Videos page for more Sport/Utility of the Year material. Then stay tuned as we announce a winner at 12:01 a.m. EST on Thursday, October 16.

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