You know the world has changed when one of the contenders for Motor Trend's 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year is a 390-horsepower four-door coupe that's only a tenth of a second slower to 60 mph than a Ferrari Testarossa and takes barely a half second longer to cover the standing quarter mile. Back in 1985, when we first tested the Testarossa, the American sport/utility vehicle segment could be pretty much summed up in one, rugged four letter word: J-e-e-p. Now, it's atomized into a collection of vehicles more diverse than any other, offering everything from high-riding hot-rods, to functional family wagons, to all-purpose luxury limos, to tough-as-nails rock-crawlers.
So what makes a modern sport/utility vehicle? For all their apparent diversity, today's SUVs do have a number of key characteristics in common: (1) high ride height and high seating position; (2) a two-box body and multifunction interior that allows a combination of seating or load-carrying configurations; (3) the availability of all-wheel drive.
These characteristics, which are carried over from their off-roading ancestors, make today's SUVs attractive "lifestyle" vehicles-in the truest sense of the word-for many American consumers. The high seating position allows a commanding view of the road; the multifunction interior is ideal for carrying kids and/or stuff; and the availability of all-wheel drive, combined with extra ground clearance, ensures an extra margin of mobility in Snowbelt states. These vehicles have a lot of utility. And plenty of sport, too, if you so desire.
Two of this year's 13 contenders could rightly be described as "muscleSUVs." The BMW X6 and Infiniti FX offer potent six-cylinder engines and truly storming V-8s-a naturally aspirated 5.0-liter with 390 horsepower in the Infiniti and a twin-turbo 4.4-liter with 400 horsepower in the BMW. Both have six-speed automatic transmissions with paddleshift control, hard-riding suspensions, and tires with the contact patch of a Lamborghini. The FX's baby brother, the Infiniti EX, is more like a high-riding 3 Series, with tight-fitting sheetmetal, punchy performance, and buttoned-down ride.
At the other end of the spectrum are the separate chassis rigs, big wagons that still serve up a significant dose of off-roading DNA under all the glitz and glitter of sat-nav systems, automatic climate control, and surround sound. Kia's Borrego is a surprising Korean take on a Tahoe, while the Lexus LX 570 is a bullet-proof Toyota LandCruiser masquerading somewhat self-consciously as an upscale luxury vehicle. Meanwhile, the giant, gas-guzzling Toyota Sequoia, built off the Tundra pickup chassis, is absolute proof that, just like the guys in Motown, the guys in Nagoya never saw $4 a gallon gas coming, either.
Honda's goggle-eyed Pilot and Chevrolet's surprisingly slick Traverse are two variations on a similar theme that's fast becoming the default setting for most modern SUVs, offering a vaguely trucklike persona with vaguely carlike manners and vaguely minivan-like people- and/or load-carrying capacity. It's the same with Dodge's Journey, Subaru's Forester, and Nissan's Murano, though on a smaller scale, of course, while VW's Tiguan is the latest in a growing line of premium compact SUVs from Europe.
And then there's Ford's Flex. Perhaps the most intriguing new entry in the SUV category this year, the Flex edges tantalizingly close to a vehicle segment that has been regarded as toxic by Detroit automakers since Jimmy Carter left the White House-the full-size wagon. The Wagon Queen Family Truckster of the 21st century? Or Motor Trend's 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year? We'd need a week of testing to find out.