Phase one involved a full tech check and weigh-in, then full track testing to determine baseline data for acceleration, braking, and handling.

Phase two was three days of road loops in California wine country, with each of the 11 judges getting an hour behind the wheel of each contender under identical conditions. The 35-mile loop included a mix of freeway, two-lane blacktop, small-town streets, and a dirt track section that allowed us to evaluate each vehicle's handling on low-friction surfaces.

The final phase was a walk-around of each vehicle and hours of discussion and argument.

Sport/Utility of the Year judging is not a comparison test, but a process. Each vehicle is evaluated against a set of criteria, which allows us to start with a bunch of vastly diverse vehicles and choose one winner. And this year's winner is very much an SUV for the times.

WHERE'S THE VENZA?
Back at the 2008 Detroit show, Toyota made a point of calling its American designed and engineered Venza a "crossover sedan." Thing is, the two-box Venza looked more like a Lexus RX 330 on steroids than a sedan. Ahhh, said Toyota, but the Venza is a vehicle that combines SUV-like utility with the driving dynamics of a sport sedan. Ummm, okay...

Fast forward seven months. Our invitation to the press launch of the Venza contains the following sentence: "Venza combines a unique blend of sedan refinement and SUV functionality." Ten days later, our invitation for the Venza to be a part of the 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year judging elicits the following reply from Toyota P.R.: "We'll be passing...as it's positioned as a passenger car..." Huh?

Let's review, shall we? The Venza has a high seating position and a two-box body with multifunction interior and is available with all-wheel drive. Sounds like the modern definition of an SUV to us.

We dug a little deeper. The Venza is wider and taller than the Infiniti EX. It has 3.0 inches more ground clearance than the Ford Flex and rides higher than the EX, the VW Tiguan, and Chevrolet Traverse. It offers higher towing capacity than the EX, Tiguan, Dodge Journey, and Subaru Forester. If it walks like a duck...

Then the penny dropped: The high price of gas has made SUVs-necessarily thirstier than conventional cars because of their height, mass, and all-wheel-drive systems-persona non grata for many American consumers. Could it possibly be Toyota is desperate for the Venza to be labeled as anything but an SUV?