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.


2009 BMW X6
2009 Chevrolet Traverse
2009 Dodge Journey
2009 Ford Flex
2009 Honda Pilot
2009 Infiniti EX
2009 Infiniti FX
2009 Kia Borrego
2009 Lexus LX 570
2009 Nissan Murano
2009 Subaru Forester
2009 Toyota Sequoia
2009 Volkswagen Tiguan

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?

The Criteria

Sport/utility of the year is not a comparison test. It's open only to all-new or substantially upgraded vehicles that have gone on sale in the 12 months to January 1, 2009. We're looking for the pick of each year's crop of new SUVs, not to revisit vehicles that have been on sale for the past five years.

Each SUOTY contender is evaluated against three criteria:

1. SUPERIORITY.
We look at engineering excellence, advancement in design, utilization of resources, and safety. Vehicle concept and execution are important, as are use of materials, packaging, dynamics, styling, and fuel consumption.

2. SIGNIFICANCE.
How well does the vehicle do the job its maker intended it to do? And how does it affect or change its particular market segment, influence consumer perceptions, and transform product development trends?

3. VALUE.
How a vehicle compares against its direct rivals. A vehicle with a low sticker price might not be as good a value as a more expensive vehicle that delivers outstanding performance, quality, and functionality.

THE JUDGES


MIKE FLOYD
Online Editor

RON KIINO
Senior Editor

TODD LASSA
Detroit Editor

EDWARD LOH
Senior Editor

ANGUS MACKENZIE
Editor-in-Chief

FRANK MARKUS
Technical Director

SCOTT MORTARA
Road Test Editor

KIM REYNOLDS
Technical Editor

ARTHUR ST. ANTOINE
Editor at Large

MATT STONE
Executive Editor

MARK WILLIAMS
Editor, Truck Trend

2008 BMW X6
The Perfect SUV - If You're Batman

We Like: Twin-turbo kick (plenty even with the six) and physics-defying
We Don't Like: Cramped cabin, lousy cargo room, at-times punishing ride.

Probably no vehicle in this year's field generated more buzz-pro and con-than the X6. "Considering its heft, this bad boy handles really well on the pavement," writes Floyd. "Useless but somehow cool," notes Stone. "Feels like a cheetah disguised as a brick," adds Kiino.

BMW's new SUV without the "U" doesn't really know what it is. It's big and immensely heavy (nearly 5000 pounds), yet seats only four (sort of) and offers limited luggage space in back. It's pricey enough to char your American Express Black Card: more than $63K as-tested with the twin-turbo six and easily a good $10 grand more for a similarly optioned twin-turbo V-8 xDrive 50i. It rides tall like an off-roader, but would prefer not to get dirty. Visibility is limited, particularly to the rear. The sport-biased chassis will hammer your backside if the tarmac picks up any lint.

And yet...on the right road the X6 performs as if it never heard of Sir Isaac Newton. 5000 pounds? So what? Even with the "base" twin-turbo six, the X6 whooshes to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds (engine and six-speed auto flow and fly like a champion figure-skating pair).

Handling prowess can be breathtaking; more than one driver remarked that the X6 Hoovered through turns "easily 10 or 15 mph faster than anything else." Yes, the X6 has its charms. Someone with silly money and few common vehicular needs-say, Batman-would enjoy an X6 as a fourth or fifth car.

This BMW makes zero sense for anyone else. There is no "utility" in its mission profile. None. "Sport" it can do-but not as well as even other machines wearing the propeller badge. As Lassa writes: "Give me a 335i sedan with six-speed manual and the $10K savings." And even many of its "cool" features disappoint. The transmission lever is overly fussy. And "the backup camera is absolutely lousy," notes Loh." Grainy, noisy, useless at night. The Japanese made better systems two generations ago."

Then Loh really warms up. "I'm a red-blooded, meat-eating male, but even I can't stomach the waste this vehicle represents."
- Arthur St. Antoine


2008 BMW X6
Base price range $53,325-$63,825
Price as tested $63,825 (xDrive 35i)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.0L/300-hp/300-lb-ft DOHC twin-turbo I-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4985 lb (50/50%)
Wheelbase 115.5 in
Length x width x height 192.0 x 78.1 x 66.5 in
0-60 mph 5.9 sec
Quarter mile 14.5 sec @ 93.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 111 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.87 g (avg)
MT figure eight 26.4 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 15/20 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 13.2 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.15 lb/mi
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design **
Interior/functionality *
Performance *****
On-road refinement ***
Off-road ability **
Value *
BOTTOM LINE
"Apparently," writes Lassa, "This is the ultimate small-penis compensation machine









2009 Chevrolet Traverse
Most Likely To Succeed

We Like: Exterior styling, sweet, strong direct-injection V-6.
We Don't Like: Marginal real-world fuel mileage, heavy curb weight.

Chevy's new three-row crossover proves among the more pleasant surprises in this year's contest. The Traverse is the fourth General Motors' model built on its Lambda chassis architecture, others being the Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook, and GMC Acadia. The Traverse is functionally much the same as its cross-brand siblings and gives Chevy a much-needed entry in this segment, replacing the ages old, truck-based TrailBlazer. It also gives us our first taste of GM's direct fuel-injection V-6 in this platform, although the other variants also are so equipped for 2009.

"Times have changed," says Kiino. "We're criticizing a Honda instrument panel and center stack and praising a Chevy's." It's true: The Traverse's IP and controls are clean and workable. The interior plastics and materials are attractive and appear durable. Third-row access is straightforward, although the second row's high floor and short seat bottom compromises its comfort a bit.

The Traverse is a nice-looking piece on the outside, too, although the rear window line is shaped the way it is in the name of style, not visibility. Fold the second- and third-row seats flat, and the Traverse will swallow 116.4 cubic feet of stuff. Need to bring more junk along? No problem, given its 5200-pound towing capacity.

Everyone has been pleased with the powertrain. With optional dual exhausts, the newest version of GM's 3.6-liter DOHC V-6 spools out 288 horses, more than competitive power, although it's necessary to move the Traverse's 5111 pounds, plus cargo. The engine is quiet and smooth, with a wide powerband. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transaxle, replete with a handy toggle switch on the end of the shifter to allow manual scrolling up and down all six gears. "Ford should take a lesson from that," observes Lassa, as the Flex has no such thing.

The Traverse leads the one category it least wanted to among this year's contestants-Worst Fuel Economy. We've averaged 12.1 mpg, which includes off-road testing, a lot of idling during photo shoots, and harder than normal driving. Competitors like the Flex and Pilot have gotten 14.9 under the same conditions.
- Matt Stone


2009 Chevrolet Traverse
Base price range $28,990-$41,760
Price as tested $45,250 (LTZ AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.6L/288-hp/270-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 5111 lb (55/45%)
Wheelbase 118.9 in
Length x width x height 205.0 x 78.4 x 72.8 (w/roof rails) in
0-60 mph 7.9 sec
Quarter mile 16.1 sec @ 86.2 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 133 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.76 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.9 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 17/23 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 12.1 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.05 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design ****
Interior/functionality ****
Performance ****
On-road refinement ***
Off-road ability **
Value ***
BOTTOM LINE
Solid, if not landmark, entry into crossover segment








2009 Dodge Journey
More About The Destination Than The Journey

We Like: Myriad out-of-sight stowage compartments.
We Don't Like: Retro powertrain, chassis, and interior refinement.

This should be a hit. Smallish car-based crossovers are all the rage, and this one offers a miserly four-banger, a $20,750 opening price, and an optional third-row seat (V-6s only). Wow features like storage under the front-passenger seat cushion and beneath the second-row footwells, integrated child- booster seats, the MyGig stereo/nav system with live Sirius satellite traffic and weather, and (soon) even Internet connectivity in the car should have buyers lining up and editors awarding big points on significance and value. But the journey from drawing board to showroom floor included shortcuts.

Inside, the oddly sloped center console places frequently-used audio controls at the bottom near a blunt corner where many drivers rest their knees. And our jury is unimpressed by the sheens and textures of the plastics. Chevy and Ford have seriously upped the ante in this department.

Midsize Avenger sedan underpinnings make the Journey smaller and 500 pounds lighter than a similarly equipped Ford Flex, yet Dodge's aging single-cam 3.5-liter V-6 returns fuel economy lower than the Flex's by the EPA's reckoning and identical under our lead feet (14.9 mpg). It's also slower through the quarter mile. An elderly four-speed automatic hobbles the 2.4-liter four-cylinder front-drive version with worse fuel economy than a three-row RAV4 V-6 delivers. The welterweight Journey should feel lighter on its feet than its middleweight Flex and Chevy Traverse rivals, and while steering feel and maximum lateral grip are slightly better, howling understeer, poor body-motion control, and a tendency to crash over bumps make it feel discombobulated on twisty, undulating pavement. Its performance in the telling figure-eight test also trails the bigger boys, and its generally undistinguished performance on road and track undermines the value of the R/T badge.

Adding a six-speed auto to the four and switching to the upcoming global V-6 should help close the gap in performance, refinement, and economy with the cream of the crossover crop, especially if the chassis and interior get spiffed up along the way. But for now, there are better ways of "getting there."
- Frank Markus


2009 Dodge Journey
Base price range $20,750-$29,160
Price as tested $35,745 (R/T AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/235-hp/232-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4370 lb (56/44%)
Wheelbase 113.8 in
Length x width x height 192.4 x 72.2 x 66.6 in
0-60 mph 8.4 sec
Quarter mile 16.4 sec @ 83.3 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 130 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.77 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.1 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 15/22 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 14.9 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.11 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ***
Design ***
Interior/functionality ****
Performance ***
On-road refinement **
Off-road ability ***
Value ***
BOTTOM LINE
The getting-from-point-A-to-B crowd can do better








2009 Ford Flex
Zen And The Art Of The Modern Woody Wagon

We Like: Optional fridge, power lumbar support for the driver's seat, comfortable ride, spaciousness.
We Don't Like: Duratec V-6 is grainier than Traverse's engine.

Considering oil prices and the swiftly shifting market, this year's most significant contenders split into two subsets: small, four-cylinder models (Forester, Tiguan) and larger, space-efficient unibody family wagons (Traverse, Journey, Pilot, Flex). While the Chevy Traverse and Ford Flex duked it out for superiority, in the end, the Ford's distinctive take on the basic box and its more entertaining interior won the argument. It was the only other contender besides our winner to get votes (three).

"Its engine noise is not as pleasant as the Chevy's," Frank Markus says, "but the interior is dressier than the similarly equipped Traverse." With a third-row seat rated for two passengers to the Traverse's three, it's available in six- (with optional refrigerator between the split second row) and seven-passenger variants. Other notable options include Microsoft Sync and a big panorama roof. The third row is more comfortable for adults than the Traverse's three-passenger rear seat. Sharing its Volvo-based platform with a variety of Fords, including Taurus X, Flex's dimensions are similar to the Chevy's, with a lower h-point. The driver can set his seat low, making it feel like a station wagon, or high, for that much desired SUV-command view of the road. It's by no means an off-roader, yet it handled our off-road section with ease.

With its soft suspension, deliberate steering, and big flat expanse of hood ahead of the driver, it doesn't inspire spirited driving, which helps explain better fuel economy versus the Traverse on our loop. The V-6/six-speed automatic combo is smooth with adequate power, although the transmission offers no upshift-downshift options for family vacations across the Rockies. Those who fondly remember late-1960s Country Squires with 429 V-8 options will appreciate the coming 3.5-liter EcoBoost making about 325 horses.

The Flex evokes various heydays of Ford wagons for our seasoned editors. It makes Stone think of his friend's 1947 Woody. The concept version of the Flex was named Fairlane-the 1957 and 1958 Fairlane sedans were the basis for the first Country Squires. Whatever year you think of, the Flex makes Ford wagons cool again and does so without reverting to retro styling.
- Todd Lassa


2009 Ford Flex
Base price range $28,995-$37,255
Price as tested $43,820 (Limited AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD 6-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/262-hp/248-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4864 lb (54/46%)
Wheelbase 117.9 in
Length x width x height 201.8 x 79.9 x 68.0 in
0-60 mph 8.4 sec.
Quarter mile 16.3 @ 84.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 136 ft.
Lateral acceleration 0.75 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.0 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 16/22 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 14.9 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.06 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design *****
Interior/functionality *****
Performance ***
On-road refinement ****
Off-road ability *
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
The most stylish people-mover box since the original VW Microbus








2009 Honda Pilot
Flying Higher In A Downdraft Segment

We Like: Refinement, bigger interior, thoughtful cubbyholes, and sophisticated cylinder-deactivation technology.
We Don't Like: Easy-to-ridicule grille, still mediocre mileage, old-school SUV visage.

While some of our contestants were busy stretching the precepts of the SUV like taffy on a hot August day, a photo of Honda's all-new Pilot could be printed next to the SUV's dictionary definition. The Pilot's got all the telltale SUV visual cues-boxyness, copious ground clearance, and rough-and-ready-looking rolling stock. Which in today's SUV-fleeing marketplace, basically amounts to three strikes against it. For numerous other manufacturers, three strikes might mean you're out, but, remember, we're talking about Honda here, which, almost as a self-imposed rule, never, ever, produces inefficient or one-dimensional vehicles. Think of the Ridgeline among its truck peers. Or the defunct NSX against its supercar brethren. Just because the Pilot matches the characteristic template for SUVs, don't jump to conclusions.

For instance, compared with its predecessor, the 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood has gained six horsepower and 13 lb-ft of torque, while simultaneously improving its mileage by one mpg in the city, and either one or two on the highway, depending on the number of driven wheels. How? The Honda touch: Among other tweaks, its cylinder-deactivation protocol has added a four-cylinder mode to its previous three-cylinder option.

And that better mileage is despite a bigger footprint on the road; it's 2.9 inches longer and an inch wider and taller, providing respectable room for eight inside. However, being a Honda, its weight is virtually unchanged, despite gaining the effective ACE body structure and reductions in chassis flex. How? Again the Honda touch: Its hood is now formed of aluminum, and a considerable percentage of the rest of it is high-strength steel. Among the new Pilot's most notable new features are its rear glass, which can be separately lifted from the hatch, hill-start assist, and humidity control built into the A/C system.

So what keeps it from wearing this year's crown? The complicated dash has drawn mixed reactions (one driver finds the high-mounted shifter position problematic, others don't), and the Tonka-toy grille has been lambasted. However, its biggest obstacle is simply being pretty good in a field that's universally pretty good.
- Kim Reynolds


2009 Honda Pilot
Base price range $28,265-$39,065
Price as tested $40,665
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/250-hp/253-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4607 lb (55/45%)
Wheelbase 109.2 in
Length x width x height 190.9 x 78.5 x 72.7 in
0-60 mph 8.4 sec
Quarter mile 16.6 sec @ 83.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 149 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.75 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.1 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 16/22 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 14.9 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.06 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering *****
Design **
Interior/functionality ****
Performance ***
On-road refinement ****
Off-road ability *****
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
A better Pilot (grille excepted), but Honda needs a Lindbergh to handle this turbulent SUV environment









2009 Infiniti EX35Blurring The Lines Between Car And Crossover

We Like: Sport-sedan moves, posh cabin, Around View Monitor.
We Don't Like: Snug back seat, lack of cargo capacity, minimal ground clearance.

"Feels like a tallish sport coupe," says editor at large Arthur St. Antoine. Technical director Frank Markus agrees, at least that the EX seems little like an SUV, claiming, "It's a sport wagon in my book," while executive editor Matt Stone concludes, "It's not a car and it's not an SUV-it might best be thought of as a G35 wagon with a high center of gravity." Suffice it to say, the EX proved the most carlike entry in this year's field and, subsequently, the most difficult to classify. Apparently, Infiniti faced similar predicaments when categorizing its G sedan-based sport/utility, opting for the comparably catchy and appropriate title of "coupe-inspired luxury crossover."

While Infiniti's label for the EX is rather oxymoronic, the vehicle's dynamics parlay a much clearer message: The EX is a marvel to guide down a curvy road, delivering the most driver-focused experience of the group. "The X6 probably generates more ultimate grip," says Markus, "but this one's low-to-the-ground stance and way tidier dimensions suit the task of twisty road driving much better." Detroit editor Lassa concurs, noting, "The EX is more fun to drive than most SUVs/CUVs, with light, precise steering," which, as Markus states, "was the only one that actually gave me some communication regarding the amount of cornering the car was generating." In a straight line, the EX's appeal does not diminish-its 0-to-60 time (6.5 seconds) and quarter mile (14.9 at 94.5 mph) were quicker than those of the Volkswagen Passat 2.0T and the Acura TSX.

The EX's biggest upside-that it's as sporty as a decathlete-is also its largest downside, magnifying the fact that it conspicuously lacks utility. Among the other two-row SUVs in this year's collection, the EX has the least ground clearance (5.7 inches) and backseat legroom (28.5 inches) as well as the smallest cargo hold (18.6 cubic feet). Compared with the similarly sized Subaru Forester, the EX is down 4.2 inches in ground clearance, nearly 10 inches in rear legroom, and over 12 cubic feet in cargo volume. Alas, minus real utility, it's nearly impossible to become Sport/Utility of the Year. If only we had an award for Sport/Crossover/Wagon/Coupe of the Year.
- Ron Kiino


2009 Infiniti EX35
Base price range $32,765-$37,915
Price as tested $46,265 (AWD Journey)
Vehicle layout Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/297-hp/253-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4032 lb (54/46%)
Wheelbase 110.2 in
Length x width x height 182.3 x 71.0 x 61.9 in
0-60 mph 6.5 sec
Quarter mile 14.9 sec @ 94.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 123 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.81 g (avg)
MT figure eight 27.6 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 16/23 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 15.8 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.05 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design ****
Interior/functionality **
Performance ***
On-road refinement *****
Off-road ability *
Value ***
BOTTOM LINE
Two parts sport and one part utility, the EX is a driver's delight and a family's displeasure.








Infiniti FX
About As Thin As You Can Slice A Niche

We Like: Monster power and grip, seven-speed paddles, four-sided camera.
We Don't Like: Swoopy body styling, lane-departure warning, stiff suspension.

AS IF TO emphasize that the SUV and crossover market is slicing itself much too thin right before our eyes, we have three specialized competitors for this year's competition.

They include the all-new BMW X6, the all-new Infiniti EX35, and the second-generation Infiniti FX50, the last of which has the impressive honor of being the fastest SUOTY player we've ever tested. Can you say 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds?

Although the bottle-nose-dolphin "good" looks have just about everyone on staff scratching his head, not a single driver has complained about the 390-horsepower DOHC V-8. Unfortunately, and maybe not too surprisingly given how most of us drive, it's also gotten one of the worst fuel-economy numbers on our test route, just nipping ahead of the much heavier Toyota Sequoia and Chevy Traverse, but falling a tick behind the (also much heavier) BMW X6 and Lexus LX 570.

In some ways, the FX is a study in opposites: It has a crossover shape, but not much room inside. It wants to compete with Porsche and BMW, but its ride and handling are punishing, with its suspension tuned much too stiffly.

And while it wants to be a driver's choice in the segment, it has so many electronics that it will give anyone who enjoys driving a headache (we especially hate the Lane Departure Beep, Beep, Beep). Additionally, even when cruising around town, the throttle is touchy and jumpy, almost fighting with the engine and all-wheel-drive system.

As you might expect, the FX is not designed for dirt-road driving, let alone a challenging trail. But we can overlook that knowing the engineers didn't intend the FX to be a rock-crawler. However, there are just too many other uncoordinated pieces of design and technology working against each other to make it a strong player with our judges.

In the end, there have been too many missed targets to ignore. But there is a silver lining. The FX may just be the best argument for buyers to look at the smaller, much less-expensive, and more capable and fun-to-drive EX35.
- Mark Williams


2009 Infiniti FX
Base price range $41,815-$57,565
Price as tested $65,065 (FX50 AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.0L/390-hp/369-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 7-speed auto
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4670 lb (53/47%)
Wheelbase 113.6 in
Length x width x height 191.3 x 75.9 x 66.1 in
0-60 mph 5.4 sec
Quarter mile 13.9 sec @ 100.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 127 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.86 g (avg)
MT figure eight 26.7 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 14/20 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 12.9 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.20 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering **
Design **
Interior/functionality ****
Performance ***
On-road refinement ***
Off-road ability *
Value **
BOTTOM LINE
Built for speed - but too much up front and not enough backside. And be ready for a rough ride.








2009 Kia Borrego
Nice Vehicle, Bad Timing

We Like: Interior appointments, nice engine, quiet cabin, true utility.
We Don't Like: Suspension feel when the going gets rough, lacks some essential features.

Kia Execs have got to be beyond tired of seeing the phrase above pop up whenever the discussion turns to the Borrego, the Korean automaker's stout, all-new midsize SUV (sorry, Kia, had to go there again). Despite a market that's run screaming from traditional truck-based SUVs, Kia remains confident its first seven-passenger SUV will be a sales success. After hustling it around our test loops, we're pretty sure the Borrego will more than hold its own.

Not some sissy car-based crossover, the Borrego is a brawny, body-on-frame lad capable of towing up to 7500 pounds with the optional 337-horse, 4.6-liter V-8 (the base 3.8-liter V-6 pulls up to 5000 pounds). We have the loaded-up, 4WD V-8 mated to a smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic with a manual mode. It's a solid freeway cruiser, with more than enough power for any pavement-pounding situation. Steering feel is nicely-weighted and direct, and the brakes are strong, stopping the 4872-pound vehicle in 130 feet from 60 to 0 mph.

The Borrego's well-executed center console features a smartly designed nav system, along with plenty of standard and available entertainment options. We haven't heard a lot of noise in the leather-trimmed cabin at freeway speeds, and its fit-and-finish appear first-rate. It's an interior that should help snuff out any lingering cracks about Kia's quality. Praise continues for the Borrego's sheetmetal, with a prominent grille and traditional SUV looks that aren't breaking any rules, but not breaking any mirrors, either.

So why no Calipers for the Borrego? For one, the stiff suspension tends to get out of sorts, especially over rough pavement and during the off-road portion of our test loop. Our tester also has an annoying rattle in the back we've been unable to diagnose (although to be fair, other Borregos we've driven didn't exhibit that noise). It lacks a power rear lift-gate, the backup camera is only available only on the top trim level, and the V-8 4WD is thirsty, delivering only 13.6 mpg during our testing. But, overall, a nice piece at a typically competitive price. We hope for Kia's sake the market will rebound and notice.
- Michael Floyd


2009 Kia Borrego
Base price range $26,995-$33,745
Price as tested $39,295 (EX V-8 4WD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD/4WD 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 4.6L/337-hp/323-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4872 lb (54/46%)
Wheelbase 114.0 in
Length x width x height 192.1 x 75.4 x 71.3 in
0-60 mph 7.2 sec
Quarter mile 15.5 sec @ 90.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 130 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.77 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.9 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 15/20 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 13.6 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.15 lb/mi
RATINGS
Engineering ***
Design ****
Interior/functionality *****
Performance ****
On-road refinement ***
Off-road ability ****
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
A solid, if not landmark, entry into the crossover segment that gets the job done.








2008 Lexus LX 570
Mountain Goat In An Armani

We Like: Top-notch quality, smooth ride, amazing off-road ability.
We Don't Like: Astronomical price, gas-guzzling nature, awkward third-row seats.

Since last year's contest, a lot has changed with regard to the SUV market. Most manufacturers are going for the smaller, more fuel-efficient, and in some cases car-based vehicles, the 2009 Lexus LX 570 is none of those, and it's damn proud of it.

This Lexus is an amazing luxury/utility vehicle, capable of a dash to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, while the quarter mile disappears in under 15 seconds at over 90 mph, and all this by a behemoth that weighs over 6000 pounds.

Oh, did we mention the Lexus can also off-road with the best of them? Hillclimbs, rock crawling, sand washes-nothing slows this machine down.

Such off-road ability is due to features like Crawl Control, a three-speed downhill assist that also works going uphill, and Active Height Control, which adjusts the vehicle to three inches above or just over two inches below its normal ride height.

Since this is still a Lexus, the interior lives up to what the rest of the vehicle delivers. Senior editor Ron Kiino says, "The Lexus LX 570 has an ultra-luxurious interior: The wood, leather, and plastics are all elegant and first-rate; the fit and finish is impeccable."

One issue many judges have had is with the third-row seats, which are too tight, definitely a penalty box for the three folks stuck back there. Also, the seats don't fold flat; they fold up and hang in the air. Our tester developed a nasty rattle with the third row up, and this storage style compromises cargo room as well.

During our on-road drive loop, some staffers have found the LX 570's adjustable suspension a nice addition, but haven't seen much difference between the two settings. Others have judged the ride quality not up to the standards they've set for a vehicle from Lexus.

The off-road section has proved no match for this road beast, while a few other competitors have had a bit of a struggle.

In the end, its sheer size, astronomical price, and heavy fuel consumption prevented the large Lexus LX 570 from being our 2009 SUOTY winner. Guess size really does matter.
- Scott Mortara


2009 Kia Borrego
Base price range $76,530
Price as tested $83,710
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 8-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L/383-hp/403-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 6164 lb (51/49%)
Wheelbase 112.2 in
Length x width x height 196.5 x 77.6 x 73.4 in
0-60 mph 6.5 sec
Quarter mile 14.8 sec @ 92.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 133 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.73 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.3 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 12/18 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 13.2 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.37 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design ***
Interior/functionality ***
Performance ***
On-road refinement ****
Off-road ability *****
Value **
BOTTOM LINE
Luxurious with an interior fit for a king. Unfortunately, you'll pay a king's ransom to own it.








2009 Nissan Murano
Resides Between "Lackadaisical" And "Lackluster"

We Like: Beautifully trimmed and roomy interior, smooth V-6, pleasing chassis dynamics.
We Don't Like: Sport-sapping CVT, bouncy off-road ride, peculiar styling.

IF EVERYONE in the Ice-Cream Shoppe is ordering Fudge Peanut Ripple Marshmallow Mango Royale and you're ordering Vanilla, that new Murano parked outside probably belongs to you.

Since making its debut as a 2003 model, Nissan's sporty, midsize crossover has sold well-even into old age. The 2006 edition nudged out three rivals (Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander, and Hyundai Santa Fe) for top spot in an MT comparo. Now comes a brand-new 2009 version-and it's as if someone packed Vanilla into a Mango Royale box.

"Nissan's VQ six continues to impress," writes Kiino. "Delightfully light compared with the LX 570 and the Borrego," logs Markus, adding, "Astute suspension makes for a comfier ride." Notes Lassa: "Does nothing to overly impress, upset, or offend."

Diminishing the Murano's appeal is its standard CVT. "A good transmission for those who don't care about cars," writes Loh. "Uninvolving dynamics punctured by the whiny CVT," comments Lassa. The Murano sabotages its sporty-vehicle pretensions with the CVT's unusual power flow.

Exterior styling takes hits. "Polarizing," is how Kiino describes the nose. "Funky, futuristic shape that I don't really get," adds Loh. "Would be more significant, despite its average dynamics, if the styling were fresher," Lassa concludes. "Nissan got conservative and tried too hard with the grille."

The cabin, in contrast, draws raves. Among the comments: "Impressive back seat with good legroom." "Nice, simple layout." "Interior has gone way upmarket, with a richer look plus better materials and textures." "Good enough to give pause to prospective Infiniti FX35 buyers."

Though the Murano is available with all-wheel drive, our SL tester is front-drive-on our steep off-road climb, reaching the top usually requires a good run-up. Yet even without AWD (or navigation), the Murano carries a steep $35K sticker.

Though the Murano's looks suggest "wacky and out-there," in fact it's a mild and unassuming machine, a fine everyman's crossover. But you don't get to wear a cape when you're playing Everyman.
- Arthur St. Antoine


2009 Nissan Murano
Base price range $27,650-$37,230
Price as tested $34,990 (SL 2WD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/265-hp/248-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission Continuously variable auto
Curb weight (dist f/r) 4028 lb (58/42%)
Wheelbase 111.2 in
Length x width x height 188.5 x 74.1 x 67.0 in
0-60 mph 7.2 sec
Quarter mile 15.5 sec @ 92.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 131 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.74 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.2 sec @ 0.57 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 18/23 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 17.3 mpg
CO2 emmisions 0.97 lb/mi
RATINGS
Engineering ***
Design **
Interior/functionality ****
Performance ***
On-road refinement ***
Off-road ability **
Value **
BOTTOM LINE
Don't ask for too much, and you get it.








2009 Toyota Sequoia
As Right For Our Times As A Trebuchet

We Like: Quiet comfort and prodigious poke.
We Don't Like: No automatic 4WD mode, busy overwrought dash.

Toyota has finally nailed this full-size-truck thing, just as the potential buyers are craigslisting their Cigarette boats, Boston Whalers, and Airstream campers. Surging gas-prices mean fewer folks can afford to fuel these toys, much less drag them around behind three-ton, mountain-climbing, isolation-tanks that can run the 60-mph dash in 6.7 seconds. Complicating things is the fact that the company dares not advertise this mega-guzzler much for fear of eroding its moral hybrid high ground. So the Sequoia's "Significance" score suffers in today's automotive climate.

You may wonder about its "Value" score, too, given the eye-watering $59K price of our all-singing, all-dancing Platinum edition. Show some restraint on the order sheet and a reasonable $39,245 buys equal or better functionality in an SR5 with the same brawny 5.7-liter V-8/six-speed automatic combo, a 9600-pound tow rating (10,000 with RWD), and the same multimode 4WD system with locking center differential and advanced traction control.

Introduced in mid-2008, the Tundra-based Sequoia is sized to fit between the long and short full-size 'utes from Chevy and Ford. It boasts savvy packaging for up to eight, a choice of two smooth powerful V-8s, four-wheel independent suspension, and tempting extras like power-folding 60/40 split third-row seats, an air-assist suspension, and electronic shocks. These assets plus superior track performance helped Sequoia win an April comparison against the Tahoe, Expedition, and Nissan Armada. And in our trials for this exercise, the big Toyota acquits itself reasonably well, demonstrating terrific capability off road, and providing better ride comfort than the Lexus on rough pavement with reasonable body-motion control in the twisties, though many criticized its too-light steering.

St. Antoine describes driving this leather-lined, hot-rod heavy-hauler as "a decidedly guilty pleasure," but notes that even among these mastodons it may no longer be king of the hill. The Tahoe's dash is better looking and more ergonomic, and for 2009 it's nicer to drive, with more power, a six-speed automatic, and of course, a hybrid model that can still tow 6200 pounds. And that's a full-size SUV that can be advertised.
- Frank Markus


2009 Toyota Sequoia
Base price range $34,895-$56,345
Price as tested $59,115
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L/381-hp/401-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 6134 lb (51/49%)
Wheelbase 122.0 in
Length x width x height 205.1 x 79.9 x 74.6 in
0-60 mph 6.7 sec
Quarter mile 15.2 sec @ 91.7 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 135 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.72 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.3 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 13/18 mpg (est)
MT observed fuel econ 12.8 mpg
CO2 emmisions 1.31 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ****
Design ****
Interior/functionality ****
Performance *****
On-road refinement ****
Off-road ability *****
Value ***
BOTTOM LINE
A terrific choice for those hauling king-size families, loads, or trailers.







2009 Volkswagen Tiguan
As Fun As It Is Cute

We Like: Peppy powertrain, multifunctional interior, gas mileage.
We Don't Like: Sticker shock, torque steer, spooky behavior at the limit.

Volkswagen affectionately refers to the Tiguan as "the GTI of compact SUVs." Given that VW's cuddly crossover shares myriad parts-notably, the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder-with the company's pocket-rocket, that statement isn't far-fetched. After extensive on- and off-road driving in a Tiguan SE-Volkswagen provided a midlevel front-driver rather than one with 4Motion all-wheel drive, which is available on SE and SEL trims-we can confirm that VW's assertion is more truth than hyperbole.

"Really superb chassis," says editor at large St. Antoine, adding, "The front end bites hard and delivers really good steering feel." Technical director Markus echoes those thoughts: "I love the way this one steers-quicker ratio than most, very light and lithe, and predictable turn-in with minimal drama." The SE also proved satisfyingly quick at the track, scooting from 0 to 60 in 7.5 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.7 at 88.9 mph.

When pushing the envelope near 10/10ths, however, the Tiguan becomes more frightening than fun. "At speed, the Tiguan gets floaty," says senior editor Ed Loh, who also notes, "Under hard braking in a straight line, it pulls right then left-scary if the wheel is even slightly turned." Our front-drive tester not only struggles to overcome a steep, uphill section off-road (the only one, even among front-drivers) but also displays unnerving torque steer. As Detroit editor Lassa puts it, "With FWD, the Tiguan is built more for slowly building up to speed, not for full-throttle launches."

Assuming an enthusiast can live with some wheel tug, the Tiguan's six-speed manual-available only on the base $23,890 front-drive S-is the transmission of choice. Not that we mind our tester's Aisin six-speed automatic, of course, which provides seamless shifts in its sport and manual modes. We also don't mind the Tiguan's rich, roomy, and cubby-loaded interior. Still, at over $31,000 for a well-equipped front-drive cute 'ute with a cloth interior-about the same as similarly equipped competitors with AWD and leather-the Tiguan SE failed to score high on the value card, a deficit that most likely cost it a chance at the Calipers.
- Ron Kiino


2009 Volkswagen Tiguan
Base price range $23,890-$33,630
Price as tested $31,255 (SE)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.0L/200-hp/207-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3556 lb (58/42%)
Wheelbase 102.5 in
Length x width x height 174.3 x 71.2 x 66.3 in
0-60 mph 7.5 sec
Quarter mile 15.7 sec @ 88.9 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 134 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.78 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.3 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy econ 18/24 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 17.3 mpg
CO2 emmisions 0.96 lb/mile
RATINGS
Engineering ***
Design ****
Interior/functionality *****
Performance ***
On-road refinement ****
Off-road ability **
Value ****
BOTTOM LINE
Like an oversized GTI with a big interior and a big price tag.