Not so long ago, a key element in the process to decide Motor Trend's Sport/Utility of the Year was to grab the year's new SUVs and head into the desert for a little off-roading. We didn't even have to discuss what to take; it was obvious just by looking at a vehicle whether it qualified as a contender.

Toyota's new 4Runner was an obvious starter: With its truck-tough demeanor and go-anywhere capability, it nailed the classic definition of an SUV. But, we realized with a shock, it was the only vehicle in this year's field that would. Everything else-everything-was clearly designed more with the suburban jungle in mind.

Automakers have rushed headlong into the SUV market over the past decade, desperate to grab a slice of what appeared to be the lucrative new heartland of the American auto market. There's been a not-so-subtle attempt to rebrand the genre in the past few years as something newer, cooler, more carlike and fuel-efficient: the crossover. But marketing alchemy can't disguise the trace elements of truck DNA that make an SUV an SUV, whatever it looks like or is called.

These trace elements include: (1) high ride height and seating position; (2) a two-box body and multifunction interior that allows a combination of seating or load-carrying configurations; (3) the availability of AWD. They are what link the Acura ZDX, which looks like a four-door coupe, with the Lincoln MKT, which has the overstuffed proportions of a 1940 Olds, with the station wagon-like Subaru Outback and the old-school Toyota 4Runner.

SUVs are by definition fundamentally compromised vehicles. Their high ride height means they don't handle or steer as well as conventional cars. Their multifunction interiors, with seats that fold and floors that move, are noisier and heavier. They're slower and less fuel-efficient. Taken out of context, today's SUVs make no sense compared with a car-based wagon or a hatchback. But context is everything. The characteristics that define them make SUVs ideal for America's suburban jungles. The high seating position allows a commanding view on roads often filled with large vehicles; the multifunction interior is ideal for carrying modern families and all their stuff; and the availability of AWD and higher ride height provides an extra margin of mobility in a country where the weather frequently throws a curveball.

The Contenders:
2010 Acura ZDX
2009 Audi Q5
2010 Cadillac SRX
2010 Chevrolet Equinox
2010 GMC Terrain
2010 Lexus RX
2010 Lincoln MKT
2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK
2010 Subaru Outback
2010 Toyota 4Runner
2010 Volvo XC60