Per last year, our group of esteemed judges graded this year's collection against six criteria (see sidebar), in an effort to best discern the cream from a very diverse crop. But unlike 2010, when we had a total of 14 vehicles including variants, 2011 presented a new wrinkle: 20 vehicles in all. Seeing as our usual protocol-subjecting every vehicle to instrumented testing and then a 35-mile road loop followed by a 3-mile dirt track-would not be feasible with so many SUVs, we adopted our Car of the Year procedure, which calls for weeding out contenders in phase-one testing (acceleration, braking, lateral g, figure eight, and autocross) and then green-lighting finalists on to phase two (on- and off-road loops). So without further ado, let's cross over to see which contenders got cut, which finalists battled for gold, and which worthy sport/utility rolled away with the calipers in tow.
Stuff we noticed
What's our vector, Victor?
Torque-vectoring-sending more torque to the outside wheel(s) and/or applying brake to the inside wheel(s)-improves handling and is no longer just for sports cars. The Cayenne and Juke offer this cornering technology.
When it comes to SUV wheels, go big. The Grand Cherokee, Cayenne, and MKX offer 20s, while the Edge Sport and QX56 step up to 22s.
Eight is enough
It used to be that five speeds were a lot. Now the QX56 provides seven and the X5 and Cayenne up the ante to eight.
Touch and go
Forget buttons, knobs, and gauges. MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch connect the driver to vehicle technologies via LCD screens, five-way controllers, and voice commands.
Look, Ma, no hands!
Bluetooth hands-free phone capability, once a luxury-SUV convenience, is trickling down to budget vehicles. The Juke, Sportage, and Outlander Sport come standard with Bluetooth. (Surprisingly, the X5 and Cayenne make BT optional.)