2012 Ford Explorer
By Jonny Lieberman

We Like: Classic SUV good looks, decent brakes.

We Don't Like: It's really a big marshmallow, EcoBoost engine is disappointing, and handling is poor.

I went on the launch of the new Explorer in San Diego, where Ford did something curious. For the curvy-road section, they brought along a then-brand-new Jeep Grand Cherokee for us to drive back to back with their reborn seven-seater. I liked how the Jeep drove better.

From the start, there's been something underwhelming about the new Explorer. It looks like an SUV, but in fact behaves closer to a minivan. Compounding that sense of a minivan in wolf's clothing is the new 2.0-liter EcoBoost version. That engine in this package is a very large disappointment. The idea behind the small, turbocharged four-cylinder mill is a good one: reducing cylinder count and increasing mpg via forced induction. We're all for that kind of engineering. But with the Explorer EcoBoost, the execution simply isn't there.

The 2.0-liter Ford was the slowest sport/ute of our test, taking more than 9 seconds to hit 60 mph. That's more than a second slower than a Volt. The brakes were actually pretty good, but every single judge found the handling especially poor. Rory Jurnecka best summed up the 2.0-liter's lack of athleticism: "This isn't fun."

Granted, the 3.5-liter Explorer is somewhat more engaging to drive, but it's still toward the back of the pack, dynamically speaking. And the 2.0-liter gets just 1.5 mpg better real-world fuel economy than the V-6, yet costs $1000 more. The just as heavy but much faster diesels in our test offered much better mileage.

We also found the Explorer's packaging problematic. Unlike its platform-mate, the Flex, which rides on a 117.9-inch wheelbase, the Explorer's 112.6-inch wheelbase is closer to that of its (other) sibling, the Taurus. Do the mental imagery: When you try to fit a seven-passenger SUV onto the footprint of a five-passenger sedan, well, sir/ma'am, it's compromise time.

And don't even get us started on the glitchy, doesn't-really-work-very-well MyFord Touch system. We know Ford can do better.

It looks like an SUV, but in fact behaves closer to a minivan.

2012 Ford Explorer Ecoboost LTD 2011 Ford Explorer XLT
BASE PRICE $29,990 $34,345
PRICE AS TESTED $42,305 $40,170
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, FWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV Front engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/240-hp/270-lb-ft turbo DOHC 4-valve I-4 3.5L/290-hp/255-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4512 lb (54/46%) 4704 lb (54/46%)
WHEELBASE 112.6 in 112.6 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 197.1 x 90.2 x 70.4 in 197.1 x 90.2 x 70.4 in
0-60 MPH 9.2 sec 8.1 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.9 sec @ 82.9 mph 16.2 sec @ 88.7 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 130 ft 130 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 29.2 sec @ 0.56 g (avg) 28.4 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 19.9 mpg 18.4 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 20/28 mpg 17/23 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 169/120 kW-hrs/100 miles 198/147 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.85 lb/mile 1.01 lb/mile
RATINGS
ENGINEERING ***
DESIGN ****
INTERIOR/FUNCTIONALITY **
PERFORMANCE **
ON-ROAD REFINEMENT **
OFF-ROAD ABILITY ***
VALUE ***


2012 Jeep Wrangler
By Allyson Harwood

We Like: Genuinely quick; interior greatly refined, yet remains true to off-road roots.

We Don't Like: Slow steering, worst braking of test, too much body roll.

As body-on-frame SUVs gave way to crossovers -- see the Durango and Explorer as examples -- we wondered how something like the Jeep Wrangler would evolve. Could the ultimate off-roader survive in a world of vehicles that handle like cars and have fancy sports-car-like interiors?

Well, it's doing just fine. The 71-year-old has a new lease on life, thanks to its recent heart transplant. For 2012, the Wrangler receives Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, with 285 hp and 260 lb-ft. The change was enough that its 6.6-second 0-60 mph time (add 0.1 second for the four-door Unlimited) was about 3 seconds faster than when we last tested the Wrangler with the 3.8-liter engine. And though the Wrangler was seen as "worlds sportier" than the Unlimited -- did we mention this is the only place in the Chrysler family where you can get the manual transmission with the Pentastar? -- both performed better than expected on-road.

Combine that with the refinement in the cabin, including nicer materials, reduced interior noise, and attractive styling, and it suddenly became a viable daily driver. It garnered comments about feeling solid, well-built, and rattle-free), and that the interior is "very upscale."

And, yes, Jeep fans, the Wrangler continues to be true to itself. As Markus states, "Naturally, it's a star off-road. I stopped on the steepest slope in low range and just released the clutch, no gas, and it motored up." It is still incredibly capable on the trail -- Jeep focused on improving owners' day-to-day experiences without sacrificing what makes this an icon.

But the improvements always included the qualifier "for a Jeep." Wind levels were great "for a Jeep;" the increased fuel economy was a plus "for a Jeep," even though it's midpack at best. What Jeep did with this generation Wrangler was make it competitive. On freeways, it's still plenty noisy and interior space is limited, but it's fun on-road, and it handles well -- you guessed it -- "for a Jeep." This is the most honest, endearing SUV out there, but it isn't the 2012 Sport/Utility of the Year.

And, yes, Jeep fans, the Wrangler continues to be true to itself.

2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara
BASE PRICE $22,845 $31,545
PRICE AS TESTED $26,355 $37,220
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 4-pass, 2-door SUV Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.6L/285-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 3.6L/285-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3888 lb (51/49%) 4463 lb (51/49%)
WHEELBASE 95.4 in 116.0 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 152.8 x 73.7 x 70.9-71.9 in 173.4 x 73.9 x 70.8 in
0-60 MPH 6.6 sec 6.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.2 sec @ 90.2 mph 15.2 sec @ 90.2 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 147 ft 141 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.70 g (avg) 0.67 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 30.1 sec @ 0.57 g (avg) 30.2 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 16.8 mpg 17.4 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 17/21 mpg 16/20 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 198/160 kW-hrs/100 miles 211/169 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.04 lb/mile 1.10 lb/mile
RATINGS
ENGINEERING ***
DESIGN ***
INTERIOR/FUNCTIONALITY ***
PERFORMANCE ***
ON-ROAD REFINEMENT **
OFF-ROAD ABILITY *****
VALUE ***


2012 Mercedes-Benz ML
By Rory Jurnecka

We Like: Packaging, value, solidarity, and luxury.

We Don't Like: Styling isn't anything to write home about, and the standard gasoline engine could use more gusto.

When all was said and done, Todd Lassa best summed up the Mercedes' performance at our annual SUV showdown: "Not a standout as much as it's a quiet luxury SUV that does everything well."

Changes for the all-new third generation stay evolutionary, with crisper styling and more standard features than ever before. That means a more upright familial nose, a wood-and-leather-trimmed interior, and technology that can detect when the driver becomes drowsy. While no staffers were blown away by the conservative styling cues, many were impressed by the ML's interior packaging, which offered plenty of seating room front and rear for even our taller staffers, as well as one of the more spacious cargo areas with minimal wheelwell intrusion.

We were also impressed with the two new V-6 engines in the new M-Class lineup: a 302-horsepower, 3.5-liter gasoline mill, and a 3.0-liter diesel that packs 240 horses. While the gasoline engine was eager to rev, virtually all testers preferred the silky smooth, 455-lb-ft diesel engine despite a 4100-rpm redline and a bit of diesel clatter.

Of the Bluetec engine, Evans remarked, "Sounds like an old-school diesel on the outside, but there's almost no engine noise from the driver's seat."

We were impressed with the ML350's on-road handling given its larger size and weight, with many favoring its buttoned-down demeanor over the more wallowy VW Touareg, especially with the optional active anti-roll bars. If there was a common complaint on the Merc's road manners, it was that the suspension tune was too firm.

Nevertheless, we were generally impressed with the Mercedes' road manners and versatile nature, especially as a vehicle to eat up the highway miles.

"Decent steering, quicker turn-in than most of the big SUVs here," mused Markus. "Very classy interior, wind and road noise are minimal -- a very comfortable cruiser."

Oh, for the want of a little X-factor...

Sounds like an old-school diesel on the outside, but there's almost no engine noise from the driver's seat.

2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 4Matic 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC
BASE PRICE $49,865 $51,365
PRICE AS TESTED $63,915 $75,745
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.5L/302-hp/273-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 3.0L/240-hp/455-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 7-speed automatic 7-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4940 lb (52/48%) 5310 lb (52/48%)
WHEELBASE 114.8 in 114.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 189.1 x 84.3 x 70.7 in 189.1 x 84.3 x 70.7 in
0-60 MPH 6.6 sec 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.0 sec @ 92.9 mph 15.6 sec @ 87.7 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 131 ft 128 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.85 g (avg) 0.83 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.8 sec @ 0.64 g (avg) 27.8 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)
MT OBSERVED FUEL ECON 18.4 mpg 22.0 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 17/22 mpg 20/25 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 198/153 kW-hrs/100 miles 191/153 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.02 lb/mile 1.01 lb/mile
RATINGS
ENGINEERING ****
DESIGN ****
INTERIOR/FUNCTIONALITY ****
PERFORMANCE *****
ON-ROAD REFINEMENT ****
OFF-ROAD ABILITY ***
VALUE ***