With every passing year, it becomes more difficult for the Motor Trend staff to define what exactly is a sport utility vehicle. It used to be that the 2012 Jeep Wrangler that rolled around our dirt and asphalt test course was the very model of a modern multisurface vehicle. Today, its body-on-frame construction and low-range four-wheel-drive systems are technological curiosities. In fact, the Jeep was the only vehicle here to feature both.
Not only were the other nine models -- 17 total with powertrain or body variants -- unibody and either front or all-wheel drive, but half of the competitors had their engines mounted transversely. The Mini Countryman and Range Rover Evoque are barely more than lifted hot hatches. Despite the apparent downfall of hard-core off-roaders, this year's crop of competitors still maintained a surprising level of ability off the paved path.
Our instrumented testing and initial driving evaluations began at El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, California. Motor Trend's standard battery of testing was done on all 17 vehicles. These include acceleration, braking, and our figure eight, along with a controlled road course to get an idea of real-world behavior. After testing was completed, an initial cut was made to peel away the vehicles that clearly had no chance of winning. After the exclusion of three models, the caravan made the 187-mile haul to Tres Hermanas Winery outside of Santa Maria, California.
Our real-world evaluation began with a 35-mile road loop consisting of a twisting back road, open highway, and even low-speed in-town driving. The route included every radius, camber, and surface likely to be encountered. At the winery, the off-road loop verified that each vehicle had the abilities to stand up to what consumers would throw at your average SUV. (Our judges subject the vehicles to twice what any sane owner would.) The off-road loop is 3 miles of vehicle torture, with silt, sand, gravel, rocks, and plain old dirt. Plenty of elevation change allows for testing a vehicle's climbing and descending ability. A section of the uphill climb was designated for use as a stop/start test to evaluate everything from real-world torque delivery -- especially important in forced-induction cars -- to drive-system effectiveness, grip, and even throttle modulation.
Last year's winner, the Porsche Cayenne
, represents the pinnacle of SUV science for 2011. Not only does it have the dynamics of a sport sedan on the road, but it does 90 percent of what the coarsest off-road-focused vehicle can in the dirt. Our judges were won over by its mix of style, refinement, technology, and value. This year's contenders were judged against the same criteria as last year's, but not against the Cayenne itself. The goal is to be the perfect vehicle for its intended purpose, which does not necessarily translate to the perfect vehicle for every consumer.
Our closely knit band of 11 judges tested, calculated, discussed, argued, insulted, and threw chairs until a clear winner was chosen. In the end, there can be only one Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year.
Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
Mini Cooper Countryman
Each contender's goal is to be the perfect vehicle for its intended purpose, which does not necessarily translate to the perfect vehicle for every consumer. "
The judges are looking for well-executed exterior and interior styling, innovative vehicle packaging, and good selection and use of materials.
The parameters are total vehicle concept and execution; clever solutions to packaging, manufacturing, and dynamics issues; and cost-effective technology that benefits consumers.
The criteria for this category is how well the vehicle does the job its planners, designers, and engineers intended it to do.
The judges are looking for low fuel consumption and carbon footprint size relative to the vehicle's competitive set.
The judges take into account each vehicle's ability to help the driver avoid a crash, as well as the secondary safety measures that help protect its occupants during an accident.
Each vehicle's price and equipment levels are compared with those of vehicles in the same market segment.
The goal is to be the perfect vehicle for its intended purpose, which does not necessarily translate to the perfect vehicle for every consumer. "
All our contenders this year hailed from the United States or Europe. None of the Japanese or Korean manufacturers either had vehicles available for the test or new offerings that met our criteria.
Home On The Range
Base prices ranged from $22,845 for the Wrangler to $61,385 for the Touareg Hybrid. Curb weight ranged from 3265 pounds for the flyweight Countryman all the way up to 5230 pounds for the heavyweight Durango. The horsepower corral held everything from the 181-hp Countryman to the 380-hp Touareg Hybrid.
Nine of our 17 competitors employed forced induction to improve fuel economy and/or performance. Turbocharging is the preferred method, with the V-6 in the Touareg Hybrid the single supercharged engine in the bunch. This may also help explain why there is only one V-8 present, found under the hood of the Durango R/T.
Seeing Jeep Wranglers parked next to Range Rover Evoques is a black-and-white photo of the SUV world. The Jeep favors tried and tested equipment, a naturally aspirated V-6, body-on-frame construction, on-demand four-wheel drive, and beach chairs for seats, and it's even available with a manual transmission. The Evoque is a Klingon-manned rear-facing laser cannon away from being the ATV Captain Picard raced across Kolarus III. It's unibody and has a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, front-wheel-biased full-time all-wheel drive, and an interior far more carlike than anything else on the list.