Despite having such chest-thumping appellations as Pathfinder, Crosstrek, and Allroad, none one of 11 contenders in this year's competition has frame rails tucked beneath its sheetmetal or a pair of its wheels connected by a solid axle -- all have unitized steel and/or aluminum shells riding on independent suspension. How's that for a sign of the times?

In fact, nine of the 11 contenders are products of front-drive automobile architecture, and six can be obtained in front-drive-only configurations. More telling, turbocharged four-cylinders and naturally aspirated V-6s rule the lineup. There were three V-8 options, but all were offered on the same model.

Every year, our team reviews and refines this program to address market trends and make the process as comprehensive and relevant as possible. One tweak we added this year, in a nod to car-based crossovers overtaking this segment, was a closed handling loop in Santa Maria, California. This nine-turn ribbon of asphalt allowed our judges to test limit handling in heavy, high-riding vehicles in a safe, repeatable way.

For the sixth year in row, we returned to our friends at Tres Hermanas Winery in the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley to run road loops out of their parking lot by day and eat home-cooked BBQ at night. Part of this real-world testing is a light, 5-mile off-road loop that runs on the ranch property behind the winery. And every year we talk about ditching this portion of the testing, since the vehicles rarely encounter any difficulty, yet always come away filthy, adding another level of tedium to our already packed schedule. But we decided to keep the dirt loop this year, as it does provide a controlled location to sample various AWD systems as well as test technologies like hill descent control. This proved a wise decision.

Though conditions were the same as every year, we managed to consistently get two contenders stuck on the hill, a steep section of shallow ruts filled with chalk-like dust. Every vehicle made it out, though some needed second and third attempts, often at full throttle.

Vehicles in this segment continue to evolve away from what we have traditionally considered an SUV. And as this segment keeps redefining itself, we will continue to adjust our evaluation methods and techniques. Our six key criteria have not changed; we've just sharpened the tools we use when measuring against them.

So, just what kind of sport/utility brings home the Golden Calipers in this time of shifting terrain? Turn the page to find out.

As this segment keeps redefining itself, we'll continue to adjust our evaluation methods and techniques.

The Contenders

Acura RDX
Audi Allroad
Ford Escape
Honda CR-V
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Infiniti JX
Mazda CX-5
Mercedes-Benz GL
Mercedes-Benz GLK
Nissan Pathfinder
Subaru XV Crosstrek


The Criteria

DESIGN ADVANCEMENT
The judges are looking for well-executed exterior and interior styling, innovative vehicle packaging, and good selection and use of materials.

ENGINEERING EXCELLENCE
Total vehicle concept and execution; clever solutions to packaging, manu-facturing, and dynamics; cost-effective technology that benefits consumers.

PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
How well does the vehicle do the job its planners, designers, and engineers intended it to do.

EFFICIENCY
The judges are looking for low fuel consumption and carbon footprint size relative to the vehicle's competitive set.

SAFETY
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.

VALUE
Each vehicle's price and equipment levels are compared with those of vehicles in the same market segment.


The Judges

Edward Loh, editor-in-chief
Allyson Harwood, editor, Truck Trend
Mike Floyd, digital director
Jonny Lieberman, senior features editor
Frank Markus, technical director
Todd Lassa, Detroit editor
Scott Mortara, road test editor
Scott Evans, associate editor
Mike Febbo, associate editor