What makes an SUV? Ask 10 people and you'll get 11 answers, as no doubt some will change their minds midway through the explanation. There are of course hardcore purists/Luddites who scoff at anything without solid axles, a transfer case, manual locking hubs, leaf springs, and a windshield that folds flat. On the other end of the spectrum you've got the people who view the Mini Paceman as the ultimate expression of vehicular sport and utility. (You'll have to keep reading to find out what we think of it.)

The takeaway should be that today, the SUV marketplace is larger and more diverse than ever. With that in mind, nine judges headed up to the peaceful wilds of Central California's Santa Ynez wine country to select Motor Trend's 2014 SUV of the Year.

Our testing involved two stages. The first was a combination of back-road and freeway driving to cull the large herd -- we started with 22 vehicles representing 13 nameplates. During this portion, we focused on big-picture stuff such as ride and handling, seating, noise/vibration/harshness, visibility, powertrain, and overall vehicle quality. After just a few miles, it became obvious which SUVs had a shot at the gold and which simply didn't. Well, it became obvious to some of us. That's why we have to sit around and argue for a couple of hours about which vehicles are truly worthy. This year, our first round of cuts resulted in 10 contenders.

We screamed -- there was some crying -- we argued, and then we took a vote.

The second portion of our test was much more grueling. We began with a 35-mile road loop that covered highways, small-town country lanes, and big, sweeping back roads. Then we returned to our home away from home, the lovely Tres Hermanas Winery, for a 5-mile dirt course that snakes and winds around the winery's back 40. It's not hardcore off-roading by any stretch of the imagination, but the dirt portion helps us separate the wheat from the chaff and achieve our ultimate aim: choosing this year's best SUV.

After two days of loops, the nine judges sat down and the fighting really began. We tried to balance our feelings for a particular vehicle with the six key criteria we use to help select all of the Year winners. We screamed -- there was some crying­ -- we argued, and then we took a vote. Democracy determined the winner. To see which sport/utility pleased us the most, keep reading.

The Contenders

  • Acura MDX
  • Buick Encore
  • BMW X1
  • Dodge Durango
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Kia Sorento
  • Land Rover Range Rover
  • Mini Cooper S Paceman
  • Mitsubishi Outlander
  • Subaru Forester
  • Toyota RAV4


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, manufacturing, and dynamics; and cost-effective technology that benefits consumers.

Performance of Intended Function

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

Efficiency

The judges consider fuel efficiency 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 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

Editor in Chief: Edward Loh
Executive Editor: Ron Kiino
Senior Features Editor: Jonny Lieberman
Technical Director: Frank Markus
Testing Director: Kim Reynolds
Road Test Editor: Scott Mortara
Associate Editor: Allyson Harwood
Associate Editor: Rory Jurnecka
Associate Online Editor: Benson Kong

Which 2014 SUV of the Year Contender Should Win?

  • Acura MDX
  • Audi Q5
  • BMW X1
  • Buick Encore
  • Dodge Durango
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Kia Sorento
  • Land Rover Range Rover Sport
  • Mini Paceman
  • Mitsubishi Outlander
  • Subaru Forester
  • Toyota RAV4
See Results