Contender: 2014 Acura MDX

By: Kim Reynolds

We Like: Great build quality, superior ride. Agile handling for its size.

We Don’t Like: Complex infotainment interface, dated-looking graphics.

If you’re like us, the all-new Acura MDX grabs some early points simply for having knocked 8 seconds off its predecessor’s Nürburgring’s Nordschleife lap time. Hey, that’s our kind of SUV. But if you’re demanding better evidence for its boasts of improvement, here you go: Our AWD version’s 0-60-mph time dropped 0.4 second to 6.4 despite a shrunken engine displacement (3.7 to 3.5 liters) yet gained 3 combined mpg (now 21) in part because of the addition of cylinder deactivation. Matched to a six-speed automatic in this trim, the powertrain is backed up by Honda’s excellent Super-Handling-All-Wheel-Drive, which eagerly vectors power to the neediest wheel, including overdriving them to help rotate around corners.

Performance is bolstered by the double punch of a 300-pound weight drop (via greater deployment of high-strength steel) and better aero via a 1.3-inch narrower width and 1.5-inch lower roofline, though interior space is increased by 0.8 cubic foot afforded by 2 inches of added length. (The wheelbase gains 2.7 inches.)

In motion, our drivers were no less impressed. “What a great ride, best of the test,” said Lieberman. “And then you turn the wheel and realize that Acura engineers did an even better job on the MDX’s handling. SUVs shouldn’t handle like this.”

So where did it stumble? Its confusing, dual-screen center-stack infotainment cluster mixes a touch screen with a controller knob and presents it all in simplistic, dated-looking graphics. After struggling to pair his phone, Markus wrote, “The infotainment system is maddeningly obtuse.” That this single fumble blocked its reach for SUV of the Year brass ring goes to show you how significant automotive user-interfaces have become. And, notably, it’s not the first time an otherwise excellent Acura has been sunk by a couple square feet of questionably executed center-stack real estate.

Acura MDX
Base price $45,185
Price as tested $57,400
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/290-hp/267-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 267 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 6.4 sec
Quarter mile 14.9 sec @ 92.9 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 127 ft
MT figure eight 26.6 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4307 lb (58/42%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 18/27 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 187/125 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.92 lb/mi

Finalist: 2014 Audi Q5

By: Scott Mortara

We Like: Mind-blowing performance, good looks.

We Don’t Like: Of five versions of the Q5 available, we could only sample this one.

The Q5 has been one of Audi’s best-selling vehicles since its introduction in 2008. For 2014, the Q5 got a full makeover, but its interior and exterior changes are minimal and subtle. The big news is all the engine variants Audi is offering: the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder with 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque; the 3.0-liter turbodiesel six-cylinder with 240 hp and 428 lb-ft; the 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 with 272 hp and 295 lb-ft; a hybrid 2.0-liter four with 245 hp and 354 lb-ft; and the 3.0-liter supercharged S with 354 hp and 347 lb-ft.

We expected a lot from the SQ5, which was the only variant we got, and it didn’t disappoint. Multiple judges commented that it was easy to forget you were driving an SUV on our drive loop. “Transmission logic perfectly predicts the correct gear for every situation in Dynamic mode, and executes shifts like the very best twin-clutch transmissions with a stirring soundtrack,” said Markus.

We were surprised at how good a driver the SQ5 was, on-road and off. So good, in fact, that we had to drive the SQ5 differently from any other vehicle in the competition. Off-road, we felt like we were driving a WRC car. The drivetrain worked perfectly and really let us hang it out before bringing us back to reality.

The SQ5’s performance capabilities come at a price. Our observed fuel economy for the Audi was 13.8 mpg, and the amazing handling in Dynamic mode made for a pretty firm ride. However, when switched to Comfort mode, the SQ5 softened up nicely.

As mentioned earlier, the SQ5 is the only version Audi could get us, and having no other variants really hurt the Audi. It’s impossible to judge an entire line when you only get to sample the highest-performing version. Audi has the most diverse lineup in the field, and had we been able to experience another variant, the Q5’s fate might have been different.

Audi SQ5
Base price $52,795
Price as tested $61,420
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.0L/354-hp/347-lb-ft supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission8-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 354 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 347 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 4.8 sec
Quarter mile 13.5 sec @ 102.2 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 104 ft
MT figure eight 25.9 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4401 lb (54/46%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 16/23 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 211/147 kW-hrs/100 m
CO2 emissions 1.05 lb/mi

Contender: 2014 BMW X1

By: Rory Jurnecka

We Like: Potent powertrains, sporty, carlike ride.

We Don't Like: Limited interior room, low value proposition.

If there's one thing BMW's X1 isn't, it's late to the party. While the Range Rover Evoque, our SUOTY winner two years ago, got the ball rolling in the compact luxury sport/ute segment, the BMW X1 was built to go head to head with competition that hasn't yet arrived in the U.S. (Audi Q3) or anywhere for that matter (Porsche Macan, Mercedes GLC). Not only that, the base X1 is now the cheapest BMW sold Stateside, making it the current entry point to a brand that prides itself on driving fun. Good thing the X1 has just that in spades.

Per Reynolds: "This reminds us that, when BMW doesn't have the budget to spend on complex systems and extra power, what you wind up with is something closer to an actual BMW."

Both of the X1's available engines also won plenty of praise for their smoothness and power delivery, though some judges were left to wonder if BMW's 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six was a little too much for the X1's chassis. "The larger engine is perhaps overkill," logged Harwood. "I would prefer the turbo-four if it were my money."

Despite providing one of the more entertaining drives of the group, a combination of factors ultimately kept the X1 out of the finalist's circle. Though the BMW's small size makes it fun to hustle down back roads, it makes for less practicality when it comes to hauling people and gear, a key qualification in a winning SUV. In reality, this CUV drove, looked, and felt much like a European 1 Series five-door with a small lift kit installed.

The X1's budget build was also an issue. With a starting price of just over $31,000 for rear drive, the X1 was subjected to a severe level of budget cutting. Our all-wheel-drive turbo-four tester topped $45,000, and yet as Lieberman noted, "It showed up not only without navigation or a backup camera, but it had a huge hole in the dash [actually a large, empty cubby], an eternal reminder of all that money you didn't spend."

BMW xDrive28i BMW xDrive35i
Base price $33,245 $38,450
Price as tested $45,595 $47,495
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.0L/240-hp/260-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4 3.0L/300-hp/300-lb-ft turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6
Transmission 8-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 240 hp @ 5000 rpm 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 260 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm 300 lb-ft @ 1300 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 6.4 sec 5.3 sec
Quarter mile 14.9 sec @ 91.2 mph 14.1 sec @ 96.0 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 134 ft 126 ft
MT figure eight 27.1 sec @ 0.65 g (avg) 26.7 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 28i 3797 lb (51/49%) 35i 3901 lb (52/48%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 22/33 mpg 18/27 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 28i 153/102 kW-hrs/100 mi 35i 187/125 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 28i 0.75 lb/mi 35i 0.92 lb/mi