2007 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Mercedes-Benz GL450

Heading into this year's Sport/Utility of the Year competition, nary an editor predicted that the all-new Mercedes-Benz GL450 would roll away with the coveted caliper trophy. Inasmuch as value is one of the three major criteria -- the others being in-class superiority and marketplace significance -- the GL already seemed handicapped. Its base price of $55,675 hardly sounds economical, not to mention that, when well equipped, as was our tester, a GL's window sticker can easily push $70 grand. As for superiority and significance, heck, several voters quipped that they wouldn't be surprised if the GL missed the first cut. Why? Because so few of our staff had spent quality time at the wheel or inside of Mercedes's first full-size sport/utility. And given that the GL shares a platform with the M- and R-Classes, with which every editor's been intimate, yet never quite fallen in love, we weren't expecting fireworks.

But following two intense weeks with the GL, it was all sparklers and Roman candles for the biggest Benz ever offered in the United States.

2006 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Nissan Xterra

And the winner is... With its live rear axle, and -- in full off-road specification -- tall tires and simple transfer case, the new Nissan Xterra seems somewhat old-school against some of its more sophisticated (and more expensive) opposition. But there's a compelling honesty about the Xterra that won over the judges. Nissan has built a sport/utility vehicle that does exactly what its customers want; it's tough, rugged, versatile, fun--and with the right options, it'll take you and your stuff almost anywhere you want to go. Best of all, it's not going to cost you a fortune.

The Xterra's apparent simplicity also belies a clever product-development process that's allowed Nissan to deliver maximum bang for your buck by repackaging proven components and concepts. The Xterra is based on a shortened version of the versatile, American-engineered F-Alpha platform that underpins vehicles ranging from the Armada and Pathfinder sport/utilities to the Titan and Frontier pickups. Its punchy 4.0-liter V-6 is a stroked version of the engine that powers the sporty 350Z. And although it looks, at first glance, similar to its predecessor, its exterior boasts broader shoulders and a taller physique that translates into more leg, shoulder, and headroom inside. Dimensionally, the wheelbase has grown by two inches, yet overall length has increased only 0.7 inch, improving approach and departure angles, helpful when dealing with obstacles on a trail. Focus and execution, not frills and extras: That's why the Xterra works.

2005 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Land Rover LR3

You're looking at a sport/utility that'll change the way you think about the compromises between on-road refinement and off-road ability. You're looking at a sport/utility that combines snap-click functionality with ice-cool 21st-century designer chic: Imagine a Leatherman tool by Bang & Olufsen. You're looking at the Land Rover LR3, our 2005 Sport/Utility of the Year. Did we say Land Rover? Uh-huh. It's going to change the way you think about that as well.

Let's start with the visuals. Forget traditional SUV cliches such as bolt-on cladding, fake runningboards, and monster-truck grilles -- the chiseled shape and sheer surfaces are a nod to Land Rover's utilitarian past, yet executed with such care and flair that the LR3 looks like it's driven straight off the designer's CAD screen. Which it pretty much has: "Look at an early sketch of the LR3, and the design hasn't changed," says Land Rover design director Geoff Upex. The bookend creases front and rear and the asymmetric detailing -- the air-intake vent on the right-hand side and the dipping window line on the split tailgate -- are clever and confident styling touches.

2004 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Volkswagen Touareg

You can't miss the irony: The company whose beloved Beetle became the basis for many of the first off-road vehicles is one of the last to bring a modern sport/utility to market. But it's been worth the wait. The all-new 2004 Volkswagen Touareg is no Bug-based dune buggy. Stylishly designed, masterfully executed, and supremely capable, the Touareg topped a competitive field to be named the 2004 Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year.

In creating its new sport/ute, VW had a specific driving mission in mind: anything. The Touareg deftly blends such carlike virtues as luxury amenities, a smooth ride, and precise handling with more traditional SUV qualities such as ample cargo space, exceptional ground clearance, serious four-wheel-drive off-road ability, and major towing. The result is a handsome SUV as adept at whisking four formally attired adults to the symphony as it is climbing boulders on the way to a remote campsite. Make that five adults in a pinch.

2003 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Volvo XC90

More than any other vehicle in the running this year, the Volvo XC90 moves the standard in its market segment. This innovative machine drives comfortably like a sedan, tows like a pickup, off-roads like sport/ute, and moves bulky cargo or as many as seven people like a minivan.

And it does it all with the mechanical polish, premium exterior style, and attention to interior detail associated with top-drawer luxury vehicles. In addition, this Volvo addresses the safety, emissions, and, to a lesser degree, fuel-use issues associated with SUVs.