Cadillac Escalade
You learn a lot about a vehicle when you're 50 miles from the nearest paved road-things that suddenly become really important as you lie there stuck, lost, overheated, or with two flat tires in your just-a-minute-ago way-cool new 4x4. In Death Valley, we quickly learned there's no way to fully appreciate Caddy's big, comfy, and super-powerful SUV unless you venture off the beaten path. However, to save you from having to duplicate our little "48 hours in a convection oven" summer vacation, we'll just tell you now how the Escalade really performs.

1. With its 6.0L OHV V-8 (Corvette-derived, baby!) pumping 345 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque, this is the most powerful SUV you can buy. And it rocks! Zip-to-60 in 7.4 sec is quick enough to run with plenty of big-name '60s musclecars. At 5809 lb of curb weight, it takes a lot of grunt to move this mass, so don't expect award-winning fuel economy (12 mpg city, 15 highway.) By the way, the 26-gal fuel tank seems just barely large enough when you're exploring the hinterlands.

2. High-tech electronic goodies abound in the Escalade. Stabilitrak, traction control, speed-sensitive power steering, and road-sensing suspension (electronically adjusted shock absorbers) combine with full-time all-wheel drive (no two-speed transfer case as in a true 4x4) to provide a very stable and serene driving demeanor. However, in really deep sand, we discovered that the automatic torque split of the AWD and the safety-first brain programming of the Stabilitrak can team to render the vehicle effectively frozen in place-each system doing its damnedest to prevent wheelspin-which translated to not allowing the truck to move more than an inch in reverse, drive, or even low (which supposedly defeats part of the Stabilitrak system). "Get the tow strap!" It was the only vehicle in our test to get stuck.

3. But, hey, this is a luxury rig, not some downscale desert rock crawler. And the amenities abound: soft leather seating areas, real Zebrano wood, power folding and heated side mirrors, ultrasonic rear-park assist, and a great-sounding Bose premium audio system with six-disc CD changer. But where are the air-conditioned front seats like the Lincoln Navigator offers? When you're traveling in nature's equivalent of a blast furnace, an air-cooled bum counts for a lot.

All in all, we loved driving the $51,540 baddy Caddy. Especially when we called the friendly OnStar operator from the middle of a desolate alkali flat (amazing reception!) and ordered up T-bone steaks for our well-deserved dinner two days later at the Furnace Creek Inn.