Our premise for this test is simple: Today's mega-dollar, leather-swathed, sport/utility vehicles are as prevalent as BMWs in Beverly Hills, but are they any good when the road turns to rocks and scorpions outnumber Starbucks a million to none? Simply put, are luxury SUVs merely tarted-up wimps or the vehicular equivalent of James Bond outfitted in his best tux?

To put seven pricey sport/utes to a thorough off-road test, we decided to go to hell, literally. Against several staffers' better judgment, we hit the trail at the height of summer and returned to the devil's blast furnace that is Death Valley. Under flesh-cooking heat, across 200-degree blacktop, and over craggy rock-strewn trails, this is an environment that quickly separates the wannabes from the right stuff. A year ago, we tried it in pickup trucks and got stranded, sunstroked, and food poisoned all at the same time. You'd think we'd learn, but no. For this expedition, we ventured forth with the stratosphere of the SUV hierarchy, gathering a group as diverse as it is impressive: The brand-new giants, the Ford Excursion and redesigned GMC Yukon XL (formerly known as the Suburban), the $66,000 Range Rover 4.6 HSE and $83,149 Hummer, the high-tech, thoroughly modern Mercedes-Benz ML430, and the descendants of the legendary 4x4 pioneers, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota Land Cruiser. It was the "who's who" of luxury SUVs. Beverly Hills would be impressed, but would Death Valley let us out alive?