In a strange-but-appropriate way, each of these luxury-brand sport/utilities owes much of its personality to the people who produce it.

The English are world renowned for a steadfast grip on tradition and style, with a loose grasp on the culinary arts (the exception being their malt beverages, which are among the best in the civilized world). The Japanese are generally well mannered, aggressive in their use of technology, and fond of curious design and foods. Here, in the U.S. of A, we're exceedingly diverse and, as a result, often at odds with one another. Proud at best and boisterous at worst, we have a penchant for power, trendiness, and conspicuous consumption.

What does any of this have to do with SUVs?

2003 Land Rover Discovery HSE
Like the British who build it, the Land Rover adheres to tradition. Featuring solid axles front and rear, permanent all-wheel drive with a lever-action two-speed transfer case and lock-up center differential and engine architecture dating back to the Cold War, the Discovery is the primordial SUV. We can picture Marlin Perkins using one to chase water buffalo on "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." That's not to say there haven't been updates and improvements to the hardware, however. By Land Rover's count, there have been 368 engineering changes and extensive quality-control and manufacturing-process improvements since last year's Series II model. From door seals to a wheel-balancing technique, the '03 Discovery is as new as it can be without starting from scratch (an all-new Discovery is scheduled for 2005 at the earliest).

Foremost on the update list is a stroked 4.6-liter OHV V-8 (borrowed from last year's Range Rover) that ups the Discovery's horsepower by 29 to a more competitive but still meager (by American standards) 217, and its modern emissions controls allow it to qualify for super-clean ULEV status. The electronically controlled four-speed ZF transmission offers Normal, Sport, and Manual modes, and it shifts smartly and intelligently in most situations. New-compound brake pads and revised front calipers unite to improve brake feel and performance. Revised frame-to-body mounts combine with redrafted suspension geometry and self-leveling air-springs (in HSE trim) to better ride quality and reduce noise, vibration, and harshness levels. These enhancements are successful, but considering what Land Rover has to work with, there's still room for more refinement. And while the Discovery's base price has increased by more than $3000, it's the least-expensive tester this time around.

Does it all work? Yes and no. The '03 Discovery's performance is measurably improved compared to the Series II. It's one second quicker to 60 mph, it stops from 60 one foot shorter and clips the slalom cones one mph faster. However, it's still the slowest, lacking ride and steering sophistication, and returns the worst fuel economy when compared to the other two in this test; a new 8.3-liter Dodge Viper gets better mileage and makes 500 horsepower.

What the Discovery does do well is climb hill and dale like an obedient Sherpa, who'd also find himself ill-prepared in a metropolitan environment. Boasting eight inches of wheel travel up front and over 11 in the rear, smart, electronic traction control, a hill-descent-control braking system, and generous approach, departure, and ramp- breakover angles, the Discovery is designed to do things most owners will never ask it to. Perhaps this is why the company is so unyielding to change/update the Discovery's safari look and heavy, dedicated hardware. Land Rover sold just over 20,000 units last year precisely because of the Discovery's off-road appearance and on-road shortcomings. It looks and feels like it could go anywhere--and it can.

Mastering the Land Rover's interior is like learning which fork to use for Yorkshire pudding. There seems no logic to this SUV's switch operation or button placement. A few minutes of inspection and prodding are required to roll a window down and, again, to roll it back up. Certainly, the rubberized textures are tastefully rugged, and the leather is of the finest quality. Yet, the overall reviews from our staff continue to be less than favorable.

From the hard-to-read LCD stereo head unit (especially if you wear polarized sunglasses) to the minimal size and narrow-opening rear doors, the Discovery is more utilitarian than pampering. And what's with those afterthought drink-holder pods? They don't stow, remove, or do anything but elicit questions from uninitiated passengers. In this high-dollar crowd, the Discovery is the off-road adventurer's choice and brings a ton of brand cachet with it. Whether you mind the pitfalls that entails is up to you.

2003 Lexus GX 470
Exceptional manners, techno-solutions, and quirky styling are not only stereotypical Japanese traits, they're abundant in the '03 Lexus GX 470. Adding to the existing lineup, Lexus this year introduces a third SUV to the family. Although the truck's body-on-frame platform is shared with the fourth-generation '03 Toyota 4Runner, the look and much of the equipment, particularly suspension pieces and interior trimmings, are unique to the Lexus SUV.

The GX 470 reveals its Lexus family roots with its backswept headlamps and horizontal grille elements. In fact, it even looks like a giant LS 430 sedan converted into a wagon, if there were such a thing. The elegant Japanese space-pod look isn't for everybody, and certainly there are other more compelling or aggressive visages to choose from. But many people have grown to appreciate the Lexus image, and the company plans to sell at least 20,000 GX 470s in the coming year.

A thoroughly modern, efficient, and clean-burning 4.7-liter 235-horsepower V-8 hustles the GX 470 to 60 mph in eight seconds flat, while returning the best fuel economy in this test. An electronic five-speed automatic transmission is mated with a two-speed transfer case that's uncharacteristically not electronic, but lever-actuated. A torque-sensing Torsen center differential continuously moderates power distribution to front and rear axles. Under most conditions, the split is 40:60, but this ratio changes to 29:71 as steering input is detected, and if the rear wheels slip in relation to the fronts, the ratio again changes to 53:47 front to rear. When the transfer case is in low range, the driver can lock the ratio at 50:50 and disable vehicle skid control for true full-time four-wheel drive. Combine all this capability with impressive approach, departure, and breakover angles, and the result is a luxury SUV that can follow the Land Rover into every off-road situation we could find--plus offer the smoothest ride of the three.

Peering deeper into the driveline shows an arsenal of electronic off-road management systems that'll have you thinking somebody spilled a bowl of acronym soup: ABS, TRAC, DAC, HAC, VSC, EBD, and AVS. In a nutshell, computer software and various sensors throughout the vehicle monitor on- and off-road progress, and the hardware, initially intended just for the anti-lock braking system, is put to use in new ways. Each system talks to the others to ensure you go where you want to go through TRACtion control, Downhill Assist Control, Hill-start Assist Control, Vehicle Skid Control, emergency Brake Assist, and Electronic Brake force Distribution. We don't even need to muddy the soup with the optional rear-seat remote-controlled DVD player with a TFT (thin film transistor) display, or separate DVD-based navigation system, or the 240-watt, 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with in-dash CD cassette. All this Car Wars technology is meant to solve the dilemmas inherent in driving a dedicated off-roader in an urban environment, or vice versa--and it works.

Around town, the GX 470's mix of front A-arm and Adaptive-Variable Suspension (AVS) damping endow the truck with a Lexus-worthy well-mannered ride quality and performance. Not only does AVS automatically regulate each shock absorber in response to road surface conditions, vehicle speed, driver steering and braking inputs, its well-balanced comfort-to-sport characteristics are also tunable with the twist of a rotary knob. Adjustable Height Control (AHC) uses air springs to temporarily raise and lower the rear of the vehicle to aid loading or to increase ground clearance and departure angle.

Inside the GX 470, both the driver and passengers are treated to smooth and supple leather, genuine bird's-eye maple trim, and a host of entertainment, information, climate-control, and navigational options. Unfortunately, the key to using all the functions is found in the large screen multidisplay in the center stack. We're all getting better at interfacing with computers, but doing so while driving is challenging, even for those of us who believe we possess above-average skills. Toyota/Lexus know this and disallow inputting addresses or viewing a DVD movie on the front screen while the vehicle is in motion. However, most of what you need to accomplish is not only allowed, but is necessary (like changing the radio station, fan speed, or magnification of the digital map).

To allay this overload, some functions are accessible through a voice-activated interface. One could be put off with all the gimmickry in the GX 470, and we've criticized other manufacturers for similar transgressions. However, most of the electronics are either invisible in their function or are there only if you need them. Our one caveat is that you shouldn't drive a Toyota or Lexus SUV like a rally car in loose gravel or sand. Vehicle Skid Control remains on high alert and won't permit tail-out antics unless low range is engaged. The same can be said for our experience in the slalom test. Rather than finding the GX's true, unfettered-by-electronics limit, VSC relegated our test driver to tracking the engineering-allowed limits within the parameters deemed safe by its stability program.

The GX 470 is one of a select few SUVs that can be considered a serious truck with honest off-road abilities and a splendid cosmopolitan conveyance with all (and perhaps too many) of the luxury and electronic trappings thereof. It succeeds in its excess, but expect to pay for all that thoughtful, Japanese innovation. Prices weren't fixed as we went to press, but figure the 4WD-only GX 470 to tip-toe on the heels of its big brother LX 470 in terms of pricing, or $45,000 to $50,000.

2003 Lincoln Aviator
Based on Ford's redesigned-in-'02 Explorer, the new-for-'03 Aviator is much smaller, and much lighter, than the similarly styled Navigator. The bold, square-rigged look that makes the Nav seem so huge defines itself with handsome proportions in Aviator form. Further, the smaller Lincoln distinguishes itself from the other two Ford products on several additional counts. At the head of this list is the Aviator-specific DOHC 4.6-liter V-8 with its unique variable-length intake runners and aluminum heads. The basic architecture of this ULEV powerplant comes from the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra. Rated at 302 horsepower, the Aviator throws down some impressive acceleration numbers, including a 7.6-second 0-60-mph blast--mighty quick among the heavy sport/ute set. Its five-speed automatic transmission snaps off wickedly fast upshifts.

Not only is this engine a high-revving power maker, the low-rpm long-path intake runners give it some serious pull. In all-wheel-drive configuration and equipped with a Class-III hitch, as ours was, it'll tow up to a staggering 7100 pounds (7300 in RWD trim). That's as much as some full-size trucks. An SUV that'll haul a load this sizeable should have good brakes, and the Aviator does. Large-diameter discs front and rear are equipped with ABS, electronic force distribution to each wheel, as well as full-boost emergency brake assist. Hit and hold that horizontal pedal at 60 mph, and the Aviator will stop in 124 feet. That's short for anything this side of a sport sedan.

The Lincoln has the power and style Americans love, but what happens when you throw it a curve? In a word: magic. Tipping the scales at just over 5000 pounds, the Aviator dances through the slalom field like a vehicle half its mass would. Only the most dedicated sport/utilities from Europe can beat its 60.7-mph best. What's better still is that all this handling ability doesn't come at the cost of ride quality or comfort. This SUV's ZF Servotronic II rack-and-pinion steering and fully independent suspension (with mono-tube shocks and coil springs) have been tuned by the clever folks at Lincoln--no fancy electronic controls needed here. The Michelin tires are a fantastic match for this chassis.

What's not to like about the Aviator? Only a few things, but one of them is important if you intend to go anywhere off-road. Because our early test model wasn't equipped with the late-availability optional AdvanceTrac system, the AWD Aviator is limited to a viscous-coupling center differential. Unlike the other two in this test with true low-range lockers or sophisticated braking systems that stop a spinning wheel, engine power in the Aviator can be directed only fore and aft, not side-to-side. (We've driven an '03 Expedition with AdvanceTrac, and it aids considerably in low-traction situations by routing power to the wheel with the most grip.) Finally, with no low-range transfer case, the Aviator is limited to one set of gears to do all the chores the others accomplish with multiple ratios. In this configuration, the Aviator is relegated to shredding asphalt and not the trails.

We found a few curiosities inside the Aviator which are at odds with the luxury image it portrays. First, there's no power adjust for the front seatbacks. As in many Mercedes-Benz vehicles, there is a six-way seat-bottom (and lumbar) adjuster button on the door panel, yet the back angle is manually adjusted at the cramped intersection of the door frame and seat assembly. However, the Premium model's standard, and exceptionally well-trimmed, perforated leather seats are heated and ventilated for comfort in all climates. We praised the new Lincoln design cues: satin-nickel-finished (plastic) dash surfaces, genuine walnut-burled-wood veneers, and that thick, buttery leather. Yet, despite the power adjustable pedals and comfy perch, few of us could lower the driver's seat enough to get truly comfortable behind the wheel.

Much of the Aviator's instrument panel is lit by so-called "white" LEDs, especially in the main binnacle where the speedometer and tachometer show in stark contrast to the ultra-black background. While this nice touch visually separates the Aviator from other lower-lux competitors, Lexus has been doing a similar electroluminescent treatment for a few years now.

Finally, with so much attention focused on SUV safety, our model wasn't yet fitted with two of the industry's most innovative systems: Ford's Safety Canopy and a tire-pressure-monitoring setup. While only one SUV has already come to market with such a roll-over detection, avoidance, and sustained-deployment head-airbag operation (all three rows in the Volvo XC90), Ford and Lincoln continue to report that it'll be a late-availability, first- and second-row-only canopy system. Also, we eagerly await the company's first real-time tire-pressure monitoring system (including the spare) that will alert the driver of dangerously low or high pressures through short-range radio waves. Neat stuff--but we've been reading about it since the '02 Explorer debuted last year.

For the black-top-bound SUV driver who wishes to have a measure of fun in his truck, the Aviator is the way to go. We'll have to revisit our favorite mountain trails when we can get hold of an example fitted with AdvanceTrac to determine its effectiveness. Lincoln plans to sell about 30,000 Aviators this year, and we see no reason why it won't.

It all boils down to this: If you plan to drive to Tierra del Fuego the hard way--avoiding all possible paved roads--choose the Discovery. It'll get you there--and back. If you have no need to conquer Kilimanjaro, plunk down your American greenbacks on the bulging hood of the quick, agile, and stylish Aviator.

From that musclecar V-8 to the clean-looking '60s Lincoln-inspired interior, it's the Mini-Me Navigator that won't have your neighbors thinking you just signed with Death Row Records. The one that does it all, however, is the Lexus GX 470. It blends real on- and off-road abilities and manners with pampering and electronic amenities that'll ingratiate you to your high-tech-savvy kids. You might need them to explain a few of the functions, but, hey, we all need a little humility once in a while, no matter where we're from.

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • 4
  • |
  • 5
  • |
  • 6
  • |
  • View Full Article