Before you bring one of these puppies home, take it for a long walk--and not just in the park. Each of these SUVs approaches the subject of luxury from a different direction. The Mercedes-Benz ML350 feels substantial, hewn from granite and capable of handling any situation, but it lacks the cutting-edge design, power, and razor-sharp reflexes of the FX35 and the exquisite interior appointments and smooth quietude of the RX 330. If you want to explore the road less traveled, the ML is up to it. Certainly no bowser, it's our third choice in this test, considering what most people use SUVs for these days.
When it comes to ride quality and interior comfort, the Lexus RX 330 is the gold standard of entry-level luxury SUVs. Exercising restraint when picking options can net the buyer an extremely well-turned-out lifestyle conveyance for less than $40,000. Add in traditionally high Lexus resale value and low maintenance and repair costs, and this stylish wagon-cum-SUV makes a lot of sense for a lot of buyers. Yet for all its many virtues, the RX isn't a sporting machine. And we place a high priority on sport. So this fine Lexus, bound to be a marketplace success, ranks a solid second here.
The Infiniti FX35 is our winner--by a nose. It's an unusual and unusually capable entry in what has become an extremely crowded segment. The FX's bold styling stands out in an all-too-predictable field, and its driving dynamics never failed to put smiles on our faces. For drivers who want maximum "sport" from their sport/utility vehicle, the Infiniti FX35 is top-dog.
Does "sport" always mean "speed"? Is mountain climber Reinhold Messner any less sporty than Olympic sprinter Donovan Bailey?
To me, a sport/utility vehicle with sports-car moves makes about as much sense as caffeinated cognac. Why would you want a Donovan Bailey SUV? So you can slalom your camping gear into aluminum-and-Gore-Tex goo? Same goes for most car-based sport/utes; they're about as useful off-asphalt as an Indiana Jones costume.
If you want performance, get an athletic car. But if you need an SUV, get a real SUV: a machine with serious cargo capability, the toughness of quantum physics, the surefootedness of a bighorn sheep. An internal-combustion yak, in other words.
In this group, only the ML350 qualifies as SUV-grade. It's the only one I'd trust to belay me in a summit bid.--Arthur St. Antoine
While I'd happily put any of these luxury SUVs in my driveway, the ML350 is just too clunky and old-school for my taste, and the center stack controls aren't as intuitive as I'd like. I'm drawn to Lexus' luxurious interior and techno wizardry, but its soft suspension and husky pricetag knock it off my list. But Infiniti's idea of blending sports-car-like handling, a crisp powertrain, and "Hey, dig me!" looks into a sport/utility is not only a novel one, but a practical one in that it works well in real-world applications. I'll take my FX35 in black, please.--Scott Mead
| || 2003 Infiniti FX35 || 2004 Lexus RX 330 || 2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350|
|0-60 mph ||7.3 ||8.5 ||9.5|
|1/4 mile, sec @ mph ||15.49 @ 91.00 ||16.46 @ 86.26 ||17.20 @ 83.18|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft ||123 ||131 ||127|
|600-ft slalom, mph ||62.4 ||58.6 ||60.9|
|200-ft skidpad, lateral g ||0.79 ||0.68 ||0.75|
|Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph ||2000 ||2000 ||2300|