If today's streets are any indication, you've got the wrong best friend. We're not talking about your dog here: Americans are making happy homes for Land Rovers and other sport/utility vehicles to the tune of 2.5 million SUV sales per year--and growing.
Luxury vehicles and SUVs were once considered separate breeds: one parked in the garage, the other banished to the back stoop for having muddy paws. SUVs simply didn't tread in the plush, cut-pile world of luxury cars. But that changed big time once carmakers figured out how much tail-waggin' profit was to be realized by selling luxury-branded SUVs. Soon nearly everyone was off to the dog races.
What started as the exclusive territory of the Range Rover soon became the well-traveled domain of the Acura MDX, BMW X5, Infiniti QX4, Lexus RX 300, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade, Volvo XC90, and, recently, Porsche Cayenne. Today, a fast-growing sweet spot is the entry-level luxury segment, with all the major luxury brands counting on SUV sales to help make them leader of the pack.
How much is that doggie in the window? The three entry-level luxury SUVs gathered here--the Infiniti FX35, Lexus RX 330, and Mercedes-Benz ML350--start in the $34,000-$36,000 range, the fat part of the transaction-price bell curve. Yet as testament to just how diverse and varied SUVs have become, each of these players sports a behavior set all its own. We unleashed all three and let the fur fly.
When the first ML hit the streets in late 1997, the targets in Mercedes' crosshairs were upscale versions of the hot-selling Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the latter known for its true off-road capability. So the ML320 came to market with the hardware to tackle the boonies and impress the 'burbs. Even though most upscale-SUV buyers wouldn't dare risk their investments near rocks and trees, proven 4WD capability seemed a prerequisite for success. It fit perfectly the SUV image prevalent at the time.
The Mercedes-Benz ML350 Inspiration Edition includes special sport seats and wood trim (an
About a year later, though, the runaway popularity of the car-based Lexus RX 300 helped change that perception. The Lexus, more suited to all-weather road use than serious rock-hopping, became a model for luxury-branded SUVs with increasingly carlike characteristics. Today, the latest ML carries a lot more weight and truck-based componentry than many of its competitors. It's a truck, albeit a fancy one, with a beefy ladder frame, an independent control-arm front suspension, and standard full-time four-wheel drive with a genuine two-speed transfer case.
For '03, last year's entry-level M-Class gets a name change from ML320 to ML350, courtesy of a larger 3.7-liter SOHC 18-valve V-6 engine. The 16-percent bump in displacement comes from an increase in bore size and results in modest horsepower and torque increases of eight and nine percent, respectively. The engine's 232 horsepower helps keep the ML350 in the hunt with newer competition. There's now more midrange brightness, though it's not anything that'll push you back in the seat. Also new for '03 is "Inspiration Edition" trim, which includes "designo" dark-poplar wood trim, silver cross-stitched Anthracite leather sport seats, six-spoke 17-inch alloys, and a silver grille. Model year '03 represents a holding pattern for this six-year-old product. The M-Class Mercedes is a solid effort, but no longer the buzz of SUVdom. An all-new, unit-body car-based ML replacement is but two years away.
Relative to the Lexus and Infiniti, the Mercedes drives like the older design it is. Over most road surfaces, the ML exhibits that reassuringly substantial Mercedes feel, but subjects occupants to a fairly stiff, jouncy ride that's uncharacteristic of other Mercedes models and luxury vehicles in general. Steering remains enigmatic, lacking feedback and the ability to recenter itself after a turn. Driver and passengers ride high in the saddle, so outward visibility is better than most.
Compared with the other SUVs in this test, the M-Class carries many hundreds more pounds of road-hugging weight, which must be accelerated and decelerated to keep up with the ebb and flow of traffic. This has a negative impact on fuel economy (we averaged 14-15 mpg). Happily, the ML350's brakes are confidence-building, as you'd expect of a German-branded vehicle, hauling the SUV down from speed with ease. And though the meaty 275/55R17 Dunlop SP Sport 5000 tires on our Inspiration Edition model exhibited an annoying tendency to follow pavement grooves, they acquitted themselves well at the track, keeping the nearly 5000-pound ML350 from falling to the back of the pack during skidpad and slalom testing.
More Saint Bernard than Greyhound, the ML's long suit is its standard four-wheel drive and various electronic traction aids. Off-pavement and on low-traction paved surfaces, the ML350 is in its element--its front, center, and rear differentials, four-wheel traction control, and low-range downhill traction control work in concert with the anti-lock brake system to maintain momentum even if only one wheel has bite.
Lexus RX 330
If the Mercedes ML is all about hardware, this latest Lexus SUV places heavy emphasis on software. Not the electronic kind, but software that takes away the cares of the world. Smooth and quiet, the RX 330 is a masterful execution of the traditional luxury-car philosophy as applied to the sport/utility concept. And it reflects how most SUV buyers really use their vehicles: as roadgoing cars that occasionally carry something too bulky to fit in a sedan. For all intents and purposes, this is a wagon version of the soon-to-debut ES 330 sedan.
Quiet, spacious, luxurious--the RX 330 cabin is a fine place to spend time. The extensive
The new RX is a crucial vehicle for Lexus. Before the introduction of its predecessor, the RX 300, Lexus trailed Mercedes in luxury-brand sales; afterward, the premium Toyota division never looked back, outselling the M-Class two to one. A few years ago, the RX 300 represented more than 40 percent of all Lexus sales.
The '04 RX 330 is longer, wider, roomier, and, to most eyes, a lot nicer looking than the model it replaces. There's 6.1 more cubic feet of cargo space inside, and a 4.0-inch increase in wheelbase provides more stretch-out room in the cabin (a split-folding 40-20-40 rear seat that slides fore and aft lets you apportion passenger and cargo space as needed). The RX 330 looks like the old RX 300 stretched on a taffy pull, the designers having elongated what had been a somewhat lumpy but well-received shape. There are some interesting new flourishes, too, particularly the aggressively sloping rear roof pillars and the uplifted clear-lens taillamps.
Inside, the new RX pampers its occupants in an exquisitely tailored ensemble of warm wood inlays; electroluminescent, virtual-image gauges; metallic trim; and optional, buttery-soft two-tone leather. Quiet almost to a fault, the RX 330 is an isolation chamber that removes the driver and passengers from the rude realities of less-than-perfect pavement. Though the ride quality is exemplary, Lexus novocaine results in numb steering, and there's a lot of body roll and pitch in turns and dive during hard braking. Optional 18-inch tires put bigger contact patches on the road, but pronounced understeer is the order of the day. Our tester was equipped with the optional air suspension, which has four selectable ride-height settings and automatic load leveling.
Underhood, a smooth-running, throttle-by-wire 3.3-liter/230-horse DOHC V-6 adds 10 horsepower and 20 lb-ft of torque over the 3.0-liter engine in last year's RX 300. Fuel economy is excellent for a midsize SUV; we averaged more than 19 mpg over a week's worth of testing. The V-6 is teamed with a five-speed automatic with gated shifter, featuring torque-managed shifts that are lazy and loping under part throttle and abrupt when more power is needed in a hurry. Requests for acceleration are sometimes delayed as the transmission seems to be making up its mind what gear to select. On our front-drive test vehicle, this pause was followed by a torque spike that brought the nose up and upset the already light steering as the vehicle lurched ahead. Four-wheel-drive versions of the RX 330 (a $1400 option) should be less prone to this behavior (Lexus expects 4WD models to account for 70 percent of RX sales).
Though the RX may be a somewhat antiseptic SUV with anesthetic driving qualities, it offers an impressive array of the latest luxury gadgets and gizmos. From the LS 430, the RX gets adaptive cruise control that will help maintain a minimum following distance. Also new is a power-operated liftgate similar to those previously seen on Chrysler minivans. A rear-mounted camera that--when reverse is selected--displays a wide-angle image in the navigation screen makes its debut in the RX (previously, it's been installed only on a few low-volume vehicles like the Japanese-market Isuzu VehiCross). A wide-opening multipanel moonroof, not unlike Mercedes' Panorama option, is available. Then there's the aforementioned optional height-adjustable suspension, like that on the Audi allroad and VW Touareg. Such hardware does add cost, however, and a fully kitted RX 330 will start nudging close to the $50,000 mark with just a few checks of the option boxes.
"Unexpected" is the word that describes Infiniti's take on the entry-level luxury- SUV formula. Nowhere in the rulebooks of carmaking does it say you can spin a sport/utility vehicle off a sports-car platform. Yet this new Infiniti does just that. The FX35 is a Nissan Z with stadium seating, decent ground clearance, and plenty of luggage space. Okay, the fast rake of the rear roofline does mean that your new wide-screen television might have to go on the delivery truck instead of into the FX's cargo hold, but what price slinkiness? The FX35 is a vehicle with tremendous curb appeal.
Built like a sports car, the FX35 rewards its driver with performance seats, aluminum trim
Nissan engineers took the basic structure of the 350Z, added reinforcements in the body side sills and wheelhouses, and replaced the Z's control-arm front suspension with a MacPherson-strut arrangement. Other Z componentry surfaces here and there in the FX's steering wheel, gated automatic transmission shifter, and lots of parts you can't see. One you can feel and hear is the rorty 280-horse VQ DOHC V-6.
As with the 350Z and another stablemate, the Infiniti G35 (2003 Motor Trend Car of the Year), the FX35's power delivery is smooth and crisp, with right-now throttle response. There's ample torque up, down, and all around for any driving situation, always accompanied by a not-too-loud 350Z intake growl. The FX never feels flat-footed. The sound trumpeting from the FX35's large-bore dual exhaust is pure Z, too.
Z DNA also is clearly evident in the way the FX35 handles itself. Here's an SUV that's just itching to go out to play. The FX's rack-and-pinion steering is superb and direct with zero slop or delay. Large-diameter four-wheel vented anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and Brake Assist are equally responsive and give excellent feedback. The ride is nearly as animated as the ML's, but the Infiniti's motions suggest sports-car connectivity, not the machine-age heftiness of the Mercedes. Which means the FX embodies a very un-SUV-like crispness in its steering and braking response. For the most part this is a good thing, although on rough roads (or even on concrete freeways with raised expansion strips), you may wish the FX offered a "comfort" setting on its suspension. Add the 20-inch wheels of the optional Sport Package, and the FX will be riding on four even-less-compliant tire sidewalls.
More 350Z flavor shows up in the interior of the FX35. The supportive front bucket seats feature the Z's inboard power controls for cushion fore/aft and seatback rake angle, and the gauge pod moves up and down with the adjustable steering column. Real aluminum trim is sprinkled about liberally. But there are differences. The cowl of the FX is necessarily taller, and luxury-grade leather and vinyl trim replaces the Z's more techno surface treatments. Rearward vision is compromised by the sharply sloping roof and thick rear pillars, and getting in and out of the rear seat requires a tricky maneuver to get past the rear wheelhouse.
The ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system is a $1500 option. But even without AWD, the FX35 does tricks.
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|