Like you, no doubt, we've grown weary of watching these extravagantly engineered machines being used as little more than sheetmetal Tarzan costumes. Time for a rude awakening: We gathered four top players in the premium sport/ute class and dragged their shiny butts to one of our all-time favorite amusement parks, a happy place called Death Valley. No valet parking or brushless hand washes here: For three days, we plowed over towering sand dunes, squeezed through jagged canyons, climbed boulder-strewn slopes, splashed through muddy riverbeds, crept past hideouts of ritual cult killers (we made a brief stop at eerie Barker Ranch, final refuge of Charlie Manson), and even subjected the entire team to clouds of noxious cigar smoke from one ill-mannered staffer who shall remain nameless [editor's note: St. Antoine].
Along the way, we scratched pristine paintwork, shredded a few tires, filled expensive stereo speakers with sand, and pushed sophisticated drivetrains until they were sweaty and gasping for breath. All four machines survived, but the torture tests were revealing indeed.
Our comparo included some of the biggest and most luxurious SUVs on the market. The Lexus LX 470 (as-tested price: $70,087) has been setting class standards for quiet and refinement since its introduction in V-8 form in 1998. Lincoln's massive Navigator Ultimate (as-tested: $63,095) remains an opulent favorite, having benefited from a major redesign in 2003. Land Rover's legendary Range Rover HSE (as-tested: $74,250) appeared in all-new, BMW-engineered form in 2003 (after the German maker sold Land Rover to Ford in 2000). And making its debut for 2004 is the brand-new Infiniti QX56 ($54,980 as-tested), a richly outfitted version of Nissan's new Armada (which itself is based on the impressive new Titan pickup). One seemingly obvious entry missing from our group: the Cadillac Escalade, which we didn't invite to Death Valley because its four-wheel-drive transfer case doesn't offer low range (a big advantage for serious off-roading work).
Our assault on Death Valley kicked up lots of dirt, but no disputes: By the time the dust had sifted back to earth, all four voting editors had scored our quartet of test vehicles in the same finishing order. Here's how these city slickers fared (before we sent them packing back to the spa for hot mineral soaks).