Those gripping ads they run on TV boast that today's sport/utility vehicles are built to tame the Himalayas, but in truth the typical SUV enjoys a cushier life than Marlon Brando's exercise bike.
Sport/utilities have become the four-wheeled equivalent of Patagonia adventure clothing--which, as you probably know, is sold primarily to ensure that its wearers can trek to the Coffee Bean for a latte while being well-protected from avalanches and tsetse flies. Similarly, modern SUVs are way overqualified for the work they usually do.
Just look at the hardware you'll often find on one of these rigs: engine churning out enough power to light Times Square, four-wheel-drive system astutely apportioning just the right amount of torque to each massive all-terrain tire, stability-control computers furiously calculating slip angles and yaw rates and life-insurance actuarial statistics, body big and tough enough to deflect a hundred hard knocks from Arianna Huffington.
Of course, drivers in suburbia need all that stuff because, well, you just never know when you might run into a vat of quicksand or maybe a charging white rhino while transporting Scooter and his clarinet to band practice.
The proof that most SUVs lead manicured-fingernails existences is at its most indisputable in the ultra-luxury sport/utility class. Not only are these pricey chariots frequently festooned with exotic brush bars (useful in normal driving for, what, ensuring that plodding pedestrians don't gum up your grille?), they often wear chrome wheels. Chrome wheels? Seeing these spit-polished discs on a rough-and-ready sport/utility is like spying Dirty Harry sipping an umbrella drink.
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).
Fourth Place: Infiniti QX56 AWD
Not the finish we expected for the big QX going in. After all, against these rivals this new Infiniti has strengths impossible to ignore. With 315 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, for instance, the Q's 32-valve, 5.6-liter V-8 towers like The Rock in a roomful of Hugh Grants. On the dragstrip, the Infiniti was in a class of one, its 6.8-second 0-to-60-mph time besting the next-quickest Range Rover by nearly two seconds. "Absolutely stunning powertrain," wrote Mark Williams, editor of sister publication Truck Trend. "Great engine and transmission," noted MT feature editor John Matthius of the rip-snorting V-8 and its standard five-speed automatic. And if you're into hauling trailers, this is your rig: the QX56 leads the group with a whopping 8900-pound tow rating.
The QX56 is also an excellent choice if your favorite adjective is "Brobdingnagian." This is a huge truck. At 123.2 inches, the Infiniti's wheelbase is more than four inches longer than the Navigator's and a full 11 inches longer than the LX 470's. The QX is also the longest and widest SUV of this bunch. With a pair of captain's chairs in the second row and a bench in back, the QX offers seating for seven (credit that long wheelbase for helping to provide a generous 42 inches of legroom in row two). Both back rows of seats fold flat for cargo-carrying; the front-passenger seat also folds in case the gear you've got to carry is for your kid's pole-vaulting team. The power rear liftgate opens and closes with a button on the key fob.
Another plus: Starting at $51,080, the QX56 AWD undercuts the base price of the next-highest Navigator by almost $6000. Even at that price, though, it's loaded with goodies. Standard equipment includes dual-zone climate control, a DVD navigation system with highly readable seven-inch color screen, Bose audio with six-disc in-dash CD changer, leather seats, and power-adjustable pedals. Our test vehicle also included a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a power sunroof, and a Smart Vision package with nifty rearview backup monitor and not-so-nifty laser-guided automatic cruise-control system (which had an annoying tendency to spike the brakes whenever a truck rolled past in the next lane).
Most power, lots of room, an athletic 10.8 inches of ground clearance, lowest price--so why the fourth-place finish? Anyone paying nearly $55 large for a luxury truck, we think, ought to get a package that feels as refined and substantial as a leather club chair. The QX56 doesn't.
The materials on the dash and interior received universal thumbs-down. "The more I look, the more cheap details I find," commented editor-in-chief Kevin Smith. "The sun visors look like they came from an econobox." "Looks way too much like its less-pricey sibling, the Nissan Pathfinder Armada," Matthius added. And despite being built on a beefy boxed ladder frame, the QX56 squeaked and shimmied like a flock of teenage girls at a Leonardo DiCaprio movie. "Rattles and shakes over dirt roads mercilessly," noted Williams. "Unimpressive structural integrity," wrote Matthius. "There's a terrible creak coming from somewhere in back."
"With the Infiniti's great powertrain, I'm willing to overlook the small problems," Williams summed up. "But the QX56 is hard to compare to the rest of this premium category."
Splashy new QX56 impressed with prodigious power and generous accommodations, but suffered
Third Place: Lincoln Navigator Ultimate 4x4
Another surprise. Frankly, with its minimal ground clearance (at 8.6 inches, more than an inch less than any other player), chubby 6000-pound curb weight, and obvious bias toward good-life cruising (lest you lift a finger, the Ultimate has power-folding third-row seats and optional power runningboards, no less), we expected the palatial Navigator to get high-centered on the first bleached donkey skull we stumbled upon in Death Valley.
But no: The big lug easily tackled even the most forbidding terrain we could find. Working in concert with the standard ControlTrac automatic four-wheel-drive system, the AdvanceTrac stability control essentially acts as a pair of front and rear limited-slip differentials, helping the Lincoln crawl forward even when three of its four tires are on a slippery surface. "I like the versatility of having four separate 4WD settings [automatic 4WD, 4-Hi, 4-Lo, and 2-Hi] and a stability/traction-off button," noted Williams in the logbook. "Even if a driver never cares to use all the available settings, they're there just in case--and isn't that the point of luxury, having something you don't need but might enjoy?"
The Navigator proved unexpectedly nimble on tarmac, too, posting the most grip at the test track and the group's best slalom speed by a wide margin (Lincoln added an independent rear suspension for 2003). "Amazes me how composed this three-ton vehicle feels in the slalom," wrote test-driver Chris Walton. "Very controllable and predictable at elevated speeds," noted Smith.
The twin-cam 5.4-liter V-8, which churns out 300 horsepower and 355 pound-feet of torque, earned unanimous praises for its smooth brawn and, when revved hard, its sporty edge. "Gotta love that exhaust note," said Walton after cracking off an acceleration run. The Navigator is the only player in this test without a five-speed automatic transmission, however. "At this price, it should have more than a four-speed," Matthius chided.
Lincoln has clearly gone to great lengths to differentiate the Navigator interior from that of its less-lux sibling, the Ford Expedition, and our testers were impressed. "Signature Lincoln styling cues," said Matthius. "The twin-cockpit dash looks inspired by the 1963 suicide-door Lincoln sedan." Williams added: "Simple, well-done dash layout. Way cleaner than the Range Rover or Infiniti, though the quality of materials isn't up to Lexus standards. Love the heated and air-conditioned seats."
Williams also joined others in praising the cabin's isolation. "Notice how dead quiet the interior is at 80 mph," he wrote. "The Navi must be carrying a ton of sound-deadening material." And unlike, say, the LX 470, which offers a third row of seats seemingly designed only for children, the Navigator serves up a third row with enough legroom to accommodate actual adults in reasonable comfort.
Although major structural improvements were part of the 2003 redesign, the Navigator doesn't boast the solidity of our two top finishers. "Pretty shaky on washboard roads," noted Smith. "You can feel the shuddering in the steering column." Like a conga line, though, everything seems to shimmy in unison--squeaks and rattles are minimal.
The Navigator Ultimate doesn't raise the bar for off-road excellence, but you won't find many other three-ton rolling VIP suites as happy climbing rocks.
Designer Lincoln cockpit and sumptuous amenities suggested plush Navigator might be too so
Second Place: Lexus LX 470
On paper, the Lexus LX 470 is an also-ran. The 32-valve, 4.7-liter V-8 is far and away the weakest in this test, delivering 320 pound-feet of torque and just 235 horsepower. Max towing--5000 pounds--is fourth of four. The LX carries the group's only live rear axle--no independent rear suspension here. Third-row seating is cramped, and the seats are tricky to stow. And then there's the as-tested price: $70,087, second-highest in this test. Clearly a case of too much for too little, right?
Definitely not. Instead, what the Lexus proves is that facts and figures alone can't tell the whole story. (If they did, you could learn everything you need to know from one of those toasters-and-teapots consumer magazines where they like to wear white lab coats and test different brands of peanut butter for "roof-of-mouth adherence.")
The moment we climbed behind its gorgeous wood-rimmed wheel, the LX began revealing not impressive pie-chart stats but a brilliantly engineered empathy for the human at the helm. "Boy, this thing is buttery," said Smith. "Ride quality, power-steering feel, power delivery--every place you touch it, the LX is as polished and refined as, well, a Lexus. Just so darn nice I can hardly stand it." "Engine is sewing-machine smooth and nearly silent off-road," wrote Matthius.
The LX's interior exudes finesse. "Hands-down the most finely crafted cabin in this comparo," noted Matthius. "Glass-smooth wood, creamy hides, terrific nav system, great comfort." Forget squeaks and rattles: the LX's stout ladder-frame structure barely ripples over broken off-road trails or even the tracks at a railroad crossing.
Like the QX56, the LX 470 offers a rear camera (standard on the Lexus) that, when you back up, displays what's behind you on the nav screen. Our test car also carried such premium extras as a superb Mark Levinson audio system and Night View, which after dark projects infrared images onto the lower windshield to enhance forward visibility (the system is reasonably good at picking up a coyote crossing the road ahead, but we're not convinced that it's all that easy to monitor both the small Night View display and the regular view outside the windshield at the same time).
Before you berate us for being intoxicated by the Lexus's cushy charms, know that the LX 470 is also one helluva fine off-roader. The live rear axle turns out to be no hindrance at all. "Though it's born of the oldest engineering, off-road the Lexus stands up well," said Matthius. "Very capable offtarmac--after all, it's a Land Cruiser underneath," noted Smith. In addition to its low-range transfer case, the LX has a locking center differential for added traction during mountain-goat maneuvering. Standard height control allows the driver to raise the LX 1.6 inches or lower it by 1.2, while a cockpit-adjustable, four-position variable air suspension tailors the ride from soft to firm.
"Adjustable suspension damping literally transforms the driving feel and personality of the Lexus," wrote Matthius. "Useful for tailoring the vehicle to a wide array of road and trail conditions."
The LX 470 is so graceful and sophisticated in everyday driving, its rugged character and off-road prowess almost seem surprising. It's a bit like meeting a ballerina with a black belt. And we love surprises like that.
A formidable off-roader (with lockable center differential), Land Cruiser-based Lexus also
For luck, we sacrificed one pricey Michelin to the Valley gods.
First Place: Land Rover Range Rover HSE
When we adjourn to our offices to vote for the winners in MT comparison tests, we always keep one eye sharply focused on sticker prices. Value for the dollar weighs big in our deliberations--the more expensive the vehicle, the bigger the built-in deficit it usually carries. At $74,250 as-tested, the Range Rover HSE thus faced more uphill battles than any of the rivals in this comparo. That it went on to win so convincingly, though, is testament to the excellence of this multimission machine.
The logbook gushed with praise. "Supreme engine smoothness, cabinet-maker interior fit and finish, great steering damping, superb handling, vault-like solidity and quietness," wrote Matthius. "Pretty damn amazing on gravel and dirt roads," said Williams. "And when pushed on pavement, it feels smooth and locked down. Getting such outstanding ride and handling performance from a hulking SUV is a stunning feat of engineering."
Credit, of course, goes to BMW, which owned Land Rover just long enough to create an all-new Range Rover for 2003. The "BMW-ness" of this British-built truck is unmistakable, from the ultrasmooth 282-horsepower, 32-valve, 4.4-liter V-8 (first used in the BMW X5) to the slick-shifting ZF five-speed manumatic transmission to a fully independent air-spring suspension with stability and handling responsiveness that seem to have descended directly from BMW's famed sport sedans. The Range Rover exudes a German solidity, too. Despite being the lightest SUV in the comparo (the hood and doors are made of aluminum), the RR's monocoque sets the standard for rigidity and robustness.
The modern, airy cabin is a feast of designer lines, polished wood, brushed-metal trim, and electronic conveniences. "The contrasting piping on the leather seats is a knockout," stated Matthius. "Looks like it came from a Rolls or a Bentley." Two details blot the cockpit's appeal, though. A huge, gnarly glovebox button sits high up like a prominent wart on the otherwise gorgeous dash. And the BMW-sourced navigation system is abysmal, providing minimal graphic information and proving incredibly counter-intuitive to use. The Range Rover is also the only player in the test not to offer a third-row seat.
The HSE more than makes up for those shortcomings with its unparalleled dynamics. Tow capacity is a generous 7700 pounds. On-road handling, as noted, is without equal in this class. "Very composed at high speeds," noted Williams. "It feels like it can always handle more, even when I push it to my personal limits."
And when the pavement gives way to boulder-strewn canyons, the Rover marches on utterly unperturbed. Ground clearance is a group-high 11.1 inches. The onboard arsenal of advanced off-road hardware includes hill-descent control, dynamic stability control, and a long-travel electronic air suspension that automatically adjusts each air spring for maximum wheel articulation. Few other SUVs inspire such confidence in the tough stuff. In low range, the Rover's electronic drive-by-wire throttle even shifts to a slow-response mode for added control. "Any time I find myself in butterflies-in-the-stomach driving situations, I want the Range Rover," Williams added.
For sure, this German-engineered, British-badged, American-owned SUV is expensive, but for all of its on-road performance and extravagant comfort it's also a thoroughbred off-roader. Shame on you if you drive it only to the latte dispensary. This baby wants to be out there swinging on vines.
Sand by your man: With modern-art interior, brilliant on- and off-road performance, and sc
| ||2004 Infiniti QX56 AWD||2004 Land Rover Range Rover HSE||2004 Lexus LX 470||2004 Lincoln Navigator Ultimate 4x4|
|Acceleration, sec to mph|
|0-30 mph||2.1||2.7|| 2.8|| 3.0|
|0-40 mph||3.4||4.4|| 4.6 ||4.6|
|0-50 mph||4.9||6.2|| 6.7||6.6|
|0-60 mph||6.8||8.4|| 9.5|| 9.5|
|0-100 mph||21.1||--|| --||--|
|1/4 mile, sec @ mph||15.2 @ 89.4 ||16.4 @ 83.8|| 17.0 @ 79.6 ||16.8 @ 82.7|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft||135||124||135|| 135|
|600-ft slalom, mph ||58.5||57.6||56.0 (electronically limited)||59.9|
|200-ft skidpad, g||0.74||0.67 (electronically limited)||0.67 (electronically limited)||0.75|
|Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph||1800||2000||1900||1600|
|On sale in U.S.||Currently||Currently||Currently||Currently|
|Base price incl dest||$51,080||$72,950|| $64,800|| $56,845|
|Price as tested||$54,980|| $74,250 ||$70,087||$63,095|