With the proliferation of the seven-seat crossover/utility vehicle -- even such cute/utes as the Mitsubishi Outlander and Toyota RAV4 offer a third row-the two-row CUV, the old standby, is seemingly becoming a thing of the past. Several automakers, though, aren't dismissing the five-seat crossover, especially the premium variety, recognizing there are still plenty of singles, couples, and families who aren't willing to take one for the home team-at least not yet. Audi, Infiniti, and Volvo, for instance, are betting that the popularity of the small, snappy CUV is shooting nowhere but skyward, each readying a version of its own (see sidebar). Mercedes and others are sure to follow. Further, prospective customers of these premium crossovers have some money to burn-certainly if they're empty- or never-nesters-and are willing to spend upward of $40,000 on a vehicle that pampers them with luxury, performance, and, of course, fun.

So what such crossovers exist today?

Our radar exposed three all-new blips -- the Acura RDX, the Land Rover LR2, and the Lincoln MKX -- and one familiar bogey, the BMW X3. All these first-class CUVs offer a leather-appointed interior, a navigation system, Xenon headlamps, a premium sound system, all-wheel drive, and well over 200 horsepower. To determine which lavish Lilliputian is the mightiest of the bunch, we paid a visit to the Dumont Dunes, a Mecca of sandy mounds near the Mojave National Preserve, to test off-road prowess and beach benevolence. Along the way, we explored the highways and byways around Devils Playground to score ride, comfort, and luxury, and closed with rigorous handling loops in the San Gabriel Mountains to rate chassis dynamics: 1000 miles accumulated, one CUV had us feeling especially devilish.



New old

Unfortunately for Lincoln, the MKX isn't the one. Tired, perhaps, but not devilish. The sole American in the group, the MKX, sad to say, represents itself as do many-sloppy and overweight. Suffocating the scales with 4618 pounds-308 pounds more than the next-heaviest LR2 and nearly 700 pounds porkier than the group lightweight, the RDX-the MKX feels like a pig among coyotes, exhibiting untidy movements and languid responses. Turn-in? Maybe tomorrow. Understeer? Overwhelming. Editor-at-large St. Antoine notes, "The suspension is all over the road, the traction control steps in too early and often, and there's no cornering feel." The Lincoln seems to float around curves, never composed, always rolling, squatting, and diving. Senses through the helm are rubbery, elastic, numb-you get the idea-prompting St. Antoine to declare, "'Steering feel' is an oxymoron." The brakes aren't much better, delivering a mushy pedal and fade-prone performance.

On the bright side, the MKX isn't without merits. Despite its hedonistic heft, it manages respectable test numbers-0-to-60 in 7.7 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.9 at 86.4 mph-well above those of the LR2 and a testament to the robust 265 horsepower from the 3.5-liter V-6. The soft suspension, a weakness in the twisty bits, is a blessing on the highway, providing the cushiest, most serene ride. Moreover, at the dunes, the MKX will romp all day without ever needing a time out. And while most of us don't care for Lincoln's retro interior-the square gauges remind art director Voehringer of the dials on his 1971 oven-and subsequent sterile ambiance, the cabin does boast the most accommodating back seat, the widest and largest cargo hold, and heated and cooled front seats.

Voehringer sums up the Lincoln as, "A biopsy of the quintessential American luxury vehicle-big, wide, and soft, with a few handy-dandy features as a bonus." The MKX's dire dynamics in the mountains, stiff $44,000 price tag, and lack of a manual mode for the six-speed (how does Lincoln expect to conquer import customers without a manual mode?) relegate it to fourth place-a bonus in our book.


Aged but athletic

Introduced as a 2004 model, the X3 is the eldest of the foursome, but it's nonetheless a fresh player, having undergone significant transplants for 2007, notably a 260-horse I-6, a six-speed manumatic, and restyled front and rear fascias. Like its big brother, the X5, the X3 sports xDrive all-wheel drive, a rear-drive-biased system designed to impart BMW's renowned handling traits. Overall, it succeeds, as the X3 generally feels neutral and composed under aggressive cornering, although we did experience more body roll than expected. Our tester came sans a sport package, which adds a tauter suspension and 18-inch alloys, an option that would likely remedy the unwelcome swaying but also roughen an already rough and often harsh ride. The steering, a BMW hallmark, is surprisingly slow on turn-in, but comes alive and communicates clearly once in the bend. The brakes, conversely, aren't slow at all-actually a bit grabby on tip-in-providing strong response and, at 126 feet, the shortest distance from 60 to 0, placing it in a tie with the Land Rover.

At the dragstrip, the X3, with its velvety 3.0-liter and quick-shifting six-speed, devours 0-to-60 in 7.0 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.3 at 90.0 mph, one of only two to record a 90-mph trap speed. Wearing Pirelli Scorpion tires, the Bimmer, naturally, remains vigorous when confronted by sand-simply disable the stability control, drop the six-speed into second, and let xDrive's steplessly variable front/rear torque split slide you around with confidence. Vivacious as it is on- and off-road, the X3 is unexpectedly the most frugal at the pump, dispensing a best-in-test 19.7 mpg.

Nestled behind the wheel, the X3 is still a pleasant place to reside-a $150 heated steering wheel and $700 "Comfort Seats" with lumbar support are cosseting-yet it feels dated in view of its competition, evidenced by a pop-up nav screen that can be controlled only by a single knob. The X3 is competent off-road, rewarding when the tarmac winds, and, assuming a stiff ride is tolerable, also a pleasant day-to-day transporter. At nearly $50,000, however -- X5, anyone? -- the X3 can simply be described as overpriced.


All-terraint aptitude

Sharing platform pieces with the new Volvo S80 and utilizing the Swede's 3.2-liter inline-six and six-speed automatic, the LR2 is unlike other Rovers in that it's car-based and, under most circumstances, functions as a front-drive CUV. But that's not to say it's not a legitimate Land Rover; after all, it boasts the most ground clearance (8.3 inches), the best approach/departure angles (29.0/32.0 degrees), and the most formidable off-road system. Dubbed Terrain Response, the LR2's Haldex-based all-wheel drive meshes the transmission, throttle, stability control, and hill descent to optimize momentum through just about every landscape imaginable. At Dumont, with T.R. set to Sand-General Driving, Grass/Gravel/Snow, and Mud and Ruts are the other settings-the LR2 eats through sand like Kobayashi does Nathan's Famous hot dogs, devouring dune after dune, seemingly toying with the others. Love the outdoors and off-roading? The LR2 is in a class by itself.

Compared with its predecessor, the frail and frumpy Freelander, the LR2 plays the rough part well. It looks rugged, almost like a mini-LR3, a theme that carries over inside, evidenced by a strikingly similar dash, instrument panel, and steering wheel. Further, behind that wheel, the feel is much the same-the seating position is high, visibility all around is excellent, and the cabin is roomier than expected.

As in the X3 and the RDX, the LR2's ride is firm, yet the Land Rover manages to dull the impacts. Editorial assistant LaPalme notes, "Suspension is more boatlike than the others, with a slight bobbing feel when rolling over seams and bumps." Through winding roads, the LR2 continues to impress, offering light, pure steering sensation, respectable lateral acceleration (0.76 g), and stellar braking (60 to 0 in 126 feet). The Rover does exhibit a fair amount of body roll-at 69.5 inches tall, it possesses the highest center of gravity-but once settled in a turn, it feels composed, mildly protesting with moderate understeer.

Saddled with over 4300 pounds and a tall final drive (2.59:1), the LR2 is the slowest to 60 (9.0 seconds) and the quarter mile (16.8 at 82.5 mph) and sometimes feels weak trudging up steep grades. Still, wearing a price tag undercut only by the Acura's and armed with 60 years of off-road expertise, a rugged faade befitting an Indiana Jones rig, and refined, laudable road manners, the LR2 easily secures the second spot.


Sinisterly sweet

On paper, the Acura doesn't appear that imposing. Under its hood resides the only four-cylinder in this group, mated to the test's sole five-speed automatic. And horsepower is rated at just 240, bettering only that of the LR2. But stomp on the drive-by-wire throttle and that paper flies right out the window-0-to-60 takes a mere 6.5 seconds and the quarter mile just 15.1 at 90.7 mph, handily smoking the other three.

Credit the RDX's variable-flow turbocharger and 13.5 psi of maximum boost, which musters the most torque (260 pound-feet) of the bunch. Of course, the RDX isn't just swift in a straight line. In lateral acceleration and the figure eight, the Acura boasts the most brisk numbers-0.83 g and 27.7 seconds at 0.62 g, respectively-verification that the SH-AWD system, which distributes torque not only between the front and rear axles but also the left and right rear wheels, is indeed "super handling." Compared with the MKX, the RDX feels like an NSX. According to St. Antoine, "There's more understeer than I expected, but the SH-AWD helps pull the RDX out as the corner progresses." On sand, the SH-AWD doesn't skip a beat, turning the RDX into a capable off-roader, although its 6.3 inches of ground clearance and fussy traction control (we couldn't disable it with the tires deflated to 15 psi) make it more of a soft-roader.

On the open highway, the RDX loves to run all day. "Freeway driving is a breeze, with seamless boost for passing and climbing," says Voehringer. The rigid and sometimes coarse ride is akin to the X3's, the light and linear steering similar to the LR2's. While the five-speed is plenty intuitive, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters are at the command of the most impatient drivers. They're especially useful for a last-second pass or impersonating a Formula 1 driver on a mountain road. As St. Antoine adds, "The shifters are very useable, unlike other units that seem added for decoration."

Inside, the RDX is standard Acura: clean, well-executed, and of the utmost quality. Voehringer notes, "Overall, the interior is the most appealing. It's well integrated all around with a diversity of textures. The center stack is positively futuristic looking while easing interface."

And despite being the coziest of this quartet, the RDX is plenty comfy for four and offers more cargo volume than the LR2. Better still, at $37,165-$2785 less than the LR2 and $1610 less than the X3's base price-the RDX is the easiest on the wallet yet the most entertaining on the road. Cheap and fun-who wouldn't feel devilish?


1st Place: Acura RDX
A sport sedan in crossover clothes.

2nd Place: Land Rover LR2
A star off-road that still shines on-road

3rd Place: BMW X3
A track-and-field celebrity charging exorbitant royalties.

4th Place: Lincoln MKX
Too overpriced and overweight to be a real contender.

Sand storm: What the wind's about to blow in...

1. Audi Q5
The goods: 3.2-liter/300-horsepower V-6 engine, seven-speed S tronic, AWD.>
The skinny: The A-4 based CUV will back an FSI engine and dual-clutch gearbox and should resemble the Roadjet Concept unveiled at the 2006 Detroit auto show.
The date: Fall 2008


2. Infiniti EX35
The goods: 3.5-liter/306-horsepower V-6 engine, five-speed auto, AWD.>
The skinny: Based on the G35x, the EX will be the first Infiniti with an Around View Monitor, which uses front-, side-, and rear-mounted cameras to decrease blind spots while parking.
The date: Fall 2007


3. Volvo XC60
The goods: 3.2-liter/265-horsepower I-6 engine, five-speed auto, AWD. The skinny: Sharing S80 underpinnings, the XC60 will boast a City Safety feature- a collision-avoidance technology that functions at speeds up to 19 mph and applies the brakes if the driver isn't paying attention- and possibly the E85-powered 3.2-liter I-6 in the XC60 Concept.
The date: Spring 2009


 2007 ACURA RDX2007 BMW X3 3.0si2008 Land Rover LR2 SE2007 Lincoln MKX AWD
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUTFront engine, AWDFront engine, AWDFront engine, AWDFront engine, AWD
ENGINE TYPETurbocharged I-4 alum block/headI-6 alum & mag block/alum headsI-6 alum block/head60-deg V-6 alum block/heads
VALVETRAINDOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT140.4 cu in/2300cc182.8 cu in/2996cc194.8 cu in/3192cc213.3 cu in/3496cc
COMPRESSION RATIO8.8:110.7:110.8:110.3:1
POWER (SAE NET)240 hp @ 6000 rpm260 hp @ 6600 rpm230 hp @ 6300 rpm265 hp @ 6250 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET)260 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm225 lb-ft @ 2750 rpm234 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm250 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER16.4 lb/hp15.8 lb/hp18.7 lb/hp17.4 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION5-speed automatic6-speed automatic6-speed automatic6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIOS53:1/2.77:14.44:1/2.97:13.75:1/2.59:13.39:1/2.52:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REARStruts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll barStruts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs; anti-roll barStruts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; struts, coil springs, anti-roll barStruts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO15.1:118.9:115.4:117.6:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK2.83.42.62.9
BRAKES, F;R11.7-in vented disc; 12.0-in solid disc, ABS12.8-in vented disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS12.5-in vented disc; 12.0-in vented disc, ABS12.6-in vented disc; 11.9-in disc, ABS
WHEELS, F;R7.5x18.0 in, cast aluminum8.0x17.0 in, cast aluminum8.0x18.0 in, cast aluminum7.5x18.0 in, cast aluminum
TIRES, F;R235/55R18 99V Michelin Pilot HX MXM4235/55R17 99H Pirelli Scorpion STR235/60R18 107V Continental Cross Contact UHP245/60R18 104T Continental Cross Contact LX
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE104.3 in110.1 in104.7 in111.2 in
TRACK, F/R61.9/62.6 in60.0/60.7 in63.0/63.5 in65.1/64.9 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT180.7 x 73.6 x 65.2 in179.9 x 73.0 x 65.9 in177.1 x 75.1 x 69.5 in186.5 x 75.8 x 67.2 in
GROUND CLEARANCE6.3 in8.0 in8.3 in8.0 in
APPRCH/ DEPART ANGLE28.0/22.0 deg24.0/21.9 deg29.0/32.0 deg16.7/25.0 deg
TURNING CIRCLE39.2 ft38.4 ft37.1 ft38.6 ft
CURB WEIGHT3925 lb4115 lb4310 lb4618 lb
WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION, F/R57/43%50/50%58/42%57/43%
TOWING CAPACITY1500 lb3500 lb3500 lb3500 lb
SEATING CAPACITY5555
HEADROOM38.7/38.3 in39.3/39.4 in40.2/39.4 in37.8/38.7 in
LEGROOM41.8/37.7 in40.2/35.8 in41.9/36.4 in40.7/39.6 in
SHOULDER58.2/56.3 in55.6/55.0 in57.6/57.3 in58.9/58.8 in
CARGO VOLUME60.6/27.8 cu ft71.0/30.0 cu ft58.9/26.7 cu ft68.7/31.8 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-302.3 sec2.2 sec2.8 sec2.5 sec
0-403.33.54.53.9
0-504.956.65.5
0-606.5797.7
0-708.79.112.110.4
0-8011.611.915.913.5
0-9014.915.32017.6
0-1001918.6--
PASSING, 45-65 MPH3.43.84.94.3
QUARTER MILE15.1 sec @ 90.7 mph15.3 sec @ 90.0 mph16.8 sec @ 82.5 mph15.9 sec @ 86.4 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH136 ft126 ft126 ft151 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION0.83 g avg0.81 g avg0.76 g avg0.73 g avg
MT FIGURE EIGHT27.7 sec @ 0.62 g avg28.0 sec @ 0.61 g avg29.4 sec @ 0.54 g avg29.3 sec @ 0.57 g avg
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH2150 rpm2300 rpm1900 rpm1750 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE$33,665 $38,775 $34,700 $36,445
PRICE AS TESTED$37,165 $47,975 $39,950 $43,890
STABILITY/ TRACTION CONTROLYes/yesYes/yesYes/yesYes/yes
AIRBAGSDual front, front side, f/r curtainDual front, front side, f/r curtainDual front, driver knee, front side, f/r curtainDual front, front side, f/r curtain
BASIC WARRANTY4 yrs/50,000 miles4 yrs/50,000 miles4 yrs/50,000 miles4 yrs/50,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY6 yrs/70,000 miles4 yrs/50,000 miles4 yrs/50,000 miles6 yrs/70,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE4 yrs/50,000 miles4 yrs/unlimited miles4 yrs/50,000 miles6 yrs/70,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY18.0 gal17.7 gal18.5 gal20.0 gal
EPA CITY / HWY ECON19/23 mpg19/26 mpg16/23 mpg17/24 mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS0.94 lb/mile0.90 lb/mile1.0 lb/mile0.99 lb/mile
MT FUEL ECONOMY17.7 mpg19.7 mpg18.2 mpg17.0 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUELPremium unleadedPremium unleadedPremium unleadedRegular unleaded

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