Following annual tradition, the Motor Trend staff rounded up every all-new or significantly updated vehicle for the 2002 Sport/Utility of the Year competition. The eclectic group this year ranged from a car-based sport/cute to a military-derived uber-machine. All were put through the paces on Los Angeles-area roads and at the track before the all-important group drive that had the staff caravanning to Death Valley for days of highway running and good-ol' off-roading.
Between the magazine, radio, and television show, you've seen the beauty shots, heard the expert sound bites, and seen the rehearsed action. Online, we invite you to ride along with the team through this piece, in an exclusive Web-only video (coming soon), and take in the scenery and adventure behind the scenes of the SUV of the Year drive. Buckle up, it's time to get dirty...
| No group trip begins without a stockpile of road munchies, and staff dietician Scott Mead again ensured we would have good excuses to chow every 30 minutes during vehicle rotations. No wonder it's hard for us desk jockeys to shed pounds....
| We stopped for a vehicle rotation in the Inyo National Forest in front of the striking Mono Craters, an ashen chain of volcanic mountains formed during the ice age. Photog David Newhardt never misses an opportunity to become a speed bump while capturing a group shot.
| Each stop affords an opportunity to further scrutinize the vehicles and compare notes. Here, C. Van Tune and Chuck Schifsky examine the Chevy Trailblazer's potent Atlas inline six.
| Now our Detroit muscle Jack Keebler and Todd Lassa look at the Trailblazer for the sake of video. It often seems on the road trips that we do something for real, then fake it for posterity. Media magic...
| John Matthius takes notes on the Toyota Highlander during a periodic break for notes, refreshment, and rotation. After a couple days on the road, it becomes a challenge to scrawl unique insights on the clipboard, pushing the staff to consider every vehicle facet, again and again.
| Traveling with a dozen vehicles can make something as simple as a fuel stop become a project, shown here as our rolling traffic jam blows into a dusty village for gas.
| One of our favorite Death Valley trails passes by Leadfield, a mining town that has all but disappeared. It was booming back in 1926 when a post office was established in August, but it took only till February 1927 for the post office to close and the town to die.
| Photog John "Kiwi" Kiewicz, Chuck, and Van point to the spot where we buried a Motor Trend license plate for a reader contest on a past torture test expedition.
| Captain Tune and Executive Officer Schifsky direct the editors for the umpteenth group shot from atop a hill overlooking Leadfield.
| Among the trail highlights was Titus Canyon, offering a slippery river wash to negotiate and awesome cliff walls on both sides.
| After a long day on the road, the team unwinds at a high-class restaurant, sneaking in minutes before closing for some late-night barbeque.
| Another day is born, with the SUV of the Year contenders lined up and ready to go after an artery-clogging, pancake fest at a local café.
| The all-new Jeep Liberty impresses with its suspension articulation on our favorite obstacle on the 12-mile trail through Echo Canyon.
| Kiwi fires off a quick shot before the group heads in to the preserved ghost town of Bodie.
| Gold was found in Bodie in 1859, spurring a rush that saw the town grow to house more than 10,000 people in the remote high desert.
| Today, more than 170 buildings still stand in Bodie State Historic Park in a state of arrested decay, allowing visitors to walk back in time. During the boom, there were 20 times as many structures.
| The total take from Bodie is estimated to be between $90 and $100 million from 30 mines. All that money attracted a rough element, with saloons numbering more than 60 and murder being a regular occurrence.
| Even more striking than the number of standing buildings is the way that the town was hastily abandoned, with businesses and homes left much the way they were over 100 years ago.
| With the town protected, initially by the mining company and later by the state, the buildings have not been looted, making for fun window shopping.
| A small museum in one of the barns has numerous period items on display, such as this horse-drawn hearse, along with information on the town.
| It is strange to see not only carriages but even vehicles left behind in Bodie, such as this early Bodie Miner Trend's Truck of the Year winner.
| Large roadway pull offs are not easy to find, but this one turned out to be less savory than most.
| Dave captured all the vehicle badges on film just in case Art Director Tony Fox wanted to drop them in to the story.
| There was some debate over the badgeless Mercedes M-Class found parked at the Furnace Creek Inn alongside Volkswagen field-engineering vehicles. Cross-drilled rotors, six-speed manual transmission, pop-riveted wheel arches, fortified rear differential, fabricated exhaust, and other details suggested that there was more than meets the eye. Perhaps a test bed for the VW sport/ute drivetrain...
| We stopped at another ghost town, Rhyolite, for photography. Often used in music videos, the several remaining structures look like bombed-out husks from a world war.
| It is a natural law that editors gravitate toward shadow, where they debate the merits and deficiencies of the gathered vehicles.
| Van and Dave explore the interior of what was once a bank, right until someone notices that the remaining second story wall looks much shakier than when we stopped by a couple months earlier.
| We kicked up some sand roaming around the massive, six-story Dumont Dunes. We found a couple stuck with their front-drive minivan, having been stranded for a full 24 hours. We pulled them out with the Mercedes G500 so effortlessly, it was hard to tell they were even strapped behind it. Many lessons were learned here. The desert is serious business, don't take risks.
| Killing time while others shot action photos, Mark Williams pulled a golf club out of nowhere and began working on his swing. The desert does strange things to people...
| And finally, no Death Valley trip is complete without a mine sighting, including this modest tunnel dug into the hillside on 20 Mule Road.