Motor Trend 2003 SUV of the Year

Fourteen competitors--just one winner

Jan 23, 2003
Photo 2/16   |   2003 Honda Element front Interior View
The Sport/Utility Vehicle. What is it? What has it become? The questions have no simple answer. Starting a few decades ago as a four-wheel-drive pickup with seats and cab grafted to its bed, the now-ubiquitous SUV has evolved into not one, but a collection of specialized tools for the public's ever-changing, increasingly specific needs.
SUVs are many things to many people, and these Sport/Utility of the Year contestants embody our diverse lifestyles with a vast array of sizes, shapes, drivetrains, packages, and performance capabilities.
Photo 3/16   |   2003 Subaru Baja high Side View
Think of a common screwdriver as an analogy. At first, there was simply the flat-head. Besides using it on flat-head screws, we put it to work in ways we probably shouldn't have: prying open paint cans, as make-do chisels and pry bars to varying degrees of success and bodily injury. Then came Phillips, Torx, ratcheting, offset, air-powered, and now electric variants. Similarly, SUVs continue to evolve into specialized utensils of many kinds.
Fundamentally, each of the '03 contenders moves five to eight people and their gear through all sorts of urban or rural environments: wet, dry, snow-covered, on-road, soft-road, or even no road at all. But that's where the similarities end. If we had a theme in this year's field, it was that there really was no theme. In fact, by our count, there are some 63 '03-model-year vehicles we'd classify as sport/utilities (roughly 10 more than last year); 14 of which qualified for our oft-repeated "on sale by Jan. 1 and totally new or significantly updated" minimum criteria and showed up for Motor Trend's 2003 Sport/Utility of the Year. All but the Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, and Subaru Forester could be considered new as clean-sheet models that didn't previously exist or are so substantially redesigned they could've been renamed.
Photo 4/16   |   2003 Ford Expedition Suv front Right Dirt
The Process
Definitions aside, both the public and the vehicle manufacturers often ask us: "What is your testing process?" or "How do you pick a winner?" This year, we've simplified the standards we apply to recognize an of-the-Year winner. Regardless of which selection--Sport/Utility, Car, or Truck of the Year--a winner must demonstrate dominance in three major categories: Significance, Superiority, and Value. Significance incorporates mastery and innovation in engineering, technology, design, safety, and packaging, as well as envisioned sales forecasts for that model line. Is the vehicle a low-sales-volume ringer of single purpose or a truly significant, forward-thinking player we believe will affect the market? Significance also indicates how far the new vehicle moves the established industry standards as a whole.
If Significance is global, Superiority is local. It levels the playing field so a winner must display above-average levels of performance, style, and value within its specific peer group--not among all new vehicles. Thus, we're not unfairly comparing the Hummer H2's off-road abilities or fuel consumption, for instance, with those of the Honda Element. This ensures we compare apples to apples and determines whether a vehicle is designed and executed appropriately to its intended tasks. Finally, Value is universal. Whatever your budget, we use value to determine what a vehicle delivers in relation to what it costs. Are you getting what you paid for, or are you paying too much for perceived luxury? Does the added cost of all-wheel drive provide merely the image or true off-roadability?
Keep in mind "value" doesn't necessarily mean "least expensive." Nor does it mean a more expensive vehicle should be crossed off anybody's short list. We also consider the likely resale value of a contestant.
The following summarizes what we noticed in our trials and tribulations with the 14 candidates. It's in no way a comprehensive account of every aspect of every SUV in the test--we could easily fill this entire magazine with that much information. Instead, we present the standout players, for exceeding or failing to meet our expectations.
Photo 5/16   |   2003 Honda Element Suv interior Front
Engineering & Technology
Admittedly, a broad topic, but there's more to engineering than nameless geniuses effecting clever, blue-sky ideas through mathematical equations. In real terms, the entire vehicle is a feat of engineering. For our purposes, engineering and technology encompass everything from innovative manufacturing techniques to gee-whiz software applications and novel approaches within such systems as powertrain, safety, and chassis. These disciplines account for how well a vehicle comes together as a whole and whether it demonstrates original thought with a minimum of compromises.
Without exception, every single SUV in this year's competition shares its platform and/or engine with at least one (in some cases, four) other vehicles in the manufacturers' families. Innovative engineering? Yes, but this budgetary necessity has not only made sport/utilities more affordable than ever, but has freed up engineers and product planners to better tailor their products to specific niches and needs. Also, we're intrigued by the disparity of engines being offered this year. Configurations range from I-4 to F-4, I-5, I-6, V-6, and, of course, to V-8. Displacements from 2.4 to 6.0L produce from 140 to a whopping 315 hp. There are single-overhead cammers, a few DOHC heads, and a pushrod; plus two are turbocharged.
Volvo's first entrance into the SUV stage arrives some years after the show started, but the Scandinavian talent scouts have been taking copious notes. Based on the unibody platform shared with the Volvo S80/S60/V70, but enlarged to accommodate up to seven passengers, the XC90 brings to bear some serious engineering on several shortcomings common to the entire SUV segment: Trucklike handling, less-than-ideal powertrain efficiency/adaptability, and poor use of interior space given the size of the exterior silhouette.
Altitude and thin air diminish an engine's ability to produce power, so Volvo's 2.5L inline-five and 2.9L inline-six are supplied with turbo-compressed air; the latter has twin, sequential turbochargers. Forced induction largely erases any loss of power, regardless of the heights or depths in which the vehicles are driven because there is always an ample and consistent supply of air. Besides industrial-strength turbodiesels, Volvo has the only turbocharged SUV currently on the market. Meanwhile, these Volvo engines return better-than-average fuel economy and earn Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle status.
Mounting an otherwise long engine in an east-west fashion frees up space at the front end of the vehicle, which can be used to better engineer crumple zones as well as increase the size of the passenger compartment. To demonstrate this point, the seven-passenger XC90 is just 5.0 in. longer overall than a stylish-but-snug five-passenger BMW X5, yet the XC90 boasts 38 cu ft more cargo capacity. All the I-4 engines are similarly transverse, as well as the V-6 in the Honda Pilot.
Just over half of the SUV field this year are built to a traditional body-on-frame design--the rest use unibody construction. The Toyota/Lexus dynamic duo of the 4Runner and all-new GX 470, as well as the Lincoln Aviator and Navigator, show how well the trucky yester-tech architecture can still be executed. While the Lincolns solved possible handling woes the old-fashioned way (with exhaustive work on the suspension geometry and tuning), there was an expected amount of Lexus technology within the GX 470, and high-tech refinement of a different and unexpected sort in the shared Toyota platform. Engineering advances in chassis isolation and suspension augmentation make this possible. Where the all-new Lexus solves potential truck-based handling woes with computer-controlled, predictive shock- absorbers, the fourth-generation 4Runner does so with a different strategy. Developed by Yamaha for Toyota, a diagonally linked, relative, enhanced, shock absorber suspension system (or X-REAS), adds noticeable sure-footedness to this rugged solid-rear axle vehicle. When the left-front suspension compresses, the right-rear extends, and so on.
Though the other full-frame SUVs didn't fare as well as those mentioned above, all the unibodies demonstrated why so many manufacturers are turning to car-based platforms. They're lighter, easier to control, and ride more like cars--which is what most people want.
Model-year '03 marks the first appearance of a V-8 in the venerable 4Runner, as well as a new 4.0L V-6 that actually produces more horsepower than the SUV's torquey 4.7L V-8. The GX 470 is powered only by the same LEV-qualified 4.7L V-8. Both share the industry's first use of a lockable Torsen-type limited-slip center differential in the transfer case of a midsize SUV. Some of the electronics shared by the two platform-mates include downhill assist, hill-start assist, and vehicle skid control. We could do without some of the Toyota/Lexus multimenu center-display interfaces combining navi, audio, climate controls, and vehicle preferences.
Photo 6/16   |   112 0212 Suvoy 10z 2003 Hummer H2 Suv Trunk
Safety
Closely linked to engineering and technology, SUV safety is an ongoing and necessary topic in the news and on most buyers' minds. It's difficult to single out one of these vehicles from the rest for recognition as the safest SUV. Each has a host of active and passive measures to keep your family well. All feature, at the very least, dual-stage front airbags, while about half also have side airbags and head air curtains. Antilock brakes are either standard or optional. If ABS is present, it's likely complemented with electronic brake force distribution (4Runner, XC90, GX 470, Aviator, Navigator, Expedition, Forester). Emergency brake assist (EBA) that automatically applies full ABS mode when an emergency stop is detected is also widespread. About half have some manner of stability control, and a couple even recognize when they're being driven off-road and adjust the ABS, traction, and stability programs appropriately to allow more unlimited mobility and larger range of unfettered driver control (HUMMER H2, Toyota 4Runner, Lexus GX 470). Three-point belts for all seating positions are now de rigueur, as are (ISO-fix or LATCH) child-seat anchoring systems.
In addition to stability-control systems and sophisticated traction control, all three Ford/Lincoln products (Expedition, Aviator, Navigator) are fitted with a late-availability option called Safety Canopy. If the system senses an imminent rollover, the A- to C-pillar side air curtains inflate and remain so for several seconds to lessen the possibility of injuries to first- and second-row occupants.
The Subaru Forester, Toyota 4Runner, and Lexus GX 470 offer a hill-start assist that uses brakes to maintain position on a steep grade, while the 4Runner and GX 470 also provide hill-descent control that uses the brakes to maintain a safe and slow speed down a steep trail.
As a Volvo, the XC90 is expected to be safe, and it is: Computer-monitored roll-over detection and intervention, head protection airbags for all three rows of outboard occupants (an industry first), pyrotechnic three-point seatbelt pretensioners at all positions (including third row), and an integrated child-booster seat that actually puts your most important passenger in precisely the safest position in the vehicle--the center. And in case your trip into the woods turns out more literal than imagined, the XC90 is built with an exceptionally strong, crush-resistant roof.
Performance
If this were the 2003 Motor Trend Sports Car of the Year, track performance would likely be the most important evaluation. Yet we still need to sort out the field with some hard numbers, and we discovered there were some stand-out performances in this diverse and unlikely group. You can refer to the Performance Data chart for all the specifics, but the hot-rod proved to be the newly V-8-equipped Toyota 4Runner, posting the quickest (7.8-sec) 0-60 mph and (15.9-sec) quarter-mile times, followed closely by the Lincoln Aviator V-8 (8.1 sec) and, admirably, the Honda Pilot V-6 (8.2 sec). The only vehicle that stopped in less than 130 ft from 60 mph was the Volvo, with the majority falling in the 130-140-ft range, which is completely acceptable--even for midsize sedans. Two of the five that required more than 140 ft weren't equipped with optional ABS, and the other three weighed over 5000 lb.
In the handling/road-holding tests, Mitsubishi's Lancer-based Outlander held its head up, posting both the highest speed in the 600-ft slalom test (61.7 mph), as well as best lateral acceleration (0.79 g) on the skidpad. Both of the car-based Subarus also were adept handlers, but the Volvo XC90 demonstrated exceptional poise and control in both tests, as well. Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the Lincolns. While their skidpad numbers would suggest typical SUV abilities, we were pleasantly surprised by both the Aviator's and three-ton Navigator's slalom speeds at 59.2 and 59.4 mph, respectively. Our test driver didn't believe the timer when he reported those speeds over the two-way radio.
Objective track numbers are only half the story. Driving in normal conditions, we came away with subjective impressions and respect for several vehicles' dynamic performance. As each editor cycled through the vehicle rotation, a similar refrain came from the uninitiated Hummer H2 commander. In fact, one editor wrote in the logbook, "Really oddly competent at very high speeds. Did I imagine it, or did I just toss this truck around mountain corners like a 6400-lb Miata?
We especially appreciated the Lexus GX 470's adjustable-damping shock absorbers, which dial from pillowy soft to firm and sporty with a rotary knob on the center console.
Despite being based on a stretched version of last year's winner, the GMC Envoy, the Isuzu Ascender was undersprung and too apt to oversteer for our liking. A V-8-equipped version will eat up hundreds of freeway miles while pulling your 7200-lb boat, but don't ask it to compete in an autocross.
Oddly, there are divergent reviews of the handling characteristics of the Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition. Though they're essentially the same vehicle under the skin, it's obvious the Navigator received far more attention in the ride-and-handling department. Where the Navigator feels incomprehensibly lithe and nimble, the Expedition "feels heavy, tight, and loose at the same time." The Ford produces an equally crisp turn-in, then pauses, and leans far more than the Lincoln in the same corners. How did Lincoln get it so right and Ford--well, not so much? The same can be said of the current Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. They feel like completely different vehicles even though they are not.
Not since the introduction of the BMW X5 have our editors mentioned "fun to drive" and "sport/utility" in the same sentence. In fact, one editor put it this way: "Nothing in this field feels more like a 'total package' than the XC90. Enormous functionality, great motors, and handling at the supreme level--all at a base price under $40,000."
Last, we all stepped out of the Honda Element with grins plastered across our faces. Its no-nonsense boxy shape never suggested we'd find it fun to drive, but we were happily proven wrong. With its Civic Si-style dashboard-mounted manual shifter (in FWD trim), peppy VTEC engine, and happily tossable chassis, the Element is "tons of fun to drive. Not a lot of power--but enough--with great balance and response." Similarly positive evaluations went to the Mitsubishi Outlander.
Photo 7/16   |   2003 Lexus Gx 470 Suv front
Off-Road Competence
No doubt, there are numerous studies that suggest most owners will never take an SUV off-road. Be that as it may, when Motor Trend evaluates Sport/Utility of the Year candidates, we feel obligated to find their limitations, however high or low they may be. Until so-called all-weather crossovers arrive en masse in the forthcoming years, we will continue to pit machine against mountain--may the greater one win.
With the same boyish glee we reserve for track testing a new sports car, we eagerly anticipated off-road testing the formidable Hummer H2. So confident were we of its abilities, the off-road rescue kit (with requisite tow straps) lived in the H2's cargo bay. We're happy to report that there's not a single hill, rut, ledge, or chasm the H2 doesn't simply devour. Case closed.
Likewise, we expected much of the 4Runner and GX 470 and are equally impressed. With their center lockers and hill-decent systems in full use, they come in second only to the H2.
Despite the sizeable shadow cast by the Ford Expedition, it also makes an excellent showing. With sheer brute force, an ultra-low gear ratio, and a new traction-control system, the lumbering giant is able to climb all but the narrowest of trails.
Kia's Sorento exceeded our expectations with the one exception of a rather low break-over angle that could lead to getting stuck in a high-center situation.
Photo 8/16   |   2003 Lincoln Aviator Suv interior
On to more interesting cases. We didn't expect much from the Honda Element, but found it at least as capable as most people will need it to be. It had trouble only when a wheel lost contact with the trail or if we asked it to go up an extremely steep and silty path. We discovered the same to be true of all the AWD vehicles equipped with viscous couplings (rather than dedicated 4WD systems) as in the Outlander, Baja, and Forester.
The most memorable moment of our off-road test came when we pointed the Volvo XC90 up a trail only the most dedicated trucks tackled. With stoic Scandinavian reserve, the five-cylinder SUV methodically plodded up the trail--not once, but three times to ensure it wasn't a fluke. To measure how great a feat this was, we attempted to run the H2 up the same hill in street mode (four-wheel drive in high range, but without locking the differentials). It didn't make it. No joke. However, simply putting the H2 in Low range allowed it to easily make the rest of the climb.
Photo 9/16   |   2003 Lincoln Navigator Suv rear Open
Styling & Design
"Styling" is how it looks and "design" is how it works. The two are inexorably tied together, and what looks cool might not work well, and vice versa. That said, we're presented with an eclectic bunch of SUVs. This year, it appears traditional styling is reserved for the domestic brands. The most unusual take on both design and styling came from the Japanese contingent with the Honda Element, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Subaru Baja.
Photo 10/16   |   112 0212 Suvoy 19z 2003 Lincoln Navigator Suv Runner
The Element is designed for an active crowd who'd likely lean mountain bikes, snow and/or surfboards, and themselves against the side of the vehicle, hence the not easily ignored composite side cladding--not particularly attractive, but highly functional. The design group also should get a collective pat on the back for their ability to incorporate the entire B-pillar (from ceiling to floor) into the rear-hinged door. Doing so, and employing gymnastic seats and a very low floor, enables loading an enormous package (a big-screen TV?) through the side of the vehicle. As utilitarian as the Element is, however, we're not sure if the American market will embrace this form-follows-function rationale.The question inevitably arose, "From what element on the periodic table is the Honda Element made?" "Quirkium," was the answer. Additionally, some editors simply couldn't resist repeating the already-hackneyed pun, "I'm out of my Element," far too often, perhaps as an indication of a generation gap or being out of the intended demographic.
Part sedan, part pickup, the Subaru Baja is similarly positioned for the active crowd. It offers a nifty "Switchback" passthrough bulkhead that extends the load floor to over 6 ft when the rear seats are folded flat and the bed extender is used. It's a neat feature, but the opening is small and the rear window stays in place--unlike in the Chevrolet Avalanche. Most editors agreed they'd rather pay for a much-needed turbocharger than the Switchback.
In making a statement nobody can ignore, nothing short of the original HUMMER H1 (or Dodge Viper) garners as much attention as the new H2. Everywhere we stopped, crowds would gather around the H2, literally ignoring the other 13 new SUVs. Not since the New Beetle or Thunderbird has a design team so nailed the spirit of its forebear, yet shared so little in the final execution with such alacrity. What's more, you'd never guess a Suburban lives beneath its T-square-straight flanks, but one drive in it will make you a believer.
Finally, there was unanimous agreement that the Lincoln Aviator is a better-looking, better-proportioned Navigator, inside and out. However, some felt the Mini Me styling shouldn't be wholly congratulated and that it could almost be considered a fortuitous accident. As with the infamously styled Pontiac Aztek, the outrageous theme better suits the smaller, Vibe-size scale.
Photo 11/16   |   2003 Mitsubishi Outlander Suv cargo
Interior
Styling, performance, and image aside, the interior is where you live. How well an SUV works on the inside is at least as important as how well it works from the outside, perhaps even more so. Ironically, most people buy the image of an SUV rather than a vehicle suited to their actual needs--and only later find it uncomfortable, too big, too small, or maddening to operate.
Utilizing an existing platform, Honda shows unusual daring and creativity in its urban-specific Element. We applaud this risk-taking mechanical marvel. The inside is wet-weather, active-lifestyle-friendly with side-by-side sleeper second-row seats. Its aforementioned cargo box-on-wheels purposefulness is apparent at first glance, but there are also Gen-Y accoutrements such as a 270-watt CD stereo with an MP3 player input jack.
Similarly, the Honda Pilot is aimed at a specific demographic to which it's appropriately well suited. As Honda's version of an Acura MDX, the Pilot's interior is more family-friendly--more Honda. A DVD screen pops out of the headliner, there are cubbies and storage compartments a-plenty, plus an intuitively designed dashboard that takes only a glance to find just the right function--all important things to a driving parent.
Volvo takes a similar tack, but ups the ante with a bit more European style and flair. Our first impression of its comfortable seating and highly stylized cabin was good, but the longer we lived with the XC90, the more we grew to love it. The Volvo is a multiconfigurable family hauler (with one of the most innovative disappearing third-row seats ever) that won't make its owners embarrassed to chauffeur their adult friends around town. The second row of three-across seating is independently adjustable (fore/aft and seatback angle), and the center seat inconspicuously hides the child booster. There are independent audio controls with headphone jacks and climate-control vents for all positions. Not since Audi set the benchmark for interior execution has any maker come this close to thoughtful, tasteful utility. This is truly a superior achievement.
Both Lincoln entries finally have met the challenge of presenting an interior that says "American luxury" rather than "tarted-up Ford." The look is Lincoln-appropriate, however, the ergonomics, especially in the Aviator, leave some of us questioning why certain issues weren't resolved. Most of us find ourselves staring through the top of the windshield and feel as if the driver's seat should be able to be lowered farther than is possible. It's curious that, although the power fore/aft, up/down controller is conveniently mounted on the door panel, the seatback angle is manually adjusted from somewhere down at the cramped intersection of the seat and door post.
Photo 12/16   |   112 0212 Suvoy 25z 2003 Subaru Baja Suv Bed
Fit, Finish, & Materials
This is a category where a careful observer will be able to detect how much time and money were spent on the final execution of a vehicle. Sure, it's how the door sounds when it's closed. But it's also in the choice of seat coverings, dash materials, carpets, and headliners. Even the width of body panel gaps and application of paint speak volumes about a manufacturer's tolerance for mediocrity or striving for quality. Certainly, higher-priced vehicles should display higher levels of quality, but even such value-conscious veterans as Honda know how to get the job done well.
There were no egregious offenders, but there was foggy, inconsistent metallic paint on the Isuzu Ascender, unexpectedly flimsy, creaky interior bits in the Hummer H2 (particularly the meaty-looking shift lever), and questionable durability of the matte-metallic paint bathing the Lincolns' interiors.
Toyota and Lexus products are already well known for their superior fit and finish, and neither the 4Runner nor the GX 470 will disappoint this year. Tight seams and mirror finishes with nary a sharp-edged mold seam are evident throughout. However, choice of materials is still less lustrous, more mainstream than others' among this year's contestants. Even compared to the well-crafted Subaru Forester, the Toyota isn't particularly unique. The GX 470, however, does place high-quality genuine wood trim to good effect.
Both Hondas showed attention to detail with the funky-rubbery textures in the Element and with the Pilot's durable, netted, no-nonsense interior. Both wore painstakingly tight gaps and clean paint jobs.
Execution in Ford's Expedition is workaday honest, as its F-150 roots would suggest. With one of the most robust front grille/bumpers in the business, this ain't no flimsy, SUV pretender.It's the real thing.
The Volvo XC90 sounds and feels like a high-end European product, the likes of which you'd find in Mercedes-Benz, BMW, or Audi showrooms. The Volvo features vault-like doors, interior and exterior lighting that would suit an art gallery, and leather that's both supple and obviously thick enough to wear well. The mix of materials and textures is subtle and tasteful. "Top notch" was heard more than a few times.
Value
A most-improved-player acknowledgement must be given to the Korean manufacturer Kia for its all-new Sorento. While it lacks the technological tour de force or sophistication of some American, European, or Japanese marques, the Sorento can be pronounced a serious player in the small-to-midsize SUV arena--especially at this price point. Every editor found its full-frame chassis, longitudinal V-6, and four-wheel-drive architecture sound. This points the Sorento well on its way to widespread recognition. Kia is still a few years and a few million South Korean Won behind in terms of package development, but you can't argue with the under-$20,000 price and 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty.
Known for value, the Hondas continue their family tradition with the unusual new Element offering far more vehicle than you'd expect in the $16,000-$21,000 range.
We've praised the Hummer H2 for being all the Hummer H1 anybody would ever need for almost half the price--plus being a far more liveable vehicle to boot. Still, about $50,000 is a great deal to pay for the privilege of saying you've got both the visual impact and the necessary hardware to back up the title as the world's most capable SUV.
Photo 13/16   |   112 0212 Suvoy 29z 2003 Toyota 4runner Suv Trunk
With about a $5000 difference between a fully loaded V-8 4Runner and a base-priced (nearly identically equipped) Lexus GX 470, why would anybody pay the extra money? Lexus has earned the respect and market share it deserves, but that italic L badge and some real wood shouldn't cost that much more than a Toyota of similar quality and capability. Consolation arrives at resale time as Lexus owners can attest to their vehicle's ability to hold onto value.
The same relative value argument could be made for both Lincolns in comparison to their Ford counterparts. The Aviator and Navigator have superior dynamics to the Explorer and Expedition. But look at what your dollar really gets you besides a few distinguishing styling and hardware elements, and the Lincolns get pricey--especially fully loaded with options.
Volvo has thrown a curve at the SUV market with the XC90. Rather than aiming at the mainstream market already crowded with Jeep Grand Cherokees, Chevrolet TrailBlazers, and Ford Explorers, it's squared off with Acura, BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz. For a base of around $34,000 for a front-drive turbo-five-equipped example, buyers will be happy to find superior safety, quality, and even off-road abilities compared to its contemporaries'. Combine all this with a fresh new face that is quintessentially Volvo, and the XC90 is destined for great success.
Significant Others
Making a tough decision tougher
One of the unique aspects of Motor Trend's Sport/Utility of the Year award is that it's given to a single winner: No "Top 10," "Best in Class," or "Best Sport/Utility with 14-in. Wheels and Velvet Upholstery." Although there can be only one victor, a few competitors do earn special mention. Straddling the field at opposite ends of the spectrum, the Hummer H2 and Honda Element demonstrated significant advances from their polar-opposite camps. Likewise, we were impressed with the dead-center-bull's-eye Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX 470.
When word came that GM would employ its full-size sport/utility chassis as the basis for the Hummer H2, many fussed that it would be something less than the Real Deal--another overpromiser that under-delivers. After weeks of trying to break this thing (not to mention our Alaska to Florida adventure showcased at www.motortrend .com/hummer) we can tell that the H2 does indeed over-promise. Fear not: It over-delivers, too.
In terms of off-road prowess, the H2 proved far and away the most capable player in this year's contest, which we expected. It has loads of suspension travel, more-than-adequate approach and departure angles, terrain-rated tires, and ample torque, thanks to its Vortec 6000 engine. What we didn't expect was its high everyday liveability factor. It rides well. It's comfortable. It's reasonably quiet. It doesn't squeak or rattle. It has reasonable cargo capacity. It doesn't handle like the military-inspired meat locker it resembles. Though the 315-hp V-8 has a lot of weight to move and returns less than inspiring fuel mileage, it accelerates strongly. The H2 turns in smartly, offers commendably little body roll, and goes around corners as well as many SUVs with only half its off-road capability. And its look never fails to elicit smiles, waves, and thumbs-ups from everyone who sees it. Though it's not cheap (about $50,000, nicely equipped), most onlookers thought it cost more. If you like it, you'll love it. We sure did.
As long as we're praising boxlike sport/utes, we can't help but recognize the worthy accomplishment that is the Honda Element. Manufacturers continue to find interesting ways to maximize space and utility within similarly sized packages, and the Element is an innovative example of how to do it right. The front/rear hinged doors open wide, and with no B-pillar or central post, the cab also opens wide to allow easy access for passengers and cargo. The rear seats are hinged for quick and easy fold-away or removal. Kudos to Honda for well-thought-out and attractive use of materials, too; the upholstery, floor coverings, and various plastics are tactile and attractive. Its maximum cargo capacity of 77.1 cu ft outdoes many other sport/utilities', and its youth-oriented, attitude-laced design keeps it from attracting any of the negative stigma associated with a minivan.
Photo 14/16   |   suv 32z Group hill View
Elemental Surprise No. 2: It's fun to drive. With a 160-hp VTEC-equipped inline-four, you wouldn't expect too much. But acceleration is more than adequate for most situations, especially in two-wheel-drive/five-speed-manual form. While the Element isn't as nimble as the smaller/lower/lighter Civic Si, it's a relative hoot to hustle through mountain passes and offers a smooth, nicely controlled highway ride. For all its practicality and outer space-inspired attitude, the Element throws one additional trump card: value. In base form, it runs around $16,000. Fully loaded, it tops out around $21,000. Although Honda plans to spend most of its marketing dollars on Gen-X and younger buyers, we feel it'll find popularity with anyone--even more "mature" types--looking for a funky, cost-effective way to move people and stuff.
Photo 15/16   |   112 0212 Suv33 Z
Proving that outstanding execution is just as important as breakthrough innovation, the Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX 470 also caught our collective eye. Neither accomplishes anything particularly new; it's just that they so well accomplish what they intend to. While the two share many platform, chassis, and powertrain components, each model has unique sheetmetal and interiors.
In plain and simple terms, these trucks just work.
Photo 16/16   |   suv 21z Group front High View
Though of body-on-frame design, they feel tight and solid, delivering more carlike handling and ride than one might expect of vehicles with relatively high tow-ratings and a real 4WD system. The engines are smooth and powerful with the 4Runner getting its first-ever V-8. Likewise, the transmissions always seem to be in the right gear at the right time. Toyota takes a "metallic-tech" approach to the 4Runner's interior, while Lexus goes heavy on the polished wood and leather. Each looks and feels appropriate to its respective brand. The 4Runner is a bit wider than the version it replaces, while the GX 470 slots neatly in between the car-based RX 300 and the larger, more expensive LX 470.
Each should find ready acceptance in the marketplace and is an easy-to-point-to definition of a job well done.
--Matt Stone
Worth Mentioning
Ford Expedition: Power folding third-row seats
Honda Pilot: Front seatback net-style pockets
Honda Element: Pillarless-side cargo-loading access, rear seats that fold up and out of the way or remove altogether
Hummer H2: Air-adjustable rear suspension, auxiliary air-pump-inflator hose, unique single-passenger third-row seat, industrial-strength tow rings, aircraft-throttle style shifter, front-hinged hood w/grab handles, locking differentials
Kia Sorento: Digital altimeter, digital barometer
Lexus GX 470: Side-hinged rear-cargo gate with built-in tool kit, side-stowing third-row seats
Lincoln Aviator: Cargo-door glass opens separately from cargo door, Navigator-style dash layout (reminiscent of early '60s Lincoln sedan dual-pod dashes), console-mounted window switches
Lincoln Navigator: Power running boards, '60s-Lincoln-look dash (see Aviator), entertainment console hinged cover, console-mounted window switches, power-folding third-row seats
Mitsubishi Outlander: Cotton suede-look upholstery, thick aluminum look roof-rack rails
Subaru Forester: Huge moonroof, frameless door glass, "hill-holder"
Subaru Baja: Cargo bed extender, frameless door glass, cargo bed pass-through, fold-down rear license plate (for open tailgate running)
Toyota 4Runner: Two-level rear cargo shelf for full-width flat storage (plywood) over wheelwells and storage underneath
Volvo XC90: Independently adjustable second-row adult and child seats, disappearing third-row seats, removable center console, in-dash MiniDisc player, 70/30 split cargo gate
Performance DATA
 0-60 mph, secQuarter mile, sec @ mphBraking, 60-0 mph, ft{{{200}}}-ft skidpad, g{{{600}}}-ft slalom, mph
{{{Ford}}} {{{Expedition}}}10.317.2 @ 81.11440.7055.7
{{{Honda}}} {{{Element}}}10.817.6 @ 78.81390.7559.4
Honda {{{Pilot}}}8.216.1 @ 85.81370.72{{{57}}}.8
{{{Hummer}}} {{{H2}}}10.217.3 @ {{{80}}}.01510.6452.2
{{{Isuzu Ascender}}}9.016.5 @ 84.61430.6755.7
{{{Kia}}} {{{Sorento}}}10.117.3 @ 79.3152*0.7058.9
Lexus GX 4708.316.2 @ 84.41340.6658.8
Lincoln Aviator8.116.0 @ 88.91390.7159.2
Lincoln Navigator10.017.1 @ 82.71390.7159.4
{{{Mitsubishi}}} {{{Outlander}}}12.318.5 @ 73.0142*0.7961.7
{{{Subaru}}} {{{Baja}}}9.617.0 @ 80.71330.7559.9
Subaru {{{Forester}}}8.616.2 @ 84.41350.6959.3
{{{Toyota}}} {{{4Runner}}}7.815.9 @ 85.61350.6857.1
{{{Volvo}}} {{{XC90}}} T68.916.4 @ 86.71280.7460.2
* Not equipped with optional ABS

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