2006 Sport/Utility of the Year Road Test & Review

We were surprised. We were impressed. And, yes, we were disappointed, too.

Angus MacKenzieFeb 21, 2006
The Dirty Dozen? Well, at least they looked that way after a day negotiating the sand traps, frame-twisters, hungry rocks, and rutted hills of our off-road evaluation course. Heat and dust and the sound of engines working hard: It must be Sport/Utility of the Year time again.
Twelve contenders made the cut for this year's judging, their widely varying technical specifications and packaging reflecting the diversity of a market segment that's come a long way from the days when four-wheel drive was a necessity for farmers, soldiers, and intrepid adventurers rather than a suburban-lifestyle statement. Engines included an I-5, a flat-six, and a bunch of V-6s. We had V-8s, too, including one with quad cams, a supercharger, 390 horsepower, and a Jaguar pedigree. We had live axles with leaf springs, live axles with coil springs, independent suspension, and air suspension. Transmissions? They ranged from four to seven--count 'em--speeds, some with low-range transfer cases, some without. Some of our contenders seated five, others seven. As-tested prices ranged from under $24,000 to more than $75,000.
They were an international bunch, too, reflecting the complex globalization of the auto industry and the U.S. market. One contender was all-Japanese (Suzuki Grand Vitara), two were all-Korean (Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage), and three were all-American (the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer twins and Hummer H3). And before you ask about the Jeep Commander, remember the Jeep guys ultimately report to Stuttgart these days. Still, in a nice piece of symmetry, the all-new Mercedes ML is bolted together near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Building sport/utes is clearly an American specialty: Despite their Japanese badges, both the Nissan Xterra and Subaru B9 Tribeca are made here (Canton, Mississippi, and Lafayette, Indiana, respectively), and while the bright-orange Range Rover Sport may be British-built, the beancounters who approved it call Dearborn home. But it's Pontiac's Torrent that gives us a real glimpse of the auto industry's New World Order: The V-6 under its hood is made in China.
Twelve contenders, 11 judges. Technical inspections (would you believe only two of the contenders arrived with tires inflated to the correct pressures?) were followed by three days of track testing. Then came three more days of back-to-back drives around a 35.6-mile road loop and our compact, but challenging, off-road evaluation course--all interspersed with the sort of tire-kicking, hood-slamming, seat-folding, and cupholder-counting needed to really get under the skin of each vehicle.
We were surprised. We were impressed. And, yes, we were disappointed, too. But, as always, the process led us to the winner. Even if it wasn't the vehicle many of us initially expected it to be. Here are the players.

Photo 2/2   |   Click above image for a larger readable chart.

2006 Ford Explorer
Base price range $27,175-$36,585
As-tested price $42,715 (V-8 Eddie Bauer 4WD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD/AWD/4WD, 5-7 passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 4.6L/292-hp/300 lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 5054 lb (52/48%)
Wheelbase 113.7 in
Length x width x height 193.4 x 73.7 x 72.8 in
Max cargo capacity 83.7 cu ft
Max towing capacity 7050 lb
0-60 mph 8.0 sec
Quarter mile 16.0 sec @ 86.8 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 137 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.68 g avg
600-foot slalom 57.4 mph avg
MT figure eight 30.4 sec @ 0.50 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 14/20 mpg
To sum up Now the strong, silent type, but still soft at heart.

2006 Hummer H3
Base price $29,500
As-tested price $38,785
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.5L/220-hp/225 lb-ft DOHC 20-valve I-5
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 4943 lb (50/50%)
Wheelbase 111.9 in
Length x width x height 186.7 x 74.7 x 74.5 in
Max cargo capacity 55.7 cu ft
Max towing capacity 4500 lb
0-60 mph 11.3
Quarter mile 17.7 sec @ 77.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 139 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.68 g avg
600-foot slalom 54.0 mph
MT figure eight 30.9 sec @ 0.48 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 16/19 mpg
To sum up The looks of an H2 with the performance of an H1.

2006 Jeep Commander
Base price range $27,985-$38,900
As-tested price $41,920 (Limited 4WD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD/4WD, 7-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L/330-hp/375 lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 5265 lb (51/49%)
Wheelbase 109.5 in
Length x width x height 188.5 x 74.8 x 71.9 in
Max cargo capacity 68.9 cu ft
Max towing capacity 7200 lb
0-60 mph 7.9 sec
Quarter mile 15.8 sec @ 86.8 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 140 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.70 g avg
600-foot slalom 55.7 mph
MT figure eight 29.5 sec @ 0.54 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 13/18 mpg
To sum up Fails to do the one thing it was supposedly designed to do.

2006 Hyundai Tucson
Base price range $18,095-$23,795
As-tested price $24,000 (est V-6 AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.7L/173-hp/178 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 3728 lb (59/41%)
Wheelbase 103.5 in
Length x width x height 170.3 x 72.1 x 66.1 in
Max cargo capacity 65.5 cu ft
Max towing capacity 2000 lb
0-60 mph 10.7 sec
Quarter mile 17.6 sec @ 78.1 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 130 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.71 g avg
600-foot slalom 60.6 mph avg
MT figure eight 30.5 sec @ 0.49 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 19/24 mpg
To sum up If GM built this, then it's finally got it.

2006 Kia Sportage
Base price range$16,490-$22,590
As-tested price $23,965
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD/4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.7L/173-hp/178 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 3739 lb (59/41%)
Wheelbase 103.5 in
Length x width x height 171.3 x 70.9 x 66.7 in
Max cargo capacity 66.6 cu ft
Max towing capacity 2000 lb
0-60 mph 10.3 sec
Quarter mile 17.2 sec @ 79.4 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 130 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.72 g avg
600-foot slalom 60.7 mph avg
MT figure eight 30.1 sec @ 0.51 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 19/23 mpg
To sum up A first-rate Kia no longer means traveling second-class.

2006 Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Base price range $56,750-$69,750
As-tested price $75,150 (SC)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 4.2L/390-hp/410 lb-ft supercharged DOHC 32-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 5859 lb (49/51%)
Wheelbase 108.0 in
Length x width x height 188.5 x 75.9 x 71.5 in
Max cargo capacity 71.0 cu ft
Max towing capacity 7718 lb
0-60 mph 7.1 sec
Quarter mile 15.2 sec @ 92.8 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 112 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.78 g avg
600-foot slalom 57.6 mph avg
MT figure eight 28.2 sec @ 0.59 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 13/18 mpg
To sum up Less weight/more power here will give the Cayenne a headache.

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-class
Base price range$40,525-$49,275
As-tested price $63,515 (ML500)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.0L/302-hp/339 lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-8
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 4973 lb (52/48%)
Wheelbase 114.7 in
Length x width x height 188.5 x 75.2 x 71.5 in
Max cargo capacity 72.4 cu ft
Max towing capacity 5000 lb
0-60 mph 6.6 sec
Quarter mile 14.7 sec @ 94.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 122 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.77 g avg
600-foot slalom 59.5 mph avg
MT figure eight 28.5 sec @ 0.59 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 14/19 mpg
To Sum upForget rock-climbing. This is about social-climbing.

2006 Mercury Mountaineer
Base price range$29,795-$36,145
As-tested price $40,205 (Premier V-8 AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD/AWD, 5- or 7-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 4.6L/292-hp/300 lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-8
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 5075 lb (52/48%)
Wheelbase 113.7 in
Length x width x height 193.5 in x 73.5 in x 72.8 in
Max cargo capacity 82.8 cu ft
Max towing capacity 6980 lb
0-60 mph 8.2 sec
Quarter mile 16.1 sec @ 86.3 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 137 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.71 g avg
600-foot slalom 53.8 mph avg
MT figure eight 30.3 sec @ 0.52 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 14/20 mpg
To sum up Ain't no mountain high enough? Don't you believe it.

2006 Pontiac Torrent
Base price range$22,990-$24,890
As-tested price $29,125 (AWD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.4L/185-hp/210 lb-ft OHV 12-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 3791 lb (57/43%)
Wheelbase 112.5 in
Length x width x height 188.8 x 71.4 x 67.0 in
Max cargo capacity 68.6 cu ft
Max towing capacity 3500 lb
0-60 mph 9.0 sec
Quarter mile 16.6 sec @ 83.0 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 128 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.77 g avg
600-foot slalom 58.6 mph avg
MT figure eight 29.0 sec @ 0.55 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 18/23 mpg
To sum up The most exciting thing about it is the name.

2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca
Base price range$31,320-$34,520
As-tested price $39,336 (7-pass LTD)
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 7-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.0L/250-hp/219 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve flat-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 4281 lb (54/46%)
Wheelbase 108.2 in
Length x width x height 189.8 x 73.9 x 66.5 in
Max cargo capacity 74.4 cu ft
Max towing capacity 3500 lb
0-60 mph 9.3
Quarter mile 17.0 sec @ 83.1 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 125 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.76 g avg
600-foot slalom 58.9 mph avg
MT figure eight 29.0 sec @ 0.57 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 18/23 mpg
To sum up Tries to be all things to all people and ends up satisfying no one.

2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara
Base price range$19,594-$25,294
As-tested price $25,294
Vehicle layout Front engine, 4WD, 4-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.7L/185-hp/184 lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight, f/r dist 3709 lb (51/49%)
Wheelbase 103.9 in
Length x width x height 176.0 x 71.3 x 66.7 in
Max cargo capacity 68.9 cu ft
Max towing capacity 3000 lb
0-60 mph 9.5 sec
Quarter mile 17.0 sec @ 80.1 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 122
Lateral acceleration 0.69 g avg
600-foot slalom 59.9 mph avg
MT figure eight 30.3 sec @ 0.51 g avg
EPA city/hwy fuel economy 19/23 mpg
To sum up An improvement. But the Koreans are improving faster.
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