Luxury SUVs: Four Score

What happens when a quarter-million-dollar quartet of luxo 'utes meets head on?

Greg R. Whale
Oct 20, 2002
Photographers: James Brown, David Newhardt
When the Range Rover first arrived on American shores in 1987, it arguably began the luxury-utility segment. Now most luxury brands have an SUV - some more than one - and new players join the field each year. So, for only the third time in its 31-year history, the Range Rover has been redesigned. At the same time, the relatively recent Lincoln Navigator has also undergone a thorough transformation (when was the last time a Lincoln won a performance aspect of a comparison test?). Lexus, which was in its infancy in 1987, has established the LX 470 as its luxury full-size 'ute, and Mercedes-Benz added the G-Class last year.
Land Rover Range Rover
Unlike previous Range Rovers, the '03 model is a monocoque design with three steel subframes. The hood, front fenders, and doors are part of the extensive use of aluminum for weight reduction, though the bigger, gadget-laden '03 Range Rover is hundreds of pounds heavier than its predecessor.
Styling is a moderated interpretation of contemporary retro, with round headlights, low, wide hood with central valley, black-out roof pillars, low beltline, split tailgate, and upswept rear-quarter panels. The side gills are said to vent engine heat (though we couldn't tell how), and for the first time in memory, the wheels had an even number of spokes. We noticed family resemblances to the Mini in the taillights and to the X5 in the mirrors, and the optional bi-Xenon headlamps are best of the test.
2003 Land Rover Range Rover Engine View
  |   2003 Land Rover Range Rover Engine View
The cabin is changed, with more than one tester noting it's lost the warmth and club-like charm of previous Range Rovers. There are eight different materials and finishes in view from the driver's seat, which felt like a few too many, and the wood trim is such we couldn't tell if it's cherry or burled walnut. Given that the ergonomics in an X5 are good, we understand why the gauge panel, tilt-down LCD screen, window and seat switches, and overheard console all looked so familiar. One Rover tradition we could do without are the near-incessant bells, gongs, beeps, and warning buzzers.
Amenities and switches abound in the Rover, with 13 buttons on the thick-rim steering wheel alone. Seats are comfortable, piped power buckets (10-way driver, six passenger), and heat is a group option for front, rear, and the steering wheel. The split-folding rear seat has a flat floor, with traditional heavy rubber interlocking floormats, but now with aluminum trim on the corners. Entry and exit are simplified by doors that open well into the sill, and cargo is readily accessed.
Features include a CD changer behind the glovebox, side-curtain and front-side airbags, auto-dimming mirrors inside and out, moonroof, three-zone climate control, three-position memory system, electrically heated and UV-coated windshield (watch where you put that electronic toll transmitter), Park Distance Control, and a sophisticated locking system. Subdued lighting bathes most of the interior, including the door handles and front-door map pockets.
Standard on the Rover is a 12-speaker sound system with digital signal processing operated via the multitude of nav screen or steering-wheel controls, when good sound would be enough. The screen has tape access behind it, but no single-play CD option, and the volume is speed-sensitive as opposed to Lexus' ambient level adjustment. The nav system offers an aerial view of terrain and a breadcrumbs feature for route tracing, but it's a bit overdone and a nuisance to operate. After a lifetime turning a rotary knob clockwise to increase a level, we found it peculiar that clockwise means decreased levels in this application.
The lower half of the center stack is devoted to suspension and climate controls, shifter, and the ignition key located where Saab puts it. Like the G-Class, the Europe-bred Rover has one-touch starting, headlamp washers, front and rear foglamps, left/right-only parking lights, and side repeaters for the signals. This is also the first Range Rover with independent suspension, at both ends no less. Although it uses BMW's double-pivot lower front arm design, it shares little with an X5. The spring medium is air, with height settings automatically varied, with manual override. Double A-arms in back and Mac struts in front carry 19-in. wheels and low-profile tires to fit over 13.5-in. brakes and employ the full complement of stability- and brake-control systems.
2003 Land Rover Range Rover Interior View Steering Wheel
  |   2003 Land Rover Range Rover Interior View Steering Wheel
The Range Rover now cruises down the highway smoother than ever before and handles corners with ease and grace. Rack-and-pinion steering has improved maneuverability, turning circle, and input response, to the point the Rover will keep up with many cars on twisty roads. Some pitching and body roll is evident, though never unsettling. The stability system will take some away from enthusiast piloting, and since "switched off" isn't really off, the Rover was limited to a third-place 56.0 mph in slalom testing, down from 59.4 mph for the previous model.
The new Rover boasts more wheel travel than earlier models and handles off-road adventures with confidence. Stability is served by center of gravity, not electronics, and a Rover will go where most owners point it. The long-travel throttle has been retained, but is now electronic, and reaction varies by gear selection in the transfer case. The Rover's a mellow crawler, seldom needing more than 1500 rpm to clear any obstacle, though we did find an instance or two where the old solid-axle Rover would have done better. The front tow hook is in the center below the bumper, the part we always bury first, but the rear hook is readily available.
The Rover's V-8 pulls smoothly to its 5900-rpm redline, and shifts are seamless as power is momentarily relaxed to make the gear changes. The BMW power enables the heavier Rover to accelerate better than even the Callaway special edition, reaching 60 in 8.3 sec. Using the manual option in the CommandShift automatic doesn't improve maximum speed, only gets the driver more involved. Finally, the huge brakes are up to any stopping task from any speed and set a new 4WD record for short stops at 116 ft from 60. Match that up against an M5.
Lexus LX 470
The Lexus LX 470 is the oldest design in this group, yet has aged well and continues to offer the Lexus hallmarks of conservative, quiet, refined transportation. True, it's not as sporty as an IS or stylish as an SC, but lack of a road won't stop an LX.
A long flat hood and narrow pillars date the Lexus exterior, though it disguises its size well and is, in fact, shorter than the new Range Rover. Neon illumination for the running boards is muted and welcome, the finish work is first-class, and despite the extensive mileage on this unit nary a single squeak nor rattle emerged.
Lexus LX 470 Engine View
  |   Lexus LX 470 Engine View
Lexus does luxury well, and the LX is no exception. Leather covers the seats, console, and gathered door panels, while polished walnut looks like it came from a fine New England cabinet maker; the steering wheel is framed with both. Middle-seat room is plentiful and cargo is easily loaded and secured, though some larger pilots wished the driver's seat went a bit more rearward and had a bigger footwell. Front seats are heated and powered with two-position memory for the driver, while the middle bench splits 60/40 and the rear bench folds evenly. Lexus matches the market with at least one cupholder per person and has more grab handles than any two of the others combined. Amenities include a luminescent dash display - the only one with full instrumentation - with brightness adjustable in daylight (unlike the Navigator), smog-sensing climate control, rear climate, six-disc changer in center console, powered quarter windows, moonroof with separate switches for tilt and slide, three auto-dimming mirrors, seven-speaker sound system, and a power mast antenna that can be lowered for branches, bugs, or garages.
The standard DVD-based navigation system (or "movies in Park") does route calculations twice as fast as before - five seconds on average - and is intuitively simple to operate. One DVD-ROM stores the data and routing for the U.S and most major Canadian cities, including the Whistler resort area, and if the French language is selected all measurements are automatically converted to metric. Our unit carried the optional Mark Levinson stereo system, which provided realistically accurate sound and was unanimously voted best. Although the LX was the only wagon without in-wheel controls for the stereo and such, it's just a short reach to the console.
Underneath, the Lexus uses torsion bar independent front suspension and a coil-sprung solid rear axle. The spring rates are soft relative to the European 'utes, and combine with the only 70-series tires to minimize sharp road impacts. Isolation from road noise and imperfections is exemplary for a body-on-frame design.
Lexus LX 470 Interior View Steering Wheel
  |   Lexus LX 470 Interior View Steering Wheel
Ride height is hydraulically adjustable over three settings, and the shock damping is computer controlled. Set to Sport, the dampers are firm and ideal for twisty pavement, while the Comfort mode is pillowy soft and ideal for off-road use at speeds under 35-40 mph. The rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted, requiring only a light touch at parking speeds yet providing good feedback and resistance at higher speeds. We never mistook the LX for anything approaching sporty, yet it keeps up surprisingly well given its relaxed intentions. The skid-control system rarely made itself known on spirited road drives, yet it came into play quickly in track testing. Locking the center differential turns it off, and it just bettered the Range Rover's performance.
Lexus LX 470 Interior View Versatile Third Row Seating
  |   Lexus LX 470 Interior View Versatile Third Row Seating
Many test notes said the LX needed more ponies, but the multivalve V-8 is well-tuned for low-end torque, so the LX matched the Navigator in acceleration. The LX engine may be worked with a big trailer or high-altitude pass, but you will seldom know it because it never becomes more than a loud purr. The brakes give average distances for the class but are consistent, and the ABS functions in low-range and is tuned for off-road use, so it stops well off pavement, too.
Off-road, the Lexus shows its heritage with a big air-filter box and offset differential and proved capable with good gearing, firm shifts, and reasonably flexible suspension. A locking rear differential is no longer offered, but the big tires could be aired down for a better footprint than the others. We expect most owners won't do any black diamond stuff, and the ones that do will feel secure in their attempts.
The 2003 Navigator maintains its Lincoln look, with big chrome grille, big lights, and bigness in general. It's an imposing behemoth more than 17 ft long and right on three tons, and it represents big change. The Navigator is available in three trim levels: Luxury, Premium, and the Ultimate included here. All have new sheetmetal, frame, suspension, interior, and a refined drivetrain. Power folding mirrors aren't a recent invention, but they might be most worthy on the new Navigator. They are huge, and retracting them (without the key) means you'll be able to walk around the Navigator in your garage and not behead unsuspecting bicyclists while parked at the curb. On the Ultimate, the rear hatch and folding third seats are powered, with pop-out running boards an option. These are a neat gadget, but try them before you order.
In accordance with Lincoln tradition, the Navigator sports big, cushy bucket seats with power adjustment, memory including the powered pedals, heat, and air-conditioning. Room is such that the third row seats three and has more legroom than the back seat in the five-passenger Rover. The Lincoln can comfortably carry six real people, more if you choose the middle bench instead of the space-wasting two buckets and huge console. Everyone gets at least one cupholder, climate control, and a power window. Unlike the previous Navigator, this interior won't likely be confused with an Expedition, but there's still more plastic on the center stack than we prefer.
2003 Lincoln Navigator Engine View
  |   2003 Lincoln Navigator Engine View
Other standards on an Ultimate include HID lamps, AdvanceTrac stability system, side air curtains, six-disc changer in the side of the center console, and a wood/leather wheel with redundant climate/sound controls. The Park Distance Control calculates not only distance to an object, but reversing speed as well for the warning algorithm. Our tester also had the optional moonroof, chrome wheels, and navigation system.
Ironically, the window switches are now on the center console, where people used to complain about them in Rovers. However, all the switchgear is plainly labeled, fairly logical, and illuminated at night. The driver faces a small-diameter steering wheel, perhaps because it responds quickly, and while the navigation system is markedly improved and has one-touch functions for "here," "home," and "back" it's not quite up to the Lexus standard. The shifter has an O/D lockout inconveniently located on the back side of it, and this is the only vehicle tested that did not have a gear indicator in the dash display.
The new Navigator's suspension is as sophisticated as big 'utes get. Fully independent at both ends, it employs some of the largest aluminum control arms extant, with aluminum knuckles and forged steel upper arms in front. Bilstein monotube shocks are surrounded by air springs, but the load points are separated, and the shocks have remote reservoirs to keep fluid from overheating. The system drops when parked, automatically levels regardless of load, and yields a 104-lb reduction in rear unsprung mass. The suspension is mounted to a new frame that's 70 percent stiffer than before, allowing the suspension tuners more freedom in ride and handling setup. The new rack-and-pinion steering is quick at just 3.3 turns lock-to-lock, and the turning circle is just 8 in. more than the 11-in. shorter Range Rover. Bus-size tires and 13-in. disc brakes round out the corners.
2003 Lincoln Navigator Interior View Steering Wheel
  |   2003 Lincoln Navigator Interior View Steering Wheel
This all results in surprising aplomb for such heft, with a ride so smooth it would be called "floating" if we didn't still feel completely in control. Response to driver input is excellent as is feedback, the big Lincoln takes a set in a corner and hangs on better than anything this size should. Because switching the stability off turns it completely off, the new Navigator posted the best slalom test at over 58 mph, 2 mph better than the Lexus, and a huge 6- mph improvement over previous Navigators.
2003 Lincoln Navigator Running Board View
  |   2003 Lincoln Navigator Running Board View
The 32-valve 5.4 is the biggest engine in this bunch, but three tons and only four speeds work against it for gathering momentum. Granted, the torque converter gets the revs up immediately and the engine starts pulling at about 4000 rpm, but consider it better suited for keeping pace rather than setting it. Noise and vibration levels, be they from powertrain, road, or wind, have all been significantly reduced to luxury standards, if not Lexus standards.
The axle shaft-thru-frame IRS limits rear travel to 9.4 in. (compared to the Range Rover's 13) but this Navigator still climbed better than last year's, managing some hills in 2WD where 4WD was needed before. And with no big axle tramp from out back, the Navigator goes through quieter than before, though it will take some effort to get through the nasty stuff. We can't imagine a Navigator owner doing it, but then we couldn't imagine a Navigator handling like this, either.
Mercedes-Benz G500
Already marketing a perfectly functional, fast, luxury-oriented SUV - the ML500 - Mercedes decided last year to bring the venerable G-Class to the U.S. market. In philosophy, it's much like an early Range Rover, with superior four-wheel-drive ability coupled with luxury touches inside.
The G500 is a genuine slab-sided four-wheel drive, like an old Jeep or a Hummer. This is function over form, and the relative lack of styling makes an unmistakable, exclusive shape, even if we did refer to it as the breadvan or fridge. Regardless of looks, build and finish quality are first-rate and rattle-free.
Mercedes Benz G500 Engine View
  |   Mercedes Benz G500 Engine View
Shortest of the group by a considerable margin, the G500 is narrow and upright but don't call it small. Front-seat leg- and headroom are such that Dennis Rodman could keep any of his hats on, and after climbing into the back seat - essentially three equal buckets - you'll find head- and legroom that matches the front seats in the other three 'utes and a superior view of the countryside. Loading the G is easiest, too, with a single door and the lowest cargo floor. Anything that fits through the door will fit properly secured in the cube-shaped area because that messy spare tire is outside where it belongs.
The G500's airy cabin is typical Teutonic luxury for the most part. The burled-walnut trim is soothing to the eye or touch, and black gathered leather appears almost everywhere: The black plastic below the windows looks alright and is easy to clean, but it gets hot fast on sunny days. The seats are firm, the view to every corner is superb, and controls beyond the COMAND radio/nav/phone system are logical and easy to find. Between its low location relative to sightlines and complexity (it has its own manual) we often left the COMAND nav system alone and used the steering-wheel controls for the radio. Few options are available for a G, as they come with memory seats (heated front and rear), nine-speaker six-disc sound system, omnidirectional reading lights, sunroof large enough for a stadium, and every electronic aid known to 4WD.
As a traditional 4WD design, the G500 is all truck underneath. The massive frame allowed us to open and close doors even when it was parked on two opposing wheels, and the long radius rods are forged steel, not some lightweight stamping. A solid axle, closed knuckle in front, resides at each end, with the differential housings equally offset to the passenger side for clearing obstacles. Coil springs, anti-roll bars, track bars, crossover steering, and 18-in. alloys that somehow avoid rocks round out the package.
On the road, this translates into a relatively firm ride and predictably dull handling, neither uncomfortable nor insecure but clearly not its design priority. The steering is heavy once past parking speeds, and the circle is comparatively large, too, but this matters less since there's virtually no bodywork beyond the wheels. While you might expect the big flat windshield to make a lot of wind noise, it doesn't. Our guess is the wind hits that wall and gets pushed aside, never to touch the side of the truck again, and it allowed us to drive with the window down and carry on a conversation or listen to the radio. The big disc brakes and associated systems stop the truck in average distance, but over a series of hard stops the distance actually got shorter.
Mercedes Benz G500 Interior View Steering Wheel
  |   Mercedes Benz G500 Interior View Steering Wheel
The G500's aerodynamics and weight imply it would be slow, but a healthy 5.0L V-8 and five-speed automatic prove otherwise. From standing start or highway transition ramp, the G500 drove away from everything here, and anyone inside would know it because of the exhaust exit just ahead of the left rear wheel. Mercedes' TouchShift gearbox needs no "power" or "sport" switch for ideal performance, and manual shifts - up or down - were faster than the Rover's.
Mercedes Benz G500 Interior View Differential Control Switches
  |   Mercedes Benz G500 Interior View Differential Control Switches
Off the highway, the G shines, and you'll immediately forget anything you didn't like about it on the highway. Shift into low range on the move at 15 mph, and the solid axles let the G500 walk past everything else; locking the center differential necessarily disables stability, traction, and ABS. With the front and rear differentials locked, traction becomes limited only by the tires or your nerve. Power application for such delicate actions is simple, thanks to an easily modulated electronic throttle and a tight converter that hooks up below 1000 rpm. Even the map and cupholders are up to it, with hanging baskets to keep your beverage upright even with the truck severely tilted. The G500's trail performance earned it the only perfect 10 on the report card.
Drive Dreams
As sophisticated vehicles designed to handle a wide variety of road conditions, each of these 'utes employs full-time four-wheel drive, with only the Navigator offering basic two-wheel-drive operation as well.
The Range Rover is shifted electrically from high to low range at any speed below 10 mph (upshifts up to 30 mph). Ratios are conventional (2.70:1 low, 1:1 high), and the center differential is a Torsen unit. The front differential is mounted on the engine sump, and the axle shaft passes through it (as in the TrailBlazer). Electronic traction control applies to all four wheels.
The LX 470 system uses a mechanically lockable center differential and 50/50 torque split default. The 2.49:1 low-range is engaged by a butter-soft console-mounted lever, and traction control uses both brake and throttle. ABS intervention decreases with slope and road roughness.
Choice is key to the Navigator's ControlTrac, with four drive modes available. In 4 Auto, an electronically controlled clutch pack determines front/rear torque split, and vacuum-operated hub locks engage the front wheels. The magnesium transfer box has 2.62:1 low-range, engaged by a dash-mounted rotary switch. Traction control eliminates the throttle intervention aspect when in that range.
The G500 has four-wheel-traction control like the others for highway use, and a lockable center differential, but goes two steps further with a locking differential front and rear for trail use (traction control is no substitute for locking diffs). Low-range is dash-switched at any speed below 15 mph, and the ratio of 2.16:1 compares to others 2.5:1 because of the overdrive high-range (0.87:1).

Final Score
Buyers in this market tend to be demanding, and all these vehicles should meet realistic expectations in every aspect of ownership. The new Range Rover is a high-tech piece worthy of Windows masters, delightful on the road, and sold in low volumes. The LX 470 remains faithful to those qualities Lexus buyers prefer: conservative, reliable, capable, luxurious, and utterly quiet. The Navigator gets our vote for most improved, and the people responsible should get a gold star. It's a versatile, roomy, comfortable bus with great road manners and a decent buy at $10/pound. And the exclusive G500 goes well, laughs at rocky roads, yet has all the features anticipated by the most demanding technophiles. A hard look at your own needs and requirements will ultimately make the choice, but for our money, the new Range Rover sets the pace.

2015 Land Rover Range Rover Specifications

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Fair Market Price $82,357
MSRP $83,495
Editors' Overall Rating
Mileage 17 City / 23 Highway
Engine 3.0L V6
Horse Power 340 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 332 ft lb of torque @ 3,500 rpm
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Land Rover Range Rover

Fair Market Price
$82,357
Editors' Overall Rating
Basic Specifications
MSRP: $83,495
Mileage: 17 / 23
Engine: 3.0L V6
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