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Roughing It with Style

Whether you call them SUV's, SAV's or sport-utes, off-road-capable vehicles are getting as luxe as their on-road cousins
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

I am 19 miles from nowhere, deep in the jungles of Belize, smoke from countless wildfires swirling into the skies from almost every direction. The Blancaneaux Lodge isn't a place you'd likely stumble across on your own, even if you've somehow found yourself in the middle of this dot of a country. It's actually the private hideaway of director Francis Ford Coppola, who discovered the hidden retreat during a tour of the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, a national park, back in 1981. I spent the night in a thatched roof hut, listening to the gurgle of a fast-moving mountain stream.

Now, as dawn beckons, my group and I are on our way to a cave our guides uncovered only a few months ago. Sealed and forgotten for an estimated 1,200 years, it holds a collection of rare, unbroken Mayan pottery. Normally smashed as part of the vanished civilization's ritual sacrifices, these urns were unexpectedly left whole, the cave hurriedly abandoned. So with adventure awaiting, we load our gear and head off on the narrow, washboard road that winds its way through what passes for civilization in this part of the world. Most of the modest homes we pass have electricity -- and TV aerials on their ramshackle roofs -- though fresh water is delivered by truck, and few houses have glass in their windows.

Roads like these would prove impassible to most automobiles, but not to the new Acura MDX. It is actually the second sport- utility vehicle sold by Honda's upscale division, though the MDX is the first sport-ute the automaker has developed in-house. The original, the SLX, was little more than a rebadged Isuzu that simply wasn't up to the standards one would expect from a luxury SUV. Roomy and powerful, comfortable yet sporty, the MDX is meant to position Acura as a serious contender in one of the industry's fastest-growing product segments.

"The luxury and near-luxury segment of the SUV market is going to triple or even quadruple in the next five years," forecasts Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co. That's all the more amazing when you consider that this upscale niche barely even existed until recently. Until the mid-1990s, Land Rover had the segment nearly all to itself. Not anymore. Sport-utes have evolved dramatically over the last decade. Once the province of blue-collar workers, hunters and those with vacation homes deep in the woods, SUVs have become one of the hottest products in the automotive pantheon, replacing by the millions stodgy old sedans, coupes and station wagons. It was only a matter of time before the trend migrated upmarket, and these days, you're as likely to see a Jeep as a Jaguar parked on Beverly Hills's fashionable Rodeo Drive. Typifying this trend, the MDX is equipped with everything you'd expect of a luxury vehicle, from leather seats to a six-CD "concert" sound system.

In 1994, luxury SUV sales were, at most, "a few thousand," according to Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. Last year, according to the California-based market research firm's data, that number surged to 226,000. Come 2004, Hall predicts, luxury SUV sales will easily top 425,000. And that figure is admittedly conservative, since it omits a number of high-end spin-offs of more mundane models -- such as the Denali, a premium version of GMC's rugged Yukon. Add these to the list, and the forecast spirals closer to 600,000.

You won't hear any complaints from the auto industry. Few manufacturers make much money on their passenger cars these days because competition is too fierce. Despite several consecutive years of record sales, rebates and other incentives are as high as they've ever been, and the average price of a passenger car has been declining, according to the latest reports from Detroit's Comerica Bank. But it's a different story with light trucks in general, and SUVs in particular. With the rare exception of aging products, such as the Chevrolet Blazer, it's a seller's market in a segment where demand continues to outstrip supply. As a result, even base-level sport-utes carry profit margins of $5,000 or more. When you load up a Lincoln Navigator, margins nip the $25,000 mark.

So it's no surprise that carmakers are flooding the market with their own luxury utes. Mercedes has weighed in with the M-class, BMW with the new X5. Lexus has scored a series of hits with the LX450 and RX300. Those who ignore the trend do so at their own peril.

 

warm wind is blowing off the hills, spinning dust devils in the farm fields behind us. Though we're climbing the steep grade out of California's Central Valley, the big engine under the hood of our 2001 Cadillac Escalade barely seems to be breathing hard. The road is a series of zigs and zags, crests and falls, through countryside browned by a summer even drier than normal. We clear the summit and begin a slow descent to the sea.

We're taking a crescent moon's course that began in swanky Santa Barbara and will eventually lead us to the rugged shoreline of Pebble Beach -- just in time for the annual Concours d'Elegance. Although that title is shared by an assortment of classic car shows across the country, none carries the weight and significance of the annual event held on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula. Celebrating its golden anniversary, the Pebble Beach Concours is America's premier classic car show, the automotive equivalent of the Academy Awards. "It's never about quantity, but the quality of the cars," explains Concours chairman Glenn Mounger.


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