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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

(continued from page 1)

In a sense, one could use that definition to define the difference between your everyday SUV and a luxury sport-ute. It's not necessarily the price you pay that defines luxury, but what you get for your money in terms of refinement and quality. Cadillac learned that the hard way. The General Motors division spent nearly a decade blithely ignoring the emergence of the luxury SUV market.

"There was plenty of skepticism," concedes Susan Docherty, Cadillac Escalade's brand manager. In fairness, Cadillac wasn't the only upscale marque that had a problem equating trucks with luxury. But that opposition at Cadillac ended when Lincoln's full-size Navigator sport-utility hit the ground running. Ford's factories couldn't keep up with the demand and suddenly, for the first time in seven decades, Lincoln was outselling its crosstown rival.

Embarrassed by the turn of events, Cadillac scrambled into action. In the automotive world, it normally takes from three to five years to bring a product from concept to customer. GM's flagship division couldn't wait, so it slapped its wreath-and-crest badge on an admittedly outdated version of the GMC Denali, called it Escalade, and rushed it off to its desperate, truck-hungry dealers. Like Lincoln, Cadillac couldn't keep up with the demand as the Escalade was gobbled up by what Docherty calls "a younger, more affluent and more diverse buyer" who had not been drawn to the division in decades. The vehicle was popular with consumers as sales quickly doubled initial expectations.

Critics weren't so kind. They drubbed the first-generation Escalade in the motor press, calling it slow and ungainly, wallowing around corners. The interior was an ergonomic nightmare. The power seat's controls were so awkwardly located at the base of the seat, one had to open the door to reach them. Not so the second-generation Escalade. The new model was designed specifically for Cadillac. It's faster, more nimble and delivers the level of refinement one would expect of a luxury vehicle -- truck or car. The 2001 model also offers the first clear look at Cadillac's new "Art & Science" design theme. The look is sharp and angular, making Escalade appear as if it's been machined from a single billet of steel.

To show the significance -- and the competitive nature -- of the luxury SUV market, Cadillac intends to redo the Escalade twice more before the 2005 calendar year. To put that in perspective, luxury products normally have a life cycle of anywhere from five to eight years without much more than a mid-cycle facelift.

Cadillac also plans to introduce a downsized luxury ute it's calling the LAV. Short for Light Activity Vehicle, it will stretch the definition of the sport-ute concept. It'll look like an SUV, but under the skin, it will have more in common with the next generation of Cadillac luxury sedans. These vehicles will feature car-like chassis and unibody construction, and will be lighter and better handling than current truck-like body-on-frame vehicles. With so-called "crossover vehicles" like the LAV, "the lines are blurring between car and truck," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

here's nothing blurry about the view through our windshield, not with the nose of our BMW X5 pointing at the ground. We're pushing the limits on a rugged course carved into the bloody red clay of backwoods Georgia. The X5 is the German automaker's first foray into the SUV market. Or, what the BMW reps call the "sport-activity vehicle" market. When it started developmental work, BMW still owned Land Rover (the legendary British brand has since been sold to Ford) and was intent on distinguishing the two brands in as many ways as possible. "We [were] creating a new segment [for] people who don't like traditional SUVs, but who also don't like wagons or sedans, because they're not rugged enough," explains Bert Holland, X5's product manager.

Whether you call them SAVs, LAVs, hybrids or crossovers, vehicles like the X5 are redefining not only the SUV segment, but the luxury market as a whole. Spend a day behind the wheel, and you'll recognize there really is a difference between the unibody X5 and more conventional, body-on-frame SUVs. What distinguishes the X5 is its ability to blend -- rather than compromise -- the capabilities of a sport sedan and sport-ute. Riding the ragged Georgia hills, it negotiates this challenging off-road course with aplomb, in part by borrowing Land Rover's Hill Descent Control system, which uses ABS to maintain a safe, steady five- to six-mph speed as you descend a steep hill -- or snow-covered driveway. The SAV's firm but supportive seats soak up even the most severe bumps. And with nearly as much ground clearance as the best true sport-utes, it seems ready to tackle all but the worst off-road adventures.

The fact is, few SAVs -- or SUVs, for that matter -- will ever see anything this rough. Studies by DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division show that even with the rugged little Wrangler, barely 15 percent of the vehicles face anything worse than a gravel road. With more upscale models like the Grand Cherokee, that's down to 5 percent or less. So, for most motorists, you'd never notice what you're giving up with a crossover. But you do notice what you gain. Though today's true, body-on-frame SUVs are becoming much more car-like, crossovers typically deliver better ride and handling, and notably improved fuel economy. So it's probably not surprising that the bulk of the new luxury utes coming to market over the next few years will fall into this new category.

The all-new Audi allroad quattro is a good example of how the lines are going to get even more blurred. Audi likes to think of this 2001 addition as its entry into the luxury SUV market, though you might be more inclined to call it a station wagon. In practical terms, the allroad is a blend of both. It's got the leather seats and CD sound system you'd expect from a luxury automobile. But it also features four-wheel-drive and an electronic height-adjusting system that can raise the vehicle 2.6 inches for improved off-road ground clearance. Get back on the highway, and it automatically lowers to improve handling.

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