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
| By Paul A. Eisenstein | From 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.

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.

Volvo follows a similar line of thinking with its V70 XC. The Cross-Country boasts a more macho body and higher ground clearance, but under the skin, it's still a V70 wagon. Volvo plans a more ute-like spin-off due out two years from now.

These vehicles are car/truck crossovers, but soon you'll be able to buy truck/truck crossovers, as well. Is it a pickup, an SUV or a luxury sedan? It all depends on how you look at the 2002 Lincoln Blackwood. From the tip of its waterfall grille to the C-pillar (the post behind the rear seat), Blackwood is a Lincoln Navigator. From there to the tail, it most resembles an F-Series pickup -- with a shortened, 56-inch cargo bed. But Blackwood sits three inches lower than a Navigator, and it's designed to deliver the ride of a sporty sedan.

Due to debut this spring, the Blackwood's cargo bed exterior will be covered in dark wood-grained fiberboard, while the interior will be lined with stainless steel and lit by two cool-touch LED strips. Like the prototype, which debuted at the 1998 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Blackwood's bed will be covered by a nonremovable, electric, pinch-proof tonneau. And instead of a conventional fold-down tailgate, there'll be a pair of Dutch doors. "This is not a pickup box; it is a trunk," insists Al Kammerer, Lincoln Mercury vehicle director. Despite the Blackwood's SUV and pickup roots, group brand manager Jim O'Sullivan says most buyers are not likely to think of the Blackwood as a truck. "This could very well be the new iteration," he proclaims, of the traditional American luxury sedan.

Does it matter whether you're driving a car-based crossover or a "true" truck? The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the most off-road-ready sport utes you'll find, yet it's built off a car-like unibody platform. Toyota is playing it safe. The automaker is taking a two-pronged approach, introducing an array of new utes that fall into both categories. In the luxurious lineup, there's the car-based RX300, as well as the rugged, body-on-frame LX450, an upmarket spin-off of the time-tested Toyota Land Cruiser.

You'll find nothing but true utes in the Land Rover lineup. The British marque, now owned by Ford, has built an almost cult-like following with its blend of sophisticated features and all-around ruggedness. A year from now, Rover will add a third model to its American offerings, introducing the Freelander, which has already proven a big hit in Europe.

Mercedes has steadily upgraded its popular M-Class sport utes, especially in the powertrain department. Its latest edition, the ML55, features a tire-spinning 5.5-liter powertrain developed in cooperation with AMG, the manufacturer traditionally responsible for the German marque's Autobahn-burning sedans and coupes.

Whether they're car- or truck-based, SUVs make up one very hot niche. Add them in with minivans, pickups and full-size vans, and the overall light truck market now accounts for half of the U.S. new car market. How long will the trend continue?

When fuel prices surged to $2 a gallon last spring, some skeptics thought the boom would go bust. They were wrong. Sales of a few low-end models slipped, but that had more to do with the arrival of newer, more competitive products. On the luxury end, volume kept building as if nothing had happened.

A fuel shortage is one thing, says analyst Hall, but when it comes to rising fuel prices, "Luxury SUVs are the last ones to be affected. If gas goes up 30 cents a gallon," he predicts, "it's not likely to have any impact on a guy spending $70,000 for a vehicle."

The overall sport-ute market has been benefiting from the growing awareness of safety. Check federal statistics and you'll find that you're more likely to survive a crash in a big vehicle -- read truck -- than in a smaller passenger car. That doesn't mean trucks are invulnerable. Indeed, more than a few frustrated SUV owners have learned the hard way in winter that even with four-wheel drive you can skid off an icy road. Sport-utes are also notably more prone to rollover accidents, one of the most serious causes of vehicular fatalities.

That fact was driven home by the Ford/Firestone fiasco. An apparent defect with several Firestone tire brands, used on the mid-market Ford Explorer, has been blamed for more than 100 deaths in the United States and Latin America. While a specific cause has yet to be pinpointed, it appears that the tread can inadvertently shear off, sending the vehicle into a rollover. Barely six weeks after 6.5 million Firestone tires were recalled, Ford announced that it would also have to replace as many as 160,000 potentially defective Continental General tires used on its Lincoln Navigator. (Only a handful of minor fender-benders have been reportedly connected to the Continental tires.)

So far, these highly publicized problems seem to be having little to no impact on SUV sales. Indeed, barring the onset of a serious fuel shortage, or the passage of draconian federal regulations, few see the market cooling off for at least the next five to 10 years. So manufacturers will continue flooding their showrooms with new SUVs, crossovers and "truck/trucks" designed to redefine the definition of luxury on wheels.

Paul A. Eisenstein runs The Detroit Bureau, an independent automotive news service, and is publisher of