The high and the mighty? You bet! Featured in this Comparo GMC Envoy SLT Land Rover Discovery SE Lincoln Aviator Volvo XC90 T6 BMW X5 3.0i Acura MDX Lexus GX470 Volkswagen Touareg by Brock Yates Fair warning to Keith Bradsher: The following may cause fits of road rage and an urge to add this magazine to your list of offenders outlined in your recent polemic against sport-utility vehicles, High and Mighty — SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. This disclaimer is offered because the ensuing test will (1) confirm why SUVs remain a powerful and growing segment of the passenger-car market and (2) explain how they are getting better in the areas of efficiency, versatility, and overall appeal to the driving public, including the demographically anointed elites who read Bradsher's periodic fulminations in the pages of the New York Times against sport-utes and the demimonde who drive them. The mission statement herein was to evaluate all SUV entries in the so-called medium premium market, including a spanking-new Volkswagen Touareg, which was air-freighted from Wolfsburg, Germany, especially for this muddy, rain-swept soirée in the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio. The qualifications were simple: five-door, well-equipped SUVs with sticker prices ranging from about $40,000 to $50,000. This grouping excluded such big sellers as the Ford Explorer, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Mitsubishi Montero (too cheap) and such exotica as the Range Rover, the BMW X5 V-8s, and the Lexus LX470 (too pricey). Joining that Touareg were three other newly minted models: the Volvo XC90 T6, the Lincoln Aviator, and the Lexus GX470. The defending champion Acura MDX returns packing 20 more horsepower, and the venerable Land Rover Discovery SE (which seems to have been with us since Monty chased the Desert Fox out of North Africa) now sports the 4.6-liter V-8 that powered the last-generation Range Rover. Rounding out the field was the familiar BMW X5 3.0i and a top-of-the-line GMC Envoy SLT. For reasons unknown, DaimlerChrysler was unable to come up with a Mercedes-Benz ML320, although an invitation was issued. It's a diverse field with four carlike unit-body trucks (the MDX, the X5, the Touareg, and the XC90), five fully independent suspension setups (those four plus the Aviator), two traditional live-rear-axle utes, and the all-live-axle Discovery. Engines range from in-line sixes in twin-turbo (the XC90) and naturally aspirated guises (the X5 and the Envoy), to the MDX's V-6 and three V-8s. Automatic transmissions sport four, five, and six (the Touareg) speeds. Off-road equipment is similarly diverse: the Envoy, the Discovery, the GX470, and the Touareg boast low-range transfer cases, the latter two with lockable center differentials. Traction control with a downhill-assist function is provided on the X5, the Discovery, and the GX470. The MDX offers the functional equivalent of a center and rear differential lock to boost traction at low speeds. The GX470, the Touareg, and the rear of the Discovery can be elevated to clear tall obstacles. Although only the smallest percentage of these outbackers are enlisted for off-road hill humping and bog jumping, we nonetheless felt it imperative to test our candidates in the demanding conditions for which they were theoretically intended, regardless of the reality that most would spend their lives navigating nothing more challenging than the serpentine lanes of pothole-free upscale suburbs. There's simply no way to assess all this diverse hardware other than to sling some mud. We therefore headed off to do battle in Ohio. Pop a Prozac, Keith, old boy, and press on regardless. Eighth Place GMC Envoy SLT Highs: Bargain-basement price, very cool looks, DOHC in-line six-cylinder. Lows: Blowzy handling, Hyundai interior. The Verdict: The cheapest of the bunch, and rightly so. Although General Motors is showing real muscle with its SUV and light-truck offerings, it remains a sad revelation how far behind it remains when a "professional grade" SUV such as the GMC Envoy SLT is tossed into the ring with some true heavyweights. At a bit south of 40 grand, the SLT is $1325 cheaper than the next least-expensive vehicle in this eight-car grouping (Acura's MDX), but that doesn't quite excuse its somewhat truckish ride and handling. The Envoy was by far the clumsiest vehicle through the lane-change maneuver, negotiating the course at 51.8 mph, at least 5 mph slower than the rest of the field and nearly 10 mph behind the test-leading Touareg. Its skidpad grip also tied for last place at 0.72 g. The Envoy was also one of only two trucks with a four-speed automatic (the Volvo is the other), which probably contributed to its sixth-place performance in the drag races. Off-road performance was about average despite the lack of traction control or a locking rear differential, thanks to the reasonably grippy Michelin tires. Much was made by our ace C/D test crew of the nickel-and-dime interior quality that has become a sad hallmark of many GM products. The Envoy featured a stew pot of fake wood, lumpy vinyl, and mouse-fur fabrics that belong more in a 1960s Lada than on a front-line SUV from the world's sales leader. If the GM design department can't do better than this, perhaps a lateral transfer to the Wal-Mart interior-decoration staff might be in order. In other comparison tests we have celebrated GM's 254-cubic-inch DOHC 24-valve in-line six that makes 275 horses, but when tossed into this bunch, its lackluster torque rating of 275 pound-feet lends it only a middling 6200-pound towing capacity. Bottom line: Envoys make more sense down around their $33,000 base price. There is little doubt that General Motors is on the comeback trail, but based on the rivals faced by the Envoy in the wilds of Ohio, the road to the top may be steeper than we'd like to believe. ----- Seventh Place Land Rover Discovery SE Highs: Great-white-hunter utility, Hamptons status symbol. Lows: Sluggish performance, phone-booth-size passenger space. The Verdict: Better suited to the Gobi Desert than to Greenwich, Connecticut. When we managed to slide briefly off the trail in the Volvo XC90 in the rain-swept outback of southern Ohio, which of the other stalwarts in the test was called to the rescue? The Discovery, of course. Its plucky reputation and its full-time two-speed transfer case, live axles, excellent downhill assist, and hydraulically controlled anti-roll bars fore and aft, plus industrial-strength towing hooks, made it the obvious selection against the remaining six for such hard-knuckle rescue work. The Disco's spartan interior and slab-sided bodywork tend to make the rest of the field look more like cocktail-party crashers than rough-and-tumble SUVs. Better yet, the 300 pound-feet of torque produced by the 217-hp, 278-cubic-inch, 16-valve V-8 ranked it third highest in output behind the Lexus (and tied with the Lincoln). This produced the best towing capacity of the lot at 7716 pounds — more than double that of the Acura MDX. So in the boondocks, the Disco earned high marks, but it's in the real world of pavement and parking lots that it gives way to its peers. Example: Its 0-to-60 time is a sluggish 9.2 seconds, and it ambles for 7.7 seconds longer (23.7 seconds versus 16.0) to 90 mph as compared with the group-winning Touareg. Stopping from 70 mph was among the worst at 191 feet, and its 16-mpg EPA highway mileage was the most ravenous of the pack and sure to cause further palpitations among Bradsher and his fellow Greens. Not surprisingly, the Disco's skyscraper height of 76.4 inches, coupled with the shortest wheelbase (100.0 inches), contributed to its average skidpad and lane-change performance: 0.76 g and 57.4 mph, respectively. But the Discovery's long suit is played not on the highway but in the badlands where its heritage and its design team intend it to operate. Headed for the Kalahari any time soon? Forget the cut-pile floor mats and the wood-grain instrument panels and the sumptuous six-passenger seating. Your Land Rover Discovery awaits you. As one of the testers noted, "This thing grows on you like a wart." ----- Fifth Place (tied) Lincoln Aviator Highs: Lusty engine, surprisingly civilized manners on- and off-road. Lows: Park Place sticker price. The Verdict: The platinum-edition Ford Explorer, for better or worse. If there was shock value to be offered in this mad exercise of testing in the mud and on the macadam, it came in the form of the Lincoln Aviator. Many approached its rather cramped cockpit with a yawn, expecting a tarted-up Ford Explorer, only to discover a refined, powerful, and highly attractive luxury sport-utility vehicle. Comments in our logbook recorded such flattery as "very nice highway car," "transmission shifts great," "smooth powertrain," "suspension taut," "the engine is the hot rod of the group," and "great transmission and engine sounds." Overall, the Aviator acquitted itself well in the performance department, with the quickest sprint to 60 mph (7.4 seconds) and the second-best times through the quarter-mile and the double-lane-change maneuver. And those numbers don't lie. Out on the twists and turns, the Aviator cleaves to a line and follows the intended path faithfully. But off-road, its taut, short-travel suspension often left one or two wheels airborne and spinning, and it was prone to dragging its chin and tail in the rough stuff. In fact, had it not fallen short in two critical departments, it is likely the Aviator would have ranked higher. The most serious flaw was its as-tested price of $48,675, second highest of the eight and almost eight grand more than the Acura MDX. Add to that a tight, cocoonlike driving compartment — and a lack of features such as a power seatback recliner, traction and stability control, and load leveling — and the Aviator looks overpriced. That's unfortunate, because the Aviator had drivers pointing to its competence in all driving conditions. Its 302-hp, 32-valve DOHC V-8 and its five-speed automatic with a lockup torque converter were a delight, as were its supple, all-independent suspension and its 7100-pound towing capacity, a close third in this test. Skip the rear-seat DVD entertainment system, the sunroof, and a few other resistible options, and a $43,000 Aviator looks darned attractive. Because of the budget-busting number at the bottom of its order form, there was little choice but to drop the Aviator out of contention for the overall win in this intensely competitive grouping. ----- Fifth Place (tied) Volvo XC90 T6 Highs: Excellent passenger-seat layout for seven, pleasant styling in the Volvo idiom. Lows: Darth Vader interior, novocaine-injected steering. The Verdict: A solid but essentially passion-challenged SUV from stolid ol' Sweden. There is a Volvo dealer in Chicago who is telling customers that he refuses to stock any XC90s with the same murky, all-black interior offered in our test vehicle. His order form will only include the alternative caramel-colored leather furnishings, which will surely cheer up the oppressively drab cockpit that bugged our test drivers. But once beyond the initial depression that descends upon first-time drivers, the XC90 acquits itself well as Volvo's first full-tilt effort to enter the SUV market. As would be expected, the Volvo is loaded with safety items, including inflatable side curtains, even for the optional third-row seats. Power comes via a twin-turbo, four-valve, in-line six that produces 268 horsepower, although when asked to haul around the vehicle's 4846-pound curb weight, its 0-to-60 time ends up next to last at 8.5 seconds. (These numbers make us highly skeptical of the viability of the base XC90's 208-hp turbo five-banger.) Overall, the XC90's on-road performance was midpack at best, with no dazzling numbers to elevate it in this class. In the mud and the muck the Volvo behaved reasonably well, its second-best ground clearance minimizing underbody contact with Ohio, although its lack of a low range coupled with its wide-ratio four-speed automatic limited the driver's ability to utilize engine torque to creep up or down hills in the really heavy going. Many obstacles could only be overcome by attacking them with more momentum than the person making the payments might feel comfortable with. Overall, the Volvo is a pleasant but passionless ride, its twin-turbo engine somehow muted along with the funereal interior. Adding to the ennui was steering that appeared an erg or two on the light side for most drivers, although the vehicle tracked well through the most difficult corners. With a price on the bargain side — for this group — and the cheerier optional interior, one expects the XC90 to be heartily embraced by the Volvo aficionados of the nation, perhaps even including the socially conscious, politically correct Mr. Bradsher. ----- Fourth Place BMW X5 3.0i Highs: A hoot on the highways, not bad on the byways. Lows: Our kingdom for another 50 cubic inches and 50 pound-feet of torque. The Verdict: "I wish I coulda had a V-8." A quote from one of the logbooks: "It's amazing how flexible this three-liter motor is. It hauls ass in an X5 as well as it does in a 330i sedan. The Steptronic tranny is smooth and seamless in drive and quick and responsive in manual. One of the more fun-to-drive SUVs in this group." Fun to drive. The BMW mantra as expressed in a 4775-pound sport-ute. To be sure, the X5 was a delight to wail through the endless serpentines of the Hocking Hills while its 225-hp, 3.0-liter in-line six sung yet another haunting Bimmer exhaust tune. Its steering feel is trademark BMW, as are path accuracy and dynamic roll control. An overly officious stability-control system that refused to shut down completely lowered our lane-change times artificially but never interfered in the hills. But make no mistake: Although most of the X5s of the world will live with Range Rovers and LX470s in the nation's suburban malls and country clubs, it is a competent performer in the ravines and ruts found in the boonies. Despite wearing street rubber capable of generating 0.82 g of grip, its full-time four-wheel drive, close-ratio transmission, and electronic traction control mimicking a limited-slip differential allowed the BMW to go everywhere the others went, if a bit less elegantly and deliberately. But three liters and 214 pound-feet of torque (the feeblest of the group by far) produce limitations for the X5 when the going gets serious. Towing capacity is only 5000 pounds (equal to the pulling power of the Lexus and Volvo, but better than the group-weakling Acura MDX). There's also less space for passengers and stuff in the X5, which could make for cramped weekend jaunts to the lodge. This means the BMW is essentially intended as a highway operator with its four-wheel drive designed for limited jaunts into chichi resorts. It may be a closer cousin to a 5-series sedan than to a Range Rover, which ain't all bad unless it's stacked against more versatile competition. ----- Third Place Acura MDX Highs: Broad-based performance with no noticeable flaws. Lows: Suddenly a quart low in the luxury department. The Verdict: One of our favorites gets some serious competition. Add 20 horsepower to an already hauntingly appealing package, and the MDX, now at 260 hp, remains a contender, even in the face of big-time hitters from Lexus and Volkswagen. We have favored this Acura in other SUV evaluations, and this newest iteration is no exception. Honda's aged commitment to "keep it simple" is expressed in spades with this Acura. While others in this class demanded manual shifting of their automatics to run quickly in the Ohio hills, the MDX was perfectly content to whistle through the tight stuff with its five-speed stuck in drive. Steering was precise, the brakes unfailingly predictable (if long to stop, at 200 feet from 70 mph), and the suspension remained supple and levelheaded at all times. In raw numbers, the MDX is a third- or fourth-place finisher in the categories that count. Off-road behavior was again a no-brainer, with the Acura chugging through the wilderness with aplomb, although it too lacks a low range, hill-descent control, an adjustable load-leveling suspension, and a center differential. Add to that its modest 3500-pound towing capacity, and you have a light-duty all-wheel-driver best suited for basic seven-passenger highway operation. Despite the overall approval registered by our test crew with the Acura's performance, reservations were expressed about the rather elemental interior accommodations as compared with the Lexus and the Volkswagen, both of which offered more comfort and amenities with equal or better performance. But at $41,000, the second least expensive of the bunch, and offering dazzling handling and lightness of touch, the Acura MDX remains a major player in the upscale-SUV world. Third place is hardly a defeat in this elite collection, and one can only puzzle as to how long it will take Honda to respond to the new challenges being posed by Lexus, VW, and Porsche in a contest for top-dog sport-utility vehicle. ----- Second Place Lexus GX470 Highs: Silky V-8 and suspension, surprising muscle for a luxury SUV. Lows: Body cladding, instrument panel by Remington 20 gauge. The Verdict: Another home run for the Lexus lads. Let's see now, current wisdom says you can't convert a pickup chassis into a proper civilized sport-ute, especially one aimed at the wine-and-cheese crowd. But tell that to the Lexus brain trust, which somehow managed to meld a Tacoma-pickup-size chassis complete with a live rear axle and a Tundra-cum-Sequoia V-8 into the truly splendid GX470. The result feels like a short-wheelbase version of the LX470, one of the ne plus ultra of SUVs. It also packs a ne plus ultra price tag, especially when loaded to the gills as was our $53,435 prototype, with $5475 worth of unnecessary DVD video, Mark Levinson audio, and Lexus Link telephone gear. Although the Lexus failed to lead the pack in any of the performance categories, it finished on the podium in the dash to 60 mph, through the quarter, and through the lane change. It also clambered over hill and dale with the tread-lightly grace of a Rover. It was the GX470's balance and general sense of quiet competence that impressed this crew of test drivers, especially when coupled with its superb cruising capabilities on the highway, its full roster of features, and its traditional Lexus level of fit and finish. If it has limitations, they are in the towing department (a 5000-pound capability versus 7700 for the winner) and less than sumptuous comfort levels for three passengers in the rear seats, although perhaps extra credit is due Lexus for offering the only three-place third-row seat (a $2030 option). Some also felt the external styling, with its GM-inspired body cladding, fell short in pure aesthetics. Complaints were also recorded about the complexity and scatter-shot placement of the controls. Aside from these niggles, the GX470 acquitted itself in dazzling fashion in all aspects of the test. Said an enthusiastic staffer, "I like the feel of the Lexus. Great seats. Terrific ride with the adjustable shocks set in comfort or sport mode. The exhaust sounds are wonderful!" Said another, "Great off-road vehicle when the differential is locked up and the suspension raised. This thing will hill-climb! On- and off-road manners make a great combination." Enough said. ----- First Place Volkswagen Touareg Highs: A four-wheel Swiss Army knife. Lows: Linguistically challenged name, obsessively complex instrument panel. The Verdict: A combination of a Segway and a Formula 1 car, with everything in between. The last time Volkswagen went off-road, it was with the Kübelwagen military scout car built for the German Wehrmacht in World War II. Trust us, this Touareg (say twah-reg) is no Kübelwagen. In fact, it's closer to an Audi A8 or a Mercedes-Benz S-class than to any bare-bones military vehicle of yore. Despite its bulk — at 5580 pounds, the heaviest — the Touareg's 4.2-liter, 32-valve all-aluminum V-8 producing 310 horses and mated to a six-speed automatic hauled it through the quarter-mile in a test-winning 15.7 seconds at 89 mph and to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. It won the braking test, stopping in 170 feet from 70 mph, and tied the BMW for top skidpad honors at 0.82 g. It also sailed through the emergency lane change at 61.5 mph, 2.8 mph quicker than the second-place Aviator. Beyond its excellent performance on the dry stuff, the Touareg was a grizzly bear in the woods. Thanks to its exotic center and rear diffs with manual and automatic locking to transfer power individually to all four wheels and, presumably, to the door locks if necessary; to its air-suspension system that will produce 11.8 inches of ground clearance on command; and to its downhill speed-control assist, the Volkswagen chugged over the off-road stuff with the best of the test. The interior fitments were well laid out if not overly complex, with neat accents of wood and polished metal trim. Passenger comfort fore and aft was well-rated. Summed up one tester: "Smooth. That's it. Does everything with assured poise. Writes a whole new meaning for sport-utility vehicle." When the mud had been washed away and the highway detritus cleaned off its appealing flanks, it turned out to be a runaway winner. Now if we could just figure out what possessed VW to call this lovely machine something apparently from the legume family, and more important, if the price can remain at its bargain-basement $46,500, we'll be content until somebody raises the bar even higher. Who knows, the Touareg may even impress the Savonarola of SUVs, poor ol' Keith Bradsher.