In the beginning, they were trucks.
Some, unfortunately, still are. A not-so-select group of automakers have locked on to the SUV gravy train by slapping covers over their pickups, renaming them, and presto: instant SUV. For many people, these modified trucks are fine -- good, even. They have lots of cargo space, greater safety because of increased mass, and what the industry likes to call a "command seating position" -- another way of saying you feel bigger than everyone else on the road. All well and good, but they're still trucks.
I don't know from trucks. Me, I want a vehicle that, to borrow an old Jaguar slogan, has grace, space, and pace. Jaguar itself doesn't muck about in this class of auto. But Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and now BMW do. These companies make SUVs that incorporate all of the attributes mentioned above with a decidedly high level of performance and urbanity. Not only do you now get to take the dogs out to the house for the weekend, load up on antiques at Stonington, and brave Twelfth Avenue's battle-scarred terrain, but you get to do it in style. All the space, along with nice heaping portions of grace and pace.
TThe first of these high-iq SUVs that I took for a spin was the Lexus RX 300 (base price, $33,905). When Lexus sets its sights on a market segment, it often builds something so good that the competition has to recalibrate its instruments. It happened when this Toyota subsidiary first entered the luxury-sedan market, and now it's happening again. Out of the three SUVs I tested, the RX 300 was the most composed of the bunch, an unusual trait in this class of vehicle -- but then, Lexuses are known for their smoothness and silence. Once, I'm embarrassed to admit, when I turned the key to start the engine, I found that I had already done so. On the road, the Lexus is a little taller than other vehicles, but not by very much. It feels more akin to a tall station wagon than to an SUV, albeit one of the finest-assembled station wagons I've ever had the pleasure of driving.
The layout of controls is organized and sensible and includes a clever, center-mounted screen containing the temperature and stereo displays. (One complaint: In direct sunlight, this screen becomes almost unreadable.) All of these controls are housed, along with the four-speed automatic transmission, in a single unit that swoops down between the two front seats. This frees up space in the front interior, but I'm not sure it's worth it. In an SUV, I want to be surrounded, even cocooned, by the interior -- so that I feel like I'm in a car and not a Ryder rental. The RX's dash reminds me of the bulky hump in the van that took me to Little League practice back in 1984.
Like the other cars in this test, the RX has a fully automatic four-wheel-drive system. There are no hubs to lock, no differentials to engage, no shift levers to push. You don't have to do anything to work the car's four-wheel-drive system because the car's computer is on the case, constantly keeping track of acceleration, wheel spin, and a host of other driving dynamics. When any of these things changes, the car diverts power to those wheels that have traction. While I cannot claim to have churned my way through the muddy back roads of the Adirondacks, there were more than enough snow and ice patches in and around the city, and at no point did the RX lose its composure. Quietly efficient, the RX doesn't wow you so much as lull you into recognizing its superlative quality. Like many of Lexus's other vehicles, the RX 300 is the perfect SUV for people who don't necessarily like to think too much about their cars. It's immensely capable, but if you're more interested in driving than in riding, it may leave you feeling a tad unfulfilled. That wasn't a problem with the next two cars.
Unlike the rest of the M-class fleet, already popular among members of the landed gentry and hip-hop Establishment alike the ML55 is a custom creation.
The BMW X5 is not -- repeat, not -- a sport utility vehicle. At $49,970, it's a sports activity vehicle. I learned this when I visited the BMW Ultimate Driving Experience school out in the parking lot of Giants Stadium last month. At least half a dozen tents were pitched around the million-square-foot lot. The main one, home to a showroom, a briefing room, and an Internet café, was carpeted, heated, and cable-ready.
For years, BMW has spun itself as the "Ultimate Driving Machine." SUVs, as a rule, aren't. Sure, they're safe and versatile and great for muscling your way into the exit lane for the Brooklyn Bridge, but when it comes to more sporting characteristics like ride and handling, SUVs tend to hide under their profit margins. This has to do with how they are constructed; most SUVs on the road today, particularly domestic models, use the same suspensions found on pickup trucks. More recent SUV models from Japanese and European makers use the independent suspensions found on a typical four-door sedan, which provide for a smoother, but less rugged, ride. BMW has taken the Goldilocks route and developed a platform that is neither car nor truck, but just right.
Watching test-drivers throw X5s in and out of the hard turns and slalom courses laid out at Giants Stadium, I could see that this formula works. Behind the wheel, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl, flinging the X5 into one corner, then whipping it back out onto a straightaway, only to stomp the brakes, stopping the car on a dime. Hands down, the X5 gets top honors for on-road handling.
(In the interest of full disclosure: At one point during rigorous testing, I skidded into a curb. This gave me a chance to test the side and window air bags, and I can report that they worked flawlessly.)
Of the three vehicles I tested, the X5 had the most carlike interior. The controls are logically placed around the dash, and the seats keep you snugly in place, unlike the Barcaloungers that appear in some of the supersize SUVs. The exterior is also something to enjoy: The car sits low to the ground for an SUV and has a nice semi-rugged look that doesn't resort to tacky add-ons like wire-mesh headlight grills and brush bars ('cause you really need a brush bar on Route 27).