Kings of the Road

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).

In addition to leather and wood and all the other accoutrements of a luxury car, the X5 has the now-requisite alphabet soup of traction systems, handling enhancers, and braking aids. One of the most interesting – unique to BMW and its corporate cousin Land Rover – is called Hill Descent Control (HDC). To demonstrate this feature, a professional driver took three of us up an artificial hill constructed at a 28-degree angle. (Twenty-eight degrees may not sound steep, but it’s on a par with that first ascent up the Cyclone – you look out the front window and all you see is sky.) Before cresting the hill, the driver informed us that she would now take her foot off the pedals. There was a slight jerk, but the brakes automatically kicked in and the car slowly rolled backward down the hill to a gentle stop. After I finished hyperventilating, I thanked her for an invigorating demonstration. Factor all this in with a 282-horsepower, 4.4-liter V8, a five-speed automatic that can function as a clutchless manual, and some of the best handling dynamics in its class, and BMW needn’t worry – its rep is safe.

Finally, to keep things interesting, I threw in a ringer, the Mercedes-Benz ML55. Sure, at almost $70,000, it had better be something special, and I know you’re already thinking: But I’ve seen this one before; for a couple of years, actually. Silly rabbit. Unlike the comparatively pedestrian M-class fleet, already popular among members of the landed gentry and hip-hop Establishment alike, the ML55 is a custom creation. Each year, a few hundred M-class Mercedeses are sent to Benz’s high-performance tuning division, called AMG. AMG acts as sort of a Skunk Works for M-B’s products, turning unflappable sedans and coupes into fire-breathing rocket sleds. Now, it’s one thing when Mercedes does this to a sedan or even a wagon, but cramming a 342-horsepower, 5.5-liter V8 into the engine bay of a midsize SUV (which earns it the title of fastest SUV in the world, by the way) is just this side of madness.

That there’s something different about the ML55 is apparent at first sight. The original ML’s design was impressive, if a little square in the rear. But with a lowered suspension, flared fenders both front and rear, bumper-mounted driving lights, and extra power bulges on the hood, the ML55 looks positively fierce. On the inside, from the white-faced instruments to the burl-walnut trim stained such a dark shade it almost looks like the ebonized wood of a Steinway, this car is all business, all the time. Oh, yeah, and the rear windows come with a standard blackout tint. You might find the sum of all these touches a little over the top. Feel free to think that, but soon some lucky bastard in one of these is going blow the doors off your “sport sedan” while transporting the kids, the dog, and his four-piece garage band’s instruments.

When I started up the ML55, I was actually a little frightened of it. A low burbling emanates from under the hood. It’s not entirely friendly. You begin to think to yourself, I could really get into trouble with this car. I’ve had this feeling before when test-driving Porsches, Aston Martins, and Ferraris, but never behind the wheel of a 4,653-pound, five-door SUV. Although with a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.4 seconds flat, the ML55’s performance is closer to a sports car’s than to an SUV’s. Stab the accelerator and that low burble becomes a high-pitched mechanical whine that causes other drivers on the road to both take notice and get the hell out of the way. In this respect, the ML55 is not unlike Washington Redskin Bruce Smith: It’s not so much that Smith weighs 273 pounds; it’s that he weighs 273 pounds and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. Plug this into the laws of physics, where force equals the product of mass and acceleration, and it becomes quickly apparent that the ML55 is a force indeed – of nature.

Kings of the Road