Story by Jim Kerr
Photos by Laurance Yap
The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s annual Car and Truck of the Year testing always presents an interesting spectrum of new and redesigned vehicles. No group of
vehicles is perhaps more diverse than luxury SUV’s. These vehicles are
grouped by price; they start at $45,000 and spiral upwards to well over
$100,000. Regardless of the price, all offer that ‘something special’.
Vehicle capabilities range from on-road performance that rivals the best
sports cars, to off-road prowess that would match a sure-footed mountain
goat. In size, they range from compact to gargantuan, with engines from
a diminutive 2.5 litre 5 cylinder to a 6.0 litre V8. Four wheel drive
systems include automatic all-wheel drive as well as a diversity of
manual selection modes.
There is one thing all the candidates share, and that is luxury. The
scent of rich leather permeates the air, and features boggle the mind.
All these luxury SUV’s are fun to drive, and are equally at home off the
beaten path as well as at the country club. Here are this year’s
BMW X5 4.6is
Click image to enlarge
Instead of SUV, BMW’s X5 is referred to as a SAV, or Sport Activity
Vehicle, with extra emphasis on Sport. With the largest tire and brake
package of any BMW, the on-road manners of this 4.6 litre SUV matches
many high end sports cars.
The standard features list on the X5 looks like a new alphabet; ABS,
ASC, CBC, DOHC, VANOS, PDC, DSC, HDC, 4ETC. What does it all mean?
Performance. The X5 handles like a world class sports car with all kinds
of electronic assists to help drivers stay out of trouble. Ride comfort
is not sacrificed for the sake of handling.
Engine performance is outstanding, with by far the quickest acceleration
in the group and an electronically limited top speed of 241 kph. A five
speed automatic gearbox sends power to the independent suspension
through a Torsen differential in the transfer case. There is no low
range, but 4 wheel electronic traction control and hill descent control
help do an admirable job of getting through rough terrain.
Front and rear park assist control warn of close objects both on and off
road. A full load of luxury BMW features grace the interior, including
With room for five, the X5 4.6iS excels as a SAV, but even though it is
capable, I still feel guilty ploughing through the real rough stuff.
Price as tested: $95,295
In the competitive world of mid-priced SUV’s, Ford has upped the ante.
The all-new 2003 Expedition leads in passenger space, cargo volume (3127
liters), and a 3900 kg towing capacity. Key to the Expedition’s
capabilities is a new frame design.
The hydro-formed frame is 70% stiffer than last year and incorporates an
independent rear suspension. This enabled the engineers to lower the
rear frame and body floor so there is excellent room for large adults in
the 60/40 split third row seat. Improved vehicle ride and stability are
added benefits. Don’t need the seats? A press of a button folds the rear
seats flat in the floor in a few seconds. No more lifting in and out
Other features: front bucket seats are heated and cooled electrically, a
DVD system keeps the crew entertained, and AdvanceTrac traction control
provides single wheel traction capabilities.
The Expedition’s technology has taken this SUV out of the truck category
and into a new class that offers the hauling capacity of a truck with
the ride of a luxury car. The handling is not that of a sports car, but
still amazing for a 2580 kg vehicle. The Expedition offers a
sophisticated rugged look, quiet comfortable ride, stable handling, and
room for cargo and passengers.
Price as tested: $60,905
Hummer. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable vehicles in the
world. The new H2 model still has a strong emphasis on utility, but with
all the luxury trimmings.
The H2 is supposed to be good off road, and I was not disappointed.
Steep grades, slippery side slopes, 12 inch vertical walls, and moguls
that would twist the frame on normal vehicles are child’s play for the
H2. Even over the roughest terrain, The soft spring rates and large 35
inch tall tires provide a composed, civilized, and comfortable ride.
Power comes from a 316 horsepower 6.0 litre gasoline V8 engine with
smooth low rpm torque and a broad power band for quick highway passing.
I was pleasantly surprised by the H2’s on-road performance. The H2
cruises effortlessly, the long wheelbase and optional air suspension
provide a smooth, comfortable ride, and the squared-off body shape
creates surprisingly little wind noise.
The H2 moved quickly from concept to production and to accomplish that,
many off-the-shelf GM parts were used. The interior has a rugged,
powerful image but heated leather seats all around, dual zone automatic
climate control, power folding mirrors, Bose audio system, and driver
information center are all integrated nicely into the bold interior
The H2 is a very capable vehicle but it is really all about image. If
you want to be noticed, drive an H2, especially in yellow with the
optional light bar!
Price as tested: $80,997
Land Rover Range Rover
While Land Rover has built their reputation with off-road vehicles,
nothing prepares one for the surprise provided by the outstanding
off-road capabilities of the new Range Rover. Just looking at the smooth
body lines, the impeccable fit and finish of the interior, and the
obvious quality of materials, I expected a vehicle suited just fine for
the country club. True, its manners in the city and highway are top
notch, but ride quality and handling in rough stuff was just as good.
Thanks to a stiff monocoque body construction, the 4 wheel independent
air suspension is able to soak up all the bumps and jars, both on and
off road. The air suspension is cross-linked and computer controlled,
transferring vehicle weight from one side to the other as the wheels
move, to keep the passenger compartment on an even keel.
Body height raises or lowers with the air suspension for climbing
obstacles or climbing aboard. The seats are firm but comfortable and
supportive. Console mounted switches are used for selecting low range or
hill descent control. This is one of the quickest SUVs to shift in and
out of low range.
Intuitive, well placed dash controls and onboard navigation system are
the easiest I have used. Every touch imparts a sense of quality.
The major disadvantage of the Range Rover? Price. At over $100,000, this
excellent SUV will have limited sales.
Price as tested: $104,000
While some may see the Navigator as simply a rebadged Expedition, it is
a different vehicle. True, they do share frames and running gear, but
there is a significant change in both body panels and suspension
settings. 18 inch wheels and a higher, bolder grill make the Navigator
look much bigger. Specially tuned suspension bushings give a softer ride
but sacrifice handling and steering preciseness a little.
Inside, real walnut burl wood trim complements the soft leather
upholstery. Satin nickel finishes on interior trim panels and white
light-emitting diode (LED) lighting add a high tech quality look. Four
Captains Chair seats and an electric fold flat third row seat provide
room for six adults. Memory settings adjust the driver’s seat, side
mirrors, brake and accelerator pedals Extensive use of sound absorbing
materials and sound-blocking laminated front door glass lower cabin
noise levels to only 42 decibels at idle. It is quiet.
Power running boards move out when a door opens, and proved to be
useful, although they did limit ground clearance somewhat off road. Rear
park assist uses sonar and radar sensors to warn drivers of unseen
danger up to 20 feet behind.
The Navigator imparts a big vehicle feel. It is. With that comes room
for passengers, cargo, and the power to tow a very big boat.
Price as tested: $79,710
A compact SUV, about 10 cm longer than a Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport
utility, each G500 is handcrafted at a special manufacturing facility in
Graz, Austria. It is a no-compromise off-roader with a strong body on
frame construction and a long military heritage. It looks the part.
With a 5.0 litre V8 engine, and locking differentials in the transfer
case and rear and front differentials, the G500 is perfect if you ‘have
to get there’. With everything locked, steering is difficult, but
nothing stops it from moving. A short wheelbase makes the ride a little
choppy but aids maneuverability in tight situations.
Nothing was spared to make this a premium luxury vehicle. A rich leather
interior complemented with burl walnut trim starts the list. Look
further and a first aid kit, rain sense wipers, and rear park assist are
found. Sunroof, ABS, Brake Assist, Electronic Stability Program,
traction control, and Tele Aid emergency calling system are but a few of
the other standard features of the G500.
On the road, the GPS Navigation system shows the way, although the
screen and controls are low. Set everything before driving.
Acceleration is deceptively quick, and ride is firm. Not surprising,
given its truck-based design.
The G500 has been in production for 22 years and sold in 180 countries.
Imported into Canada just this last year, this unique SUV will attract a
select and flamboyant clientele.
Price as tested: $112,382
Mitsubishi Montero Limited
Mitsubishi, the newest automobile manufacturer in Canada comes with a
full line of SUVs and cars. The Montero Limited is their flagship and
largest SUV. The lowest priced in this group, the Montero has fewer
luxury features, but a long off-road heritage. In fact, the Montero has
dominated in the renowned Paris to Dakar rally for the past several years.
Keeping things simple, the Montero uses a 3.5 litre V6 engine, five
speed automatic transmission and manual shift transfer case to put power
to the four wheel independent suspension. The transfer case can be
locked in high or low range to distribute torque evenly between front
With 215 horsepower, the Montero offers average acceleration
performance, although the 248 ft lbs of torque seem to pull over a wide
Listed as a seven passenger SUV, a tailgate-mounted full-size alloy
spare wheel and tire allow room for a third row seat suitable for two
small children. When not needed, the seat can be stowed flat in the
floor for 42.1 cu. ft. of storage space.
While the Montero Limited may not offer the excitement or high profile
of some other luxury SUVs, it’s price will make it attractive to some.
Price as tested: $48,646
Volvo’s XC90 will win many hearts. Car-like to drive, economical on
fuel, and loaded with useful innovative features such as an integrated
child booster seat in the second row make this perfect for younger
families with a wish to go exploring. Canadian models all come with 7
passenger seating and the third row folds flat for ample storage. Second
row seats and even the front passenger seat fold if more space is
Outside, the XC90 looks smaller than it is. Rounded body corners and
clever body lines provide the illusion. A 70/30 split rear
hatch/tailgate allows loading groceries without them falling out, and
the tailgate can be used as a step to load articles on the roof.
Two turbocharged engines are available: the 2.5 litre 5 cylinder, and a
2.9 litre 6 cylinder. The 2.5 engine seems small but a broad torque band
starting at 1500 rpm offers strong performance. Electronically
controlled All Wheel Drive transfers power from the front to the rear
wheels well, however the vehicle is designed for all weather conditions
rather than extreme off road driving. There is no low range in the
transfer case but traction control balances power delivery.
Volvo emphasizes safety. The XC90 comes with full length side curtain
airbags and Roll Stability Control. Gyroscopic sensors determine vehicle
movement and activate Dynamic Stability Control to reduce the chance of
a roll over.
Despite the many excellent vehicles in this class, the XC90 impressed AJAC judges the most: it won “Best New SUV over $45,000”.
Price as tested: $57,695