by Tony Whitney
While compact SUVs are the strongest sellers in this class in Canada, it’s amazing how much action there’s been in the top-end luxury segment over the past few years.
It isn’t that long ago that the Range Rover almost stood alone when it came to larger, luxurious SUVs – although it’s always been possible to “option up” a Chevy Suburban (and perhaps a few other products) to nudge it into the luxury category.
The 2005 model year line-up of full-size, luxury SUVs will probably top a dozen or more different products – and there are more on the way. Typically, a full-size luxury SUV will come with a state-of-the-art technical specification (expect lots of electronics), a long list of comfort and convenience features, a powerful V-8 engine, a very sophisticated all-wheel-drive set-up and a price-tag in the $70,000 to $100,000 range. Of course, there are several luxury SUVs that cost closer to $60,000 and others that go well beyond the hundred grand mark.
2004 BMW X5 4.4i
Luxury SUVs are certainly what automakers call a “niche category” but that hasn’t restricted their interest in building them. Perhaps it’s a matter of prestige that any maker involved in the luxury sedan category must have a matching SUV in the stable too. There are several luxury SUV makers that swore in years gone by they’d never get involved in what they considered “truck business,” but those who took the plunge lived to enjoy considerable success. In some cases, getting into the SUV market with successful products actually drew attention to luxury sedan lines and boosted sales there too. And as one might expect, several automakers who decided that SUVs didn’t fit their image are now quietly regretting the decision.
BMW has been very successful with its X5 model and there’s no doubt that many owners also have a BMW sedan or sports car in the garage. The Bavarian company was among the automakers that weren’t expected to get into this segment, but the move was a great success and the X5 is a common sight on our roads, despite a fairly substantial price.
Cadillac is another maker known mostly for sedans, but the addition of the big Escalade was a good move for a manufacturer that’s been undergoing a renaissance and certainly raised the profile of the brand. Escalades come in two sizes and there’s even a novel EXT semi-pickup version which must be a favourite with top rodeo cowboys everywhere.
Also from the General Motors stable is the unique Hummer, which comes in two versions, the original military-based H1 and the newer and slightly smaller H2. The H1 is quite rare nowadays and has risen in price, but the H2 seems very popular and certainly an eye-catcher with its rugged, boxy lines. My experience has been that the H2 is a lot more refined than one might expect and definitely qualifies as a luxury truck.
The newest arrival on the luxury SUV scene is Infiniti’s QX56, which offers a very high level of luxury and refinement and adds some of the style this Nissan luxury subsidiary has become famous for. The QX56 has a very high level of fit and finish, something that’s common in this class. Infiniti seems to have a special way with vehicle interiors and its products stand out in a market that offers almost limitless levels of luxury and cabin ambiance.
The long-lived Range Rover might be the daddy of all luxury SUVs, but that hasn’t inhibited technological progress by the Ford-owned British automaker. The Range Rover uses a lot of aluminum in its construction – a long-standing Land Rover practice – and is thus quite light for its size. Unlike its rivals, Land Rover doesn’t build sedans – just SUVs with serious off-road capability.
Lexus is well established in this category with its big LX 470 which might be the most refined product in a marketplace packed with smooth-riding vehicles. Like many of its rivals, it comes with electronic stability control, traction control, height control suspension and other goodies.
Lincoln is one of those automakers that rejuvenated its image by getting into SUVs. The big Navigator has been a major success for Ford’s luxury arm and more than likely, the market prospects for the company’s upcoming Zephyr sedan will be enhanced by the big rig’s popularity. The Navigator is roomy and lavishly equipped and also offers more ground clearance than many large SUVs. Though few owners will be heading for the logging roads in this vehicle, it is very capable off-road.
The big SUV seller at Mercedes-Benz is the mid-size ML series of vehicles, but its full-size offering is very different and almost unique in its class. The G500 Mercedes is a large, boxy vehicle based on a military design like the Hummer H1. It may look utilitarian, but it offers the same luxury appointments and silky refinement as the competition. There’s even an AMG performance version of this rig, but expect to pay in excess of $140,000 for it. Interestingly, the Canadian Armed Forces are replacing their ancient Iltis utility vehicles with the Mercedes G-Class, but these will be more practical than luxurious. They have already seen service with our troops in Afghanistan.
It was something of a surprise to see Porsche entering the SUV market, but the company has no regrets for a decision that has made it one of the world’s most profitable automakers. As might be expected, the Porsche Cayenne (standard and turbo variants are available) goes and handles like a race car and has great road “presence.” This is perhaps the nearest any automaker has come to a true sportster in the SUV class. Porsche purists may resent the company diversifying from its 911 and Boxster sports car roots, but the bottom line says they made all the right moves.
The Cayenne was developed in cooperation with Volkswagen and VW’s Touareg is based on the same platform. There are SUV fans out there who prefer the Touareg to the Cayenne and it is expectedly less expensive. VW did an especially good job with the interior and my experience driving a Touareg on snow-covered mountain roads proved that it can run with the very best in the market. Buyers who want to combine economy with power and massive amounts of torque can now buy a Touareg with a V-10 diesel, unique in this class.
As I pointed out earlier, these posh full-size SUVs don’t sell in huge numbers, but even in this very limited class, buyers have all kinds of choices. Most of the automakers discussed in this column also offer mid-sized luxury SUVs and a couple have even broached the compact size class. Watch for Audi to launch a large luxury SUV before too long and more automakers might well follow.