by Greg Wilson
photos by Laurance Yap

In our final report on the contenders entered in the 2003 Canadian Car and Truck of the Year Awards, we look at the ‘Station Wagon/Multi-purpose Vehicle’ category, and ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ categories, both under and over $45,000.

A very diverse selection of competitors in the ‘Station Wagon/MPV’ category includes: the Audi A4 3.0 Avant, GMC Savana, Mazda MPV, Pontiac Vibe, Subaru Baja, Volkswagen Jetta Wagon, and Volkswagen Passat W8 Wagon.

In the ‘Sport Utility under $45,000’ category, the contenders are the Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Jeep Rubicon, Mitsubishi Outlander XLS, Subaru Forester, and Nissan Murano.

‘Sport Utility over $45,000’ contenders include the BMW X5 4.6iS, Ford Expedition, HUMMER H2, Land Rover Range Rover, Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes-Benz G500, Mitsubishi Montero Limited, and Volvo XC90 2.5T .

As before, I’ve chosen MY PICK* in each category. Tomorrow, the official winners will be announced at the Montreal Auto Show, and Autos will publish results as soon as they are available.

Station wagon/MPV

Audi A4 3.0 Avant Wagon

audi A4 Avant 3.0 Quatro
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Audi)

Better late than never, the Audi A4 3.0 Avant joins existing luxury import wagons from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Lexus, and Volkswagen. The A4 3.0 Avant is basically a wagon-ized version of the recently-redesigned and generally well-received A4 sedan. Attractive, well-finished, and well-equipped, it’s probably the most refined wagon in this AJAC category. It’s also a competent performer rain or shine courtesy of its 220 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 engine, standard 6 speed manual or optional 5-speed Tiptronic, and standard Quattro all-wheel-drive. Though not as roomy as a minivan, the A4 Avant is a practical small wagon with terrific driving manners and above-average quality.

GMC Savana

2003 GMC Savana
Click image to enlarge (Photo: GM)

Extensively updated for 2003, this full-size passenger van is, by far, the roomiest vehicle in this category. Available with two wheelbase lengths: regular (135-inch) and extended (155-inch), the Savana can seat 8, 12 or 15 persons! For 2003, the Savana gets revised styling, the availability of all-wheel-drive, and the industry’s first 60/40 left-hand-side entry/load door (regular-length passenger and cargo vans only). Four engines are available: one V6 and three V8’s ranging from 200 to 300 horsepower! When it comes to people and cargo-carrying capability and towing capacity, this van will win hands down – but it will lose points for maneuverabilty and handling. Actually, it’s ludicrous to compare the Savana to the A4 Avant or Vibe – it’s just not in the same class.


Mazda MPV
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A boost in horsepower from 170 to 200 and a new five-speed automatic transmission really made a difference to the MPV’s performance for 2002. This standard-size, seven-passenger minivan is surprisingly roomy, and the interior is well-finished and attractive. Pluses include a fold-into-the-floor third row seat, available power sliding rear doors, centre row buckets that slide together, and sporty (for a minivan) ride and handling. Base models start around $26,000, but well-equipped ES models can go for more than $36,000 – a bit steep. The Mazda MPV scores well on interior roominess, cargo space, and comfort, yet it’s not too large to drive and park in the city. A good all-around vehicle that might win this category because there’s very little to complain about.

Pontiac Vibe

Pontiac Vibe
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A sporty new compact hatchback that uses Toyota mechanicals, the Vibe has a versatile 5 passenger seating/cargo arrangement with a hard-ribbed cargo floor, a surprising amount of interior room, nimble driving manners, and good fuel consumption from its standard 1.8 litre four cylinder powerplant. It’s also offered with optional all-wheel-drive and an optional 180 horsepower 1.8 litre powerplant in the GT model. The Vibe is not as refined or as luxurious as many of its competitors in this category, particularly its manual shifter, but it’s also more affordable. Though it’s not really a proper wagon, the Vibe is a practical hybrid that blends economy, sportiness and practicality in an attractive package.

Subaru Baja

Subaru Baja
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A mid-sized sedan with a short box instead of a trunk, the new Subaru Baja is obviously a different kind of vehicle to everything else in this AJAC category. The four-door, four-passenger Baja is based on the Subaru Legacy platform, and includes a 165 horsepower 2.5 litre boxer four cylinder engine and standard all-wheel-drive. Though the cargo box is small, it can be extended into the passenger cabin by folding down a panel under the rear window. Baja’s come loaded with standard features, so they’re not cheap. It’s difficult to say how the Baja will fare against the diverse collection of vehicles in this AJAC category.

VW Jetta Wagon

Volkswagen Jetta
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Canadians love practical vehicles, and the new VW Jetta Wagon is likely to score well with consumers here. Handsome, well-finished, and roomy, the Jetta Wagon has twice as much cargo space as the Jetta sedan. It’s available with three engines: a base 115 horsepower 2.0 litre four, 90 horsepower 1.9 litre turbo diesel four, and 180 horsepower turbocharged 1.8 litre four cylinder. Its high level of standard equipment, independent suspension, and great warranty (basic 4 yrs/80,000 km; powertrain 5 yrs/100,000 km) are attractive, but it’s premium price-tag, which can go as high as $35,000, may deter some buyers. The Jetta Wagon will do well in this AJAC category, and though not as roomy as a GMC Savana or as luxurious as an Audi A4 Avant, is a possible winner.

VW Passat Wagon W8

2003 VW Passat W8
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Volkswagen)

Yes, an eight cylinder Passat Wagon. This top-of-the-line Passat has VW’s new 275 horsepower ‘W8’ engine, so-named because its engine design includes two ‘double V’ four cylinder engines put together, is luxuriously-equipped with a 5-speed Tiptronic transmission, 4Motion all-wheel-drive, leather, climate control and lots of standard luxury features. Power and refinement are its trump cards, and the Passat W8 will zip to 100 km/h in less than 7 seconds. Apart from its engine, four chromed tailpipes, xenon headlamps, and unique tires and wheels, the W8 is very similar to other Passat GLX models. With a base price over $50,000, it seems expensive for a Volkswagen – yet when compared with luxury wagons from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, it represents a pretty good value.

Sport utility vehicle under $45,000

Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT

2003 Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT
Click image to enlarge (Photo: GM)

The long wheelbase version of Chevrolet’s mid-sized Trailblazer SUV has an extra third row seat which boosts passenger capacity from five to seven. Both the second and third row seats have fold-flat seatbacks. Unlike most mid-size seven passenger SUV’s, the Trailblazer EXT has a significant amount of cargo space behind the third seat: 22 cubic feet. In addition to a standard 275 horsepower 4.2 litre inline six cylinder engine, the 2003 Trailblazer EXT is available with an optional 5.3 litre V8 engine with 290 horsepower and 325 foot pounds of torque, enabling it to tow up to 7,200 lbs. With a roomy interior and cargo area, generous towing capacity, and 2WD or 4WD capability, the Trailblazer compares well with its smaller competitors in this category – but its long wheelbase hinders its urban maneuverability and off-road performance.

Honda Pilot

Honda Pilot
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Honda’s first mid-sized SUV, the Pilot is based on the same unit body platform as the Acura MDX. More car-like than other mid-sized SUV’s, the Pilot has a fully independent suspension, all-wheel-drive (which runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time until the front wheels lose traction), a rear limited slip differential that can be engaged by pressing a button on the dash, and a wide track which offers unusually good highway stability and cornering ability. The Pilot has three rows of seats with eight seatbelts, but the third row seat is not particularly roomy. The Pilot’s standard 240 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission provide better than average performance, but a V8 is not available. In terms of comfort, quality, on and off-road driving dynamics, and value, the Pilot compares well.

Kia Sorento

2003 Kia Sorento
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Kia)

Another all-new mid-sized SUV, the Kia Sorento is a five passenger vehicle with body-on-frame construction, front and rear independent suspensions, a 195 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 engine and 4-speed automatic transmission, and two available four-wheel-drive systems: a part-time system on base LX models and a full-time system on EX models – both have a Low Range gear. Sorentos come well-equipped, and are priced significantly lower than competitors like the Pilot and Trailblazer. All Sorentos come with four wheel disc brakes and ABS, head curtain airbags, four-speed automatic transmission, 16″ alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows, and an AM/FM/CD stereo. The Sorento is a great value, has a good 5 year warranty, and is capable off-road. But it may lose some points for its mediocre acceleration, poor fuel consumption, and lack of a third row seat.

Jeep Rubicon

2003 Jeep Rubicon
Click image to enlarge (Photo: DaimlerChrysler)

Probably the most capable off-road vehicle in this category, the Jeep Rubicon is named after the tortuous 22 mile Rubicon Trail in Northern California. The Jeep Rubicon has locking differentials that can be driver actuated when the transfer case is in low range and the vehicle speed is less than 10 miles per hour. A dash-mounted rocker switch allows the driver to lock the rear axle and toggle the front axle locker on and off for improved maneuvering. The Rubicon also features Goodyear Wrangler “Maximum Traction/Reinforced” 31-inch tall tires. A 190 horsepower 4.0 litre inline six cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission are standard. The Jeep Rubicon will gain big points in the AJAC off-road trials, but it can’t be expected to match its more luxurious competitors for highway ride, comfort, and roominess.

Mitsubishi Outlander XLS

Mitsubishi Outlander
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All-new for 2003, this compact SUV from Mitsubishi is available with front-wheel-drive (LS) and all-wheel-drive (XLS) with a standard 140 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder engine and 4-speed automatic Sportronic transmission with manual shift modes. The Outlander’s engine is not particularly powerful but it’s adequate and the transmission shifts smoothly. Highway ride and handling are great and it’s easy to drive. Interior headroom is generous but rear seat legroom is barely adequate. The Outlander can’t match the performance, roominess, and interior quality of some of the other competitors in this AJAC category, so it’s difficult to see how it could win this class unless its lower price compensates dramatically.

Subaru Forester

Subaru Forester
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Sporting revised exterior and interior styling, a lighter body, more safety features and bigger brakes, the 2003 Subaru Forester is the most car-like of the SUV contenders in this category – it’s based on the compact Impreza platform, and offers the nimble handling, car-like ride and driveability of a small car. Unlike many small AWD SUVs which run in front-wheel-drive until the front wheels lose traction, the Forester has a permanent 60/40 front/rear torque split (with the automatic transmission), increasing to 50/50 if things get really slippery. The Forester’s 165 horsepower 2.5 litre boxer engine is a bit underpowered but the drivetrain is seamless. Rear legroom is adequate but not generous, and the Forester is not as roomy as many of the vehicles in this class.

Nissan Murano MY PICK*

Nissan Muran
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The new Murano was first entered in the ‘over $45,000 SUV’ category, by mistake. After driving it, I can see why…it looks, drives and feels like an upscale crossover vehicle. It looks even more impressive in person than in a photo. Based on the Altima platform, the stylish Murano has a 245 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 engine, a continuously variable transmission (a stepless automatic transmission) and standard all-wheel-drive. The interior has a high-tech design and comes well-equipped with standard features like automatic climate control system, air conditioning, and a six-disc CD player. There’s over 80 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down. On road performance is really quite impressive: it’s quiet, powerful, comfortable, easy to drive, and handles well. The CVT transmission eliminates bumpy gear changes and is easy to get use to. The Murano could win this class.

Sport utility vehicle over $45,000

BMW X5 4.6is

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The BMW X5 4.4 is considered to be one the most performance-oriented SUV’s, so you can just imagine what the new X5 4.6is is like: it offers a 340 horsepower 4.6 litre V8 engine, 5-speed Steptronic transmission with Sport mode, sport-tuned suspension with self-levelling rear air springs, 20 inch tires, and Dynamic Stability Control. 0 to 100 km/h is reputed to take just 6.7 seconds – not bad for a 2188 kg (4823 lb.) vehicle. Compared to other vehicles in this category, the X5 4.6is will do well in on-road handling, acceleration, vehicle dynamics, luxury features, and appearance; but it won’t do as well in off-pavement ability, cargo room, fuel consumption and value for money.

Ford Expedition MY PICK*

2003 Ford Expedition
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Ford)

Some significant changes were made to Ford’s full-size Expedition this year, including a new rear independent suspension; new rack and pinion steering; larger brakes; new 40/20/40 split second row seats; power folding third row seats; and new 17 inch wheels and tires. The Expedition offers generous passenger and cargo room, lots of horsepower and towing ability from its optional 5.4 litre V8 engine, and the ability to flip between 2WD, part-time 4WD, full-time 4WD and Low Range. The Expedition has a nice highway ride and surprisingly good handling, and though it is large, it is competent off-road. And it’s a relatively good value compared to some of the entries in this class. Negative points include its poor fuel consumption, and difficulty parking and maneouvering in city environments. A good all-around SUV that could win this category.

Hummer H2

Hummer H2
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Son of Hummer H1, this is a more civilized 4X4 vehicle, that is nevertheless an excellent off-road vehicle. Loosely based on GM’s full-size truck platform, the H2 has a wheelbase that is over 7 inches shorter than the Hummer H1, but its body is 5.3 inches longer, 3 inches taller and 5 inches narrower than the H1. The H2 can climb 60% slopes, and traverse a 40% side slope, and its short front and rear overhangs allow it to handle a 41.7 degree approach angle and 40 degree departure angle. Very well-equipped and priced to match, the Hummer H2 includes dual zone automatic climate control, Bose audio system, leather upholstery, 8-way power seats, and heated seats front and rear. The Hummer H2 will impress AJAC judges with its off-road ability, power, luxury features, passenger roominess, and comfort, but will lose points for ‘hugeness’, gas mileage, a gigantic spare tire in the cargo area, and its hefty price.

Land Rover Range Rover

2003 Land Rover Range Rover
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Land Rover)

Only the third all-new Range Rover in 32 years, the new 2003 model is now powered by a BMW 4.4 litre V8 engine with 282 horsepower, and offers an all-new four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension front and rear, replacing the solid axles on previous models. The Range Rover features an improved height adjustable air suspension that can accommodate highway driving or extreme off-roading requirements. A new interior features metal and wood accents and leather upholstery with traditional English piping. The Range Rover’s air suspension has a rather cushy ride, and it certainly doesn’t handle as well as a BMW X5. But as a sumptiously-equipped luxury vehicle with plenty of passenger and cargo space, and excellent off-road abilities, the Range Rover is a unique vehicle with a certain classiness lacking in its competitors. It’s bloody expensive, though!

Lincoln Navigator

2003 Lincoln Navigator
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Lincoln)

Similar to the full-size Ford Expedition, the just-redesigned Lincoln Navigator has all of the upgrades that went in to the Expedition including a new stronger frame, a new independent rear suspension, new rack and pinion steering, larger brakes, 40/20/40 folding second row seats, and power folding third row seats. Navigators also offer some unique features such as optional power-deployable running boards and a power liftgate. The Navigator’s new interior features burl walnut trim, premium leather, ‘satin nickel’ trim, and white light-emitting diode lighting. Like the Expedition, the Navigator is big and roomy and is surprisingly easy to drive. But fuel consumption is poor and finding a big enough parking space can be a challenge. A symbol of excess, the Navigator is nevertheless a comfortable, capable SUV that is very luxurious. The Expedition’s lower price may give it an edge over the Navigator, though.

Mercedes-Benz G500

Mercedes G500
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An ex-military vehicle converted to a luxury sport-utility vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz G500 Galaendewagen is priced over $100,000. Even with its high-tech 292 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, and luxuriously-equipped leather interior, it’s difficult to see value here. The styling looks dated, and its solid front and rear axles are designed for durability and off-road adventures more than on-road ride and handling. The G500 is likely to win points in the off-road trials: it has a unique four-wheel-drive system with three locking differentials – it can climb grades of 80 percent (39 degrees) and is laterally stable on slopes up to 54 percent (28 degrees). AJAC testers may deduct points for its narrow cabin, high step-in height, rough pavement ride, angular appearance, and reflections in the flat windows. I can’t see the G500 winning this category.

Mitsubishi Montero Limited

2003 Mitsubishi Montero
Click image to enlarge (Photo: Mitsubishi)

Mitsubishi’s top-of-the-line full-size SUV offers a standard 215 horsepower 3.8 litre V6 engine and a 5-speed Sportronic automatic transmission with manual shifting capability. Unusual for a big SUV, the Montero has a fully independent suspension, and combined with its wide track and beefy tires, it offers stable handling and a comfortable ride. Off the pavement, however, there is some vibration and road noise. The Montero is available with an optional third-row seat which increases seating capacity to seven – but you won’t have room for much luggage behind the third row seat. Its leather and wood trimmed interior is attractive and outward visibility is excellent. Though full-size, it doesn’t seem as big as the Expedition, Hummer, Navigator and Range Rover.

Volvo XC90

Volvo XC90
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The least SUV-like contender of the bunch, the new Volvo XC90 Wagon is based on the S80 car platform and has a fully independent suspension, generous ground clearance and standard all-wheel-drive. The XC90 2.5T has a turbocharged inline five cylinder engine that produces 208 horsepower, and is mated to a five-speed automatic GearTronic with manual shift modes. The XC90 T6 model has a 2.9 litre twin-turbo inline six with 268 horsepower and a four-speed GeatTronic automatic transmission. Under normal conditions, the XC90’s all-wheel-drive system sends 95% of the power to the front wheels, but when slippage occurs, a “Haldex” electronic locking centre differential sends up to 65% to the rear wheels. There’s no low range. In addition, the XC90 has Stability and Traction Control. The XC90 offers handsome looks, good road manners, comfort and refinement, flexible seating arrangements (with three rows of seats), and plenty of luxury features, but it’s not as roomy or as powerful as some of its competitors.

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