We in the business of covering and critiquing new vehicles have a tough job. We need to compare, contrast, and describe the finer points of each vehicle, yet it’s only possible to drive one vehicle at a time. Ideally, you’d want to be able to hop directly from competing vehicle to competing vehicle, without the time for fantasy to replace reality.
So, naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to take part in Mudfest, an annual event presented by the Northwest Automotive Press Association that brings the full array of SUVs together for one big showdown on the road, on the track, off-road, and in the mud, among the shady evergreens near Olympia, Wash.
Getting to sample the full range of SUVs made us realize that the distinct dichotomy of just a few years ago—of car-based SUVs and truck-based ones, with each easily distinguishable from behind the wheel—is almost gone, and the lines are more blurred than ever. Some of the car-based ones are now tough enough for occasional off-roading, while some of the traditional truck-based SUVs (like Ford’s full-size Expedition and Lincoln Navigator) are receiving car-like hardware like independent rear suspensions.
The bottom line is that the masses want ordinary passenger vehicles to be more capable, tough, and spacious, while they want traditional trucks to be a bit softer and highway-friendly. Automakers are delivering on both of these counts, and many of the product offerings now fit into a fuzzy where you couldn’t describe them as either car- or truck-derived in the traditional sense.
We mostly tested vehicles with true all-wheel-drive systems, because all-wheel-drive systems are much better for on-road safety and stability, and a traditional truck system with low range isn’t necessary for most family SUV needs. We quickly learned off-road, though that these systems vary greatly in terms of how quickly they can rechannel torque away from the wheel that’s in a low-traction situation. For those who intend to do off-roading in mud, deep snow, or other low-traction situations, a locking differential may prove useful.
Here are some standouts, new for ’03:
Hummer H2 – If you actually intend to frequently go where few vehicles can go—or if intimidating other drivers is also part of the game—the mammoth H2 might be for you. The H2 is based on GM’s full-size truck platform. It’s a great off-road device, and it’s far better on the paved road than recent hard-edged entries like the Land Rover Defender (and of course the H1), but there are some definite compromises. The tires would be the most obvious one: They sacrifice dulled responses on pavement for supreme clambering off-road. Hummer officials opined that without having made those compromises, Hummer would lose its brand identity within GM. True. With the H2, you have to be willing to accept a vehicle that’s wide enough for worry on urban streets and difficult to park in normal-sized parking spots—and one with mileage that dips below the 10-mpg mark in spirited driving.
2003 HUMMER H2 by Sue Mead (6/10/2002)
Kia Sorento – An amazing deal, and, along with the Hyundai Santa Fe, bound to shake up the SUV market. All the basics are there, including a powerful V-6 engine, a capable all-wheel-drive system, and an interior that’s roomy enough for five adults. But it feels its price in the details: with more rattles, creaks, and cheapish plastics apparent in our test vehicle than in the competition; and steering and brakes that are lacking in feedback. For value-minded consumers who want a mid-size SUV, this will be an almost impossible deal to pass up, and the Sorento is immensely competent. Just don’t expect the refinement and quality of the Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander.
2003 Kia Sorento by Marty Padgett (8/12/2002)
Land Rover Range Rover – Price aside, the new SUV king. In many real-world off-road situations it bests the Hummer, using finesse over brawn, and its world-class luxury and comfort can’t be beat. There’s absolutely no comparison to other large SUVs like the Escalade and Navigator, which feel too overweight and hard to control in tight off-road situations. While most other SUVs can’t always deliver the needed angles, wheel articulation, and precise control off-road, the Range Rover’s pneumatic suspension cleverly keeps the cabin in the right position to avoid contact with the terrain. Factor in excellent, flat on-road handling, the faultless BMW powertrain, and an interior that combines the best attributes of its British and German heritage, and you have the perfect everyday driving luxury barge.
2003 Land Rover Range Rover by TCC Team (6/10/2002)
Mitsubishi Outlander – Arriving late to the compact SUV scene, the Outlander definitely shakes up the segment. Gifted with the excellent Lancer chassis, it offers excellent handling and stability on road and is surprisingly able off-road. The solidly constructed Outlander still felt tight after two days of non-stop roughhousing on-track and off-road. And we can’t say that for most of those tested. The Outlander rides well, and on-road handling is sharp and on the safe side. It could be a lot more fun, though, with more power or just a manual transmission. If you do a lot of on-road driving and think you need an SUV for two-tracking to campsites, this might be the one.
Subaru Forester – A modest redesign of the Forester gives Subaru’s bigger SUV better proportions and a sleeker appearance for ’03. Forester is simple and not luxurious, but feels lean and purposeful. It’s much better off-road than its car roots would predict. The horizontally opposed (flat) engine has a character (and torque curve) that can’t be beat among fours and works well with either transmission. Forester has a relatively firm ride, with very capable handling with no tipsy feeling.
Toyota 4Runner – The totally redesigned 4Runner forges new territory for reducing noise and vibration with its silky powertrain and well-isolated cabin, but otherwise the packaging is very similar to other mid-size SUVs. It’s no longer based on the compact Tacoma pickups but rather Toyota’s larger trucks. You can still feel its truck roots in its harsher-than-average ride, and in quick maneuvers on the road and track. Now with an available V-8 and last year’s four-cylinder model gone, the 4Runner continues its trek upmarket, with our lightly optioned V-8 SR5 test vehicle totaling just under $35,000. Whatever happened to the days, though, when the 4Runner was the everyman’s SUV?
2003 Toyota 4Runner by John Pearley Huffman (9/23/2002)
Volvo XC90 – The new XC90, Volvo’s first SUV, is really going to take some market share from other manufacturers after consumers discover its value. For about the same price as a Ford Explorer in Eddie Bauer trim, you can get an all-wheel-drive Volvo sport-utility vehicle that’s unique-looking, loaded with safety equipment, stable on the highway, and tough enough to take off-road occasionally. If you’re not planning to tow, is there any question? Get in line, though. Volvo says that the XC90 is already sold out through the entire first model year.
2003 Volvo XC90 by Marc K. Stengel (8/26/2002)
And some other notables:
Chevrolet Suburban with Quadrasteer – GM’s rear-wheel-steering system, previously available on the automaker’s full-size pickups but now also on the Suburban, is more than just a gimmick. The rear wheels turn opposite of the fronts—more at lower speeds and less at higher speeds—to help the vehicle around tight corners. Turning diameter is reduced from 44.3 feet to just 35 feet.
It’s a costly option at $4495, but it makes one of the largest vehicles on the road seem much more nimble. We could really feel the difference in both an on-track slalom setup and off-road: Compared to the smaller Ford Expedition, our Quadrasteer-equipped Suburban showed sharper handling and better maneuverability.
Ford Expedition – Ford’s full-size sport-utility wagon gets its first major redesign for ’03, and the big news is a new independent rear suspension to yield improvements in ride, handling, and packaging. The IRS (as the Ford people call it) translates to a noticeable decrease in body motion on the road during quick maneuvers or rough surfaces—and that’s very important when we’re talking about a vehicle that weighs in at about 5500 pounds. Combined with other NVH improvements, we noticed that the vehicle is smoother on road with no real change in off-road ability: It’s still a bit too big and heavy for real off-roading needs, though, especially with the slippery mud and trees to dodge where we were.
Honda Pilot – Based on Acura’s already successful MDX (and also the Honda Odyssey minivan), the family-oriented Pilot offers a more conservative, basic appearance and doesn’t share any sheetmetal with the MDX. The roomy interior is also more tuned for functionality than fashion. With its clutch-pack-actuated all-wheel-drive system and solid body hardware, like the MDX, the Pilot is very capable of performing all but the most serious off-roading, and it handles very well on the road.
Hyundai Santa Fe – Hyundai is on a serious upswing and the Santa Fe is a serious competitor. Our test vehicle, equipped with the 181-hp, 2.7-liter V-6, was tightly assembled, with good materials and comfort; and it’s an amazing value for the money. Its all-wheel-drive system, assisted by the traction-control system, is very traction-capable, though the Santa Fe lacks serious wheel articulation.
Jeep Liberty – Jeep’s well-designed compact wowed us with its assembly quality and solidity, and the new Renegade package looks great. Any first-year hiccups are now well past, and the Liberty is a good, affordable choice if you honestly plan to do some serious off-roading. It’s still very competent as a road device, but its more traditional truck underpinnings mean that it’s a little noisier and harsher-riding than others.
Suzuki XL-7 – Getting into the XL-7 after other new-design SUVs brings memories of how SUVs used to be just a few years ago, though that’s not all bad. This is a body-on-frame design that’s meant to be a workhorse. In fact, among the compacts it feels most likely to be able to withstand this type of abuse day in and day out. With its 2.7-liter V-6, the XL-7 doesn’t feel any peppier than the four-cylinder compacts, though its towing ability of 3000 pounds is impressive for its size. This year, Suzuki redesigns the interior to better cater to American customers, they say, which translates to fake wood and a dash layout that isn’t as straightforward as last year’s model. On the downside, the XL-7 has a traditional four-wheel-drive system rather than all-wheel drive.