There are plenty of upscale midsize SUVs, but only a handful of them can be considered truly luxurious. With more to offer than just a little wood trim and leather upholstery, true luxury vehicles remind you of their price tags (for better or worse) every time you get in them. They feel better, smell better and in most cases look better than their more pedestrian cousins. They aren't for buyers who want to take a small step up, these are SUVs for those who want it all and are willing to pay for it.
We thumbed through the seemingly endless list of SUVs currently on the market and singled out the cream of the midsize crop. Our final list consisted of just four vehicles, but there was more than enough horsepower, prestige and perfectly stitched leather to go around. Believe it or not, a Lexus was the lowest priced entrant in the group with the GX 470 coming in at just over $54,000. Although it's technically not the top-of-the-line SUV in the Lexus lineup, it was built to deliver all the comfort and performance of the top-dog LX 470 in a slightly more manageable package. There's no doubt about the Range Rover's status, as it has reigned supreme for over three decades as the premiere utility vehicle in the Land Rover lineup. With a somewhat strange pedigree that winds through Germany, England and Detroit, the Range Rover promises the best of many worlds all in one package.
The final two entrants boast a similarly intertwined past as they both ride on the same platform. On the low end is Volkswagen's new Touareg, a strangely named but well-received sport-ute that challenged the notion that VW could only build small, inexpensive cars. Even more outlandish is the fact that it came to the test powered by a 10-cylinder diesel engine that could pull a house down. So much for those cute little VWs. An equally powerful and significantly more costly alternative arrived in the form of the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. With the ability to perform like a sports car on the street, the Cayenne takes a very different approach to the idea of a luxury SUV. Whether it was the right kind of approach was up to us to decide.
In the spirit of seeing just how capable these vehicles really were, we not only got behind the wheel for hundreds of miles of pounding the pavement, we also took them on an extended jaunt down a tricky, rock-covered mountain trail. Sure, few owners are likely to ever subject their gleaming new SUVs to such treatment, but if the manufacturers are going to claim "do anything, go anywhere" status for their sport-utes, the vehicles had better be able to back it up. After roughly two weeks of living with this quartet, we learned a lot about each SUV's particular strengths and weaknesses, but only one vehicle distinguished itself as the out-and-out winner. It might be a surprise to you, but it was an easy decision for us.
Fourth Place: 2005 Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI
Coming in last is no compliment, but the fact that a Volkswagen was even considered in this lot is a victory of sorts for the brand. Who would have thought that Volkswagen would have ever built an SUV, let alone one so well thought out and mechanically capable that it could go toe-to-toe with the world's best? Throw in the strangely appealing draw of its optional V10 turbodiesel power plant and the Touareg seemingly stood a legitimate chance of upstaging one or more of its competitors.
Such an upset wasn't to be, however, as the Volkswagen never managed to break free from its second-tier status. More expensive than the Lexus, less prestigious than the Land Rover and not quite as quick on its feet as the Porsche, the Touareg was the perpetual runner-up instead of consistently challenging for the lead. If daring to be different was a point-scoring category, this oil-burning German sport-ute would have cleaned up, but as it turned out the Touareg merely solidified its status as an offbeat alternative to its well-established competitors.
Volkswagen die-hards would be quick to point out that the Touareg was developed in conjunction with the Cayenne and shares the same basic structure with Porsche's sport-ute, but drive the two vehicles back-to-back and their characters are decidedly different. While the Porsche drives as though it really wants to be a low-slung sport sedan, the Touareg feels more content in its sport-utility skin. Its steering is lighter and more manageable while the suspension leans more toward comfort than performance. As one editor noted, "The Touareg may have as many bells and whistles as the Cayenne, but it still feels more like a traditional SUV when you're behind the wheel. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on what you're looking for."
Like the Porsche, the V10 Touareg comes standard with a sophisticated air suspension that offers adjustable ride height and driver-selectable damper settings. The idea is to make it as urban-friendly as possible while still maintaining a respectable level of off-road worthiness. We found that the system offered a likable compromise of the two, but the keyword here is "compromise," as the Touareg was never quite able to mimic the performance of the Porsche or the luxury ride of the Lexus. Most editors found that the Touareg drove just fine without fiddling with anything at all, offering adequate comfort on the street and enough body control to keep it nimble in the corners.
Our off-road jaunt gave the Touareg the opportunity to show off its credentials as a true SUV and it didn't disappoint. All Touaregs come standard with Volkswagen's 4XMotion four-wheel-drive system that includes low-range gearing, a locking center differential, hill-descent control and hill-start assist. In addition, our test vehicle was equipped with a locking rear differential that further bolstered its qualifications as a serious trail machine. With the suspension pumped up to full height and both differentials locked, the Touareg picked its way through our jagged off-road test bed with barely a spun tire. Its excellent ground clearance, all-season tires and locked-up differentials kept it moving right along in situations that left the Cayenne helplessly spinning its tires. It may be expensive and it may have a VW badge on the grille, but there aren't many trails that a properly equipped Touareg couldn't handle.
Regardless of what type of terrain we were negotiating, the Touareg was rarely at a loss for motivation thanks to its optional 10-cylinder turbodiesel power plant. Displacing 5.0 liters, the V10 gives the Touareg the kind of grunt typically found only in trucks with dual rear wheels and horse trailers in tow. Rated to produce 310 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, the Touareg's V10 seems like overkill until you consider just how much weight it's pushing around. At 5,825 pounds, the Touareg not only outweighed the next heaviest competitor (Range Rover) by nearly 450 pounds, it tipped the scales over 1,000 pounds heavier than the Lexus.
With so much dead weight onboard, you would expect the Touareg to be a little sluggish, but the combination of the torque-rich diesel engine and standard six-speed automatic transmission manages to turn the Touareg into a moderately entertaining ride. Volkswagen claims a 0-to-60 time of 7.5 seconds — not bad for a vehicle that weighs more than a Suburban. Most editors found the quick-shifting six-speed gearbox well up to the task of keeping the big diesel properly wound up for maximum torque delivery, and the endless low-end grunt made the diesel engine a likable companion on the trail. Throw in the Touareg's EPA ratings of 17 city and 23 highway and all that clattering doesn't seem so bad.
Yes, the Touareg clatters like a typical diesel, so potential buyers should be prepared for some added noise and the occasional black puff of smoke from the tailpipe upon acceleration. Keep the windows up and you'll hardly notice the difference, but pull into your driveway and your kids will think a FedEx truck just arrived. While most editors considered the added racket acceptable — even endearing — one editor noted that compared to the quiet Lexus, "you might as well be driving a school bus."
No such comparisons were levied against the Touareg when it came to assessing the quality of its interior. Although few thought it was as impressive as the Porsche or the Lexus, the overall interior design and materials quality are well up to the standards of the class. The large, classically styled gauges are the most prominent feature of the design, but the rest of the interior is nicely detailed as well. Metallic trim adds some color to the dash and door panels while the dark wood accents blend in so well you almost don't even notice them. A couple editors noticed some lapses in materials quality that kept them from giving the VW top scores, but for the most part the look and feel of the Touareg's interior is impressive.
Passenger comfort, on the other hand, is a mixed bag as the driver and front passenger are coddled while second-row occupants get cramped. The soft, multiadjustable seats up front earned solid scores but the Touareg landed at the back of the pack in the rear-seat comfort category. Given that there's little difference between the Touareg's backseat measurements and that of its competitors, the difference came down to the shape of the seats and their perceived comfort — two highly subjective areas that you might find more to your liking than our editors.
With a maximum cargo capacity of 71 cubic feet, the Touareg offers more space than the Cayenne and Range Rover (both 63), and slightly less than the Lexus (78). The second-row seats are split 60/40 and are relatively easy to fold down. The resulting load floor is perfectly flat and features multiple tie-down points. Most drivers also liked the Touareg's ample storage space up front as it features a large center console, usable door bins and two additional pockets on top of the dash for smaller items.
With so many good things to say about the Touareg, it might seem odd that it landed in last place, but when you're dealing with vehicles of this caliber, even the good ones get shuffled to the back. As we said before, the Touareg isn't necessarily deficient in any one area, it just doesn't excel over its peers, either. The V10 engine is unique and its off-road abilities are impressive, but neither feature is likely to be very prominent on most buyer's priority lists. If they are high on your list, it's definitely worth a drive, but if you want the ultimate in luxury, prestige and performance, there are two other players to consider.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
When did Volkswagens become so expensive? The People's Car has gone exclusive. Granted, a V10 turbodiesel isn't everyone's cup of tea, but when the price pushes over the $60,000 level, I have high expectations. I honestly felt let down with the TDI Touareg. The exterior design is ho-hum as it doesn't really excite me. The interior, while nice in design, lacks the feel of substantive quality. If it was the interior of my Passat, I'd be ecstatic. Unfortunately, this is a very expensive interior that lacks quality leather and has an abundance of cheaper-feeling plastics. The chrome and wood finishes were nice, but they weren't enough to overcome the cabin's other shortcomings. The engine was like nothing I've heard before. The delivery truck-sounding diesel had tons of power, though I was surprised to find that when you stomped the pedal, smoke would billow from the tailpipe. I know it's a diesel, but I thought the smoking routine had been solved for emissions. Yeah, the Touareg mastered anything we threw at it off-road, but its rather uninspiring on-road demeanor fell short of my expectations.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
In the past, the Touareg struck me as an amazingly capable luxury SUV that just happened to be wearing non-luxury badges. However, in this test, the VW came up a little short in luxury. The turbodiesel V10 under the hood is both a boon and a bane to its existence in this class. Despite a small amount of initial turbo lag, the engine comes through with loads of torque for just about any situation. And it's nice to think that a 5,800-pound vehicle (over 1,000 pounds more than the GX 470) could get over 20 miles to the gallon on the highway. Unfortunately, the V10 makes plenty of racket at idle and under full throttle (although it is quiet when cruising) — drive up alongside the Lexus and you might as well be driving a school bus. There's also the matter of emissions, which makes it impossible for Californians and New Yorkers to buy a Touareg with this engine. Ride quality was comfortable and refined, but the portly VW felt heavy in the corners. The Touareg had little trouble on the most challenging sections of the off-road trails but didn't feel as nimble as the GX 470 or Range Rover.
Lacking the Premium Package (and its high-grade "napa" upholstery), our Touareg test vehicle had a pretty basic leather interior. Its dark wood accents and matte-finish plastic would seem upscale in a $30K VW Passat, but next to the elegant details of the GX 470 and Cayenne, they came across as merely average in quality. The front seats were comfortable and roomy for the most part, but as in the Cayenne, the rear-seat accommodations are mediocre: The back cushion doesn't recline, the seat bottom is short, and foot room can be hard to come by. And the Touareg isn't any more suited for hauling bulky cargo than it is adult-size rear passengers — its cargo bay is narrow and folding the seats is a cumbersome process. Although the Touareg V10 TDI would make a satisfying purchase for a well-to-do SUV lover who wants to be the one on his block with the oddball vehicle, those looking for a complete package of luxury attributes will prefer the GX 470.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our Touareg featured an upgraded audio system that played through 11 speakers and a 375-watt amplifier. Like the rest of the vehicles in this test, the head unit was integrated into the navigation system, making for somewhat clumsy operation. There are rows of "soft" buttons along each side of the screen that work well once you get used to their changing functions. Although there is a single-slot in-dash CD player, the fact that the navigation system is still an antiquated CD-ROM-based system means than you can't play a single CD and use the navigation system at the same time. The CD changer that comes with the system is ever so conveniently placed in the cargo area.
Performance: Once you get up to speed with how this system works, you're rewarded with strong sound reproduction that never quits. Unlike the surround-sound systems in the Porsche and Land Rover, this system's soundstage was more noticeably up front, but it doesn't deter from the listening experience much. Tonal separation is excellent, although we did notice that higher volumes could produce some muddy bass notes. On its own this would be a top-notch system, but after listening to its competitors, it's not quite on the same level.
Best Feature: Strong overall sound quality.
Worst Feature: Cargo bay-mounted CD changer
Conclusion: A strong performer marred by a clumsy interface and lack of an in-dash CD changer. — Ed Hellwig
Third Place: 2005 Porsche Cayenne Turbo
If we awarded points for prestige, the Porsche might have had first place all to itself, but in the interest of editorial integrity we dug a little deeper than the badge on the hood. In this case, further investigation revealed a luxury SUV that's stunningly capable in some circumstances but less than impressive in others. Like the other vehicles in this test, the Cayenne is a compromise between true SUV capability and the comforts of a modern luxury vehicle. Is it capable at both? Yes. Does it deliver that combination in a more pleasing manner than the others? Not quite.
You would expect the on-road performance of any modern Porsche to boggle the mind and churn the stomach and the Cayenne doesn't disappoint. Decked out in full Turbo trim, you get the reins to 450 horses — that's nearly double the horsepower of the Lexus. Hooked up to a six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission, the Cayenne Turbo can leap to 60 mph from a stop in just 5.2 seconds, according to Porsche. We didn't have a chance to verify Porsche's claim, but most editors concurred that the Cayenne is as fast as any 5,200-pound vehicle has a right to be. "It's docile and quiet around town, but dip into those turbos and the Cayenne's explosive power is almost scary," one editor wrote. Another found the Cayenne's occasional low-speed turbo lag annoying, but confided that once underway the power was "addictive." If the ability to dust off BMWs from stoplights is one of your criteria, look no further than the Cayenne Turbo.
Keeping all those ponies under control is an adjustable air suspension that comes standard on the top-of-the-line Cayenne. Combining adjustable ride height, variable damping rates and multiple electronic control systems (with acronyms like PSM, PTM and PASM), the Cayenne can do its best impression of a 911 and still retain the ability to tackle snowdrifts and dirt roads in traditional SUV fashion. Like its sports car brethren, the Cayenne's steering is dead-on when it comes to relaying the texture of the road below, but its considerable heft at low speeds makes it feel overly cumbersome. While we could appreciate Porsche's dedication to keeping the feel of the Cayenne pure, we can't help but think that most drivers would grow tired of its "authenticity" on their way to Blockbuster on a Sunday night.
The adjustable suspension allows for three driver-selected settings to suit your mood, but any one of the three will get you around a corner faster than just about any other SUV on the planet. You would expect the Cayenne to hold an edge when it came to slicing up black top, but even we were impressed with how well it could hunker down in a corner without feeling like it was kneeling on its sidewalls. Granted, it barely has any sidewalls, thanks to its low-profile Pirelli street tires, but there are few SUVs on the road that feel as confident when pushed hard. It's a compromise, of course, as rough city streets make themselves known even with the suspension set to "comfort" mode, but it wasn't deemed unbearably harsh by any of the editors.
The Cayenne's dexterity ran out, however, when it came to tackling the rough stuff. Despite a low-range gearbox, lockable center differential and a host of electronic traction aids, the Cayenne was the only vehicle of the four that couldn't crawl its way up the rocky, backcountry trail we used for our off-road litmus test. In fairness, it was attempting the feat without the aid of Porsche's optional off-road package, which would have added detachable sway bars and a locking rear differential, but given the relative ease with which the other three vehicles made their way up the trail the Porsche's performance was disappointing. And yes, we know that 99 percent of Cayenne buyers will never attempt such a feat, but for nearly $100,000 we expected it to do it all.
There were no such letdowns when it came to the Cayenne's interior as it earned top scores for both its design and its materials. The well-laid-out gauge cluster is packed with information, yet you never feel as though you're staring at a computer screen thanks to the large, clear dials with white-on-black markings. With nearly all of its secondary controls neatly packaged within the center console in the dashboard, the Cayenne has a clean, uncluttered look that none of the others can match. Further bolstering its upscale image is a mix of luxurious materials that cover nearly every inch of the cabin. From the soft suede headliner to the carefully stitched leather on the grab handles, the Cayenne's interior is a delight to the senses. As one editor wrote, "The Cayenne may be expensive, but its interior conveys that fact better than any of the other vehicles in this test. If you can afford it, it's a nice place to be."
Looks aren't everything of course, as the Cayenne lost some points for its less-than-perfect functionality. In typical German style, the climate controls are a complex mess of indecipherable buttons and the cupholders are junk. Getting the navigation system up and running isn't too difficult but its integration with the rest of the onboard controls takes some getting used to. Folding down the second-row seats is more cumbersome than it needs to be, and although the resulting cargo area is usably flat it still comes up 15 cubic feet short of the cargo area in the Lexus. Like its ability to go off-road, the Cayenne's cargo-carrying ability isn't likely to get used much, but that doesn't mean it's not important.
Comparing the Cayenne to its peers is always tough. Its goal to be "the Porsche of SUVs" puts it at an inherent disadvantage, given that Porsches and SUVs are polar opposites in terms of form and function. Any attempt to combine the two was bound to call for compromises and the Cayenne bears that out. If you can live with those compromises, it's about as fun to drive as an SUV gets, but if you want the best all-around luxury SUV, there are two other players to consider.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
So this is the mold breaker for Porsche, huh? Well, from first glance it looks like a 911 on steroids. Once you step inside, you're wowed by the abundance of leather everywhere, including the buttery-soft suede roof liner. This SUV definitely uses the "sport" and "vehicle" parts of the acronym, but "utility" is a matter of debate. Our tester was built for the street as it failed to do much of anything off-road. OK, so it had soft high-performance street tires and wasn't equipped with a locking differential, but it struggled so tremendously over even the easy stuff that it cast doubt in my mind as to its versatility. But you could argue that its utility comes from the fact that it can carry five people and all of their stuff at a highly accelerated pace. How often do people actually take their SUVs off-road, anyway? The mighty twin-turbo, asphalt-smoking V8 reminds everyone that no matter how you look at it, it's still a Porsche at heart.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I've been dead set against this vehicle from the very beginning. But I must concede that it is an excellent all-around vehicle. Yes, it's fast and, yes, it offers stellar handling for an SUV, but those things don't matter all that much in the everyday lives of most people. The turbocharged engine is terrific, and the highway ride is very pleasant.
The real high point with the Cayenne is the elegant interior. The gauges have a hand-crafted, precision look — even the stereo display has a crisp appearance that makes it both visually appealing and easy to read. The navigation and audio controls are also very intuitive. It's very easy to jump from one function to the other by simply using the externally mounted buttons.
I'm not crazy about the exterior style of the Cayenne but it is acceptable. I think the Touareg is better-looking. The Cayenne also commands such a price premium that it's hard to view it as just another luxury SUV. Still, if money was not a factor, I'd pick the Cayenne as the luxury SUV I'd most want to drive everyday.
The Land Rover is better-looking and more capable off-road, but the interior and performance of the Porsche Cayenne are second to none.
Stereo Evaluation: 2005 Porsche Cayenne Turbo
System Score: 9.0
Components: This Bose-designed system consists of 12 speakers and roughly 350 watts of power. The controls are integrated into the navigation display, making for a somewhat clumsy interface, but the clarity of the display is impressive. A CD slot resides just above the screen, but it's only able to accept one CD at a time.
Performance: This impressive system was right up there with the Range Rover's Logic7 system when it came to sound quality. Like the Rover's system, this Bose setup has a surround-sound feature that splits standard two-channel audio into five channels. The result is a more spacious, concert hall sound that doesn't seem to be emanating from the dashboard or doors as much as it is filling the entire cabin. The clarity of high notes is superb, with delicate vocals coming through as if the singer was in the backseat. Clean bass comes through at the bottom to fill out more complex tracks without drowning out the high side. It doesn't skip a beat when cranked up, and with power to spare you'll find yourself listening to music louder than you're used to.
Best Feature: Strong and spacious sound that brings just about any old CD to life.
Worst Feature: No in-dash CD changer.
Conclusion: An outstanding system that performs almost as well as the twin turbo under the hood. — Ed Hellwig
Second Place: 2004 Land Rover Range Rover
While the other three SUVs didn't even exist until just a few years ago, the Range Rover came into this test with a long history behind it. The Range Rover represents the third generation of a breed that can trace its heritage back to a time when the term "sport-utility" didn't even exist. Such a storied pedigree might matter to some people, but to us it was just another footnote to forget about while we went about the business of seeing exactly what the Range Rover was made of.
To no one's surprise it sailed through the off-road portion, as Land Rover's continued dedication to off-road supremacy shined through. The real test, however, came during more mundane, day-to-day driving like long freeway commutes and stop-and-go errand running — in other words, the kind of driving most owners are likely to engage in at the helm of this luxury SUV. In these less demanding situations, the Rover still managed to impress as its well-sorted suspension and much improved interior make it noticeably more comfortable than its somewhat crude predecessor.
But even as much as most editors liked it, when it came down to the final scoring the Range Rover couldn't match the nearly fault-free Lexus. Pedigree is one thing, but when you can get the same level of comfort and performance for $20,000 less, it's hard to ignore the Lexus. Granted, price isn't likely to be an obstacle to most buyers in this category, but even wealthy shoppers are apt to discover that while the Land Rover is good, the Lexus is better.
For those who don't follow the ins and outs of the auto industry, it's worth noting that while Land Rover is currently owned by Ford, there was a brief time not too long ago when BMW held the reins to the British brand. It was during that time that this Range Rover was designed and BMW's influence comes through in a very positive way. On-road ride and handling was never one of the previous Rover's strong points, but this generation handles the pavement almost as well as the dirt. The steering is a little on the heavy side, but most editors like the way its precise feel gave the big SUV a confident feeling at speed. The suspension is similarly well sorted, as it's able to keep body motions well under control without diluting the positive road feel. Said one editor after a long highway stint, "As capable as the Rover is in the dirt, you sure don't feel like you're giving up much on the street."
Some credit for its impressive city manners has to go to the BMW-built drivetrain as it delivers a smooth stream of power that complements the refined ride. Consisting of a 4.4-liter V8 hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission, the Land Rover's drivetrain is competent, if not exceptional. Less powerful than the engines in either the Porsche or the VW, and not quite as smooth as the V8 in the Lexus, the Range Rover's 282-horsepower V8 is enough to satisfy all but the most discerning drivers. Then again, being picky is what consumers of these high-dollar sport-utes are all about, so if you absolutely have to have the best, the Rover might be a letdown in this area.
Much the same could be said about the Range Rover's interior as it earned solid praise from most editors, but wasn't considered the best by any of them. The BMW touch comes through again as the cabin wears the serious look of a German sedan with its dark wood trim and metallic accents. While most editors found the overall design unique, there was nothing very opulent about the look and feel of the materials. It also lost points for the nondescript gauges, overly busy steering wheel controls and frustrating navigation controls. As one editor put it, "It's nice-looking and reasonably functional, but nothing about this interior makes me think it's a $75,000 vehicle."
Passenger comfort wasn't as much of an issue as the Land Rover earned high marks for front- and rear-seat design. Unlike the softly padded buckets in the Lexus, the Range Rover goes with a firmer setup that delivers support in all the right places. "I spent a solid three hours in the driver seat and felt great afterwards — doesn't get much better than that," one editor wrote. The rear seats offer an average amount of space, but again their nicely contoured design seemed to give them above-average comfort.
When it came to evaluating some of the finer details on the Range Rover, it received mixed reviews. Some liked the idea of its split tailgate, while others found it awkward to use in real-world situations. The fact that it opens up to a cargo area that measures a mere 62 cubic feet doesn't help, either. Usable storage space up front is at a premium as well, so if you like to keep things like cell phones and garage door openers handy, you're out of luck. Same goes for the cupholders as they're on the small side, another uniquely German trait that's compliments of BMW no doubt.
With all the nitpicking heaped on the Range Rover by our editors, you might think it would have landed lower down the ladder than second place, but one look at the scores in the personal picks category and it's plain to see that the Range Rover still came away a staff favorite. It may not have the biggest engine or the nicest leather or the most room in back, but as a daily driver it's hard to argue with the refined manner in which the Range Rover goes about its business. For buyers who want a luxury SUV that can do it all and look good doing it, the Range Rover has few equals.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Land Rover Range Rover is an attractive and capable luxury SUV. The V8 engine is powerful and refined. The interior is appealing, and the seats are very comfortable. As much as I truly like the Range Rover, I have to admit it pales (perhaps just slightly) in comparison to the Porsche Cayenne.
For me, it's the little things that conspire to dethrone the Land Rover. The dash is great-looking but not quite as high quality as the Porsche's. Also, the overly complex and confusing navigation/audio system interface really takes away a lot of the fun. In a word, it's frustrating.
The Range Rover has an excellent highway ride but, unlike the Touareg and Cayenne, it tends to feel cumbersome or heavy. Granted, the Range Rover is the off-road king, but if you don't need that type of ability then maybe there are better choices.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
I came into this test expecting to like the Range Rover, which has earned much acclaim for its BMW refinement on pavement and Land Rover hardiness on rough terrain. However, at the end of the week, I couldn't find much justification for spending $20,000 more to get the Land Rover over the Lexus. Certainly, I liked all the basic elements of the Range Rover's package. The ride quality isn't as plush as that of the Lexus, but the Land Rover trades it for sportier reflexes in the turns. The Rover was also fun and easy to drive off-road, though on the moderately difficult trails we encountered, I didn't find that it had any real advantage over the GX 470. Engine performance was none too impressive for $74,000. The BMW-engineered 4.4-liter V8 may be well suited for a 5 Series sedan, but it's not the best choice for a 5,300-pound SUV. There's not much to work with below 3,000 rpm, and the engine drones at highway speeds. The transmission didn't always downshift quickly enough to satisfy and I ended up using the manual mode on the climb to Big Bear to avoid continual shuffling between gears.
Inside, the Range Rover has a rugged ambience yet is fully functional for life in the suburbs. The seats are supportive and roomy in both the front and the back, making this a truly comfortable vehicle for four or five full-size adults. Unfortunately, materials quality is a mixed bag — the leather upholstery and industrial-strength floor mats seemed high in quality, but the vinyl on the door tops and the wood accents on the dash did not. And when it came time to load groceries, I found the Range Rover's two-piece clamshell hatch inconvenient (it also made it hard to gain access to the full-size spare tire housed in the cargo floor). Although the Rover is comfortable and capable, I want more refinement and practicality in a luxury SUV. The GX 470 delivers in this regard, costs less and is backed by Toyota's reliability reputation. No contest.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Land Rover Range Rover
System Score: 9.0
Components: Every Range Rover comes standard with a 15-speaker Logic 7 audio system with 710 watts of total power. The head unit uses a large screen for the navigation system along with an array of hard buttons located around the perimeter. Like all too many BMW systems of the past, this system's functionality is awful, with basic functions like radio tuning made frustratingly difficult. It does have an in-dash single-slot CD player, but we would like to see an in-dash changer for $75,000.
Performance: As difficult as it is to get working right, you'll forget all of your frustrations once the music is playing, as this system's quality is exceptional. From its sizzling highs down to the tight, but deep lows, there's no CD that won't sound good through this setup. Credit for the clean sound goes to the Logic 7 technology that separates standard two-channel sound into seven-channel surround sound. Through the creation of two "virtual" channels, the Logic 7 technology adds a depth that other systems just can't match. Easily one of the top systems available today, and certainly one of the best in an SUV.
Best Feature: Exceptional sound quality at any volume with any music.
Worst Feature: User interface makes even simple functions difficult.
Conclusion: A system worthy of a $75,000 SUV. — Ed Hellwig
First Place: 2004 Lexus GX 470
There may be some luxury SUV buyers who don't know Lexus, but Lexus sure knows them. It's obvious every time you get into one of the company's SUVs. No matter how tall or how small you are, it doesn't take more than a few seconds before you feel perfectly content behind the wheel. Such familiarity and comfort is no accident, it's the result of careful attention to the wants and needs of luxury buyers and a single-minded drive to deliver them.
The GX 470 is no exception as it pampers you from the minute you get in and rarely disappoints from there. From the perfectly shaped seats to the crisp, clear gauges to the silky smooth drivetrain, the GX is a top-tier luxury SUV in every sense of the term. Not only does it offer all the latest features and amenities, this Lexus also comes through with refined highway manners, exceptional off-road capability and seating for seven. It may not carry the prestige of a Porsche or the tradition of Land Rover, but when it comes to delivering on all things you would want and expect from a high-end SUV the GX 470 is in a league of its own.
We can only imagine the frustration that the engineers at Lexus went through as they designed the GX 470's sophisticated suspension system. Not only did it need to provide the kind of supple, refined ride quality that Lexus is known for, it also had to deliver better than average off-road ability. Why? Because that's what the competition offers, and in order to be competitive the GX couldn't be deficient in any one area regardless of how seldom its owners might find use for it.
After subjecting the GX 470 to various on- and off-road driving situations, it was apparent that the exhaustive efforts of its engineers weren't wasted. On pavement, the Lexus lives up to its luxury billing as it combines a plush ride quality with respectable handling that almost every editor found pleasing. "It may not have the sportiest feel of the group, but if I had to drive one of these SUVs everyday, the Lexus would be my first choice for sure," one editor wrote. A console switch allows for adjustment of the shock absorbers for varying degrees of stiffness, but it was better left alone as the standard setting seemed to provide just the right compromise between comfort and performance.
Our particular test vehicle was equipped with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) that not only sharpened up the on-road handling but also allowed for increased wheel articulation off-road. Working in conjunction with the adjustable rear air suspension, the GX 470 proved to be a surefooted off-road partner that was every bit as capable as the Land Rover and Volkswagen. More than one editor was surprised by the GX's nimble off-road manners as it creeped its way over boulders that gave the Porsche fits. We'll admit that much of our surprise stemmed from the fact that the GX 470 is probably the least likely vehicle to ever see such serious off-road duty, but its level of agility in the rough stuff was just another sign that the GX 470 was no poser.
Some might look at the GX 470's meager horsepower numbers as a major sign of weakness, but we found that what it gives up in power it makes up for in civility. With just 235 ponies running through its five-speed transmission, the GX 470 doesn't have the juice to plant you in your seat like the Porsche or steam up a hill like the Volkswagen. Instead, the GX's V8 offers an almost eerily quiet drivetrain that practically disappears on the highway and utters nothing more than a refined hum on city streets. With strong power off the line and solid midrange power, the 4.7-liter V8 suffers only at the very top of its power band where it finally runs out of breath. Quick downshifts by the five-speed automatic transmission make the GX feel stronger than it really is, but those who crave the brutish power of a serious V8 might find the Lexus a bit lacking when it comes to passing power and hill-climbing ability. (Note: The 2005 GX 470 received an engine upgrade good for an extra 45 horsepower that should help in this regard.)
Few are apt to find the interior of the GX lacking as it not only provides all the latest gadgets, it combines them with a level of comfort that no other vehicle in the test could match. It earned the top scores in all four areas of our "ride quality" category that includes front-seat comfort, wind and road noise, rattles and squeaks and rear-seat comfort. As we said before, the GX 470 coddles you from the moment you plop down into its plush driver seat. "The Porsche might have looked a little more luxurious, but it was the Lexus that felt the most luxurious," wrote one editor after logging some seat time in the GX. Another wrote, "It took some time before I could get comfortable in the other vehicles, but with the Lexus it felt like I had been driving it for years the minute I sat down."
Strong praise was heaped on the GX 470's rear seats as well. They not only feature the most measured head- and legroom, their relaxed seat angle and ample cushioning make them feel even more comfortable than the numbers suggest. Not so in the third-row seats as any adult would be hard-pressed to get comfortable within their tight dimensions. Given that the GX was the only vehicle in the test to even offer third-row seats, we generally considered them a bonus, but don't expect anyone but a couple of kids to be happy using them. Thankfully, both the second- and third-row seats can be folded out of the way fairly easily to expose a sizable cargo bay. With a maximum capacity of 78 cubic feet, the GX 470 offers far more cargo space than the others although accessing it through the side-hinged rear door can be inconvenient at times.
More than just comfortable seats and plenty of space, the Lexus delivers on the details as well. There are few surfaces that aren't covered in some kind of soft-to-the-touch material and the wood trim has the look of "fine furniture" according to one editor. The climate controls are easily accessible, the cupholders can swallow just about anything and the navigation system is usable at a glance. It's not all perfect as the placement of various controls seems a bit haphazard and it was the only vehicle that still uses a floor-mounted shifter for the transfer case, but rarely are you left wishing for something that isn't there.
Such attention to detail is typical in a Lexus. The idea that luxury is more than just horsepower and electronic gadgets has long been one of the key differentiators between Lexus and its more traditional competitors. That philosophy served it well in this test as the GX 470 earned as many points for its inherent likability as its measurable performance. The other vehicles may have stronger, more defined personalities, but it's the GX 470 that makes you feel like you're getting your money's worth.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Lexus can sure make some great cars. Everything about the GX 470 is great inside and out. The interior is plush, the ride is smooth and it can tackle some serious off-road trails. But I find the exterior styling a little dull and I was not overwhelmed by the V8's power.
Still, the Lexus is the best all-around choice for most people. It does everything it's asked to do and more. Most people will rarely take it off-road — but its off-road prowess will be waiting just in case. And that leather, how do they get it so soft? However, a low point for the interior is the lack of storage space.
Unlike the Porsche and Land Rover, the Lexus' air suspension is somewhat limited as it seems to only raise or lower the rear of the vehicle. The Lexus also lacks the sporty nature of the Touareg or Cayenne — even the Ranger Rover seems to corner flatter.
Even with options like a rear-seat entertainment system, navigation, and air suspension, the GX's sticker is right around $52,000 — that's quite a bit less than the other three SUVs in our test. This is probably the best luxury SUV for most people.
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
The GX 470 was far and away the least expensive SUV in this test, yet it was the one that I found most enjoyable to drive whether on pavement or on off-road trails. Ride quality is as plush as Lexus has conditioned its buyers to expect, and although the GX 470 doesn't strike you as an athlete when taken around corners, it weighs several hundred pounds less than its peers and that gives it a nimble feel. Unlike the others, the GX didn't bring a double-digit ground clearance figure to our off-pavement adventures, but I found it every bit as capable as the Range Rover thanks to its generous suspension travel. It also had a more playful demeanor than the others (thanks to its 4Runner origins), and its softer tuning made it easier to predict and maneuver. I would have liked a little extra midrange power from the V8 in highway passing situations, but it was the smoothest, quietest engine of the group.
On the inside, the GX has neither the personality of the Range Rover's safari-ready ensemble nor the opulence of the Cayenne's fine furnishings. But it does offer a simple but elegant design and, for the most part, ergonomically sound controls. The front seats were among the most comfortable of the group, and the GX is the only one in the group that gives you the option of having a third-row seat. It was also the only one with a handy rear back-up camera. Buying a luxury SUV will never be a practical thing to do with your money, but that notwithstanding, the GX 470 is an extremely well-rounded vehicle that offers a high level of luxury. And it carries with it reliable Toyota genes, which should minimize visits to the dealer. Accordingly, this is the SUV I would park in my own garage, and it's the one I would recommend first to others.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Lexus GX 470
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our GX 470 was equipped with the optional Mark Levinson audio system. It uses 14 speakers, a 240-watt amplifier and a touchscreen interface that also controls a DVD-based navigation system. A tape player is also part of the package, along with a glovebox-mounted CD changer. We've never been big fans of touchscreen audio controls, but this system is fairly easy to work through. Same goes for the CD changer as it's easy to access, although we still would prefer an in-dash unit.
Performance: We've come to expect great things from the Mark Levinson systems available from Lexus, and although this setup is definitely a strong performer, it has been eclipsed by some of the newer systems in terms of overall sound quality. While it delivers plenty of clean, undistorted power, there was a distinct lack of clarity. It was as if there was a sheet hanging over the speakers that was filtering out that last 10 percent of the sound. Don't get us wrong, it's still an above-average system that will satisfy most listeners, but when compared back-to-back with its rivals, it's not quite the standout it once was.
Best Feature: Plenty of clean power that can drive high volumes with little distortion.
Worst Feature: Glovebox-mounted CD changer.
Conclusion: Still a standout system, but no longer state of the art. — Ed Hellwig
Picking the top luxury vehicle in a particular category is always a tricky task. One man's favorite feature is another man's annoyance, but in this case we didn't have much trouble deciding which one of these vehicles most convincingly makes a case for itself as the best midsize ultra luxury SUV. With its buttery-smooth ride, refined drivetrain, impressive off-road capability and beautifully finished interior, the GX 470 has few faults. Sure, it's not the sportiest SUV on the block, but if that's what you want, maybe an SUV isn't for you.
The Land Rover did pretty much everything we expected of it. It barely broke a sweat off-road, handled itself admirably on the road and had all the character you would expect of a half-British/half-German luxury SUV. More than one of our editors said they would probably take the Range Rover if it was up to them. But in the end the Rover just didn't say "luxury" quite like the Lexus — something it should have been able to do given its $20,000 price premium.
The Porsche was the most polarizing of the four, as it was panned by some for its odd looks and limited ability in the dirt, while others loved its sumptuous interior and ability to rip a corner like a 911. The Cayenne is an SUV for a particular kind of buyer, and for that buyer it will probably satisfy. But to us, there was no way that was worth nearly twice as much as the Lexus, either in its performance or its comfort. It's definitely an acquired taste, just not ours.
The Touareg might have stretched a little to get into this category, but it certainly didn't embarrass itself. Its monster motor provided plenty of smoke-belching fun. But when it came right down to it, having more torque than a semi truck just wasn't enough to cut it. Like the Porsche, the V10 Touareg is an acquired taste that's sure to satisfy those who yearn for its particular brand of luxury. But when it comes to shelling out over $60,000 for an SUV, we would want, and expect, a little more.