Image: 2004 Porsche Cayenne
Porsche
According to Forbes.com, the 2004 Prosche Cayenne is one of the top SUVs of the year.
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updated 12/9/2004 7:33:30 AM ET 2004-12-09T12:33:30

With news sources and analysts talking all the time these days about how cluttered and oversupplied the U.S. car market is, automakers — especially American ones — are struggling to keep people excited with their cars. The particularly-congested sport utility vehicle (SUV) market presents one of the biggest challenges: How do you make SUVs interesting when they are everywhere, and look so similar?

Even Toyota Motor's upscale Lexus subsidiary — which is a success at selling SUVs — occasionally has a hard time justifying the development of new sport-utes. Introducing the Lexus GX 470 SUV at a 2002 press conference in Utah, general manager Dennis Clements differentiated between the brand's three SUVs by describing the different types of skiing vacations each vehicle might suit. One struggles to believe that limited skiing utility would prompt the creation of a new car, one of the most complicated things in the world to manufacture.

We hope that this guide to great SUVs, which is broken up by price, helps bewildered buyers. Plenty of outstanding SUVs are available, but they might get lost amid the crowd of mediocre ones.

For Clements and other officials at Lexus and Toyota, fielding a large and winning roster of SUVs is critical to continuing Toyota's seizure of American market share from the U.S. automakers. In the U.S., Lexus now sells more SUVs than passenger cars. In the first ten months of this year, Toyota's 675,809 American light-truck sales (vans, SUVs and pickups) equaled 93 percent of its passenger car sales.

The driver behind much of Toyota's recent juggernaut-like success in the U.S. market is sales of SUVs and pickups. While sales of its passenger cars — not including Lexus or Scion — slipped 1 percent in the first ten months of 2004 compared to the same period last year, sales in the Toyota light-truck division climbed 11 percent. We attribute that rise to the company's efforts to make their trucks bigger and more powerful — i.e., more American.

Toyota knows that trucks are the backbone of the American auto business (the country's three best-selling vehicles are pickups), and it constantly applies pressure to domestic automakers with new and improved trucks, vans and SUVs. Until the Ford brand began selling its new Freestyle SUV in October, the Toyota brand had more SUV nameplates on the market than even that storied American company. (Nevertheless, Ford's sales superstars, the F-150 and the Explorer, are the number one selling pickup and SUV in the U.S.)

Toyota on top
Consumer Reports also finds that Toyota makes three of the four most reliable SUVs on the market: the Land Cruiser, Highlander and RAV4 (the fourth is the struggling Mitsubishi Endeavor). In its survey of more than 800,000 readers — from which it derives reliability projections — the publication found that several American SUVs are among the least reliable, including Ford's Excursion, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator, as well as General Motors' Hummer H2. No European SUVs in the survey rated average or above. (Consumer Reports does not test all models. The BMW X3, for example, was not included, nor was the Infiniti QX56.)

We had to include more than reliability ratings in determining our criteria for this list. The majority of SUVs are now built primarily for on-road driving, and are usually aimed at families who want flexible passenger and cargo utility. As SUVs go, we admire a vehicle like Honda Motor's midsize Pilot, which looks boring but is practical and great for families. You wouldn't take it across the desert, and you wouldn't use it to pull up stumps. Although some SUV owners do such things with their cars, this story was not designed to cater to that small but hardy band of people who still use 4x4s for rugged outdoor driving.

Some of the winners on our list are exceptions to the aforementioned rules. Land Rover's Range Rover is comfortable, but it's also an off-road warrior. Towing capacity was a deciding factor in the case of the CadillacEscalade, whose 8,100-lb. hauling limit adds to the value and capabilities of a car known primarily for luxury. The Porsche Cayenne has a history of recalls and the BMW X3 is one of the least practical SUVs, but we couldn't help including both cars because they are so darned fun to drive.

Other automotive selling points such as styling also figured in our decisions, as did — as usual — the question of whether we, as an editorial staff that spends its life working with cars, would consider owning the vehicles we were examining.

We had a few additional ground rules:

  • Only one entry on the list per vehicular nameplate. For example, we considered the Cadillac Escalade and the stretched Escalade ESV to be part of the same nameplate. To find each vehicle's price bracket, we used each nameplate's entry-level model.
  • No lame ducks — i.e. no models which are headed for discontinuation.
  • No "aftermarket" specials — i.e. we only considered cars made by original equipment manufacturers such as Ford and Toyota, and not customized versions of their vehicles made by other companies.

Some of the price brackets were intensely competitive and — in two cases — too close for us to honor just one vehicle. We also noticed that many of the more expensive entries on the list benefited from a lack of competition. SUVs may be popular, but they don't have a price range that stretches to the sky, like that of sports cars. They can, however, get mighty expensive — and whether you want one fit for a king (or queen — read on) or for a college student, we have the vehicle for you.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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