All the right notes
If you’ve ever stood next to a piano, you’ve probably felt the urge to tap every key, just to hear what they all sound like. Put 36 SUVs in front of our judges, and you get the same result.
Some years it’s more like playing chords than individual notes: lots of crossovers struggling to stand out while slavishly copying one another. This isn’t one of those years. It’s as discordant as a cat strolling across the keyboard, which makes the job of picking the best SUV that much harder—and that much more interesting.
Take a peek under the lids of this year’s pack, and you’ll find live axles and independent suspensions. Three-, four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines paired with six-, seven-, eight-, nine-, and 10-speed automatics, plus the occasional stick shift or continuously variable transmission and a few single-speed reduction gearboxes. Gasoline engines and electric motors, sometimes together and sometimes separate. Turbochargers, superchargers, electric assist, and plain old natural aspiration. Front-drive, front-drive-based all-wheel drive, rear-based all-wheel drive, and manually and electronically shifted four-wheel drive. We even have a variable-displacement engine and an AWD system with no mechanical connection between the axles.
When it comes to finding the high notes among dozens of SUVs, our judges are concert pianists. Armed with crash safety results, price comparisons, equipment lists, reams of our own test data, and more than two centuries of combined experience, we examine the composition of every contender against our six key criteria.
Evaluating each vehicle in such a manner allows us to fairly select a winner from a field that includes cheap and cheerful starter rides, six-figure luxury vehicles, purpose-built electric vehicles, everyday family haulers, and the SUV that invented SUVs.
Finding middle C among 25 models and their numerous variants isn’t easy, but when you hear it, you understand why it’s right in the middle of the keyboard.
Where we test
Although others get some cars together, drive them around a bit, and vote on which one they like best, that’s not how we do it. Our rigorous and regimented Of the Year programs are designed around repeatability. That is, testing every vehicle in the same conditions on the same roads and proving grounds back to back to ensure no vehicle has an advantage or disadvantage. Each program requires a slightly different set of tests unique to the type of vehicle. This is how we do it at SUV of the Year.
With the typical contender field regularly surpassing three dozen vehicles, automotive proving grounds have become our location of choice for data collection. We were invited back to the Honda Proving Center, located 130 miles (210 km) north of our Los Angeles headquarters, where updated facilities offered our judges more ways than ever to evaluate the performance, handling, and quality of the contenders. First, though, every vehicle underwent our standard battery of tests. Straight-line acceleration and braking, lateral acceleration, and our figure-eight handling test are all recorded by a stack of Vbox GPS-based data collectors sampling 20 times per second. From this, the test team builds a spreadsheet for easy reference throughout judging. In addition to data, the team takes meticulous notes on every vehicle’s test performance to inform judging discussions.
Narrowing the Field
The great advantage of a proving ground is its consolidation of test surfaces into one controlled facility. A site like the Honda Proving Center allows our judges to drive all 36 vehicles on-road and off, through tight curves and down lengthy straights, on good pavement and bad—all within the proving center’s confines. A 1.9-mile (3-km) winding road demonstrates handling while a 7.6-mile (12.2-km) oval tests high-speed stability and interior noise and provides an opportunity to test advanced cruise control and lane keeping technologies. Various rough road surfaces, including Belgian blocks, gravel, and re-creations of various real-world freeways (including L.A.’s notorious Harbor Freeway expansion joints), reveal suspension tuning and build quality issues. A 1.3-mile (2-km) off-road course tests a vehicle’s claims to capability with washboard roads, hill climbs and descents, and a sand bog that simulates snow. From these evaluations, our panel separates finalists from the contenders.
The Real World
Even after evaluating our vehicles at this hundred-million-dollar high-tech proving ground, we still test our finalists in the real world because there are some things you just can’t simulate in a controlled environment. Longtime readers will be familiar with our evaluation loop: 27.6 miles (44.4 km) of public roads in and around the city of Tehachapi, California. Adding in its 4,000-foot elevation, the route taxes every part of a vehicle—be it climbing and descending 1,000 feet, stop-and-go city driving, meandering country roads, wide-open freeways, or a twisting, technical canyon road. Along the way, the finalists will encounter traffic, railroad crossings, and every condition of pavement from brand-new concrete to ancient asphalt cracked and broken by heavy truck traffic. From these real-world evaluations, an SUV of the Year winner emerges from among the finalists.