The story behind 2018 SUV of the Year testing
I’m stuck. Inconceivable. I unclip my seat belt and step out of the molten orange Rogue Sport and into the silty sand of the Mojave Desert.
It’s hot. Oppressively so. Especially considering the other 10 judges and I began our evaluations at the Honda Proving Center only an hour earlier.
As I step back to evaluate my sandpit predicament, international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie rolls up, bemused, in a blue Maserati Levante. I wave him by and watch as the Levante disappears behind a swirling rooster tail of dust before turning my attention back to the ensnared Nissan.
The other judges are busy cycling through the 37 SUVs we have on hand, and our photo and video teams are hard at work capturing the action. I don’t want to bother them, so only one option remains—do it myself.
I try all the tricks I learned after plowing my college-years Mustang into a snowdrift for the millionth time. Regardless, I taste bitter defeat. A few minutes later, road test editor Chris Walton, photographer Jade Nelson, and photo intern Darren Martin pull up in our long-term Ford F-250, the 2017 Truck of the Year. Jade and Darren position themselves on the Rogue Sport’s B-pillars. With a little throttle in reverse the Nissan springs free.
The great thing about evaluating SUVs at a facility such as Honda’s is that it not only allows each judge to evaluate our 24 contenders (totalling 37 vehicles) in the same repeatable way but also allows us to bring our unique automotive perspectives and experiences to the table.
I am a child of the Northeast. My younger brothers and I grew up shoveling snow from the stoop of my family’s apartment building every winter. When we wanted extra money, we’d walk up the block looking to rescue SUVs whose drivers thought all four-wheel-drive systems were created equal. We never had to look hard. For every Jeep or Subaru we rescued, we saved a half-dozen early Ford Escapes or Honda CR-Vs.
That would explain how I found myself stuck in the sand. Sand isn’t a perfect substitute for snow, but it’s close enough to serve as a SoCal analogue. I made a point to drive around the sand portion of our off-road course at city speeds, stopping and starting to see which SUVs could handle it. Most did fine. The Rogue Sport and Toyota C-HR did not. Others—some with strong off-road credentials—had more difficulties than we would have expected.
The 1.34-mile (2.2-km) off-road course is just one of the four abuses we subjected our entrants to. We also made good use of a 7.6-mile (12.2-km) oval, the 1.9 mile (3 km) winding road, and a half-mile (0.8-km) gravel loop.
We weren’t kidding around with these tests, and we do this so you can make an informed decision regarding which SUV will best get you to and from your ski lodge or hunting cabin without getting stuck in bad weather.
The goal of our time at Honda’s proving ground isn’t to pick a winner, though. It’s to winnow out the SUVs that aren’t winners. After two days cycling through every SUV and assessing them against our six criteria, we’d know enough to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Our finalist loop would settle the rest.
Although I spent much of my time on the off-road course, my fellow judges brought their unique perspectives to the table. Technical director Frank Markus, an engineer by trade, made a point of torturing himself on the Belgian block section of the gravel course, testing suspension compression, rebound, and impact harshness. Chris made multiple passes on the winding road, driving each contender in the same lanes at near-identical speeds so that he could accurately assess how they handle different performance thresholds.
Meanwhile, executive editor Mark Rechtin spent much of his time testing things buyers rarely notice on test drives but become bothersome after months of ownership: wind noise, air-conditioning performance, and high-speed cruise control accuracy—the latter so much so that he was chided by Honda’s proving ground monitors for, ahem, accidently exceeding the 100-mph (160-km/h) speed limit. All in the name of science, right?
While Mark ripped around the oval, associate editor Scott Evans was taking a more holistic approach, attempting to recreated how owners would use an SUV in the real world, testing passing power, emergency braking, and ride quality.
Others, such as guest judge Gordon Dickie—an automotive engineering consultant who’s been an R&D executive for Kia, Mazda, Volvo, Ford, and others—spent extra time evaluating interior lighting, folding and unfolding rear seats, measuring body-panel gaps, and investigating hundreds of other traits that together make a vehicle great.
Not all contenders would make it through the test track torture scot-free. The C-HR and the front-drive variant of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport joined the Rogue Sport in beaching themselves in the sand. The Chevy Equinox narrowly escaped its opportunity to join that club, too. Elsewhere, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Audi Q5 lived up to their brands’ sometimes spotty histories with electrical issues. The Stelvio periodically displayed taillight out and service headlamp warnings, and the Q5’s collision mitigation software would routinely freak out and slam on the brakes when being driven on the winding road.
While some SUV’s stocks tumbled, others rose. The Enclave Avenir, for example, impressed judges with its quiet, buttoned-down ride and handsome sheetmetal—though it’s as-tested price gave many judges sticker shock, especially compared to the equivalent Chevy Traverse. The Honda CR-V also impressed with its full suite of semi-autonomous driving tech, good road manners, and spacious interior. Judges were also blown away by the Volkswagen Atlas’ adult-friendly third row—who needs a reborn VW Microbus when the Atlas has packaging like this?
When a palate cleanser was needed, many judges gravitated to the hunchbacked Mercedes-AMG GLC43 or the Alfa Romeo Stelvio. The former, with its high-strung twin-turbo V-6, steamroller tires, and rear-biased AWD system, was a monster on the winding track. The Stelvio was an absolute sweetheart, too. Toss a corner its way, and it comes alive, exhibiting a sense of soul missing from many crossovers in its competitive set. With few exceptions, the sporty Europeans were a welcome respite as the days grew long and caffeine ran low.
At the end of two frantic days totaling some 5,700 combined miles (9,173 km) of evaluations in this desert kiln, we haggled over the cut list in a mercifully air-conditioned conference room—while our hardy photo and video teams continued slaving away outside, fighting off dust storms and flybys from Air Force and Navy jets.
It’s always interesting to see how the finalist cut conversation goes. Some years no one seems to want to narrow the field. Other years, judges want to slash and burn—a braying Roman gladiator crowd pitilessly thumbing down any vehicle that’s not up to snuff. This discussion quickly went the latter way.
Editor-in-chief Ed Loh started feeling out the room by offering up a vehicle that’d been banned from our off-road testing due to its propensity for getting stuck: the Toyota C-HR. Although an argument could be made for the C-HR on our Efficiency or Value criteria, when it comes to Engineering Excellence and Performance of Intended Function, the C-HR’s lack of all-wheel drive coupled with its carlike ground clearance led to failure in its primary mission of being a crossover.
Down the list we went—a cold-blooded 45-minute slash and burn before we agreed on our first finalist. However, once we had the low-hanging fruit out of the way, the debate was engaged in earnest for the remaining bubble candidates. Was the Audi SQ5’s zippy performance sufficient to overcome the Q5’s clinical styling and weird collision-prevention events? Was the thrilling Alfa Romeo’s occasional gremlin enough to disqualify it? Was the Buick Enclave Avenir a better seven-seat SUV for the money than its mass-market Chevrolet Traverse cousin? And although the fun Mazda CX-5 fell short against its Honda CR-V rival in most measurements, this is not a head-to-head test—so was the CX-5 good enough to make the finals? Were the awful gear-selector buttons of the otherwise competent GMC Terrain enough to ruin its chances? The debate raged on.
Finally, after hours of discussion, our field of 24 was down to just seven. The finalists couldn’t be more different; it’s a good thing that our Of The Year competitions aren’t comparison tests. Our finalists included a bit of everything: the sporty Alfa Romeo Stelvio, the family-friendly VW Atlas and Chevrolet Traverse, the value-packed Honda CR-V, the off-road-ready Land Rover Discovery, the cheap and cheerful Subaru Crosstrek, and the luxurious Volvo XC60. Over the next two days on real-world roads, we’d figure out which was worthy of the Golden Calipers.
We packed up as the sun set on the Mojave. Tehachapi and our real-world loops still lay an hour’s drive away. We jockeyed for keys and saddled up for our convoy to the old railroad town on the outer edges of the desert.
If the first two days of SUV of the Year are a sprint through 37 vehicles, the last two are a marathon through seven finalists. Over the next 48 hours, we’d each drive our 27.6-mile (44.4-km) Of The Year loop 11 times, thanks to the extra Crosstrek, Discovery, and XC60 variants that help us assess the breadth of their given lineups. After 303.6 miles (488.6 km) on highways, rural back roads, canyons, city streets, and industrial byways, we’d each be ready to put our heads together and pick our 2018 SUV of the Year.
Proving grounds are great places to test lots of vehicles in a controlled environment over a short period of time, but performance in the uncontrollable real world can make or break a finalist. For example, issues such as those we experienced with the Audi Q5’s forward collision software at the proving ground typically don’t rear their heads except on public streets with real traffic—in fact, a similar issue arose last year with the Mazda CX-9, sinking its chances at winning. The unpredictability of the real world also further helps us test everything from low-speed braking behavior and transmission responsiveness in traffic to radar cruise control, lane keep assist systems, infotainment software, and audio systems—something I vowed to pay particular attention to this year.
Just before 8 a.m. on the first day of the finalist loops, I walked into our hotel conference room and was greeted by a personalized drive schedule. Frank, who seems to always be running on East Coast time, made one for each judge despite turning in for bed past midnight and waking up at what I’m sure was way before dawn.
I snagged the keys to the diesel Discovery, fired up the oil burner, and set out for my first loop of the day.
Before I’d even made it to lunch with the gang some four hours later, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake.
I’d read recently that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with its operatic highs and heavy-metal lows, is one the best songs for testing an audio system’s chops. In year’s past I’ve used my favorite albums, but I’ve never used a single song on repeat. This seemed much more scientific.
It was on my fourth loop when I realized my critical mistake: Listening to a great song repeatedly on full blast ruins said great song. Sure, in those four hours I learned “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds unexpectedly good on the Subaru’s Harman Kardon audio system and surprisingly bass-heavy on the VW Atlas’ Fender system, but at what cost? My ears would ring with Freddie Mercury’s voice and Brian May’s guitar on an endless loop.
By the following afternoon, I was ready for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to end and our debate to begin.
There’s always a tense, nervous quiet that overtakes the conference room ahead of our final debates. Some mindlessly fiddle with their phones. Others anxiously pore over their notes, gaining ammunition for the fight to come.
Unlike the relative anarchy of our contender cuts, Ed leads us diligently through the finalists. We start with the VW Atlas. “Anyone feel strongly that this should be our SUV of the Year?”
Detroit editor Alisa Priddle is the first to respond: “I know this is Volkswagen’s corporate styling, but the design does not work for me at all.” Angus jumps in, defending the Atlas’ sheetmetal before admitting, “My big problem with the Atlas is in its suspension calibration,” noting that it’s frequently either bottoming or topping out.
After thoroughly covering the Atlas, Ed moves the discussion on to the Volvo, then the Land Rover and the Chevrolet. Like the Atlas, the XC60, Discovery, and Traverse all get an exhaustive review from the judges—yet no one makes a passionate case for any of them to be crowned SUV of the Year. Everyone seems to be waiting for their favorites to be brought to the table.
Then we get to the Alfa Romeo Stelvio. “I feel like this is the most polarizing vehicle in the mix,” Ed said. Boy, was he right. For every case that could be made against the Alfa—from its electronic glitches and intermittently functioning sunroof (an issue which cropped up minutes before we began our discussion)—an equally compelling case could be made for its exceptional driving manners. The Stelvio was appealing to our hearts, the enthusiast in each and every one of us.
We debated for more than a half hour about the Stelvio before moving on to the next surprisingly controversial vehicle, the Crosstrek. The Subaru scored particularly high on Value and Performance of Intended Function, thanks to its grippy all-wheel-drive hardware and superb ride quality, but more than a few judges found its engine almost unforgivably underpowered.
Then came the Honda CR-V, our last finalist. After yet another lengthy discussion, Ed yielded the floor to anyone who wanted to make an impassioned plea for their SUV of the Year favorite. Plenty did. It was shaping up to be a battle of heads versus hearts. The pragmatic versus the passionate.
The anonymous paper ballots went out. On them, each judge put their top three picks for SUV of the Year in order. Even though we don’t award the two runners-up, voting for three helps ensure there isn’t a tie.
Ballots in hand, Ed left the room to tally the vote. Typically he returns with the results a few minutes later. Instead, he came back in the room 15 minutes later and grabbed photographer Brian Vance to come help verify the tally. It was close. Really close.
Ed and Brian returned after another tension-filled 10 minutes. We had a winner. The margin was slim—one judge’s flip-flop of a first- and second-place vote would have netted a different outcome—a result few judges would have protested either way. And despite the close result, this win was no mistake. Few vehicles in recent memory have lived up to our criteria as thoroughly as our 2018 SUV of the Year.