Since 1999, the Motor Trend SUV of the Year award has recognized the absolute best new sport/utility on the road, and no year has been without controversy. From the 1999 Lexus RX 300 — the predecessor of a vehicle that’s still a best-seller today — to the off-road-ready 2006 Nissan Xterra, it’s clear automotive excellence comes in many forms. What hasn’t changed over the years? Motor Trend‘s dedication to an exhaustive testing process yields worthy SUV of the Year winners, year after year
2015 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Honda CR-V
Honda has had to take a couple of mulligans lately. When the ninth-gen 2012 Civic launch fizzled, the car got a do-over for ’14, bringing much-needed styling and powertrain upgrades. Similarly, the fourth-gen 2012 CR-V missed the small-overlap crash-test boat, earning a “marginal” rating that nixed its chances at the coveted Top Safety Pick ranking. It also drew criticism for being less fun to drive than its rivals, due in part to its quaint old five-speed automatic. The fix: a 2015 reboot, and a second chance.
Some years, a vehicle wins our calipers almost unanimously. This year our jury entered the final discussion split almost down the middle. After two hours of contentious debate, the CR-V’s stellar value, engineering, and safety features combined with the cheerful way it performs its intended functions earned Honda the win. Arguments such as these tipped the balance: “The CR-V shows you don’t have to lose the fun factor when buying something economical,” said Lago. “A careful rework of a best-seller, executed with typical Honda thoughtfulness,” echoed MacKenzie. Score another win for redemption.
2014 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Subaru Forester
Subaru has a knack for making the right size vehicles for the marketplace, with just the right level of capability people want. As the SUV landscape has changed and traditional body-on-frame SUVs have been overtaken by unibody crossovers and sport/utes, Subaru has changed as well. It moved from selling smaller wagons to making unibody crossovers, and these vehicles resonate with buyers. The company’s Forester and Outback have gotten larger over time, but not so large that they scare off loyal Subaru fans. Subarus aren’t over the top or ostentatious; they’re honest and smart.
The redesigned 2014 Subaru Forester has better efficiency, added power, and increased cargo volume, without a significant increase in overall size. The new Forester provides a comfortable ride with a roomy interior. Its off-road capability is plenty for the majority of sport/utility buyers. It offers a lot of value for the money. And it accomplishes all this while still being fun to drive.
2013 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Mercedes-Benz GL
SUVs have changed. For the first time ever, we didn’t have a single body-on-frame example in our annual SUV of the Year competition. Remember, when Bob Lutz and Stephen Ross cooked up the Ford Explorer — the vehicle most responsible for cupiding America’s still-raging love affair with the SUV — it was little more than an enclosed, four-door Ranger. For our 2013 competition, the overwhelming majority of the competitors were car-based. However, there was one vehicle that wasn’t, and in the words of Frank Markus, “did more of what we expect an SUV to do.” That vehicle is the 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL.
The flavor didn’t matter. From the fuel-sipping, diesel-powered GL350 to the “how can this be the weaker of the two V-8s?” GL450 to the “3-ton objects should not move this quickly” 429-hp GL550, Mercedes has built an SUV that’s better than the rest. Not just in its competitive class: The new, second-generation GL is the best new SUV on the market period, and the winner of our prize.
2012 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
In the enthusiast’s dream, all sports cars have manual transmissions and all SUVs are body-on-frame. But as so often is the case, reality does not intersect with our fantasies. Ferraris — save for one — no longer have manual transmissions, and car-based crossovers are rapidly pushing traditional SUVs to the brink of extinction. In a world that appears increasingly hostile to an all-SUV brand like Land Rover, adaptation is the only option. Some adaptations are failures. Others are Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year winners. The Range Rover Evoque is most certainly the latter.
But how? The Evoque is, after all, based on the Land Rover LR2, a vehicle many of you would be surprised to learn is still on sale today. Just as the LR2 was an impressive improvement on the Freelander, the Evoque is an evolutionary leap over the LR2. Though we can confirm that Land Rover did not consult us on the Evoque’s development, you’d be forgiven for wondering if the R&D team used our six criteria as guidelines, as the vehicle satisfies each one so completely.
2011 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Porsche Cayenne
We realize this looks bad. A bunch of unabashed car-loving adrenaline junkies invite a high-clearance sports car to an SUV contest and go all wobbly-kneed with excitement, crowning it champ. We can hear the hate mail composing itself from here: “That high-falutin’ Porsh is an even stupider pick than last year’s Scooby-doo station wagon! Cancel my subscription! (Again!)” We beg your indulgence as we build our case around the six key criteria.
It’s that breadth of performance capability, combined with the Cayenne’s roomy and comfortable interior and reasonably capacious cargo hold, that helped it nail our performance of intended function criteria. With strong showings in the engineering excellence and efficiency areas, attractive exterior and thoughtful interior design, a full roster of active and passive safety gear and the value rating fig leaf of the V-6’s affordable opening price, the Cayenne won over the thoughtful adults as well as the boy-racers to win by a supermajority. Of course, it’s the boy-racers who are helping spec out our long-termer.
2010 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Subaru Outback
It’s right there in the photo: a spacious, tough, thoroughly modern, exceedingly capable sport/utility vehicle. You’re forgiven if all you can see is a svelte station wagon. There’s magic at work here.
For the first time since any of us can recall, an automaker has claimed the Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year title two years in a row. Last fall, deftly balancing efficiency and size, the all-new 2009 Subaru Forester went home with the Golden Calipers trophy. For 2010, fighting off several tough adversaries — and undoubtedly some unspoken but very real bias among our judges against repeat winners — Subaru’s new, fourth-generation Outback scored a decisive 10-1 victory in the final voting.
2009 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Subaru Forester
It would be easy to say that this year’s winner is a knee-jerk reaction, that the editors of Motor Trend responded to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline like the rest of the driving public by abruptly abandoning the traditional SUV formula for something smaller, more fuel-efficient, greener, more, well, forest-y. It would be easy to categorize our selection of the Subaru Forester as Motor Trend’s 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year as a choice made solely at the pump, but it wouldn’t be true.
Sure, our Subaru Forester 2.5XT contender posted the best observed fuel-economy numbers (16.0 mpg) for an all-wheel-drive SUV in this year’s competition, but that’s not the whole story.
2008 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Mazda CX-9
You’ve heard Mazda‘s marketing spiel before. From “Zoom-Zoom” to the “Soul of a Sports Car,” the brand’s ad gurus have pushed harder than starving telemarketers to convince shoppers that Mazda’s cars and trucks are sportier and more fun to drive than the competitions’.
Generally, those slogans hold true, as Mazda’s vehicles-from the rotary-powered RX-8 and the exuberant MX-5 to the minivan-esque Mazda5 and the rakish CX-7-indeed deliver quick, agile (okay, zoomy) sensations that are akin to, well, a sports car. As the only Japanese car company to ever win the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Mazda knows a thing or two about sports-car DNA and, more important, how to inject it into just about everything it slaps the winged badge on.
2007 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Mercedes-Benz GL450
Heading into this year’s Sport/Utility of the Year competition, nary an editor predicted that the all-new Mercedes-Benz GL450 would roll away with the coveted caliper trophy. Inasmuch as value is one of the three major criteria — the others being in-class superiority and marketplace significance — the GL already seemed handicapped. Its base price of $55,675 hardly sounds economical, not to mention that, when well equipped, as was our tester, a GL’s window sticker can easily push $70 grand. As for superiority and significance, heck, several voters quipped that they wouldn’t be surprised if the GL missed the first cut. Why? Because so few of our staff had spent quality time at the wheel or inside of Mercedes’s first full-size sport/utility. And given that the GL shares a platform with the M- and R-Classes, with which every editor’s been intimate, yet never quite fallen in love, we weren’t expecting fireworks.
But following two intense weeks with the GL, it was all sparklers and Roman candles for the biggest Benz ever offered in the United States.
2006 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Nissan Xterra
And the winner is… With its live rear axle, and — in full off-road specification — tall tires and simple transfer case, the new Nissan Xterra seems somewhat old-school against some of its more sophisticated (and more expensive) opposition. But there’s a compelling honesty about the Xterra that won over the judges. Nissan has built a sport/utility vehicle that does exactly what its customers want; it’s tough, rugged, versatile, fun–and with the right options, it’ll take you and your stuff almost anywhere you want to go. Best of all, it’s not going to cost you a fortune.
The Xterra’s apparent simplicity also belies a clever product-development process that’s allowed Nissan to deliver maximum bang for your buck by repackaging proven components and concepts. The Xterra is based on a shortened version of the versatile, American-engineered F-Alpha platform that underpins vehicles ranging from the Armada and Pathfinder sport/utilities to the Titan and Frontier pickups. Its punchy 4.0-liter V-6 is a stroked version of the engine that powers the sporty 350Z. And although it looks, at first glance, similar to its predecessor, its exterior boasts broader shoulders and a taller physique that translates into more leg, shoulder, and headroom inside. Dimensionally, the wheelbase has grown by two inches, yet overall length has increased only 0.7 inch, improving approach and departure angles, helpful when dealing with obstacles on a trail. Focus and execution, not frills and extras: That’s why the Xterra works.
2005 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Land Rover LR3
You’re looking at a sport/utility that’ll change the way you think about the compromises between on-road refinement and off-road ability. You’re looking at a sport/utility that combines snap-click functionality with ice-cool 21st-century designer chic: Imagine a Leatherman tool by Bang & Olufsen. You’re looking at the Land Rover LR3, our 2005 Sport/Utility of the Year. Did we say Land Rover? Uh-huh. It’s going to change the way you think about that as well.
Let’s start with the visuals. Forget traditional SUV cliches such as bolt-on cladding, fake runningboards, and monster-truck grilles — the chiseled shape and sheer surfaces are a nod to Land Rover’s utilitarian past, yet executed with such care and flair that the LR3 looks like it’s driven straight off the designer’s CAD screen. Which it pretty much has: “Look at an early sketch of the LR3, and the design hasn’t changed,” says Land Rover design director Geoff Upex. The bookend creases front and rear and the asymmetric detailing — the air-intake vent on the right-hand side and the dipping window line on the split tailgate — are clever and confident styling touches.
2004 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Volkswagen Touareg
You can’t miss the irony: The company whose beloved Beetle became the basis for many of the first off-road vehicles is one of the last to bring a modern sport/utility to market. But it’s been worth the wait. The all-new 2004 Volkswagen Touareg is no Bug-based dune buggy. Stylishly designed, masterfully executed, and supremely capable, the Touareg topped a competitive field to be named the 2004 Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year.
In creating its new sport/ute, VW had a specific driving mission in mind: anything. The Touareg deftly blends such carlike virtues as luxury amenities, a smooth ride, and precise handling with more traditional SUV qualities such as ample cargo space, exceptional ground clearance, serious four-wheel-drive off-road ability, and major towing. The result is a handsome SUV as adept at whisking four formally attired adults to the symphony as it is climbing boulders on the way to a remote campsite. Make that five adults in a pinch.
2003 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Volvo XC90
More than any other vehicle in the running this year, the Volvo XC90 moves the standard in its market segment. This innovative machine drives comfortably like a sedan, tows like a pickup, off-roads like sport/ute, and moves bulky cargo or as many as seven people like a minivan.
And it does it all with the mechanical polish, premium exterior style, and attention to interior detail associated with top-drawer luxury vehicles. In addition, this Volvo addresses the safety, emissions, and, to a lesser degree, fuel-use issues associated with SUVs.
2002 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: GMC Envoy
Our largest-ever Sport/Utility of the Year field kept the Motor Trend staff focused for weeks. Each SUV contestant covered better than a thousand miles of highway, traversed several 8000-ft mountain passes, endured Death Valley’s tire-shredding rock canyons (not to mention its grueling 115* heat), and was subjected to a full regimen of our instrumented performance tests. We evaluated each vehicle in 10 tough tests, plus the everyday rigors of modern life. All this to help you determine which new SUVs to put on your shopping list.
From the start, we knew the GMC Envoy would be a serious contender for SUVOY: Its smartly beveled exterior design, neatly detailed interior, genuine off-road competence, serious cargo/towing capacities, air-suspended ride, innovative entertainment options, and all-new 270-horse powerplant had us prepared for a solid showing. And in the final voting, it had the Right Stuff to win us over.
2001 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Acura MDX
Acura‘s impressive MDX loomed large on MT’s radar screen from the start of this 12-vehicle battle. As thousands of miles of twisting asphalt two-lanes, instrumented track tests, and off-road challenges unrolled during our two week test session, it held its position as a top contender. When the driving was done, the voting commenced. Although several competitors lasted until the final round of balloting, there can be only one winner-and we’re proud to say that’s Acura’s all-new MDX.
There are two vital elements of the SUV equation: sport and utility. The Acura easily handled our on-road sport requirement with its torquey, smooth-revving, great-sounding 3.5L SOHC V-6, five-speed automatic transmission, structurally stiff unibody, and sophisticated all-independent suspension. MT’s off-road sporting needs were met by the MDX’s standard Variable Torque Management all-wheel-drive system and better than expected ground clearance. Even though its main mission in life is not that of hard-core off-roader, the rocks, deep sand, and steep grades of our off-road test area were handled with more than reasonable aplomb.
2000 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Nissan Xterra
There’s no mystery to the Xterra’s winning formula. There are no tricks to what makes it such an attractive SUV. When you cut through the Gen-X-style advertising hype, and spend time living with the vehicle on an everyday basis — tackling the highways, romping through the boondocks — you really get to see the Xterra for what it is: a back-to-basics, value-packed, honest-to-backwoods sport/utility with a thoroughly youthful twist. At a time when most notable new SUVs are in the upper echelon of luxury and price, the Xterra is a breath of fresh air, with an under-$18,000 window sticker and an edgy active lifestyle appeal. Some of the staff admitted, in fact, that going into the competition they’d underestimated the Xterra. But as the driving sessions got underway, pricing was compared, features noted, and all-around liveability evaluated, it slowly but surely grew to be the favorite.
As straightforward as its appeal, the Xterra’s development is based on Nissan’s Frontier pickup, using the same body-on-frame design, independent double-wishbone front/leaf-spring rear suspension, as well as headlights, front bumper, hood, A-pillars, and front doors. This shared-platform approach and the fact that it’s been designed, engineered and is being assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, are at the heart of the SUV’s value story.
1999 Motor Trend SUV of the Year: Lexus RX 300
They sure don’t make ’em like they used to. And one drive in the Lexus RX 300 is all it takes to confirm that. In any vehicle designed for occasional off-road use, we’ve come to expect compromises in ride quality, noise and vibration, handling, fuel economy, and long-haul interior comfort. But in one well-executed stroke of marketing and engineering brilliance, Lexus has shown us these common sacrifices are no longer required to take advantage of the inherent benefits of a sport/utility. In a competitive market segment that has strived for the last 15 years to make its vehicles more and more “car-like,” the RX 300 has posted a new standard by which all future sport/utilities will be judged. Moreover, the untrodden, but highly lucrative, path it’s taken into this new product wilderness is one that other major automakers (such as BMW and Porsche) already have their sights on.
This inaugural Sport/Utility of the Year award has been created to honor the vehicle our editorial staff feels is the most significant new model within its class, taking into consideration such variables as design, value, innovation, performance, safety, technical advancement, quality, and market significance. Qualifications for the ’99 competition were simple: Eligible vehicles had to be new or significantly improved over the previous model year, they must be designated as ’99 models, and they must be on sale by Jan. 1, 1999. This year numerous sport/utilities qualified for the competition. Of those, the Lexus RX 300’s innovative design, impeccable quality, attention to detail, high levels of comfort and safety, standout value, and immediate market leadership made it the unanimous choice to be our ’99 Sport/Utility of the Year.