Su Vs: Say Good Bye To The Shake, Rattle, And Roll

The new drive more like big cars than big trucks

Let's face it. The closest most sport-utility vehicle owners get to using the off-road capabilities of their trucks is rumbling through the gravel in the country club parking lot. But for a decade, millions of people have flocked to sport-utilities designed off the foundations of pickup trucks. That means most buyers are paying big sticker prices and enduring a bone-shaking ride just to have the hip image that comes with an SUV.

Sensing an opportunity, foreign carmakers have created a class of sport ute with a gentler ride. This approach, building on car and minivan platforms, has worked well with luxury models. SUVs such as Toyota's Lexus RX 300, launched as the first of this breed in 1998, rides on a Camry sedan platform and is a smash hit. The RX 300 has a much smoother drive than popular pickup-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Blazer. It was quickly followed by the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, built on a truck base but with lots of automobile hardware; the nimble BMW X5; and this month, the minivan-based Acura MDX.

The MDX clearly leapfrogs the competition. Honda's U.S. engineering team took basic hardware from the hot-selling Odyssey minivan and stepped it up to make the MDX a nimble drive. The MDX, which starts at $35,300, handles almost as well as the agile BMW X5 and better than the RX 300 and M-Class. And Acura has packed this vehicle with more standard luxury amenities than its rivals.

Driving it on Detroit's highways--which can seem at times like going off-road--the MDX rolls smoothly right over potholes, railroad tracks, and the like. True to its Odyssey roots, the MDX has a comfortable ride suitable for family travel. Its smoothness is matched by a quiet cabin, which allows conversation.

The Acura handles nearly as well as the BMW X5--which many consider to be the best-driving SUV on the market. I took an off-ramp with a suggested speed of 40 mph at about 70 mph and the MDX took the bend with aplomb. The combination of stiff body and high-tech suspension keep the MDX stable on tight turns.

Make no mistake, the $40,000-plus BMW X5, launched last year, is the ultimate SUV driving machine. But with a six-cylinder engine, it's at least $10,000 more than the MDX. With an eight-cylinder, it'll set you back $50,000 or more. And the Bimmer is equipped with far less luxury on the inside. Says recent MDX buyer Christopher Choudhry of Dallas: "I really liked the BMW, but I just couldn't justify the difference in price."

The MDX is also far more versatile, with seating for seven people, vs. five in each of its three chief competitors. Engineers at Honda R&D Americas in Marysville, Ohio, fought hard for that. The vehicle was designed with American tastes in mind, which is the mission of Honda's R&D center these days. "We said this vehicle has to seat seven," says Frank Paluch, chief engineer on the MDX program. "At first, Japanese management said no. They wanted something more like the RX 300. We convinced them that Americans want passenger space and functionality."

Having won the day, the MDX team designed a two-person bench seat that folds easily into the floor so the rear compartment can double as cargo space. However, the bench is best suited for kids. I stand over six feet, and I can sit back there only if I scrunch up my legs accordion-style against the back of the second row. All the same, the MDX has the best seating for any SUV save the big, unwieldy American full-size models such as the Ford Expedition. And my MDX averaged over 17 miles per gallon with its V-6 engine. That's a sipper next to the big eight-passenger SUVs that get about 14 miles per gallon.

BMW had no such American input. If BMW engineers had gone to a music store and compared the number of compact disks to cassettes, they might have put a CD player in my $45,000 test car. The car also lacked heated seats. All of its competitors offer these amenities for less cash. True, the X5, with an inline six-cylinder engine, drives like a dream. But its heavy doors, tight passenger space, spartan interior, and hard leather seats seem to be saying, "It drives like a BMW, so don't complain about all the little things."

Conversely, Lexus understands luxury. In true Lexus fashion, the RX 300 features the poshest interior. Even though the current RX 300 is the oldest in its class, it's still tops for comfort. The seats are the softest and best able to cushion the driver and passengers from the road. The four-wheel-drive version starts at $35,655, though loading it with premium stereo equipment and a navigation system can easily push the sticker upward of $42,000. Another trade-off: The RX 300 doesn't handle like the X5 and MDX. Still, it's better to drive than its fourth chief competitor--the Mercedes M-Class.

My test car was the $36,000 ML-320, powered by Mercedes' 3.2-liter V-6. It accelerates smoothly, but that doesn't make up for the rough ride. On any tight bend, the M-Class leans hard into the turn the way a truck would. And it's noisy. The engine sounds nice, but it pervades the entire cabin. Why buy an M-Class? With a $35,000 sticker that roughly matches the price of the entry-level Mercedes C-Class sedan, it's a cheap way to get into a Benz.

The luxury SUV market is set to expand. In the spring, General Motors will launch the Buick Rendezvous, based on the same platform as the Pontiac Aztek. Cadillac's yet unnamed entry will follow in late 2002. In 2003, Lexus will have an all-new RX 300, featuring a third row of seats. And Mercedes will redesign the M-Class around the same time--with a stretched version offering more seating coming shortly after that.

Luxury-vehicle buyers should continue to benefit from the competition in the sport-utility market. For now, though, Acura's MDX is the best buy among this more refined breed of SUV.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.