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2001 SUV Buyer's Guide
by Steve Siler

Luxury means completeness, competence, wanting for nothing. It means the enjoyment of the best and most costly things, according to Mr. Webster. For years, automakers applied this concept to long, elegant sedans, but oh, how things change. Now, we’re talking about completeness and competence in trucks. The best and most costly SUVs. This is a segment of the market that has exploded in recent years. For the manufacturers, they mean mega-profits. But for us, they mean mega-comfort and mega-style. 

And who are we to complain? We just spent six months in the relentlessly comfortable Infiniti QX4 (please read about our experiences with it in the QX4 entry of this guide). And you know what? It’s all about these kinds of vehicles! No surprise that we’re seeing more of these turned into limousines and corporate shuttles. No surprise that they are popping up in showrooms reserved heretofore exclusively for high buck cars. No surprise that if you want to be noticed, you should be riding high in one of these, instead laying low in a mere sedan.

Furthermore, if your definition of luxury includes being able to go anywhere on- or off-road, with the same comfort and security as your own living room, then one of these machines may be just your thing. Read on to find out more about the next big things.

Infiniti QX4
We spoiled staffers at RTM have been enjoying a long-term (six-month)  loan with Infiniti’s elegant QX4, and it has proven to be a foul- and  fair-weather God-send. Its combination of reasonable size and over-the-top luxury has made it one of our favorite luxury SUVs out there, and it’s been a smooth ride—literally—the entire time we’ve had it.

First of all, we love its looks, and so apparently do others. "People 
like it. I’m always asked about it." For 2001, Infiniti freshened the nose and tail to bring it from the last decade into this one, adding cool high-intensity headlamps and a less chunky bumper. The monochromatic paint is dressy, if not rugged, but given the mission of this vehicle, that’s okay. If you’re a serious off-roader, you probably wouldn’t be taking an expensive luxury SUV in the first place.

Next, being an Infiniti and all, the interior is sumptuous, truly belying  its under $40K (as tested) price. You’ll have a hard time believing that its dashboard is based on that of the more humble Nissan Pathfinder, as its handsome architecture is embellished with gorgeous wood trim (even on the steering wheel!) and flush-fitting controls. 

The stereo is fantastic, and together with the comfortable, multi-adjustable heated leather seats, it made a 13-hour trip to Rhode Island tolerable—even pleasant—for publisher Courtney Caldwell and her daughter, Shannon. Also appreciated on that trip, and always, is the thrust from the QX4’s new, 240-horsepower V-6 engine. Compared to the wheezy engine in the ’00 QX4, well, there is no comparison. The new one pulls like a V-8, but doesn’t suck down the gas like one. 

Fortunately, the QX4 is sized on the smaller side of luxury SUVs, and that has saved our gasoline budget in a big way. Over our 12,000 or so miles with it, our fuel economy has averaged about 13 mpg around town, 18 on the highway—not bad, really, given that we use our right foot more liberally than most (hey, it’s our job). It’s much better, in fact, than the 11 and 14 mpg numbers we suffered through with our long-term 1999 Mercury Mountaineer several moons ago. 

Complaints are few. We wish the tailgate was easier for shorter drivers to close, and that the radio controls were more intuitive in operation. Also, we really wish the running boards—which collect dust, snow, and road gunk—didn’t stick out so far as to leave their marks on our calves as we exit. Please note, though, that such a condition is not exclusive to the QX4.

And that’s it. There’s nothing else to whine about! It’s that good.
So as we watch our beloved Infiniti QX4 leave our hands after a very comfy six months, we stand admiring how well it did its job. And how well we could do ours with it. The Infiniti QX4 is "brute strength draped in a cloak of elegance," said Caldwell. ‘Nuf said. More details on the QX4...

Acura MDX
There is a reason that Acura’s lovely MDX just received the North American Car of the Year Award…it has the best combination of ruggedness, luxury, technological excellence, quality, cache and even value of any luxury SUV on the road. 

First, it has a smooth, powerful and quiet powertrain, seamless in its delivery and never calling attention to itself. Its sophisticated suspension strikes that all-too-rare (especially among SUVs) balance between a supple ride and good handling, which in real terms means you can take turns without much body roll while soaking up bumps like Bounty soaks up spills. 

The extremely spacious interior is also befittingly luxurious for an Acura, of course, with leather-clad seating for seven (yes, seven), a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and the still-best-in-class, optional navigation system. Styling is modern and crisp, full of Acura brand details like the five-point grille and trapezoidal lights. One cool feature is the split, fold-flat third-row seat that greatly facilitates cargo loading when the cargo happens not to be people.

After driving the MDX, you appreciate its competence, and the Honda-like quality bestowed upon it. But the real kicker is that the MDX starts at less than $35,000, and just $38,970 for a loaded MDX with the navigation system.

It’s no wonder, then, that it took home the Truck of the Year trophy. It’s a winner in our books as well. More details on the MDX...

Arrive late, dress well, they say. And that’s exactly what BMW did when it introduced the dashing X5 last year. With more of a penchant for sweet driving than off-roading, the X5 is true to BMW’s heritage of producing vehicles that are simply spectacular on the road. 

Now, we know as well as anyone else that most SUVs bought these days spend most of their lives on the road, not off. And that is what BMW engineers focused on when designing the X5. The product of this focus is a vehicle that truly behaves like a sport sedan. Gone is that floaty feeling around curves, ditto that jouncy feeling over bumps. The ride is firm and communicative, as is the steering. Strong engines propel you with authority, while the brakes yank you to a stop in a span shorter than most SUVs could ever dream of. In short, this is one "truck" that is fun to drive, just like (surprise) a BMW. 

The X5 is fun to be seen in, too. Beautiful lines reveal strong family ties to the rest of the sassy BMW line, with the typical sleek bodysides, dogleg rear quarter window treatment and of course, the kidney-shaped grille. Big wheels (especially with the Sport Packages) fill out the wheelwells beautifully. 

The interior is snug and businesslike—again typical of BMW. The X5 is not the most commodious in terms of interior space, but is certainly one of the most engaging in all of SUV-land. This one, then, is not for everyone, but instead for anyone who likes to drive. More details on the X5....

Mercedes ML-Class
Not even five years ago, Mercedes-Benz raised eyebrows when it had the gall to introduce an SUV at the upper end of the SUV market. "A Mercedes truck?" People couldn’t believe it. Since then, a swarm of luxury SUVs has crowded around the Mercedes, hoping to cash in on the market that for years remained largely untapped until its arrival.

Fortunately, the 2001 ML-Class is as good—even better, in fact—than that which started it all back in ’97. While many of the luxury SUVs you see here are based on trucks, the ML has both truck and car engineering aspects to it, effectively affording it compliant on-road performance with good off-roadworthiness as well. We won’t bother you will all the details; just know that if you’ve ever driven a Mercedes sedan, you’ll feel right at home behind the wheel of an ML-Class. And if you haven’t, you should. They are superb.

At the heart of any given ML rests a proven Mercedes six- or eight-cylinder engine. There is even a [very] high performance version called the ML55, which is so fast it can leave most sports cars in the dust, on-road or off. Inside, wood, leather and electronic goodies are ready to please all but the most frugal of ML-Class buyers (the base ML320 does not feature real leather, but has a convincingly luxurious ambiance nonetheless). Prices are pretty remarkable, too, starting as they do in the $37,000 range, mid-$40,000 range for the ML430 (V8) and up to $66,545 for the ML55. Downright bargains for the kind of performance, comfort and prestige that these (or any) Mercedes-Benz vehicles deliver. 
More details on the ML-Class...

Lincoln Navigator
Lincoln’s big Navigator has been a hit since it went on sale in mid-1997 
as a ’98 model luxury SUV. Marrying Lincoln luxury with Ford’s rugged 
full-size SUV platform, the Navigator is a truly grand machine.

Three-hundred horses under the hood make it one of the most powerful (and gas-guzzling) SUVs on the road, and its optional 4WD system has a load-leveling system that not only keeps the vehicle under load, but lowers the vehicle an inch upon parking to assist shorter drivers in getting in and out. And speaking of shorter drivers, the Navigator even has power adjustable pedals! 

Being basically a Ford Expedition with the Lincoln treatment, the Navigator’s styling is unarguably imposing. The front-end recalls some locomotives, and the heavily cladded sides add bulk. Nonetheless, the look is opulent—chrome is everywhere—and people move over when you come up behind them.

Something that makes the Navigator unique is its first- and second-row "captain’s chair" layout, with a third-row bench seat in the back. This arrangement limits seating capacity to seven, but helps impart the Navigator with a real first class feel (a more conventional second row bench is a no-charge option).

New for 2001 is the Lincoln Complimentary Maintenance Program, which includes three years (or 36,000 miles) of regular maintenance for no charge. Couple that with a host of standard safety equipment as well as an optional GPS Navigation system (this is a "Navigator," after all), and you have a secure, no compromises luxury vehicle. More details on the Navigator...

Cadillac Escalade/GMC Yukon Denali
All-new this year, and based on GM’s superb full-size truck platform are the Cadillac Escalade and GMC Yukon Denali/Denali XL. Over the last couple of years, the Escalade has helped Cadillac in its quest to rebuild its tarnished image, and the new one will take it even further. Likewise, the GMC Denali has put the GMC brand on the luxury SUV map, with the addition of the long-wheelbase Denali XL as perhaps the ultimate luxury ride, when size really matters.

Though the Escalades and Denalis of yore were fine machines, the all-new 2001 versions are significantly better. Structural rigidity is up, which translates into even less road noise and better, more predictable handling. The engines are smooth, and are among the most powerful of all SUVs (with 320 horses for the Denali, and up to 345 horsepower for the Escalade).

Tow-meisters will love the Denali XL’s available 12,000-pound towing 
capacity, which is a helluva lot of trailer in our book. Of note is that the 
Cadillac Escalade can be had as a weight- and fuel-saving rear-drive vehicle, while the Yukon Denali is available only as a four-wheel driver.

Most important to any luxury SUV’s mission is an opulent interior. The Denali fits the bill perfectly with standard two-tone leather seats, black cherry wood trim, a Bose Acoustimass sound system and GM’s renowned OnStar GPS communication assistance. The Denali XL is outfitted in essentially the same fashion. The Cadillac takes all that a bit farther down the luxury trail with even softer leather on memory seats, zebrano wood, and a slightly more upscale gauge treatment. 

While the exterior styling of the last Escalade and Denali duo was nearly identical, the new ones diverge. The Denali has a broad chrome area highlighted by a perforated metal grill and high-intensity headlights. Round fog lights, side cladding and six-spoke seventeen-inch wheels bring the underbody up to par with the Denali’s mission of being classy and confident, yet subtle.

The Cadillac, on the other hand, throws subtlety out the door with its sharp-edged front and side creases, stacked headlights and angular seven-spoke wheels. Both feature monochromatic paint and all the visual bulk you’ll need to gain you respect on (and off) the road.
More details on the Escalade...
More details on the Yukon...

Lexus LX470
Lexus’ lovely LX470 is pricier than most SUVs, even in this collection, but it can also do more than most in this guide. What began life as the large and surprisingly rugged Toyota Land Cruiser becomes one of automobiledom’s ultimate on- and off-road chariots when given the Lexus treatment. The Lexus treatment, by the way, is more than hood-ornament-deep….

Noticeable first is the styling. Unique side moldings and chrome details add surface development to the plainer Land Cruiser design, with expressive quad headlamps and split bumper air intakes for style. Clear-lens turn signal indicators give the rear quarters a tidy look as well.

What really makes the LX470 remarkable is the interior. Butter-soft 
leather, lustrous wood and other high quality materials cover everything you can touch. All is assembled with extraordinary craftsmanship. This is, after all, one of the most expensive Toyota vehicles ever built, and you know that if Toyota can build Corollas well for $15,000, imagine how well the LX470 is built for four times that much. Among the LX470’s unique features are a superb Mark Levinson sound system and a DVD player when the navigation system is ordered.

The LX470’s silky V8 makes plenty of power, and the four-wheel drive system benefits from more than three decades of refinement, thanks to its relationship to the Land Cruiser. Not that anyone would take such a pricey vehicle into the rough stuff, but isn’t it nice to know that you can? Think of it as the ultimate ski trip companion as opposed to the king of the Rubicon Trail. More details on the LX470...

Mitsubishi Montero
The popularity of luxury SUVs has prompted a number of manufacturers to aspire to more with their SUV lineups. Along with derivatives of GMC’s Yukon, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, and the perennial Toyota Land Cruiser, Mitsubishi has elevated the SUV nameplate, the Montero, into this blossoming niche of luxury off-roaders. 

The new 2001 Montero has grown in nearly every exterior dimension, and it looks it. Park it between, say, a Land Cruiser and an Expedition, and it won’t be dwarfed. The new front sheetmetal features large, imposing headlamps and exaggerated fender shapes that convey authority and hint at the Montero’s off-road capabilities. The Limited trim level looks like it has more flashy chrome than a ’58 Buick (okay, maybe not that much, but let’s just say you can see it coming from quite a distance).

The redo of the much bigger 2001 Montero added not just length, girth and weight to the Montero, it added luxury items appropriate for a vehicle of this class. These include comfortable seats for seven passengers, optional leather trim, and power everything (a far cry from the bare-bones Montero of the mid-eighties, eh?). The increased size bodes well for the interior, with considerably more room in almost every usable dimension. 

Fortunately, ruggedness and off-road prowess, longtime Montero hallmarks, have not been left in the dust as the Montero as broadened its horizons. Off-road enthusiasts will love the 4WD system, especially the Active-Trac on the Limited trim level, and particularly if you consider that any SUV from a premium make that is this good off-road costs several thousand more than the Montero’s $31K—$37K price range.
More details on the Montero...

Land Rover Discovery Series II
If there
’s even been a design that takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin,’ it’s the Land Rover Discovery. And in its latest iteration, the Series II, it still features all that’s good and all that’s not so good of the tall, bulbous British design dating back more than three decades. 

Granted, the luxurious Disco you see in dealers today is far, far safer, more user-friendly and more attractive than the one that started it all in the early Sixties. But its interior, shall we say, eccentricities remind you that there has not been an effective reconsideration of the dashboard since before people started using the word "ergonomic." 

The engine is a wheezy old V8, not impressive in either of the areas of acceleration or fuel economy. The Discovery Series II does, however, offer an interesting option that all other SUVs have yet to emulate, a patented air-suspension system (called ACE, for Active Cornering Enhancement), which effectively eliminates ALL body roll up to 0.5 g’s, which is relatively aggressive cornering force. Bringing with it a grippy and good-looking wheel/tire package, the option is worth every penny.

Styling is a matter of debate. Either you love the Discovery’s funky lines and all the character they bring with it, or you don’t. Land Rover alleges that most people it has talked to emphatically want the look to stay the same, and so it has. And quite frankly, in this age where any manufacturer will slap some extra seats and a cargo cover on any ol’ pickup truck and call it an SUV, its nice to have one available that’s been an SUV all along, and looks like it. It’s called heritage, something Land Rover has in droves.
More details on Discovery Series II...

Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited
o think that a brand whose roots date back to a World War II runabout nicknamed "Jeep" would ever put out a vehicle in the luxury class might have been unthinkable, even ten years ago. But one look at the loaded Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited is all it takes to place it in this fine group.

Parent company DaimlerChrysler did a fantastic job of the Grand Cherokee with its last restyle in ‘99, and the 2001 model year brings with it new, satiny five-spoke wheels and a toothy, chrome-bezeled grille. Add those updates to its tidy proportions and handsome front styling and you have a look of restrained elegance.

The Grand Cherokee’s interior remains stellar. Though it is not as roomy as some other mid-size SUVs, it is comfortable and very well appointed. New interior trim pieces dress up the already well designed dashboard as well. The high floor and contoured leather seats lend a very car-like feel to the driving position, although the rear seat could use more space. Ditto the cargo area, although it’s big enough for most family weekend duties.

We had the privilege of testing a 2000 Grand Cherokee Limited last year for a one-year long-term loan. We loved it for its balance of ride, handling, power, comfort and prestige in a package that is not too big to park in tight parking spots. Furthermore, its all-weather, go-anywhere versatility gave us the confidence and security so many SUV buyers are looking for. Now that is true luxury. More details on the Grand Cherokee...