Amy Higgins
Sherri Koucky
Stephen Mraz

Rain. More rain. And then it rained harder. Great weather for ducks, and for sport-utes. So it went during the first day of this year's Best Ride competition. In what were undoubtedly the worst conditions in its five-year history, the Best Ride event kicked off this past October at the Dana Corp. Technical Resource Park just outside Toledo. The inclement weather made life miserable for the MACHINE DESIGN editors outside monitoring events, but it didn't bother the judging panel. If anything, it made differences in the ride and handling qualities of the 27 sport-utes all the more apparent over obstacles that included a rough country road, a frame-twist area, graded hills, railroad tracks, and through a swerve maneuver.

When the mud stopped flying, several vehicles had distinguished themselves. The Lexus LX 470 was a repeat winner, having also won top honors in last year's competition. Several judges were absolutely astonished at how well it smoothed out the roughest surfaces, particularly when compared to some other vehicles in the field that handled bumps much less adeptly.

"The LX 470 ... exhibited perfect composure in the roughest parts of the course but was still pleasant to drive under more normal conditions," remarked Best Ride judge Matt Joseph, host of an automotive radio program on WTDY in Madison, Wis.

Also distinguishing itself was the Lincoln Navigator, winning special "Most Quiet" honors for the second straight year.

Not all sport-utes faired as well over jolting pot holes. "You guys owe me a liver transplant!" remarked one judge after a particularly jarring experience in one of the vehicles. "Well, that thing sure wasn't designed for rough roads," said another after a similar experience. "It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence," said another diplomatically.

Best Ride is unusual among vehicle evaluations in that it asks a field of judges to rate vehicles on ride and handling issues only. Cosponsors this year, in addition to MACHINE DESIGN and Dana Corp., included Nye Lubricants and Enthone-OMI Inc. The competition featured examples of most-currently available SUVs except those from DaimlerChrysler and Subaru, which were unavailable because of scheduling conflicts.

Best Ride cosponsor Nye Lubricants helped out with course  administration at this year's event. Here Nye's Brian Cichoski (right)  kibitzes with one of the judges.

Best Ride cosponsor Nye Lubricants helped out with course administration at this year's event. Here Nye's Brian Cichoski (right) kibitzes with one of the judges.


Stan Zabrocky (center) of Best Ride cosponsor Enthone-OMI  Inc. and other judges take advantage of a lull in the rain to fill out  judging sheets.

Stan Zabrocky (center) of Best Ride cosponsor Enthone-OMI Inc. and other judges take advantage of a lull in the rain to fill out judging sheets.


Brenda Moyer Koshin from cosponsor Dana Corp. takes  time out to comment on a ute's handling qualities.

Brenda Moyer Koshin from cosponsor Dana Corp. takes time out to comment on a ute's handling qualities.


Views from the passenger seat of the Hummer show obstacles  judges had to navigate on Day One.

Views from the passenger seat of the Hummer show obstacles judges had to navigate on Day One.


Even the most severe bumps and pot holes didn't slow  down the Hummer. It was one of the judges' favorites.

Even the most severe bumps and pot holes didn't slow down the Hummer. It was one of the judges' favorites.


Photography: Tim Ryan, Ed Oshaben

THE WINNERS
CATEGORY
VEHICLE
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Best Overall sport-ute ride, Full-size sport-ute
Lexus LX 470
Amazingly smooth on rough roads … stable … solid.
Medium-size sport-ute
BMW X5
Real road-hugging performance ... Tight handling.
Compact sport-ute
Honda CR-V
Handles bumps well for a light vehicle … No steering wheel shake over surfaces that caused problems for other vehicles.
Overall finalists
Ford Explorer Sport-Trac
Handling is a pleasant surprise … But you do feel the bumps.
 
Chevy Suburban/Tahoe
Steering tracks well … Turns crisply.
 
Mercedes-Benz ML320 & AMG 55
Good control … responsive steering … Lots of zip!
Special quietest sport-ute award
Lincoln Navigator
Solid and remarkably agile for such a large vehicle.
Most Popular
AM General Hummer
In a class by itself … Crummy roads don’t faze this thing … Awesome.
Others competing: Acura MDX, Chevy Tracker, Ford Expedition, Honda Passport, Isuzu VehiCross, Land Rover Discovery, Lexus RX 300, Mazda Tribute, Mercury Mountaineer, Mitsubishi Montero & Montero Sport, Nissan Pathfinder, Pontiac Aztek, Suzuki Grand Vitara & Grand Vitara Ltd., Toyota Land Cruiser & RAV 4.
All major sport-ute manufacturers were invited to enter vehicles in each category, but some were unable to participate for various reasons.