Sherri Koucky, Stephen Mraz, Elizabeth Parks, Leland Teschler

Over 20 OEM engineers, MACHINE DESIGN readers, and invited  automotive journalists judged sport utes at this year's event. They displayed  a wide variety of driving styles and expressed diverse opinions about  the behaviors of test vehicles.

Over 20 OEM engineers, MACHINE DESIGN readers, and invited automotive journalists judged sport utes at this year's event. They displayed a wide variety of driving styles and expressed diverse opinions about the behaviors of test vehicles.


Judges with score books in hand get ready to take out  vehicles on the first day of the Best Ride tests after getting instructions  from Senior MACHINE DESIGN Editor Steve Mraz (in the yellow hat).

Judges with score books in hand get ready to take out vehicles on the first day of the Best Ride tests after getting instructions from Senior MACHINE DESIGN Editor Steve Mraz (in the yellow hat).


This was a bit like getting a sneak preview at the movies, with an opportunity to talk to the author and director."

That was how MACHINE DESIGN Best Ride judge Don Hopings summed up two days of test driving sport utility vehicles at Dana Corp.'s Ottawa Lake, Mich., Technical Resource Park. Hopings was one of 22 individuals invited to participate in MACHINE DESIGN's fourth annual event which this year featured 27 different makes and models of sport utes just now emerging from production lines at the Big Three, as well as from Honda, Isuzu, Lexus, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Suzuki, and Toyota.

If judges' comments were any indication, most appreciated the chance to do apples-to-apples comparisons on this wide representation of vehicles. They rated utes on ride and handling qualities under numerous driving conditions simulated at Dana's first-rate test facility. As in previous years, Best Ride judges scored vehicles using a format adapted from focus groups run by the Big Three. A one-to-five scoring scale let participants rate qualities such as body roll, stability, noise, and steering.

Judges took vehicles through both normal driving andoff-road conditions over obstacles that included frametwisting moguls, a decreasing-radius figure-eight dirttrack, a 300-ft stretch of bone-jarring potholes, an unimproved gravel road, and graded hills. There were alsoareas for conducting brake tests, a simulated lane-changemaneuver, and an area designed to gauge parallelparking ease. Weather conditions cooperated, givingjudges a chance to evaluate sport-ute handling on wetroads and mud as well as on less challenging surfaces.

Participants in the judging hailed largely from TierOne automotive suppliers and from the ranks of MACHINE DESIGN's readers. Also on hand were Popular Mechanics auto editor Jim Dunne and Matt Joseph, host of All About Cars on WTDY radio out of Madison, Wis. This year's event was cosponsored by Allegro Microsystems, Dana Corp., Hewlett-Packard, and Nye Lubricants.

Once the judging sheets were complete, the real work began: compiling scores and picking winners. As in other years, overall scores tended to be close. The majority of vehicles did reasonably well in each area of the course. But the big Lexus LX 470 emerged as the highest point-getter by a narrow margin, beating out the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes ML430, and Honda CR-V, all of which were close enough in total points to earn Top Finalist status. Finally, the Lincoln Navigator scored well in the category of quietness and received a special award.

Gravel roads, hills, strategically placed potholes, and bad railroad crossings are among the obstacles on the Dana Corp. Technical Resource Park test track and durability course in Ottawa Lake, Mich. A 3.5-mile stretch of unimproved road and a decreasing-radius figure-eight dirt track provided contestants in this year's Best Ride event with plenty of off-road challenges.

THE WINNERS
BEST OVERALL SPORT-UTE RIDE: Lexus LX 470
FULL-SIZE SPORT UTE:
Lexus LX 470
OVERALL FINALISTS:
Jeep Grand Cherokee Mercedes ML430
COMPACT SPORT UTE:
Honda CR-V
QUIETEST SPORT UTE:
Lincoln Navigator

OTHERS COMPETING:
Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Blazer, Chevy Tracker, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Ford Expedition, GMC Yukon, Honda Passport, Isuzu Amigo, Isuzu Trooper, Isuzu Vehicross, Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler, Lexus RX 300, Mercury Mountaineer, Mitsubishi Montero, Olds Bravada, Subaru Forrester, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Suzuki Vitara, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Rav4 All major sport-ute manufacturers were invited to enter vehicles in each category, but some were unable to participate for various reasons.