This is the 20th time we’ve awarded the Golden Calipers to a Sport Utility Vehicle. And perhaps no vehicle type has changed more radically in this period than SUVs.
The shift from trucklike body-on-frame to car-based unibody architecture was the revolution that in 1999 broke SUVs out from Truck of the Year, where they originally competed. Since then, we’ve seen locking differentials evolve into multimode selectable terrain-response systems and shapes transform from two-box silhouettes to “coupes” and high-riding wagons. The revolution has been so complete that there isn’t a single ladder frame underpinning any of this year’s contestants.
This year also marks the second occasion without a V-8-powered vehicle (the other being 2010). Of the 24 contestants (represented by 37 model variants—our largest field ever) vying for the 2018 award, two-thirds are powered by four-cylinder engines. Then there are 10 six-cylinder- and two three-cylinder-powered sport utilities.
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This doesn’t mean they are underpowered—there are also 30 turbochargers (including three engines with twin turbos and three with both a turbo and a supercharger). There is one solely supercharged entry and two plug-in hybrids, and one of those turbos assists a diesel engine. The average engine displaces 2.3 liters and makes 248 hp. Meanwhile, the average highway fuel economy jumped from 25 mpg in 2017 to 27 this year. The average weight of this year’s field is down 403 pounds.
There is only one traditional four-wheel-drive system with a separate low-range transfer case. The rest offer some manner of electronically controlled AWD, but two compete with just front-wheel drive. There are six-, eight-, and nine-speed automatics, a handful of CVTs, one twin-clutch auto, and one manual transmission. It’s also a truly international group, with entries from Germany, Japan, England, Italy, Sweden, Korea, and the U.S.
Besides powertrains growing smaller, smarter, more efficient, and more complex, this means our two-week job of sifting through the field got exponentially more challenging. Luckily, our core testing regimen and sixfold judging criteria take into account the change inherent to the sport utility vehicle, which is now asked to do it all.
Read about 2018 SUV of the Year contenders here, and come back tomorrow as we reveal more:
Phase 1: The Performance Envelope
For the first time, the testing phase was based entirely at the Honda Proving Center, located in the scorching desert near Cantil, California, where each contestant first underwent our battery of routine trials. Using satellite GPS, our Vbox data-acquisition equipment measured acceleration (0–60 mph and quarter mile), braking (60–0 mph), and lateral acceleration (g) on the skidpad and generated a best lap time of Motor Trend’s dynamic figure-eight test. With these numbers, we generated a 28-column spreadsheet with all the contenders’ results listed for comparison to our vast performance database dating back 20 years. Because the test surface we used for this review was a mere month old and still curing, our braking and handling results show longer stopping distances and less grip than we typically record and report. With that in mind, the numbers are not necessarily comparable with previous or future results.
Phase 2: Evaluation Loops
Next, our 11 judges subjected all 37 vehicles to a four-part, 14.1-mile evaluation circuit. These events included a newly designed 1.3-mile off-road course with flat and uphill deep-sand bogs, a hard-packed high-speed “fire road” stretch, and a steep hill ascent/descent. We also made use of a gravel road/Belgian block loop (0.5 mile), road-holding on a winding track (1.9 miles), and a 7.6-mile trip around Honda’s four-lane oval, complete with a 1.0-mile section that duplicates the concrete expansion joints of Los Angeles’ 110 freeway. During these two days, every contender’s exterior was checked for fit and finish, and each vehicle endured a thorough evaluation of seating accommodations, blind spots, material and build quality, and so on. After Phase 2, we cut the field to seven finalists.
Phase 3: Real-World Loop
The 27.6-mile public road route we’ve used for years will be familiar to some readers. It encompasses stop-and-go city driving, a 1,000-foot ascent to a 5,000-foot summit followed by a similar descent, tight canyon roads, curvy, quiet country roads, two rail crossings (one perpendicular, one angled), broken/patched pavement, and a generous stretch of open highway. At the end of the two days of this thudding redundancy (where the finalists’ real-world weaknesses become evident), we confined ourselves to a conference room to debate and determine the 2018 Motor Trend SUV of the Year.