As we were running through the list of vehicles eligible for the 2010 Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year award, I realized with a shock that only one -- Toyota's new 4Runner -- came anywhere near what might be considered the archetypal SUV. The new 4Runner is a truck in a tux; a rugged off-roader (depending on spec -- the entry-level model is only two-wheel drive) that's been civilized for life in the urban jungle. It's the most recent interpretation of a formula established by the Jeep Wagoneer, finessed by the Range Rover, and taken mainstream by the original Ford Explorer.
Powered by cheap gas and fuel economy regulations biased in favor of trucks over cars, SUVs had become the lucrative new heartland of the American auto market by the late 1990s. So much so that GM, Ford, and Chrysler devoted their development dollars to little else, with, it could be argued, dire consequences for their car businesses.
There's been a not-so-subtle attempt to rebrand the genre in the past couple of years as something newer, cooler, more carlike, and more fuel efficient: the crossover. But marketing alchemy can't disguise the trace elements of truck DNA that make an SUV an SUV, no matter what it looks like or what it's called. These trace elements include: (1) a high ride height and high seating position; (2) a two-box body and multi-function interior that allows a combination of seating or load-carrying configurations; (3) the availability of all-wheel drive.
These trace elements are what link the 11 vehicles eligible for this year's award -- Acura ZDX, Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKT, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Subaru Outback, Volvo XC60, and, of course, the 4Runner. Look past the edgy lines of the ZDX, the boulevardier pomp of the MKT, the sensible-shoes stance of the Outback, or the restrained Euro-chic style of the Q5, and you'll find them.
In terms of vehicle package, presentation, and intended function, the Sport/Utility of the Year field is now almost as diverse as that of Car of the Year, where sports cars and minivans vie for the award against family sedans and luxury limos. This year's group of 11 contenders includes a number of standout candidates, but only one will be named Motor Trend's 2010 Sport/Utility of the Year.
Log on to TruckTrend.com Thursday morning, Oct. 15, to find out whether you've picked the winner.
-Photos by Brian Vance and Julia LaPalme