1994 Luxury SUV Comparison Test

1994 Luxury SUV Comparison Test

From the March 1994 issue of Car and Driver.

Hark back with us for a moment to the early days of the Jeep Grand Wagoner, which appeared in 1963 as the first of a new breed—a utility vehicle that wasn’t descended from a truck. In those days sport-utility vehicles were big, bad, and ugly. Few people would brag about owning these road crushers, which were relegated mostly to winter but when more respectable types were stuck at home playing canasta. Back then, sport-utility trucks didn’t have to be attractive, or refined, or even particularly well-made.

But the explosive growth of the sport-utility market has, inevitably, brought about some cross-breeding between the most rugged of the mudders and the most sophisticated of sedans. With more than a million sold each year (1,132,177 in 1992), sport-utes have become primary appliances responsible for taking the danger out of snowdrifts as well as shuttling to work and play. Asked to pinch-hit for passenger cars, they’ve assumed the urbane qualities of some of the finest sedans without denying their earthy heritage.

This new niche of gentrified trucks that we’ve gathered here—the Isuzu Trooper LS, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, the Ford Explorer Limited, the Mitsubishi Montero SR, the Range Rover County, and the Toyota Land Cruiser—mark the spot where off-road capability and carlike luxury collide.

Since they are used most often as cars—their makers say only about five percent are ever intentionally taken off the pavement—we put this gang of six through our traditional comparison-test procedures. Then we threw some dirt into the equation. In addition to driving them on highways and on back-road loops of the Vermont woods—including rest stops at Goshen’s exquisite Blueberry Hill Inn bed and breakfast and the sensationally low-key Trapp family lodge in Stowe—we also tossed in two days’ worth of off-road driving instruction with the chaps at Rovers North. With their expertise, we learned the finer points of winching and snatching.

The biggest surprise: while most of these vehicles compromised their off-road abilities for the sake of on-road performance, they all remained surprisingly adept at climbing out of the slop. A few of them—and one in particular—squarely hit the cross-hairs of luxury and versatility. Which ones, you ask? Well, here’s how they finished. —Martin Padgett Jr.

6th Place: Ford Explorer Limited

Aussies invented ‘roo bars, which are not lager lounges for marsupials crossed with pogo sticks, but grille guards against kangaroo encounters of the worst kind. Got that? The Ford Explorer instead sports “poo’bars”—as in “to engage four-wheel­ drive and lock the diffs, just poosh the two little bars on the dash.” These handy push bars rank among the Ford’s best features. Yet our latest drive tells us this outback­-going creature needs updating. Soon.

HIGHS: Lowish price, pushbar drivetrain controls, handsome interior, decent ergonomics.
LOWS: Lack of ground clearance, lunky suspension, dull engine, knee-poke shift lever.
VERDICT: Needs a full re-do.

The Ford has led the domestic sport­-utility-vehicle segment in sales and satis­faction. Now it’s been around for four years, and faces newer—if pricier­—imports. The “new” Limited lends an “enhanced level of luxury appearance and convenience features”—superficial add­-ons against some sport-utility vehicles that are more lively and capable.

The Ford is at its best toodling around. Ask more and the Explorer reveals short­falls in ground clearance, suspension, structure, and powertrain. The front dif­ferential and rear suspension hang low, which may cause a real hangup on big rocks and sharp crests. The “Twin-Trac­tion Beam” front suspension is often off the beam in keeping contact with terra infirma. The structure twists and creaks. The running boards add weight and bulk. (The color-banded front bumper also draws sorry comments.) Worse, the Ford is short on towing points.

The Explorer’s 4.0-liter V-6 tells you it’s unhappy. Overworked and under­-deadened, it wins the John Deere-sound­alike contest. You must press hard on the stiff throttle even though you get lazy response in return. Still, this can be helpful when getting underway on slimy terrain.

The Explorer’s best feature remains its interior. It’s handsome and its ergonomics are generally good. Alas, the column-mounted shifter for the four-speed automatic’s PRNDL (say prin-duhl) pokes the driver’s knee (say OUCH!) when levered down to Low—a “Low” point since first gear is used off-road to control steep descents.

The Explorer’s handling is often lunky, its feel tippy, and its steering is too limp for smooth transitions from tight turns to straight ahead. The suspension is bobby, often riding poorly. A heaviness hangs over its behavior. And the Ford hangs up often on off-road obstacles.

The Explorer’s lack of deftness placed it no better than the mid-pack in any of our performance tests. More often it finished near or at the bottom, where it ran aground in our hearts and on our charts. —Larry Griffin

1994 Ford Explorer Limited
160-hp pushrod V-6, four-speed automatic, 4435 lb
Base/as-tested price: $29,020/$30,100
60 mph: 11.0 sec
1/4 mile: 18.3 sec @ 75 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 198 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.66 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg

5th Place: Isuzu Trooper LS

Although our Trooper is mostly unchanged from its winning form in our last sport-utility vehicle comparison in May 1992, it was outgunned in this test by pricier off-roaders. The big Isuzu is comfortable to ride in, and therefore likable. But two weak spots became apparent when compared with the other five vehicles in this test.

HIGHS: Excellent fit and finish, good control responses, confident handling.
LOWS: Rudimentary part-time 4wd system, dull styling.
VERDICT: A high-quality wagon with a limited mission.

First, an aesthetic price must be paid in exchange for the Trooper’s spacious interior, which is second only to the colossal Land Cruiser’s available space. The five-door Trooper (a shorter three-door version is available) is about an inch shorter and narrower than a five-door Ford Explorer, but there are six more cubic feet inside. That’s due mostly to the Trooper’s height advantage of 5.5 inches over the Explorer. Once inside the Trooper, you immediately sense that terrific space advantage, but it is space wrapped by sheetmetal devoid of curves, sheetmetal without an enticing shape. Standing side-by-side with the low-slung Jeep and the bulging-rendered Montero or even the Land Cruiser, the Trooper verges on the homely.

Second, the trooper’s part-time four-wheel-drive system is less useful in a wide variety of driving conditions than the systems of its competitors. The Jeep, Range Rover, and Toyota all have ideal full-time four-wheel-drive systems; the Montero and Explorer have part-time systems that can be engaged at highway speeds. The Trooper has an archaic part-time system that doesn’t permit shifting into four-wheel drive unless the car is stopped.

This creates a hassle when the driver is cruising on a freeway that is experiencing a change in weather conditions. That driver also cannot switch to four-wheel-drive on an off-road trail, or more significantly, on a sloped snow-covered driveway, until they’ve come to a stop, which would cost them valuable momentum in critical situations. In short, they risk getting stuck doing this.

We can’t shake the image of how embarrassing it would be to get stuck in your own driveway in a $32,580 four-wheel-drive wagon.

Still, there is a great deal of goodness in this wagon beyond the cavernous interior. The chassis of the Isuzu is rigid and the suspension is softly sprung. The result is a rattle-free ride, but that also means sluggish handling. Engine and road vibrations feel more isolated than in the Grand Cherokee or the Montero. The Isuzu’s 190-horsepower, twin-cam V-6 pulls smoothly to its 6500-rpm redline, but only the Explorer is slower to 60 mph. One test driver described the Trooper’s squarish dashboard as ugly, but the precise feel of all the controls, and the assembly quality throughout, are tops in this class. —Phil Berg

1994 Isuzu Trooper LS
190-hp V-6, four-speed automatic, 4485 lb
Base/as-tested price: $28,400/$32,580
60 mph: 10.9 sec
1/4 mile: 18.1 sec @ 75 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 193 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.69 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

4th Place: Mitsubishi Montero SR

In the last couple go-arounds, the Mon­tero hasn’t won any standing ovations. In our most recent sport-utility test, it placed fourth among six vehicles, and a recent long-term hauler wasn’t exactly memo­rable. This year’s Montero SR comes with a new and more powerful engine, and some other refinements that have boosted its image.

It’s a strange sight to see a tachometer on a sport-utility with a 7000-rprn redline. In terms of sophistication, Mitsubishi’s all-­new DOHC, 215-horsepower V-6 is very untrucklike, and took to high-speed inter­state driving like a greyhound after a jackrabbit. That’s a good sign in a vehicle that not too long ago could be charitably described as a turtle—quick enough to have come in second only to the speedy Jeep in nearly all the acceleration tests.

HIGHS: Versatile driveline, beefy bod with power to match.
LOWS: Vagabond steering, penalty-box rear seating, styling frippery.
VERDICT: Competent, and with the new engine, respectable.

The Montero’s versatile drivetrain offers the most choices of driving modes: rear-drive, and the usual high and low ranges in four-wheel drive—all manually selected with a console-mounted lever. Plus, the center differential can be locked using the same lever. A switch on the con­sole also locks the rear differential. Still, it was tougher to get the Montero going than its competitors, most notably on the off-road school’s hill of barely frozen mud, and again on the packed snow of Smug­glers Notch pass. The SR’s spiffy engine, ironically, might be part of the problem. Despite the fact that the V-6’s 228 pound­-feet of torque peaks at a low 3000 rpm, the torque delivery right off idle seemed dif­ficult to modulate compared with the responses of the other trucks.

The driver’s seat is comfortable for long trips and offers a commanding view of the road, as well as the truck. Mitsu’s clever shock-absorbed driver’s seat has bitten the dust for 1994, although we only missed it during rough off-roading. The dash-mounted inclinometer, altimeter, and compass can seem a bit unnecessary until you get lost on a dark, wintry Adirondack road, as did one of your humble servants.

The Montero performed unremarkably through the emergency lane-change course. But then, during one run, it got our attention when we almost rolled it. Given the tipsy-turvy manners of most sport-util­ity vehicles in emergency maneuvers, we’ll chalk up that near-disaster to hap­penstance. As for its steering, we wish Mitsubishi would exorcise the on-center dead spot, but at least there’s an airbag for the driver. “Wins the award for the most steer­ing play,” said one editor.

The Montero SR finished fourth, as it did in our May 1992 comparo, but this time it competed in a much pricier segment. Now that’s a step in the right direction. —Don Schroeder

1994 Mitsubishi Montero SR
215-hp V-6, four-speed automatic, 4742 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,113/$31,332
60 mph: 9.7 sec
1/4 mile: 17.5 sec @ 78 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 190 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.69 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

3rd Place: Range Rover County

Purists will most likely assume that some very nice niceties—the sleek leather, the elegant wood trim, the meringue­-smooth drivetrain—have somehow impinged on the expert off-road abilities of this short-wheel-based Range Rover County. For the most part, that is untrue.

In the years since the first edition plowed onto the scene in 1970, the Range Rover has received an Eliza Doolittle-style makeover that has elevated it from its util­itarian digs into the realm of luxury sedans. Along the way, it has acquired such dain­ties as power-adjustable leather seats, gen­uine wood trim, and a larger V-8 engine. The last two years have been watersheds for the Range Rover. It gained an all-new long-wheelbase model last year, and a height-adjustable air suspension this year.

Our short-wheelbase Range Rover County came equipped with the most com­plete list of luxury amenities in the group—making it, at $47,525, the most expensive of our lot. Features that suck up to the swell set include seats that can be adjusted in eight directions, are heated, and are moved about with a power switch; the aforementioned electronic air suspension; and a 120-watt, ten-speaker stereo.

HIGHS: Mellow drivetrain, superb off-road ability.
LOWS: Barely amusing Brit notions of body rigidity and ergonomics.
VERDICT: Quirks aside, a virtuous blend of on- and off-road performance.

These perks didn’t diminish the Rover’s deft off-road handling. Its full­-time four-wheel drive has a lower-ratio gearset for trundling out of truly deep muck. The throttle cooperates by tipping in gently, avoiding right-foot overdoses of tire-spinning torque. With the air suspen­sion at its higher setting, the Range Rover’s approach and departure angles are 33 degrees, which make clearing deep ruts a snap. And should you find yourself high-centered, the air suspension can push down the wheels an additional 2.8 inches in its search for traction. Except for the sumo­-like Land Cruiser, the Range Rover had the least difficulty extracting itself from the various traps that the fellows at Rovers North driving school set for us.

It excels as an off-road vehicle, but the Range Rover scores well on pavement, too. The short hood drops cleanly out of sight for an unobstructed view of the road, while a large greenhouse makes it easy to back into parking spaces. That unob­structed view is enhanced by the high seat­ing position. The air springs and good wheel travel (eight inches up front, eleven inches in the rear) added up to the cushiest ride on the freeway, and the torquey V-8 and four-speed automatic felt as civilized as a powertrain from one of Germany’s uber-cruisers.

Aside from its price, which was $5894 more than its nearest competitor, the Rover was only hampered by spotty (albeit improved) build quality and hunt-and-peck ergonomics. The cruise control engaged intermittently, the steel hood fluttered at most speeds, and the gaps in the body pan­els were large enough that we could see the interior door lights through them. The horn is located on the end of the turn-signal stalk, the fuel-door opener is on the left side of the steering column, and the seating position feels more Greyhound than Orient Express.

Despite the niggles, the Range Rover embodies both luxury and off-road capa­bility. It’s the only sport-utility vehicle, one of us noted, that would be appropriate for retrieving the company chairman at the airport. Being British has done nothing for the cachet of Benny Hill reruns, but it seems to work for aluminum-paneled trucks. —Martin Padgett Jr

1994 Land Rover Range Rover County
182-hp pushrod V-8, four-speed automatic, 4568 lb
Base/as-tested price: $47,525/$47,525
60 mph: 10.4 sec
1/4 mile: 17.9 sec @ 77 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 213 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.67 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg

2nd Place: Toyota Land Cruiser

During the days we spent treading lightly through Vermont’s lovely woods, this Toyota came to be known affection­ately as the Land Bruiser. This impolite appellation seemed to fit a vehicle that cuts a swath 76 inches wide through the forest. Plus, it pounds Mother Earth with more than two and one-half tons of rock­-crushing weight. While none of these vehicles is exactly dainty, this one dwarfs them all.

The Land Cruiser’s grand exterior encloses an enormous cabin that can accommodate as many as seven persons, or 91 cubic feet of stuff. The weight is due in part to a granite-like body structure, and as a result, nothing rattles, squeaks, or jig­gles—even when pounding over boulders and plunging across streams. Like other Toyotas, this one also earned high marks for its astonishing assembly quality, intu­itive ergonomics, and sophisticated drivetrain.

HIGHS: Impeccable build quality, ergonomic interior, slick and simple four-wheel drivetrain.
LOWS: Cumbersome size, weight, and pricetag.
VERDICT: Think of it as a Suburban built by Lexus.

Full-time four-wheel-drive, with an easily selected low range and center dif­ferential lock, make the Toyota ideal for the on-road customer who is concerned more about occasional bad weather than the prospect of crossing the Rubicon. This system, plus an easily modulated throttle and lots of weight pressing down on aggressive mud and snow tires, gave the Land Cruiser the edge in our climb-the-­snowy-mountain-pass test. However, serious off-roaders should choose one of the smaller trucks. The Bruiser is just too big to navigate between tight rocks and trees without a team of spotters.

A huge DOHC six-cylinder engine of 4.5 liters that packed a wallop of 275 pound-feet of torque was able to deliver only mid-pack performance. New all-disc ABS brakes and a well-tuned suspension belie the Bruiser’s size—it came to a stop in the shortest distance, and was second only to the sprightly Jeep on the skidpad and through the lane-change challenge. We’d love to see this hard­ware applied to a lighter, nimbler 4Run­ner-sized package.

The Land Cruiser’s sophistication and build quality offer some justifica­tion for its bruiser price of $41,623 and earn it a spot near the top of the class. Its sheer bulk, however, bars it from the winner’s circle. When the dust (and mud) settled, none of us could conceive owning and piloting such a huge truck when a smaller, nimbler, and more fun­-to-drive example is available. —Frank Markus

1994 Toyota Land Cruiser
212-hp inline-6, four-speed automatic, 5153 lb
Base/as-tested price: $34,653/$41,631
60 mph: 10.7 sec
1/4 mile: 17.9 sec @ 76 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 178 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg

1st Place: Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited

Our search for the most luxurious and most capable sport-utility ended about where it started—on our 1993 Ten Best list. Only one sport-utility vehicle has ever managed to snare a spot on our honor roll, and though it fell off the list this year, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, in V-8-powered Limited trim, continues to be the only sport-ute that makes us forget we’re driv­ing a truck.

When the mud-slinging came to an end, only the Grand Cherokee had passed the on- and off-road performance pop quiz with flying colors. Most of the credit due goes to the near-invisible operation of its full-time four-wheel-drive system, which has a viscous center differential that locks up only when extra traction is demanded by spinning wheels. Thanks to it, and even riding atop comfy Goodyear GA all-sea­son highway tires, the Grand Cherokee ascended Smuggler Notch near Stowe, Vermont, in deep snow with ease.

The Jeep did not disgrace itself at the Rovers North Off-Road school either, despite being outfitted in upscale Lim­ited trim. Had it been equipped with the Up Country package that includes all-ter­rain tires, front tow hooks, uprated shocks and springs, and skid plates to protect the underside (a $350 option), it would not have gotten stuck in the mud nearly as often as it did.

HIGHS: Torquey engine, car-like feel, all-season confidence.
LOWS: Thrashy valvetrain, wandering steering, gas-gobbler.
VERDICT: A versatile vehicle with few compromises.

Though it works remarkably well off-road, the Jeep performed even better in the arena that sport-utility vehicles most often find themselves: on the pavement. It outperformed every other vehicle in the group by a comfortable margin. With its relatively svelte uni­body and smallish overall size, the Jeep was the most car-like of the vehicles in this comparison test. Although it seats five and hauls plenty of luggage, it’s not as tall as its rivals and is thus easier to get into. The challenges of suburbia are easily met by the relaxed power of a 5.2- liter V-8 driving through a well-mannered automatic transmission.

This sort of versatility is unexpected in a vehicle marketed as a kind of high-per­formance station wagon. It’s a pity that the brawny V-8 broadcasts so much valvetrain thrash into the cabin, but without that noise, the list of complaints would be a short one: just a little instrument panel reflection, some unconvincing wood trim on the console (it’s good elsewhere), and occasionally wandery steering. None of these are serious flaws, and none deter from its all-terrain fluency. It may not have returned to the Ten Best, but of its kind, the Jeep remains without equal. —Barry Winfield

1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee
220-hp pushrod V-8, four-speed automatic, 4101 lb
Base/as-tested price: $30,113/$31,332
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.3 sec @ 84 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.75 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

About Edward Richardson

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