Around two decades ago the phrase "luxury SUV" conjured up images of pure machismo -- hulking beasts that looked barely road-legal with huge towing capacity and drivetrains ripped straight from military-grade prototypes, spec'd to eat up the harshest battlefield terrain Planet Earth could toss out. Legends like the Lamborghini LM002 (nicknamed the "Rambo Lambo" by Lee Iacocca), paramilitary vehicles splashed with a touch of leather and half-heartedly fitted with anemic air conditioning systems and stereos. It seemed everyone wanted one, even if it meant sacrificing details like everyday driving performance.

Flash forward to the present. Gas prices are through the roof, we're suffering through financial fallouts like the subprime/prime mortgage market crisis and a new sense of environmental awareness makes driving a fuel-guzzling beast akin to lining a local pet shelter with steel-jawed animal traps. Though it looks like the ice age has finally come for big and powerful sport utility vehicles, the luxury SUV segment saw a 1 percent annual growth increase last year. With a strong market still for these vehicles, here's a look at what is available and what to expect.

Premium Fullsize SUVs: Classic Macho Still Lives Large

If there's any machine that proves consumers still like their SUVs served extra large and medium-rare, it's the Cadillac Escalade. The Escalade (available in extra-large ESV and pickup truck-style EXT versions) is the poster child of the classic luxury SUV lineage, serving up extra-strength luxury, conventional four-wheel drive systems, truck-derived body-on-frame construction, beefy V8 powerplants and the largest storage space around before crossing the "cool" line to a minivan. Cadillac's SUVs rule the full-size SUV roost and have made the transition from mere machines to cultural icons.

For 2008 the Cadillac Escalade has moved to protect its turf with more of what made it a cult hit, including a more muscular 403-hp 6.2-liter V8, a stiffer frame, a redesigned suspension and a more refined interior. Oh, and forget mere 20-inch wheels -- 22-inchers will now be an option. To satisfy greener tastes, a dual-mode hybrid version projected to deliver at least a 25 percent fuel savings over current engine offerings and a significant reduction in harmful emissions, is expected to hit dealerships next April or May.

Truck-based SUVs eyeing the throne, like the Lincoln Navigator and Infiniti QX56, are placing their bets with features like 20-inch chrome wheels and more power. Lincoln's answer to the huge Cadillac Escalade ESV, the Lincoln Navigator L, also will be hitting the pavement shortly.

Mercedes has shown up late to the full-size SUV game with a large crossover utility vehicle -- trading the body-on-frame formula for a unibody design with more car-like handling and all-wheel drive. The Mercedes-Benz GL-Class proposition is bolstered by seating for seven, a large towing capacity, excellent fit and finish and a price that's competitive with the Cadillac Escalade. For those who need a little more oomph, there's an optional dual-range four wheel drive system. The Audi Q7 also follows this new school of thought, and while it doesn't offer true four-wheel drive, it delivers a much more enthusiastic driving experience. Both machines will go more "green" with diesel powerplants on the way. Mercedes is offering, a 224-hp 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 with 376 lb.-ft. of torque and, equally important, 23.9 mpg combined city/highway mileage.

Between the Cadillac Escalade's celebrity appeal and the crossover formulas of Audi and Mercedes, backed by the small-yet-vocal driving enthusiast crowd, the average consumer who will decide the victor is caught in the middle. Right now, the Cadillac Escalade family is No. 1 in sales, with the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class debuting in a surprising second place. This one will be very interesting to watch.

Premium Midsize SUVs: The Crowd Pleasers

The battle between raw utility and crossover comfort is just about over in the midsize class. Sales in the once ultra-hot midsize SUV segment (think Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango, Chevy Trailblazer et al) have gone the way of "Snakes on a Plane," dropping 20 percent this year from January to June. On top of that, minivan trends are worse. Just a year ago minivan sales accounted for 6.7 percent of sales in the auto industry -- now it's wilted down to 4.4 percent. Forget "Snakes on a Plane" -- that's "Who's Your Caddy?" territory, folks. One-time minivan owners are now finding happiness en masse in non-luxury midsize crossovers, and quite a few are taking the step to luxury midsize crossover utility vehicles.

Outselling nearest competitor the Acura MDX by almost 2 to 1, the Lexus RX has built a legendary status in the segment it arguably created back in 1998. The RX formula has left its mark as the price of entry into the segment: seating for five, a capable-yet-fuel conscious V6, excellent build quality, larger midsize sedan-sized storage and a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

To date, the RX's dominance is almost untouchable -- which brings us to the Buick Enclave. The latest offering in the midsize luxury CUV arena brings the winning looks and proportions of GM's Lambda platform (Saturn Outlook, GMC Arcadia) to challenge the RX's roost with a shotgun approach. Like the midsize luxury CUV formula, but want eight passenger seating and more storage space? How about a package replete with luxury features, a 275-hp 3.6-liter V6, and a starting price that's about $5,000 less than the Lexus RX? These are questions Buick begs you to ask.

While the Enclave is the best Buick execution we've seen in years, we don't think anyone's going to unseat the Lexus RX anytime soon. That still hasn't stopped everyone from tweaking the popular formula to squeeze into more driveways -- sometimes with surprising results.

The Lincoln MKX shuns the voluminous amount of passenger and storage space offered by the Buick Enclave for radical styling, capped off by a strong value proposition making for a strong debut in the segment. Almost all the other competitors in the segment choose to add value with the ability to seat seven passengers and see horsepower and fuel efficiency improvements this year. The Acura MDX (second place), BMW X5 (third) and Volvo XC 90 (fifth) are such examples.

Compact Luxury CUVs: The Young Upstarts

The future of posh-utes belongs to a new formula -- the "compact luxury crossover."

It began with consumers asking for what seemed impossible: the responsive handling of performance sedans, plush luxury amenities, good fuel economy and no-nonsense functionality of an SUV for all seasons, with the space to handle heavy-duty shopping. Up until a few years ago this was just fantasy but now sales in the still-tiny compact CUV segment are exploding upward -- they're up 86 percent year-to-date through the last 6 months and in June alone, sales were up 182 percent.

The only competitors that have been in the segment for over a year right now are the BMW X3 (currently the sales leader) and the Acura RDX. Both follow the popular formula of excellent on-road performance, accented by rear-wheel-biased all-wheel drive systems, along with the fuel economy and storage capacity of a smaller midsized sedan. The Land Rover Freelander, recently reborn as the Land Rover LR2 on this side of the Atlantic, offers more power (with better fuel economy), more off-road technology, more passenger room and a stiffer frame than its original model, but throws in a wild card. Land Rover's latest packs higher ground clearance and longer-travel suspension to out-off-road the competition.

Other luxury manufacturers are hedging their bets in on-road performance and are crowding the entry gate, thanks to growth numbers and a profit potential that's being forecast by some into the far reaches of avarice. The world of compact luxury CUVs is about to get pretty congested with talent -- fast.

Coming Attractions

What's the fastest and most affordable route to create a compact CUV? Start with a proven compact car chassis.

The upcoming Mercedes-Benz GLK brothers will get their good looks from the GL Class, but under the skin they'll share a lot in common with the Mercedes C-Class sedans. What's different is a 224-hp Bluetech diesel, which could round out as many as four V6 options offered. All powerplants will be optimized by a sweet seven-speed automatic transmission.

Hearsay from the auto industry on the upcoming Audi Q5 says it will be built on a chassis derived from the Audi A4. A 330-hp 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 might put an exclamation point on the engine options, which are rumored to begin with Volkswagen's venerable 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 at introduction next year.

The Infiniti EX35 looks to seduce its way into the segment this December with a bevy of unusual techno-luxury features and options bolstered by performance genes made popular by the Infiniti G35. Among the EX35's iconoclastic goodies are self-healing clearcoat paint and a "lane departure prevention" system that helps steer the ute back into a lane by manipulating the brakes at individual wheels. Under the hood is the same 3.5-liter V6 of G35, FX and M fame, but tuned to make more than 290 hp. That power can be delivered to either the rear wheels only, or all wheels depending on what model you choose.

Antsy on the Sidelines

Cadillac might be planning to drop an entry into the compact category, but the General's lips are tighter than the mysterious branch of the government that keeps crashed UFOs under wraps. The Cadillac CTS would be a good starting place for a chassis.

Whatever Dearborn and Detroit's directors are planning, it's obvious that the market has spoken. The fight that's forming in the compact luxury CUV segment looks a lot like the hot contention in the entry-luxury sedan market. For consumers, showing up with a utility that doesn't boast street-performer credentials is like showing up to a knife fight with an ice cream sandwich.

Share This Photo X