Looks aren't everything in the quest to find the best large luxury SUV.
What better way to spend Earth Day than driving 400 miles in a Cadillac Escalade? We found ourselves doing just that when we set out to bestow the SmartMoney Award for large luxury SUVs. Big sport-utes have endured a firestorm of vitriol from environmental activists and safety advocates. Rising gas prices have only made it harder to rationalize splurging on this kind of vehicle. And yet, thanks to some hefty incentives, sales have held steady, and including the brand-new Infiniti QX56, this group's total sales are up about 13 percent so far this year. So, ready to brave hostile stares, we set out to put the miles on four of these hulks, searching for the best in time for your summer road trip.
Lexus LX 470 4WD
As opposed to many of its competitors, this SUV hasn't had a major update since 1998, and it shows. The second-row bench seat, for example, is far less comfortable than the captain's chairs on the other three SUVs we tried, and you need to secure both the second- and third-row seats with straps when you fold them up, a tedious process that creates an awkward cargo space. Also, the 4.7-liter, 235-hp V-8 is the smallest engine in this bunch, and the Lexus feels underpowered going up a hill with a full load. Towing capacity is the lowest too, at just 5,000 pounds. You do get a luxurious ride, with a quiet interior and some fancy features, including the lovely bird's-eye maple trim on the steering wheel and dashboard. But ultimately, at a base price $9,000 or more above the others here, the premium is too high.
Cadillac Escalade AWD
The price gets a little more reasonable with the Cadillac. But more important, to Cadillac at least, rappers like it; their widely publicized imprimatur on the Escalade has made it one of the bestselling large luxury SUVs, with nearly 36,000 sold last year. The exterior wears the sharp, creased styling that Cadillac has become known for lately.
The interior leans toward the generic GM truck look. The second-row captain's chairs are roomy, and instead of a console between them, there's a passageway to the third row, which makes for easy access. But the third-row bench seat is cramped — really suited only for children. A massive 6-liter V-8, the largest engine in this group, produces 345 hp, and its roar never lets you forget it. This SUV never lacks for power, though it's worth noting that the Infiniti beats it in towing capacity.
Lincoln Navigator "Ultimate" 4WD
The Navigator has been the only one of these to suffer a downturn in sales this spring versus last spring. But the Navigator is worth considering, because it offers some smart innovations that its competitors would be wise to copy, such as power running boards that automatically extend when you open the door and a third-row split bench that folds down at the touch of a button. Leg room in the third row is also impressive — spacious enough that adults can actually fit in these seats. Although it's one of the largest trucks of this bunch, its handling is almost carlike — or at least compact SUV-like. Inside, it boasts the most striking design, with a center instrument stack that swoops from the dashboard to the gear shifter in a graceful cascade. But once you spend some time in the car, the flimsiness of the materials — like the faux metallic plastic all over that center stack — reveals itself.
Lexus LX 470 4WD Engine: 4.7-liter V-8, 235 hp Ride/Handling: HHH Int./Ext. Design: HHHH Comfort/Utility: H Base Price: $65,100 Overall Rating: HH Comments: What do you get for an extra $9,000? An interior that looks and feels luxurious-but lacks the versatility of the others.
Infiniti QX56 4WD
In the end, our winner was something of a surprise. Our first impression of the QX56 was, to be blunt, that it was one ugly truck, with its huge, high hood and massive grill. From the side, it has the ungainly look of two different vehicles stuck together. But let's not be so shallow. Compared with the other SUVs in our group, the QX56 offers the best combination of drivability, capability and safety features. It provides a comfortable ride, and the 315-hp V-8 produces ample power. The second-row captain's chairs pop forward for easy third-row access. The third-row bench folds flat into the floor with one lever, though it doesn't split. And the QX56 includes some vital equipment that clinched it for us: It is the only SUV with side-curtain airbags for all three rows, a crucial safety feature if the vehicle rolls over.