Sport Utilities Rumble Into Lap of Luxury

They start life on the drawing board as rough-and-tumble trucks, but end as Cadillacs.

Take a basic, cheap-to-build truck, load it with goodies like two-tone leather seats, wood trim, a top-of-the-line sound system, and a built-in telephone, and what do you get?

A luxury sport utility vehicle that allows automakers to build huge profit margins, starting with the $30,000 Oldsmobile Bravada all the way to the $65,000 Range Rover.

Since Lincoln gussied up the gargantuan Ford Expedition last year, it has sold 40,584 of them, making the Navigator the best selling sport utility from a "premium" brand. Overall, sales of such sport-utes have climbed from 6,000 a month in January 1997 to almost 19,000 a month in April, according to statistics from Auto Data in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Now everybody's following the recipe.

Mercedes launched its first sport utility last year. Japanese luxury brands Infinity and Acura each sell upscale versions of lesser SUVs. Lexus' $55,000 LX470 is about the most posh off-roader. General Motors' truck division, GMC, this year decked out two of its common SUVs to the $35,000 to $45,000 price range. And Cadillac's Escalade will escalate the competition another notch next year.

Here is a summary of three new entries, plus one popular standby (Navigator) for comparison:

Lincoln Navigator

$42,960

13/17 EPA city/highway miles per gallon

Critics scoffed when Lincoln said it could sell a dressed-up version of the Ford Expedition for more than $42,000.

But once the Navigator hit the market, sales soared, as did profits for parent company Ford.

The $8,270 premium price over a loaded Expedition buys extra wood trim on the dashboard and steering wheel, and includes many frills that are optional or not available on the Expedition: the top-of-the-line engine, automatic climate control, rear A/C, and rear captain's chairs.

The Navigator is excessively huge. Outside, it looks like a bus. Inside, it feels like a limo.

Around town, the ride is soft and controlled, the handling reasonably accurate, but the ridiculous size is cumbersome.

On the highway, power is plentiful, passengers can stretch out, but the erratic handling can at times lead you off course. All-wheel-drive tackles squalls on your way to the slopes.

The Navigator seats six, but nobody's stuck in the middle. The three rows of two seats include four individual "captain's chairs" in the front and middle rows, each of which has its own console for drinks, books, magazines, CDs, and other entertainment.

The best thing about the Navigator is that if you're heading to the lake for the weekend, the truck won't even flinch about hauling the boat, the dogs, the whole family, and all their gear. That's why they're so popular.

GMC Yukon Denali

$43,495

13/16 EPA city/highway miles per gallon

GMC was the only General Motors division to sell more vehicles last year than it did in 1987.

The reward: GM hopes to sell more trucks by moving the division up-market.

The Denali is among the first products of that effort. It starts as a basic four-door Yukon, the shorter, five-passenger version of the house-size Suburban.

The base Denali is so loaded, there are no options. For $10,576 more than a basic Yukon, it comes with a two-tone, leather-and-wood interior, separate rear air conditioning, full-time-four-wheel-drive, and heated seats front and back. It also has special plastic bodywork that some love, most loathe. Suspension is upgraded to be less trucklike.

The Denali feels big on the road, but is not as unwieldy as the Navigator.

Yukon Denali is the cherry atop the luxury truck sundae. It's delightful to drive, sumptuous even to sit in, and hard working in return.

But there's the rub. If you work the truck hard, you're likely to soil the pile carpet, smudge the creamy leather, scratch the pearl-coat paint, and gum up the gee-whiz gadgets you paid so dearly for.

GMC Envoy

$34,135

16/20 EPA city/highway miles per gallon

Much smaller than the Yukon Denali, the Envoy is the second prong of GMC's upscale attack.

It's aimed more at the family crowd looking for a carlike upscale wagon-in-disguise than a gussied up work truck.

The Envoy's handling is vastly improved over the Jimmy it is based on. The truck includes bright, arc-discharge headlamps, a CD changer, trip computer, self-leveling suspension, and an air jack in the back for blowing up innertubes, rafts, or air mattresses.

But unlike the rest of the high-tech rig, the Envoy still uses the old-fashioned part-time four-wheel-drive system from the Jimmy. Look for an electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system next year.

In the meantime, Envoy seems like a pleasant-mannered, well-groomed Jimmy, but doesn't seem to justify its $34,135 price.

Lexus RX300

$32,950

19/22 EPA city/highway miles per gallon

The RX300 is the import Envoy can't beat.

Unlike these other SUVs, the Lexus is based on a car chassis. It handles more like an agile minivan than a heavy truck.

The oddly reptilian-looking RX300 is perhaps easiest defined by what it is not: It is not a mom-mobile minivan; nor is it a gas-guzzling SUV; nor a retro '70s station wagon. Rather, it's a vehicle trying to be all things to all people.

And it nearly succeeds.

The mid-size SUV's lively performance, strong braking, soft ride, and supple seats make any road comfortable. Its all-wheel-drive system is not designed to go off road like the others. On the highway, the RX300 sips less gas than other mid-size SUVs, and storage bins are the handiest on the road.

The design is not without nits, however.

Cargo space is tight for a family weekend away. The small fuel tank requires frequent fill-ups. And too many look-alike, feel-alike knobs and buttons make the heater and radio controls difficult to use without looking. The automatic transmission doggedly avoids the right gear when accelerating.

The test vehicle also had several un-Lexus-like electrical gremlins.

Assuming such problems aren't typical, the little Lexus makes the best value as a luxury buy.

* Comments to evarts@csmonitor.com

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