Ballin’ is a habit
Over the last 20 or so years, SUVs have evolved from their rugged roots and proliferated across the automotive market. Compared to other body types, consumers seem to prefer SUVs’ increased cargo space and high driving position, plus whatever off-road pretenses they have. Still, some people enjoy the style and driving experience of lower-riding coupes or sedans. But when the goal is comfort, space, and the projection of image, a big utility body works best. This has helped lead to the fall of the sedan and rise of plush luxury SUVs on the road today.
In the late ‘90s, the Ford Expedition found popularity as a roomy hauler for American families. While that vehicle was meant for utility, Ford’s luxury brand Lincoln borrowed the Expedition platform for their own interpretation. The result: the Navigator. With unique front-end styling, extra interior wood trim, thicker carpets, and a premium sound system, the Navigator was an originator for American luxury SUVs. It’s continued through several generations, always sharing underpinnings with the Expedition, but making further departures in style and features with each model.
Today’s Navigator is a triumph of design and luxury that rolls with the best. Supple leather covers 30-way adjustable seats, the sleek interior packs a 20-speaker system, and available active dampers smooth the ride for the eight passengers it can carry — all becoming of the $100,000 top trim cost. It packs a 450 horsepower twin-turbo V6 (making it the most powerful Lincoln ever) and 10-speed transmission shared with the Ford Raptor pickup, but the drivetrain tune is set for effortless acceleration rather than off-road hooning. Lincoln’s always built luxurious land yachts, and the modern Navigator might be their best yet.
Soon after the Navigator launched, Ford’s cross-town rivals at General Motors scrambled to develop a competitor. In doing so they created one of the most iconic luxury SUVs ever — one that instantly commands reverence for whoever’s baller enough to take the wheel. The Cadillac Escalade is a car everyone’s seen in music videos, paparazzi photos, or slow cruising down the boulevard with subwoofers bumping.
GM used the same formula as Ford, transforming a regular people mover into a luxury legend. Starting with the platform of the Chevy Tahoe, GM Cadillac-ified it with a bodykit, plush interior, shiny wheels and grille, and… not a ton else. With the second generation Escalade’s debut at the glitzy Pebble Beach auto show it really started to catch attention. The bold, angular bodywork surrounded a plush interior swathed in leather and wood. It also made history as the first vehicle in the segment available with 20 inch wheels (chrome, of course) from the factory. It offered a smooth drive becoming of a Cadillac, with far more space than any of the brand’s stodgy sedans. Now in its fourth generation, the Escalade’s wheels have only grown, improving its luxury style but reducing the off-road capability many expect from SUVs.
But comfort and ruggedness aren’t mutually exclusive in some luxury SUVs. For example, the Range Rover started off as essentially farm equipment, but has maintained off-road ability with each successive generation’s increase in opulence. Its adjustable air suspension lifts it over trail obstacles or floats down a road, plus has different modes for driving on pavement, snow, sand, grass, mud, or gravel. The top-level trim is available with reclining, massaging, heated and cooled dual rear seats with a beverage refrigerator and fold-out tray tables between them. It’s truly an SUV you can have a chauffeur take you around in, or rip up to a snowy mountain chateau. With year-over-year sales increasing and an entire product range around it it — Evoque, Sport, and Velar — the Range Rover proves that luxury SUVs can do anything sedans can, and even more.
Maybe the vehicle that best exemplifies the luxury SUV mystique is the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, better known as the G-Wagen (an abbreviation of Gelandewagen, German for “off-road vehicle”). Initially conceived in the late ‘70s as a warzone-ready military machine, the G-Wagen soon became a status symbol for the rich and famous, despite being, frankly, not all that nice. Tall and narrow, with chunky tires and clattery diesel engines, something about its slab-sided body projected a posh image. Eventually Mercedes realized that people were buying G-Wagens for daily driver duty and primped the interior with wood and leather, and installed strong V8s under the hood — including mighty AMG versions.
The newest G-Wagen is a complete redesign of the classic, although you’d be hard pressed to distinguish it from the outside. The interior, though, represents an extreme upgrade from its predecessor, with a widescreen digital dashboard, color-configurable LED lighting, and state-of-the-art driver assist features. Still, it comes with bumper bars, three locking differentials, and a solid rear axle, making it ready as ever to get off the beaten path.
Mercedes’ GLS deserves mention for the future of upscale SUVs. The current version is plenty nice, but the focus is on passenger capacity rather than outright luxury. That’ll likely change with the next generation, as rumor has it the legendary Maybach badge will be applied to the highest-level trim. Imagine Benz’s biggest vehicle, configured to coddle as few as four passengers — potentially as close to a private jet for the road as an SUV has ever come.
So what is it about luxury SUVs that makes them so popular? They sacrifice driving fun, fuel economy, and arguably elegant style for the pure sake of being big. Perhaps that’s just it: the presence they project for whoever’s inside make the tradeoffs worthwhile, and when they’re as comfortable as they are, who wouldn’t enjoy being in one?