The SUV Evolves in Illogical Direction

The sport-utility vehicle -- the vilified, popular, demonized, versatile SUV -- was the hottest vehicle of an entire generation. Taking outdoorsy imagery and mixing it with warm-as-apple-pie family situations made the SUV the family vehicle of choice in the ’90s. The family station wagon and boring minivan were replaced by a big, truck-like vehicle that spoke of off-road adventure in exotic latitudes. So what if the majority of them were used -- and still are used -- to shuttle kids to school and to drive to family-vacation destinations that are no more exotic than Disneyland?

Instead of going the way of the brontosaurus, as some had predicted, the SUV adapted and evolved. This decade has changed everything we know about the SUV and its close cousin, the crossover. While in their heyday, SUVs were all about outdoor adventure. But the newest, hottest SUVs largely eschew any hint of outdoor exploration and instead adopt a high-performance, high-luxury philosophy. The leader of this vanguard is the just-introduced Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. If you want to know what the coolest soccer moms on the planet will be driving next spring, just take a look at this baby. To the new-generation M-Class line that Mercedes-Benz launched earlier this year comes the addition of a hyper-powerful twin-turbo V-8 engine and the all-wheel-drive traction of the renowned 4MATIC system. This is no rock-crawler; it’s a pavement-burner.

For the sake of painting the picture, let’s say your daughter is late for the playoff game, and you’re a little tardy leaving the driveway because you were gathering some sushi, designer water and a Tommy Bahama folding chair. There’s no better way to make up that time than by jamming the accelerator of the 518 horsepower bi-turbo V-8. You will undoubtedly take your place in the upper reaches of the soccer field car park. In fact, there’s only one way you’ll be one-upped, and that’s if someone else arrives in an ML63 AMG equipped with the optional-at-serious-extra-cost AMG Performance Package, which offers an additional 32 horsepower and a 174-miles-per-hour top speed capability.

You’ll also appreciate the designo leather interior, the black headliner and the four-spoke AMG Performance steering wheel with perforated leather grips, aluminum shift paddles and a flat bottom. The dashboard, armrests and door trim are also finished in designo leather with double topstitching.

The “more is more” theme is all over the ML63’s exterior. The special AMG bodywork includes deeper under-bumper aprons at the front and rear, heavily sculpted rocker panels under the doors and quad exhaust pipes. The standard engine is a direct-injection, bi-turbo V-8 that produces not only 518 horsepower, but also 516 pound-feet of torque. The AMG Performance Package ups the ante to 550 horsepower and adds the niceties of a carbon-fiber engine cover and red brake calipers. For those who like to keep their vehicles on the pavement, the ML63 AMG has both the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and the newly developed Active Curve System, which supplies electronically enhanced roll stabilization.

The price for ML63 AMG has not yet been announced, but you can bet it will follow the trend in the ultra-luxury crossover class and be stratospheric. The model will be available at a Mercedes-Benz showroom near you in the first quarter of next year.

Top 5 Vehicles for Ski Week

Over the past several years, a new vacation week has been making its way onto many families’ calendars. Sometimes sanctioned by school districts and sometimes not, this new week -- which is usually tucked deep into February or early March -- is commonly called Ski Week. Embedded in two months known primarily for their dreary weather, the holiday has become a welcome relief to families across the country, offering them a chance to exercise some muscles that may otherwise fall into doldrums during the long, cold winter.

Of course, if you are going to make the best use of Ski Week, you need a vehicle that can get you up the mountain and back down again in style, comfort and safety. To help you identify the finest Ski Week vehicles, our editors have put their collective minds together to highlight the ones we believe are the best of the best.

Jeep Grand Cherokee
Certainly the word Jeep has a ringing connotation when it comes to all-weather, four-wheel-drive vehicles, so it should be no surprise that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is on this list. All-new for 2011, it was one of Chrysler’s final collaborations with former owner Daimler-Benz, and the heritage is obvious. Unlike several others on this list, the Grand Cherokee will seat just five, not seven or eight -- but those five will find a cabin as rich as a luxury SUV and a level of refinement that has hit a high-water mark for the brand. Powered by a newly designed 290-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6, and boasting Jeep’s well-honed inclement-weather capabilities, the Grand Cherokee is a consensus pick as a Ski Week vehicle.

Honda Pilot
While the Jeep Grand Cherokee is to many an obvious choice as a Ski Week vehicle, the Honda Pilot is far less so. But having experienced its considerable virtues during a ski vacation blizzard as recently as this past Christmas, we can attest to the fact that the Pilot has all the features it needs to get to and from a snowbound resort. With flexible seating for up to eight, and with more cargo room than you may guess, the Pilot is great for family transport. Its 250-horsepower V-TEC V-6 delivers ample power, and its four-wheel-drive system is both robust and sophisticated.

Ford Explorer
Back in the ’80s, the Ford Explorer was the lead vehicle in the rise of the SUV segment. Now, nearly three decades later, it has been completely transformed from a truck-based vehicle to a unibody crossover -- while still retaining and enhancing its four-wheel-drive credentials. The complete makeover was instituted to deliver better handling and higher fuel economy, and it was a success on both counts -- so successful that it was recently named North American Truck of the Year. Its fuel economy tops the segment, despite the fact that its 3.5-liter V-6 offers a robust 290 horsepower, and its easy-to-operate all-terrain system takes the worry out of off-road situations.

Audi Q7
Audi was very late to introduce a crossover SUV, which baffled many people because of its long history creating great vehicles with its patented Quattro all-wheel-drive systems. The good news is that when Audi did introduce its Q7 crossover, it got it right. This is a vehicle that features Audi’s beautifully tailored interior and exterior design -- combined with a large dose of practicality. For instance, the seats can be arranged 28 different ways, and there are 72 cubic feet of cargo space. The Q7 relies on supercharging to bring its 3-liter V-6 up to 272 horsepower, but it is accompanied by a sophisticated 8-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive.

Chevrolet Tahoe
Crossovers are nice. They offer good driving dynamics and a reasonably compact size. That being said, when it comes to spending Ski Week with the family, there is a lot to like about a full-sized, truck-based SUV like the Chevrolet Tahoe. The interior is significantly roomier than in the above-cited crossovers, yet fuel economy is only a mile-per-gallon or so poorer. The Tahoe is not as nimble as the others on this list -- but with 320 horsepower from its 5.3 V-8, the Tahoe has the hauling ability to get you and all your gear to the lifts and back in limousine-like comfort.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/addimage