Editor's note: In the first annual CultureMap Auto Awards, automotive writers Nic Phillips and Kevin McCauley bestow honors in 10 categories for the top 2012 cars and trucks and explain why they're deserving of a good, hard look. Now we're down to the final three, starting with the SUV:
SUV of the Year: 2013 Range Rover
Land Rover first introduced us to its idea of a luxury utility vehicle in 1970. Although the company didn't invent the category — those honors belong to the Jeep Wagoneer — Land Rover has remained the echelon of the segment for more than 40 years. After a decade with the third generation, the all-new fourth generation 2013 Range Rover has been thoroughly modernized, and we already awarded it "Runner-up Best New Design" for its sexy, Evoque-inspired design.
Style is expected of a Range Rover, but what comes unexpected is under its glossy paint, in the form of the first all-aluminum SUV. This Range Rover is nearly 850 pounds lighter than the previous generation without losing any of its legendary off-road prowess. In fact, it gains more: The air suspension gives more ground clearance; towing capacity remains a stout 7,100 pounds; and on-road driving manners are more nimble, more car-like than ever before.
Although the 5.0L V-8's in supercharged and non-supercharged form carry over from the third generation models, they're now mated to the silky smooth ZF 8-speed automatic we love so much. With hundreds of pounds less to haul around, the same 375 or 510 horsepower ratings go a lot further in getting faster, well, faster.
The price ranges have increased, now starting at $82,650; Supercharged models can close in on the $130,000 mark. The 2013 Range Rover decidedly reaffirms the brand's reserved spot at the very top of the mountain.
SUV of the Year Runner-Up: 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC
Although the entire GL model line has been remade for 2013, it's the GL350 BlueTEC that gets our Runner-up Award. With Audi's Q7 TDI winning our Crossover Utility of the Year Award, our affinity for small diesels in big SUVs is no secret. And the GL, with its 3.0L V6 BlueTEC, is another option in the full-size, three-row category.
What sets the GL apart from the Audi are its more truck-like SUV features, including a 7,500-pound maximum tow rating, optional AIRMATIC air suspension with crosswind stabilizing feature, 8.5 inches of ground clearance, and full-time four-wheel drive.
It's a viable alternative to the Range Rover, which doesn't yet have a third-row option. Although it weights more than 600 pounds more than the Rover, the GL's BlueTEC diesel delivers more torque at 455 lb-ft and better fuel economy with its city 19 mpg rating — nearly matching the Range Rover's highway figure. It gets 26 mgp highway and starts at only $62,400.