The big SUV is back! Thanks to falling oil prices and the availability of cheap credit, large SUVs are once again flying out of showroom doors. The king of the hill for this segment, according to Business Insider’s Matthew DeBord and most industry observers, is the almighty Cadillac Escalade.
The Escalade has it all. It’s big, stylish, powerful, and rugged. In the decade-and-a-half since its debut, the big Caddy has become a true pop-culture icon. No celebrity sighting or high-gloss event is complete without a fleet of black Escalades parked in the background. This cultural ubiquity has translated into big bucks for Cadillac, with Escalade sales up more than 50% in 2014.
As amazing as the Escalade may be, Japan’s auto giants have come up with a trio of contenders to challenge the Caddy’s claim to the throne. From Acura, there’s the new MDX. From Infiniti comes a mildly refreshed QX80, and from Lexus there is the LX570. Each brand provides its own ideas for what a luxury SUV should be. Business Insider had the opportunity to drive all three. Here’s what we thought.
The Acura MDX is the “techie” of the trio. It isn’t the most stylish, nor is it the most luxurious. However, it makes up for that by serving up a vehicle that’s modern, elegant, and minimalist — chic enough for any smartphone-wielding technocrat. This presentation is in line with the marque’s overall theme, starting with its eye-catching bejeweled LED headlamps and moving right along to the dual LCD displays that dominate the MDX’s interior.
To drive, the MDX is the most carlike of the trio — and that’s for good reason. While the other Japanese SUVs, along with the Escalade, are truck-based models, the MDX is actually a crossover. It’s even available in a front-wheel-drive-only version — a layout that’s more family station-wagon than burly truck.
What the Acura lacks in ruggedness, it more than makes up for in the urbane civility of the driving experience. In addition, Acura has loaded the MDX up with a full array of advanced-driver-assistance tech that will keep you in your lane, make slight turns, and even automatically brake if you aren’t paying attention to the car in front of you. In fact, in many instances, the car practically drives itself.
The Infiniti QX80 is the pretty boy of the group. Everything about the big truck exudes brute style and luxury. Infiniti lavished its flagship SUV with acres of chrome, wood trim, and leather accents in an attempt to create an off-road-capable limousine, very much in the same vein as the Escalade.
And for the most part, Infiniti has succeeded. This is especially the case for the QX’s second row. Out test car’s pair of captain’s chairs were separated by a central console holding a pair of wireless headphones that are paired to the truck’s dual rear-seat entertainment screens. In short, it felt like a private jet back there.
The experience from the driver’s seat was commanding and powerful. You sit high above all others on the road. You realise just how large a vehicle you’re in when everything else on the road feels comparatively tiny. However, the QX80 proved to be surprisingly nimble and peppy to drive. You may think “peppy” is an odd thing to say about an almost 6,000-lb truck. But the 5.6-liter, 400-horsepower V8 engine is no lumberjack — it provides ample power but provides it with zing.
At 17 feet long and six-and-a-half feet wide, the QX was also surprising easy to park, thanks to unexpectedly precise steering and Infiniti’s surround-view cameras, which enable you to see all corners of the truck — as if you were floating above it. A neat tech trick!
The LX570 is Lexus’ answer to America’s domination of the luxury SUV market. With Lexus as the only non-European luxury brand capable of running toe-to-toe with the best Mercedes, BMW, and Audi can muster, the LX570 has a tough task to handle. Fortunately, it does its job incredibly well. A Lexusified version of Toyota’s iconic Land Cruiser, the LX570 is one of the most capable offroad SUVs in the history of the segment.
The Land Cruiser transports soldiers and aid workers through some of the world’s most hostile and unforgiving terrain. Because it’s based on that vehicle, the LX projects some serious street cred. But Lexus has done a fine job of presenting the vehicle with the restrained civility expected of the brand. It’s a Navy SEAL in a Saville Row suit. Hidden under all the posh trimmings is a ride that’s thoroughly battle-tested.
A massive 5.7-liter V8, shared with the Toyota Tundra truck, pumps out 383 horsepower. In true Lexus fashion, the LX is smooth, quiet, and deeply refined. The wood trim and soft-touch leather are as nice you’ll find anywhere. But what really sets the LX apart from the Escalade, QX80, and MDX is the row of nobs and switches sitting right in front of the shifter lever — they control the LX’s advanced four-wheel-drive system.
How do they compare to the Escalade?
All three Japanese luxury SUVs bring a different flavour to the table. The Acura MDX is the most carlike and tech-friendly. The Infiniti QX80 is like a rolling private jet with a massive motor. The LX570 is an action-film star wrapped in refinement.
But what makes the Escalade special is its near-perfect combination of style, power, luxury, and with every passing generation, more refinement. It’s the status quo. The default choice. But sometimes it’s good to stray from the beaten path. Japan’s luxury trio offers substantial alternatives to the mighty Escalade. And no one will confuse you with an Uber driver!
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