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Luxury Boxes

High-end automakers slap prestigious logos on sport utility vehicles.

Face it. Most luxury sport utility vehicle owners in Hawaii don’t take their cars off-roading. In fact, less than 5 percent of SUV drivers in the United States regularly stray off the paved path, according to industry reports. What a waste, too, considering luxury sports-utes these days are designed for rough terrain.

Enter the Gelaendewagen (2002 G-Class), a limited-production Mercedes-Benz scheduled to hit the U.S. market this fall. The Gelaendewagen boasts the same V8 engine and characteristics as the Mercedes SL roadster and the S-Class, but its German military ancestry earns more stripes over vehicles of the same caliber (think Range Rover or the Lexus LX 470). This sport-ute can climb slope grades of up to 80 percent and is stable on 54 percent slopes.

The Gelaendewagen’s place of manufacture: Graz, Austria. Starting price: $72,500. On the road, this SUV’s boxy body stands out among its curvy competitors. It’s ideal for owners who “want to be state-of-the-art and want to be different,” says Chris Miele, leasing specialist at Mercedes-Benz, whose parent company is Theodavies. If drivers do decide to purchase the 2002 Gelaendewagen, they had better act fast, because only 1,000 to 2,000 will be sold nationwide over the next year. Hawaii’s representative plans to import no more than half a dozen models.

From the Top: The Lexus LX 470, BMW X5, and Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen.

While Mercedes-Benz revs up to launch the new G-Class and the ever-popular SUV M-Class, American automaker Cadillac also is scheduled to unveil the new 2002 Escalade. This sport-ute’s 345-horsepower engine and mammoth body tramples all notions that Cadillac is for silver-haired grannies only. And no wonder — it shares the same platform as the GMC Yukon-Denali and the Chevy Tahoe. Starting price: around $50,000.

Japanese luxury carmaker Lexus remains status quo for the year 2002, as it continues to bask in the popularity of its two SUVs: the LX 470 and the RX 300. Why fix them if they aren’t broken? “These are real nice vehicles and attract a broad prospect of drivers – young families, older retirees,” says Leighton Migita, general manager for Lexus, a Servco Pacific company. Another attraction: both models have comfortable step-in heights, he says.

The LX 470 is the sophisticated, quiet cousin of the Toyota Land Cruiser. The 2002 year models boast Lexus’ trademark DVD Navigation System – unfortunately, the system does not apply to Hawaii’s roads. Also standard on all LX 470s are third-row seats (allowing up to eight passengers per vehicle), a telescopic steering wheel and a Hydraulic Adjustable Height Control system. This sport-ute’s starting price: $60,000.

Slicing that dollar amount by almost half is the LX 300, one of the more car-like SUVs on the market (it’s based off of the Toyota Camry). The LX 300’s starting price is attractive: $35,000. “People still like the feeling of sitting higher up,” Migita says. This vehicle’s 220-horsepower engine, electronically controlled transmission and traction controls remind drivers that they’re in a sports-ute and not a sedan.

Another SUV that doesn’t feel like one is the MDX by Acura. Perhaps that is because the MDX is built on the same assembly line as the Odyssey – the family-oriented minivan by Honda. Since its introduction in 2001, this sport-ute’s popularity has soared, thanks to its powerful V6 engine and unique Variable Torque Management feature. Acura representatives say there are no changes to next year’s model – except its color. The factory dropped green and added white and deep red to the 2002 MDX. Starting price: $47,000.

Although BMW’s X5 technically is a sport utility vehicle, don’t call it that. Industry leaders refer to this mid-size German SUV as a “sport activity vehicle.” Automakers have bumped the 2002 model’s horsepower from 282 to 347. Its price tag starts at $50,000, while the humbler X5 4.6 model begins at about $40,000.

Look out for new sport-utes by European automakers. Industry reports say that Saab, Volkswagen and Porsche over the next few years plan to launch their own line of truck-like vehicles. European. Japanese. American. In the end, an SUV’s make and model do not matter. What’s important is the owner’s lifestyle (i.e. if he or she plans to take the vehicle off-roading). “It’s what you use it for – your own needs and preferences,” Miele says.

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Hawaii Business,November