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Yes, the auto world is getting crowded with cushy crossovers, but that doesn't mean there aren't any rugged SUVs anymore. Here are the ones we're anticipating in the next few years.
2013 Ford Explorer Sport
When: Late Summer
We recently drove the new Ford Taurus SHO, a car that is a classic sleeper. It has a 365 hp V-6 under the hood to move the big sedan to 60 mph in a little over 5 seconds, but what's more shocking is that it corners well, too. And if Ford's done its homework, the all-new Ford Explorer Sport will be an SHO-equivalent on the SUV front.
The Explorer Sport gets the same V-6, a significantly beefed up chassis, as well as a stiffened, lowered suspension, bigger brake rotors, and a faster feel to the steering system. All of these tweaks made the Taurus SHO into a much more aggressive machine. Ford is also trying to walk a fine line between all-out performance and reasonable fuel economy with the Sport. Its 16/22 mpg target would be a big improvement on the 12/18 of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 (which will cost about $10,000 more than the Ford, we think.). Significantly, the Explorer Sport will also do better than the 13/20 of the 5.7-liter, Hemi V-8 Dodge Durango, a vehicle we really like for its great handling, given its mission. If Ford catches up in power and can offer better fuel economy, it's sure to capture a lot of buyers for the Explorer Sport.
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel
When: Early 2013
Chrysler wants more diesels among its larger vehicles. Likewise, Jeep fans—who want both the torque and the long range of a diesel—have been pleading for more diesel choices since the last Grand Cherokee CRD went away. The likely engine candidate is a V-6 that parent company Fiat already uses in Europe, good for 406 lb ft of torque and about 28 mpg when converted for U.S. EPA metrics.
One advantage of using this relatively small, 3.0-liter engine is that it would work in the new Ram 1500, and spy photos have shown testing of a Ram diesel. Since Ford is doing so well with its EcoBoost F-150, it's easy to see the appeal for Chrysler, which could fight back with the only nonheavy-duty diesel in the class and potentially become the mileage king of the category.
2014 Jeep Liberty Replacement
Jeep is a cash cow for Chrysler, with its base of loyal buyers. But the now-cancelled Compass (pictured above) angered many Jeep loyalists who didn't want the brand watered down.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler's owner, Fiat, seems to get it, because the automaker intends to make the Jeep Liberty's replacement a tough rig. He has said that while the next Liberty will be built on the same Alfa Romeo Giulietta chassis that the company tweaked for the excellent new Dodge Dart, the Liberty will be "trail rated." That hints at not only AWD but also good approach and departure angles. If the new Jeep Liberty doesn't have a distinct low gearing range, at least expect to see it feature hill-descent control and perhaps other Jeep-specific technology.
One thing that could make this rig hugely appealing is if Jeep is smart enough to make it more like Toyota's FJ Cruiser or Land Rover's LR2 than the "cute-ute" segment that contains the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. One big key: Keep the brawn while getting better-than-mediocre fuel economy from one of Fiat's MultiAir engines. Jeep lovers will forgive the Liberty for not being fleet on the road if it's great on dirt.
2014 Jeep Grand Wagoneer
When: Late 2013
While the Dodge Durango sells well for Chrysler, it never garnered the mass following of even the Ford Explorer, much less the iconic wood-paneled Jeep Grand Wagoneer (pictured above). Early 90s versions can fetch $30,000. So, Chrysler parent company Fiat has said, the Grand Wagoneer is coming back next year.
Unlike GM and Ford, which produce the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator, respectively, Chrysler doesn't have an upscale off-roader. The revived Grand Wagoneer would give it that halo rig at a price that'll probably be a little less than a Range Rover. Expect V-6 and V-8 power and very cush appointments.
2014 Nissan Xterra
When: Late 2013
The next-gen Pathfinder is going to become a crossover (and no longer rides on the Nissan Frontier chassis). But word is that the Xterra will stay on a body-on-frame truck chassis. That's good news for off-road enthusiasts.
The Frontier is a strong seller worldwide for Nissan, so continuing the Xterra on that chassis won't be too costly. It's fuel economy that will be the issue. True SUVs like the Xterra are dwindling in number as carmakers make their offerings lighter to get better mpg—though the Honda Element was a strong seller Honda spiked it because they couldn't find a way to up fuel economy.
Nissan's truck-based SUVs (and the Frontier) aren't fuel sippers, so it's going to be tough. Tricks like direct-injection and turbocharging may be the next steps for Nissan to solve the fuel-economy equation. There's even an outside chance, now that Nissan's working in close collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, that diesels may come to its trucks.
2014 Subaru Forester
When: Late 2013
The present Forester has been around since 2008 and will be pretty long in the tooth when it moves to a new platform for the 2014 model year. The current Forester sits on the prior Impreza platform, and as there's a new Impreza, you can expect the obvious platform update. Likewise, since the Impreza received a new direct-injected 2.0 engine, you can bet that engine will see duty here.
No, the Forester isn't a truck-based SUV, but it's long been one of the more off-road capable crossovers, far more focused on all-wheel-drive prowess than some of the more typical "soft-roaders" of the category. And given how crowded the crossover field has gotten, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Forester pushed even further in the direction of capability. Such a move would also distinguish it from the in-house Outback, which itself has grown decidedly un-ute-like with a soft ride like a sedan, which wouldn't be appropriate for the next Forester.
2015 Range Rover Defender
Land Rover has a different mission for the next Defender: for the once exceedingly upscale SUV to become a volume player—something that can compete with the Jeep Wrangler in capability but be a little more luxe. The next Defender would come in several versions, including truck, two-door, and open-cabin safari vehicle, with pricing in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. Beats the $60,000 of the old model. And it fulfills the automaker's need to get younger and shed some of the stodgy image with a muscular refurbishing.
Land Rover needs the next Defender to meet far more stringent mileage and emissions requirements than the outgoing version. So we expect diesel, gas, and hybrid powertrains.
2015 Cadillac Escalade
When: Late 2014
If you want to know why Lincoln needs the Navigator and Cadillac needs the Escalade, despite the fact that neither is a true SUV in any way other than sitting on truck chassis, just look at Ford and GM's cars: None are large or glamorous enough to haul movie stars, athletes, or Wall Street executives. The Town Car is toast, so glam SUVs are especially important now.
While the Escalade was once rumored to be on the chopping block, it's now rumored to be renewed in 2014 as a 2015 model. There have been all sorts of possible drivetrains suggested, from plug-in hybrid (there'd certainly be room for that tech in the prodigious wheelbase), to diesel to hybrid diesel.