In the simpler, early days of the SUV, when you wanted something enormous and plush with ample space for children, dogs and groceries, you shopped American. For most other people, it was a Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator. If you were Arnold Schwarzenegger, that meant you bought a Hummer. If you were Homer Simpson, you lusted after the Canyonero, the archetypal American SUV. Everyone of a certain age will remember this Simpson’s jingle: “Can you name the truck with four-wheel drive/Smells like a steak and seats 35?/12 yards long, two lanes wide/65 tons of American Pride!”
Times have changed, sort of. European and Asian car companies have long since seen the potential of big SUVs for big profits. They’re making Canyoneros now, too. You’ve got more choice than ever if you’re looking for a premium SUV with three rows of seats.
This year sees the introduction of big new luxury three-row SUVs from BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz.
Why the influx of deluxe three-row ‘utes? “The market has essentially said, ‘If I am going to spend a significant amount of money on a mid-to-large luxury utility, I want all the convenience it can offer, which means having access to a third row,’ ” said Robert Karwel, senior manager of the Power Information Network at J.D. Power Canada.
Last year, the Cadillac Escalade was the best-selling large luxury SUV in Canada, narrowly beating the Mercedes GLS according to data compiled by GoodCarBadCar. As of February this year, total sales of these gargantuan machines are up once again.
Despite sluggish new-vehicle sales in Canada, Karwel doesn’t see sales of these SUVs declining. “The segment is decently healthy, with sales trending upward and pricing trending upward as well,” he said. “Overall, it has been pretty resilient to slowing down.” For more evidence, just look to all the new models arriving in 2019.
Joining the herd this year is the all-new BMW X7, positioned above the X5 as a direct rival to the Mercedes GLS. The X7 will be built in the United States, at BMW’s factory in Spartanburg, S.C. It’s the largest vehicle in the company’s century-long history, and comes with either six-cylinder or V-8 power. The two versions are priced at $92,500 and $110,100, respectively.
Mercedes isn’t taking this new threat lying down. At the New York Auto Show, the company unveiled an all-new GLS. It’s not like the old model wasn’t selling – quite the opposite – but the new one is stuffed with advanced driver-assistance systems and an enormous widescreen infotainment display. The new GLS is even larger, with a longer wheelbase granting more cabin space. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but it should be close to the old model’s $88,100 figure.
“While the Europeans do have better driving dynamics, this distinction starts to fade over time, as their models get larger and heavier, and the domestic luxury models get more nimble,” Karwel said. A big-and-tall box on wheels is never going to be truly sporty, despite any advertisements you may see to the contrary.
From America, we have the all-new Lincoln Aviator and Cadillac XT6. These aren’t full-size truck-chassis SUVs like the Navigator and Escalade; they’re unibody vehicles which offer better ride and handling, more in line with the European competition. They still have three rows of seats and all-wheel drive, but are a more manageable size for city driving and underground parking lots.
The Lincoln Aviator will be available as a powerful plug-in hybrid, putting down 450 horsepower and 600 lb/ft of torque. It should outgun its only direct rival – the coming 2020 Range Rover Sport PHEV – by a hefty margin. It’s a safe bet the new Lincoln will form the base of the coming all-new Ford Explorer too.
Cadillac is expected to launch a new Escalade in 2019 to do battle with the over-the-top opulence of Lincoln’s well-received Navigator. Between the two, they’ll have more cow-hide than a dude ranch. They should compare well against aging truck-chassis SUVs from Japanese luxury brands, such as the Lexus LX and Infiniti QX80.
The Rivian R1S is a wild card here. The all-electric luxury SUV from this upstart automaker looks spectacular, inside and out. They say it’ll be properly rugged too, able to wade through up to three feet of water and tow up to 3,500 kilograms. It won’t come cheap, though; prices start at US$72,500. Estimated driving ranges are from 330 to 660 km. The company is taking deposits now with the first cars expected to hit the street in late 2020.
If you can’t wait for the Rivian and need an efficient 3-row SUV now, you’re in luck. At the New York Auto Show, Toyota unveiled an all-new Highlander. The company claims the 2020 hybrid model – rated at an impressive 6.9 L/100 km combined – gets 17-per-cent better fuel economy than the outgoing one.
Even Hyundai and Kia are edging into the big thee-row SUV space with their largest-ever models. The coming Palisade and Telluride SUVs should offer the space and style of luxury rivals, albeit without the brand status or cutting-edge infotainment systems.
Which of these new rolling penthouses is right for you comes down to what you need to do. “The large luxury utility segment is still split into two distinct classes: the body-on-frame models and the rest,” Karwel explained.
Full-size body-on-frame SUVs such as the Escalade and Navigator are what you want for towing the biggest trailers. The unibody BMW X7 can tow up to 3,401 kg, while the Navigator can haul as much as 3,900 kg.
For everyone who doesn’t need the towing capacity to transport an adult Orca whale, unibody SUVs are probably a smarter choice. They generally have better fuel economy and a more luxurious ride.
Whichever type of deluxe three-row SUV you go for, you can be sure you’re getting one of the most versatile, most palatial vehicles to ever roam the road. Just don’t look at the fuel economy.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.