The ranks of upmarket SUVs have never been better - or more capable off road. See our list inside.
If you're one of the lucky few with the kind of bank account that can stomach an off road excursion in a high-end SUV, you're in luck. The ranks of megabuck mud pluggers have never been better thanks to a lineup of premium 'utes offered by brands ranging from Toyota to Mercedes-Benz.
A while ago, we listed the most off road-ready trucks and SUVs for those with more reasonable budgets, but this list is for those with even deeper pockets. We're only considering 2012 and 2013 models that list for at least $50,000 and are available to shoppers in the United States. Our math is a little fuzzy, but we figure that for an SUV to be a truly premium model, most vehicle trim configurations need to start above our $50,000 budget. This pushed out the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which only offers one model that can be optioned above $50,000.
We've had the fortune of spending considerable time scrambling up mountainsides and through river crossings in all of these premium utility vehicles. While very few of these are likely to leave the pavement under the stewardship of their first owners, the automakers acknowledge that second and third owners are generally inclined to explore their vehicles' limits off road. Of course, this is the heart of the luxury market, so all too many of these will be dressed up in chrome rather than muck.
The 10 most off-road capable luxury SUVs
10. Volkswagen Touareg. Frankly, the Touareg is a poor choice for off roaders in the U.S. While buyers in other markets can order theirs with two-speed transfer cases and all sorts of skid plates, those sold here are not expected to leave the pavement, so they lack such items. Still, they feature smooth, high-travel suspensions and good approach and departure angles and the optional TDI diesel engine is a torque monster.
Off road must-haves: Short of moving to Europe, those interested in an off road-ready Touareg should probably pick a TDI Sport with its 18-inch wheels (instead of the larger 19s on upper-market models) for their larger sidewalls.
Great for: The Touareg nameplate has been long associated with off road rallies like the grueling Dakar, but this model is probably best for snowy roads and gravel driveways.
9. Porsche Cayenne.Another German SUV that's more crossover than SUV in nature for this market. Cayennes have proven themselves to be adept slippery surface performers thanks to an advanced traction control system, but they lack the wheel travel, ground clearance and angles of approach and departure to really do mud-plugging right in this market.
Off road must-haves: Order a base Cayenne with the standard six-speed stick for better gear modulation and select the $1,330 underbody protection package for its rocker guards and skid plates.
Great for: If you have a curvy, paved road that leads to a rocky driveway, the Cayenne should be at the top of your list.
8. Infiniti QX56. Now we're getting into the real off roaders. The QX56 might look like it's ready for the valet, but beneath its flashy skin lies the same robust platform Nissan uses for its global-market Patrol. Look inside the tony interior and you'll find a low-range transfer case for low speed use, as well as a surprisingly flexy fully independent suspension.
Off road must-haves: We'd stick with a base model with its 20-inch wheels for their larger side profiles.
Great for: QX56 is the best towing vehicle of this group and its rugged frame means that it could be used for some light trail use. It's a big'un, though.
7. Land Rover Range Rover Sport. Yes, the Range Rover Sport shares its platform with the Land Rover LR4 (don't peek at the bottom of the list), but the Range Rover sits lower to the ground to aid its on-road handling. That means its approach and departure angles are compromised and its ground clearance is limited. Despite its solid pavement performance, the Sport does live up to its heritage thanks to an innovative five-setting Terrain Response system that varies the traction control for different types of moguls.
Off road must-haves: A $500 active rear locking differential is a factory option.
Great for: Those who appreciate the Range Rover heritage but admit that off roading isn't necessarily their thing.
6. Lexus LX 570. Sharing nearly all of its design with the Toyota Land Cruiser, a model that does torturous duty in the Middle East, Africa and Australia, the LX 570 is Toyota's ultimate expression of opulence. Off road goodies like Crawl Control (to keep the vehicle's pace down), a height-adjustable suspension and a two-speed transfer case with a Torsen limited slip center differential reveal the LX 570's roots. But all those knobs, buttons and levers might just serve to confuse the average buyer.
Off road must-haves: A wrench to remove the running boards before you smash them on a rock. Aside from that, the LX 570 is available with a paint protection coating for its front fascia and bumpers, which is as useful on the trail as it is on the highway.
Great for: Land Cruiser buyers looking for just a little more.
5. Land Rover Range Rover. How does the venerable Range Rover end up this low on the list? It's a testament to the top half's strength. The Range Rover's biggest downside is its low profile tires, but even fitting smaller wheels and taller tires is generally out of the question because of the massive brakes. But the Rangie remains highly talented and remarkably capable, which has many experts calling it the best of its breed ever built.
Off road must-haves: For $1,300, the Adaptive Dynamics and Rear Electronic Differential package both smooths out the on-pavement ride and adds some off road traction.
Great for: Showing up lifted Jeep Wranglers on the trail.
4. Lexus GX 460. GX 460 is essentially a Lexus-ized version of the highly-plucky Toyota 4Runner, but it shares its styling and interior with a global-market Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. Confused? Think of it this way: There's more lux and a little less capability, since the GX lacks some of the 4Runner's off road goodies. But you can't erase the rugged ability built into this tough body-on-frame vehicle with generous ground clearance and a tough and flexible solid rear axle.
Off road must-haves: GXs come thoroughly optioned up, but you'll want to peel off the running boards.
Great for: Tighter trails where the LX 570 might not fit.
3. Land Rover LR4. The LR4 didn't fare quite as well on our last list, but it really shines here, where contenders have to be luxurious and comfortable on road to sell in any reasonable numbers. The LR4 shares its underpinnings with the Range Rover Sport, but its suspension sits higher and its body offers far better approach and departure angles that allow it to go much further when the going gets rough. Like the other Landies, it's equipped with a Terrain Response knob to help dial in the right level of traction. It won't please traditionalists who cling to global Land Rovers like the rugged Defender, but the LR4 certainly represents a fine evolution of the breed.
Off road must-haves: If you're leaving the pavement, you should certainly drop the $750 required for the Heavy Duty Package's full-size rear tire and locking rear differential.
Great for: With room for the whole family, the LR4 is the perfect vehicle to take camping. Just don't forget to pack your Louis Vuitton tent.
2. Toyota Land Cruiser. For 2013, Land Cruiser adds Toyota's multi-terrain select system, which it debuted a couple of years ago on the smaller 4Runner. Like Land Rover's Terrain Response, it tailors the traction control and ABS for certain off road conditions. Add in such carryover features as Crawl Control and Kinetic Dynamic Suspension, which can release sway bars for added articulation, and the Cruiser remains a serious off-road bruiser that should please both traditionalists and technophiles alike.
Off road must-haves: Cruisers now come fully loaded, so all you'll need is a wrench to remove the running boards.
Great for: Pretending you're on a UN-sanctioned trip.
1. Mercedes-Benz G550. Older and wiser than just about anything else we can think of, the G550 - that's G for GelĂ¤ndewagen, or "cross country vehicle," is the only off roader here that was designed for military use. For years, it was verboten for American buyers unless ordered through a specialty importer in New Mexico, but the G has been available direct from your local dealer for about a decade. In nearly every way a reminder of the way things used to be, the G550 is the only off roader on this list with three solid axles and three locking differentials. It forgoes most electronic trickery for a back-to-basics feel that makes it a veritable mountain goat as it ascends 36 degree inclines and balances on 24 degree off camber tilts.
Off road must-haves: A big wallet since this is the most expensive car on our list.
Great for: Traditionalists. The G550 is hugely capable, but you have to know what you're doing to make the most of it since there are no pictograms to help you select the right kind of trail. And that's just fine with us.