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by Perry Stern
Rain, mud and SUVs. A typical day in the Great Northwest.
The BMW X5 was the overall winner of the Northwest SUV of the Year.  
The Subaru Outback proved quite capable off-road, keeping up with the larger SUVs.  
A rare sight: not many Mercedes-Benz ML55s will experience the muddy conditions that this vehicle did.  
The low grille of the Volvo V70 XC allowed mud to flow in and completely coat the engine.  
The new Toyota RAV4 handled well in the rainy conditions.  
Windshield wipers were running on all the vehicles, including the Infiniti QX4, as rain stayed with us all day.  
The Mitsubish Montero, redesigned for the 2001 model year, scored the highest in the muddy conditions.  
From mountainous forest roads to miles of rolling Palouse, the varied terrain of the Pacific Northwest practically begs drivers to head for the hills in a rugged vehicle. On the flip side of this pastoral paradise, ribbons of tarmac and rush-hour gridlock constantly remind many northwesterners how they spend most of their time behind the wheel. And no vehicle weds these two realities better than the sport-utility vehicle.

So it is only fitting that the Northwest Auto Press Association should perform an annual test, aptly nicknamed Mudfest, to determine which sport ute is truly the all-around best.

Testing for this year's Mudfest took place over two days in October. And autumn in the Pacific Northwest means only one thing. Rain. The first day reflected typical conditions for SUV driving in the Northwest: road testing in sheets of drizzle.

On-road events took place at Bremerton Speedway, which is primarily a retired runway and taxiway at the Bremerton International Airport, located about 15 miles west of Seattle. Tests here consisted of a slalom run, an acceleration test, a braking test, and a five-mile driving loop around the speedway.

Entrants spanned the SUV market segments from compact to luxury, with models ranging from the inexpensive Chevrolet Tracker to the high-performance Mercedes-Benz ML55. The winners of last year's event were invited, as well as any model that was new or redesigned since the last time it had been tested. A total of sixteen vehicles made the cut.

The slalom test favored car-based SUVs such as the Subaru Outback, Volvo V70 XC and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute. The BMW X5 showed its sporting heritage by being one of the most stable vehicles through the cones at high speed. The X5 was also the top scorer in the categories of steering response, maneuverability and braking.

The acceleration and braking champs were the two most expensive SUVs tested, the X5 and ML55. The latter boasts a top speed of 147 mph and is billed as "the fastest SUV on the planet." As expected, the ML55 was at the top of the heap in launch/acceleration tests.

Since day-one testing was in the rain, day-two testing—the off-pavement segment—inevitably took place in the mud. On sloppy, muddy trails, the tables turned in favor of more truck-like sport utes. Vehicles that didn't perform as well in the slalom or acceleration tests, such as the Mitsubishi Montero, scored the best for off-road performance and capability.

The Subaru Outback and Volvo XC, the only station wagons in the competition, performed admirably through the muddy terrain. However, both ran into problems in the thick, gooey stuff—not because of their lower ground clearance, but due to their lower radiators. Both cars had to have mud hosed or scraped from their lungs periodically to keep them from overheating, and the Volvo's large grille opening gave its engine a Swedish mud bath.

The surprises off-road came from both ends of the SUV spectrum. The compact Chevrolet Tracker proved very agile, able to handle steep, controlled descents as well as stable climbs up slippery trails. At the other end, the ML55 and X5 both used their computer-activated control systems to keep the wheels from slipping in almost any situation. Watching these premium SUVs climb slippery slopes was fascinating, as power was directed from one wheel to another as traction conditions constantly changed.

Ultimately, only one vehicle in each class could be a winner. Here's how it turned out:

Compact SUV: Ford Escape
Midsize SUV: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Large SUV: Chevrolet Tahoe
Luxury SUV: BMW X5

And the overall winner as the 2001 Northwest SUV of the Year . . . BMW X5.

Its superior on-road performance combined with its ability to handle the rough stuff off-road makes BMW's first entry into the SUV marketplace a winner in the Pacific Northwest.

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