Mercedes-Benz GL - MT SUV of the Year (© Robert Kerian)Click to enlarge picture

Motor Trend names the Mercedes-Benz GL the 2013 SUV of the Year.

Each year the editorial staff of Motor Trend evaluates the sport-utility vehicles in the United States market and crowns just one with the vaunted title of SUV of the Year. That meant putting 11 model-year 2013 vehicles in each of their various forms under the microscope for a closer look. For the first time in the history of the award, none of the competitors offered body-on-frame construction nor a solid axle configuration — both hallmarks of traditional SUVs. Instead, each of the machines Motor Trend gathered in the California hills rode on unibody architecture, a construction technique most associated with sedans.

Motor Trend tweaks its annual SUV of the Year evaluation to reflect consumer patterns of the time, and today buyers are taking home more crossovers than mountain-bashing SUVs. With that in mind, this year's tests included categories such as Design Advancement, Engineering Excellence, Performance of Intended Function, Efficiency, Safety and, of course, Value. With such a wide spectrum of criteria the award could have gone to any one of the 11 competitors, from the value-priced Subaru XV Crosstrek to the premium Mercedes-Benz GL family, but only one of the offerings could claim the title.

Ultimately, it was the Mercedes-Benz GL that took home the coveted 2013 Motor Trend SUV of the Year award.

The Field
There's no shortage of capable SUVs available in the U.S. market, and those gathered this year reflected that fact. Judges evaluated the Acura MDX, Audi Allroad, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Infiniti JX, Mazda CX-5, Mercedes-Benz GLK and GL, as well as the Nissan Pathfinder and Subaru XV Crosstrek. Each of the machines performed well in certain categories.

For example, the MDX found favor with the judges due to its powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine. "The first thing I noticed was its 3.5-liter. Those 273 horses moved this bad boy out in a hurry," said Mike Floyd, Motor Trend digital director. Even so, the SUV from Acura fell from grace due to its older in-car technology and less-than-revolutionary styling.

More on the Acura RDX from Motor Trend

The Audi Allroad didn't have those problems, however. Judges enjoyed the typically well-executed cabin and Google Maps-based navigation. "Google Earth execution in [the] nav makes it appear iPhone current, while others look Garmin-dated," Editor-in-Chief Edward Loh said. Likewise, the Allroad offered excellent on-road manners, but lost points for being a bit too carlike. Some judges commented that Audi might as well call the vehicle what it is: a station wagon with a little more ground clearance.

More on the Audi Allroad from Motor Trend

The Ford Escape recently found favor with the Motor Trend staff during a comparison test against the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5, and while the judges admired the compact SUV's acceleration and handling, it lost its edge once the test course turned off road. Noise, vibration and handling proved threadbare, with a number of rattles and shakes rocking the interior. Senior Features Editor Jonny Lieberman said the vehicle's performance in this category was "shocking, as if body panels were about to start popping off."

More on the Mazda CX-5 from Motor Trend

If the Escape has an arch nemesis, it's the Honda CR-V. The Japanese SUV took home points with its effective interior packaging, both in the passenger and cargo compartments. Likewise, the vehicle remains one of the safest in its class, but with a mediocre driving experience and exterior aesthetics the judges called "disjointed," the CR-V didn't bring home enough points to stay ahead of the curve.

More on the Honda CR-V from Motor Trend

Hyundai has sharpened its SUV game in a big way with the new Santa Fe family. The 5-door is now available in two configurations: the 2-row short wheelbase Santa Fe Sport and a 3-row long wheelbase Santa Fe. Motor Trend staff found both variants attractive; the Santa Fe Sport earned praise for its well-considered cabin, logical controls and copious features. But the South Korean SUV fell short in both the drivetrain and suspension departments.

More on the Hyundai Santa Fe from Motor Trend

Hyundai isn't the only company playing with its SUV recipe. The Infiniti JX35 is new this year, and Motor Trend found it nailed the Performance of Intended Function category dead-on with its quiet cabin and sporty performance. But ultimately, the JX was undone by one dark cloud: the Nissan Pathfinder. Judges found the vehicles to be too similar to warrant ponying up for the slightly nicer JX.

More on the Infiniti JX from Motor Trend

Speaking of the Pathfinder, the Motor Trend panel found the machine to be the nicest Nissan Altima wagon in existence, but faulted the machine for being too bland. "It's bland and not really remarkable in any way, but it's just decent all around," Associate Editor Mike Febbo said. Hardly the kind of qualities that take home the SUV of the Year award.

More on the Nissan Pathfinder from Motor Trend

Meanwhile, the Mazda CX-5 earned high marks for sharp exterior styling and playful driving dynamics, though the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine didn't have enough power to keep the judges smiling. That fact was balanced somewhat by the vehicle's high value proposition, but wasn't enough to take the final nod.

If there was a close-but-no-cigar SUV in the mix, it was the Subaru XV Crosstrek. Judges applauded the machine for its rugged honesty, playful suspension and remarkable fuel efficiency, but couldn't get past the loud cabin and "low-rent '90s interior." Even so, several judges said this would be the machine they'd buy. That's high praise.

More on the Subaru XV Crosstrek from Motor Trend

The Winner
Mercedes-Benz brought two machines to the 2013 SUV of the Year competition, and while the Mercedes-Benz GLK won hearts with its nimble and confidence-inspiring handling, ultimately it was the Mercedes-Benz GL that took home the Golden Calipers trophy. Judges lavished praise on the big German brute's gorgeous interior, excellent handling and off-road prowess. Though the most powerful GL550 lost favor for feeling too jittery, the fuel-efficient diesel GL350 and sweetheart GL450 made up the gap. Motor Trend says the GL nails five of the competition's six criteria, with only Value falling off the map. According to the magazine, even that last category comes into line when buyers shop the GL against its direct competitors. Watch for the full SUV of the Year write-up in the December 2012 issue of Motor Trend.

James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.