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Was the Modern Luxury SUV Invented by… Oldsmobile?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro January 2017

When you think of the originator of the modern luxury SUV segment, which car do you think of? Maybe the Toyota Land Cruiser, one of today's most opulent SUVs, which has been around for ages? Maybe the Mercedes G-Wagen or the Range Rover? Maybe even the Mercedes M-Class, which came to define the modern luxury SUV in the late 1990s?

Not me. Me, I think about the Oldsmobile Bravada.

First, let me tell you why I think the answers above aren't quote correct. And then I'll tell you why maybe the Bravada is.

I'll start with the Land Cruiser, the Range Rover and the G-Wagen. All three of those vehicles trace their roots back decades, but two of them didn't really become "luxurious" until more modern times -- the Land Cruiser and the G-Wagen. In fact, through at least 1991 and arguably as late as 1995 or 1998, the Land Cruiser was still a workhorse truck with few luxury pretensions. By the time it finally became a luxury vehicle that could also go anywhere you asked, other luxury SUVs were certainly on the market.

It's the same story with the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. Although it's now restricted to car shoppers interested in an ultra-luxury experience, that wasn't always the case. The G-Class was originally developed as a military vehicle, then later as an only-slightly-more-comfortable civilian model. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the G-Wagen started its ascent into the upscale -- and it didn't even make it to the U.S. market until 2002.

That leaves, perhaps, the Range Rover. The Range Rover came out in the early 1970s, and it was always intended to be a high-end luxury truck, though early models weren't quite as luxurious as today's versions have become. In fact, a 4-door version wasn't even offered until 1981 -- let alone rear-seat DVD players.

The Range Rover is a good answer, and it's probably the best objective answer, but I think it's wrong. I say this because the Range Rover is hardly the car that defines the modern luxury SUV segment, but rather a bit player on the fringes of it; a small-volume vehicle with an ultra-high price tag that's affordable to few (and purchased by even fewer). It isn't Land Rover's best-selling vehicle. It isn't even close.

When I think of the modern luxury SUV, I think of smaller, more affordable vehicles that normal people buy; successful realtors and attorneys rather than people who go to Europe in order to ski. So the ML320 is a pretty good choice for the "beginning" of the luxury SUV -- except, it wasn't quite the beginning. It came out in 1998, but there were already several affordable midsize luxury SUVs on the market by then -- like the Acura SLX (1996), the Land Rover Discovery (1994) and the Infiniti QX4 (1996). The ML320 didn't invent the segment.

But maybe the Oldsmobile Bravada did. Here's a shock: The Oldsmobile Bravada debuted as a luxury version of the Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy for the 1991 model year. In a formula copied by literally dozens of other vehicles in the 25 years since, the Bravada took a regular, normal SUV and added luxury touches, luxury features and luxury styling. It's a formula that propelled an enormous number of vehicles to stardom -- like the Lexus RX, the Acura MDX, the Audi Q7, the Buick Enclave, the Infiniti JX/QX60 and many, many, many more. And it started with the Bravada.

Unfortunately, the Bravada never seems to get the credit it deserves -- largely because the early models weren't very good, but mostly because the Bravada somehow managed to fail in a world where SUVs (and particularly luxury SUVs) were soaring in popularity. And so, while the Bravada might not be the king of the modern luxury SUV segment, I think many reasonable people would agree it could be considered the originator.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Was the Modern Luxury SUV Invented by… Oldsmobile? - Autotrader