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L.A.'s Status SUV Battle

At school drop-off, image-obsessed moms and dads are flocking to the same five crossovers as Bentley and Maserati enter the family car wars: "Cayenne is really flashy"; "Mercedes says 'older money' "
Illustration: ilovedust

It's 7:45 a.m. on a recent Thursday at Harvard-Westlake Middle School in Bel-Air, and preteens surge out of a lineup of cars that represent all the major luxury automakers, from BMW to Bentley. An Escalade with blacked-out windows zooms up, followed by a boxy Land Rover and two Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans. A Cadillac CTS sedan swings around smoothly, followed by a Range Rover and a new Volvo XC70 wagon.

It's no surprise one of the most elite private schools in the country boasts a parent-driven motorcade rivaling the cars in Jay Leno's collection in luxury and variety. What's notable is that, of the nearly 100 cars that pulled up to the tony junior high that morning, nearly half fell into the so-called luxury crossover category. These are vehicles that marry the smooth ride of a car with the body of a no-frills SUV, only slightly less hulking. On the keeping up with the Joneses Westside, these are cars that project an image and style that many residents wouldn't dream of giving up. Toddlers in Burberry and Marie Chantal? Check. Going without a burled walnut dash and nappa leather? No way.

In affluent L.A. circles, what parents drive is clocked as keenly as the designer labels the mothers (and fathers) wear. And THR's visits to a handful of schools reveal that the prep set has zeroed in on the Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne, Lexus RX, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GL. The cars are popular because they offer -- with varying degrees of success -- a combination of utility and stylishness cloaked in the prestige of luxury brand names.

"What's great is that crossovers can be tough and rugged -- you know you can cover any kind of terrain. And they look cool and sleek, too," says Maggie Dumais, head of licensing and branding at Innovative Artists Agency. Her own "kid hauler" -- she has three children -- is a Volvo XC90, which replaced a Chrysler Town & Country minivan once she moved past "the car-seat phase."

The lifestyle competition is about to get much more intense with the forthcoming debuts of some decidedly over-the-top, mine-trumps-yours crossovers. Maserati, the Italian sports-car maker, is entering the fray with its Kubang concept. Due out in 2013, the vehicle, expected to start at more than $70,000 (no official pricing information has been released), is built on a Jeep Grand Cherokee platform and boasts a twin-turbo V8 engine sourced from sister company Ferrari. And in March, British luxury automaker Bentley unveiled the EXP 9 F concept car, which is powered by a W12 engine and features a diamond-quilted leather interior and touches like bespoke picnic hampers. If Bentley gives it the green light, the car will go into production in 2016. Expect a price tag around $200,000.

Although crossovers are still fairly new -- the moderately priced Subaru Outback and Honda CRV ushered in the movement in the mid-'90s -- they've seen a dramatic rise in popularity, while "traditional SUVs have definitely declined," says Tom Libby, a senior analyst at automotive data firm R.L. Polk & Co. The Lexus RX kicked off the crossover boom in 1998, "and it just took off," he says. "The other manufacturers were forced to respond."

These days, adds Libby, the category accounts for 20 percent of the auto market nationwide. One male TV writer tells THR (half in jest) that he wouldn't be surprised if industry moms accounted for the bulk of crossovers bought in Los Angeles. "It seems like all the women I work with have bought a Cayenne lately," he says. "It's like they all got the same memo at the same time." The Porsche (spacious perhaps only when compared with the company's 914 two-seat roadster or 911 coupe variants), which recently debuted a hybrid version that mother of two Reese Witherspoon snapped up, is now the brand's top-selling model, notes Libby.

Steve Elzer, senior vp media relations at Sony and a father of two, drives the Audi Q7 because "it really came down to superior handling as we did our test drives. It was a smooth, sturdy ride without feeling like we were in a tank or truck."

But it's a safe bet not everyone rates handling among the top reasons to buy one of these "It" cars, which range from about $39,000 for a base Lexus RX to about $107,000 for a turbocharged version of the Cayenne, which also counts Sharon Stone and Mariah Carey as fans. Ride selection, for some social observers, speaks volumes about who you are as a person -- and parent.

"I see Audi and BMW moms hanging out together," says one stay-at-home mother in Beverly Hills who drives a Q7. "They seem a little more down-to-earth than Lexus and Mercedes moms."

"Mercedes definitely says, 'older money,' " agrees Ryan Porter, an auto industry veteran and editor of Celebrity Cars, a blog dedicated to snapping celebs in their rides. "And the Cayenne is really flashy, but Porsche is one of those brands that car people love -- they could just be car freaks." The Audi Q7 is "really the conservative luxury car," he says. "Very understated."

But don't count the minivan out yet. Style maven Brooke Davenport, a mother of three who lives in the Hollywood Hills and drives a Range Rover, says she has spotted "a lot of Honda Odysseys lately" when picking her brood up from Curtis School, the exclusive K-6 on Mulholland where recently split Heidi Klum and Seal send their kids.

The Honda minivan was the only nonluxury vehicle that rounded the drop-off spots at Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall with any real frequency. Its success could be attributed to a quirky ad campaign and a sporty, unconventional-for-a-minivan design (check out its so-called lightning-bolt beltline). "A lot of mothers you wouldn't expect are buying the Odyssey -- women with tremendous amounts of money," says Davenport.  She has a friend "who's always decked out to the nines in Chanel, and she'll pop out of an Odyssey -- it's so funny. I'm seeing a lot of social women driving them who are up at the school but also hitting lunches around town."

While minivans might be carving a niche for themselves, they aren't the final frontier in the world of carpooling. With the eco-friendly-car arms race in full swing, the competition has bled into the crossover segment. Indeed, driving a hybrid or diesel-powered crossover is a surefire way to avoid getting dinged for willy-nilly consumption in the school parking lot. And all five of L.A.'s most popular carpoolers are offered in fuel-efficient variants: the RX and Cayenne can be had as hybrids, and the Q7, X5 and GL are available as diesels.

Author, producer and mother of two Gigi Levangie Grazer drives a hybrid RX (industry fans of the RX model also include Halle Berry and Salma Hayek) and calls the period when status crossovers replaced dowdy minivans "a watershed moment in carpooling."

But the hybrid aspect of her Lexus -- "there's no noise" -- is her favorite part of the car. Says Grazer, "I have to make amends for driving a big silver Escalade in the '90s."

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FAMILY CAR THROWDOWN: How do they stack up? Label-loving L.A. parents disproportionately like to be seen in these select vehicles.

Audi Q7
Fully Loaded
: $79,925
Industry Fans: ICM's Doug MacLaren, producer Mark Vahradian

The seven-seater with a 14-speaker entertainment system hit the market in 2005 and is best known for its mileage-enhancing turbo-diesel engine. A face-lift for 2011 brought an eight-speed transmission and optional LED driving lights. A center aisle in the second row of seating offers easy access to the third row.

BMW X5
Fully Loaded
: $97,092
Industry Fans: Gwyneth Paltrow, Alanis Morissette

The X5 allows Bimmer die-hards to remain in-brand while opting for as many as seven seats and cargo capacity of 75 cubic feet. The 4.4-liter V8 variant has 400 horsepower. The model debuted in 1999 and got a significant update in 2006. Access to the optional third row requires flipping  the second-row seats forward.

Lexus RX
Fully Loaded: $59,180
Industry Fans: Halle Berry, Salma Hayek

One of the earliest crossovers, the five-seater has been a best-seller since its 1998 debut. All-wheel drive is available, but partisans prefer its smooth-like-a-sedan front-wheel ride. The RX gets 18 mpg in the city, but the hybrid returns an impressive 32 mpg. A lack of an optional third row of seats makes the RX a choice for smaller families.

Mercedes GL
Fully Loaded: $89,919
Industry Fans: Ben Affleck, Christina Applegate

The GL has nine air bags, 83 cubic feet of cargo space and a system that tightens seat belts before impact. Optional upgrades include heating for all three rows of seats, with climate controls in the rear. Easy access to the third row is made possible by a center aisle in the second row.

Porsche Cayenne
Fully Loaded: $140,105
Industry Fans: Mariah Carey, Sharon Stone

Dismissed by some Porsche purists (many of the brand's loyalists abhor SUVs and crossovers) when it debuted in 2002, the five-seater has proved critics wrong, excelling as the quickest in its class. It's now Porsche's top-selling offering. But a tight backseat and limited cargo capacity make it a somewhat impractical family car.

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REPORT CARD: The crossovers that pull up at two local private schools.

Campbell Hall

  1. Lexus RX
  2. 2Mercedes GL
  3. BMW X5
  4. Audi Q7
  5. Porsche Cayenne

Crossroads

  1. Lexus RX
  2. Mercedes GL
  3. Audi Q7
  4. Porsche Cayenne
  5. 5BMW X5

Findings based on morning visits to Campbell Hall on Jan. 19 and Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences on Jan. 20.

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