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Feature Story

HOW TO: PICK AN SUV

by Bob Hagin

November 06, 1998

The sport/utility vehicle is on it's way out because its politically and environmentally incorrect? Fat chance! The market for these gravel-grinders (and their wannabes) is bigger than ever. The current shopper's vehicle handbooks list almost 50 of them but to condense things a bit, we've reduced them to a thumbnail sketch that cuts through the rhetoric. Here's how we view the current crop of SUV's:

COMPACT: CHEVROLET TRACKER - Used be the Geo but that name is history. A "bow-tied" Suzuki design but only offers a four-banger engine. Two or four doors, two or four-wheel drive, stick-shift or automatic. Only 97 horses so you won't win races. - ISUZU AMIGO - Really an Isuzu Rodeo with a short wheelbase. A two-door with a canvas top over the rear seats. Can't be used in 4WD on dry pavement. - KIA SPORTAGE - A mini, it comes with four cylinders only, can be had as 2WD, too. The 2-door is shorter with a canvas top over the rear seats like the Amigo. Stick or automatic. - SUZUKI VITARA - The basis for the Chevy Tracker but carries a more powerful V6 engine. Other than that, the vehicles are pretty much the same. - JEEP WRANGLER - A proud name with traditional Jeep looks and qualities. The side windows are plastic on the soft-top but glass on the optional hard-top. Thrives off-road. Noisy, windy but fun-filled. Everybody loves the Wrangler for it's looks and panache.

COMPACT SEDAN-BASED: HONDA CR-V - A boppy little front-wheel drive "sedan" with a tall body and the ability to direct power to its rear wheels too. Not intended for the rough stuff. - TOYOTA RAV4 - Another two-or-all-wheel drive boulevardier on a sedan platform. Provides style and comfort while the driver negotiates ice and snow without chains. - SUBARU FORESTER - A hybrid. An Impreza AWD wagon that's been stretched and raised a bit. It carries a flat-four engine up front and a sophisticated torque-splitter for its all-wheel drive system.

REGULAR: - CHEVROLET BLAZER - A pioneer in the field. The current version comes in 2-and 4-doors, uses a V6 engine and is more a wet- weather friend than a hard off-roader. - DODGE DURANGO - A newcomer built on the Dodge Dakota pickup frame. Can be had with a V6 or two different V8s. - FORD EXPLORER - The top-selling SUV in the U.S. Comes as a V8 or a V6 and can be equipped with a plethora of options. - GMC JIMMY - A clone of the Chevy Blazer, although it now carries an all-wheel-drive feature that can be used on dry pavement. - TOYOTA 4RUNNER - Beefy, off-road capable and extremely popular, the 4Runner uses four-cylinder or V6 power, in two-or-four-wheel drive. - ISUZU RODEO - Another gentrified off-roader. Lots of fancy stuff available (leather, sound system, etc.). - JEEP CHEROKEE - Been around a long time and can be had with a four-banger or a venerable pushrod straight six. Five-speed, automatic, etc., lets you design your own. The GRAND version is all-new and very upscale. Has less "Jeep" and more Grand. - MITSUBISHI MONTERO SPORT - Smaller, lighter and more nimble than its Big Brother and quite at home in the underbrush. - NISSAN PATHFINDER - A holdover for three years but still capable. Has a V6 and 4000 pounds of towability, although it's a bit short on horsepower. - OLDSMOBILE BRAVADA - An on-the-road SUV not designed for mean roads. A "street- smart" traction control makes it a family cruiser for wet and snowy streets. Another Blazer clone with a V6 and no stick-shift. - TOYOTA LAND CRUISER - Wow! A really high-tech V8 (twin cams and all) in a truck-based SUV. Big interior space for lanky drivers.

LUXURY LINES: LAND ROVER DISCOVERY - It's 85 percent new for '99 but you can't see it. How British. Neat off-road stuff like a Hill Decent Control and electronically-controlled hydraulic rams instead of sway bars. V8 powered. - LAND ROVER RANGE ROVER - Same as the Discovery but bigger and with more polished wood and fancier leather. Two V8s, both pushrod. - LEXUS LX 470 - An upscale Toyota Land Cruiser with more leather, etc., but same new hot V8 engine. - LEXUS RX 300 - More car than SUV, its a New-Wave front-or-all-wheel-drive, ES 300 based promenader not intended for creek beds - MERCEDES-BENZ M-CLASS - Classy vehicle with a V8 or V6 engine. No stick-shift makes at a country-club cruiser rather than a rock crusher, but it does come standard with low-range. - LINCOLN NAVIGATOR - A patrician version of the Ford Expedition. It put Lincoln at the top of the luxo sales race. - CADILLAC ESCALADE - The Chevy Tahoe that Cadillac wishes it had rebadged at the same time Lincoln brought out its Navigator. - ACURA SLX - An Isuzu Trooper with an upscale brand name. - INFINITI QX4 - A very fancy Nissan Pathfinder. Its leather upholstery and garage-door-opener clue you that it's not a vehicle to take on an African safari.

REALLY BIG: CHEVROLET SUBURBAN - They don't come any bigger. Room to seat the soccer team with enough space left to stow a Tracker. Packs a 454 CID "Big Block" or the standard 350 V8 plus you can have it with a stump-pulling V8 turbo-diesel. Your GMC Truck dealer can sell you one, too. - FORD EXPEDITION - Not as big as the Suburban but close. Capable of going off-road but watch the side-mirror clearance on those boulders. It's pretty wide. CHEVROLET TAHOE - An upscale, larger Chevy with V8-power and more trick stuff. - GMC YUKON - A clone of the Chevy Tahoe. - MITSUBISHI MONTERO - Tall and stately, it's a remnant of the past that's giving way to the "SUV Lite" syndrome.

HUGE AND UGLY: AM HUMMER - If you're into intimidation, drive a black-on-black Hummer in commuter traffic. Conversion companies like Canepa Industries custom-civilize the Hummer, but if you like the lines, maybe you should have stayed in The Army.

We've herein covered them all. Next year we'll do another head-count to see if the pundits are correct about the Decline and Fall of the SUV.