New Car Review

1996 GEO TRACKER LSI 4-DOOR SPORT-UTILITY VEHICLE

by: CAREY and BILL RUSS

Sport-utility vehicles are undeniably popular. Most, alas, are also rather expensive, far more so than passenger cars. So folks with young budgets and sport-utility tastes are priced out of the mainstream of the new SUV market. With few exceptions, sport-utility choices in the sub-$20,000 segment have tended to be small, or basic, or sold by companies that don't exactly have a dealer in every town. Low-budget SUVs can certainly be a lot of fun, and may even be seen as the inexpensive sports cars of today, but, like the low-priced European sports cars of yesterday, they are mostly 2-door convertibles. They are great for fun in the sun, but not the best choice in all-weather transportation.

Chevrolet has an answer to the inexpensive all-season sport-utility problem. They have a new 4-door Geo Tracker. It is a hardtop design that is significantly larger than the 2-door Tracker convertible that has been sold since 1990. Two trim levels are offered, and each is available with two- or four-wheel drive. It shares most engine, drivetrain, and suspension components with the 2-door. Unique to the 4-door is an optional 4-speed automatic transmission. A fully-equipped Geo Tracker LSi like the one I had for a week is reasonably priced for a sport-utility and offers all of the modern automotive amenities as well as plenty of sport-utility character and usefulness. It is a fun, practical, and civilized vehicle.

APPEARANCE: What's the attraction for a small, boxy sport-utility? As the woman at the airport parking lot said, "I like your car. It's cute!" The 4-door Tracker is the antithesis of the big, brawny, macho 4x4. It is almost a caricature of a large, intimidating sport-utility. It's friendly-looking: small, tall, and boxy, with prominent fender flares, and black rubber protective strips on the sides. Body- colored molded grille and bumpers are newly restyled on all Trackers this year. There is plenty of glass, and the front side windows are specially-shaped for extra visibility. The optional 3-spoke alloy wheels add an upscale touch.

COMFORT: The 4-Door Tracker is bigger than its 2-door stablemate, but it won't replace a minivan for hauling kids and stuff around. It is best thought of as an alternative to a compact station wagon. As on the outside, it is small and basic inside, although in the Chevy option tradition it need not stay too basic. The option list is extensive, and my test example had the works, including air conditioning, a very good AM/FM/cassette sound system, power-operated windows, door locks, and mirrors, cruise control, and a rear-window washer and wiper. The front bucket seats are well-padded and supportive, and the rear bench folds down with a 60/40 split for additional cargo capacity. Cargo or people can be piled high. Headroom is first-rate - basketball players wearing top hats will probably fit just fine. The rear door is hinged on the side for easy access. The new instrument panel puts instruments and controls in useful, accessible positions. The Tracker may not be a luxury vehicle, but it is practical.

SAFETY: The 4-door Tracker has dual airbags, safety cage body construction with front and rear crush zones, an energy-absorbing steering column, and daytime running lights. Antilock brakes are available.

ROADABILITY: A sport-utility, even a small one, is not a car when it comes to handling on the road. With a relatively short wheelbase, narrow track, and high center of gravity, cornering limits are lower than for regular cars. The tall stance magnifies any motion. These characteristics can make a trip to the store into an adventure, and may be among the reasons people buy SUVs. Occupants are not isolated in quiet luxury; the driving experience is similar to that in an old European sports car. The 4- door Tracker has good, modern suspension tuning, with minimal harshness in the ride. Visibility is excellent.

PERFORMANCE: The Tracker has a 95-horsepower 1.6-liter overhead cam 4-cylinder engine that gets the job done and returns fuel economy that is far better than that of bigger sport-utilities. A 5- speed manual transmission is standard, but my example had the optional electronically-controlled 4- speed automatic. It shifted quickly and smoothly and made traffic in the urban jungle much more tolerable. The Tracker has plenty of power around town, and is a reasonable highway cruiser. In 4WD low range, it can climb trails well. Ground clearance is adequate for all but the lunatic fringe, and it can be equipped to tow up to 1500 lbs.

CONCLUSIONS: The 4-door Geo Tracker is a practical, economical small sport-utility vehicle that can put a smile on your face. Think of it as a compact station wagon with an attitude.

SPECIFICATIONS:
1996 GEO TRACKER LSI 4-DOOR

Base Price                              $ 15,710
Price As Tested                         $ 20,021
Engine Type                             Inline 4-cylinder, sohc, 16-valves
Horsepower                              95@ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)                          98 @ 4000
Transmission                            4-speed EC automatic
Wheelbase / Length                      97.6 in. / 158.7 in.
Curb Weight                             2434 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower                   26
Fuel Capacity                           14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement                        unleaded regular
Tires                                   P205/75 R15 Goodyear Wrangler
Brakes, front/rear                      vented disc / drum, ABS optional
Drivetrain                              transverse front engine, 4-wheel drive
                    PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed           22/25/23
0 to 60 mph                             13.5 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                         18.6 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)                .45
Towing Capacity                         1500 lbs.
Ground Clearance                        7.9 in.
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