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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

December 13, 1997

There's a monumental struggle happening in the auto industry, but it's not between two brands of vehicles, nor is it between the auto industries of two different nations. It crosses all economic levels and social groups and as yet, it hasn't turned into warfare. I doubt that it ever will.

The confrontation I'm referring to is between the minivan and the sport/utility vehicle, better known simply as the SUV.

And the forces of the minivan have every reason to fear their adversary. The sport/utility has the panache of a sports car, the seating capacity of a sedan and ruggedness of a 4X4 pickup truck.

And it does, indeed, involve all brands since almost every manufacturer from every country markets an SUV as well as a minivan. And the SUV comes in all price ranges and degrees of luxury from the tiny, stark and relatively inexpensive Korean Kia Sportage to the large, luxurious and expensive Japanese Infiniti QX4. Even larger, and very popular is the gargantuan GMC Suburban.

But versatile as the SUV is, most buyers aren't aware of how useful their purchases can be, or of the multitude of family tasks it can perform. Here are some of those uses:

TOW A SPORT BOAT - This may seem like a somewhat simplistic comment but those passionate about power boating are well aware of the attributes of being able to apply power to all wheels at once. Besides the fact that reaching a launch site often involves traversing very rugged areas that require lots of ground clearance, many launching ramps have moss or algae growing on the submerged section. Since a boat trailer has to be backed into the water, it's often only the front wheels that can get enough grip to pull the rig from the water. A 4X4 truck can also be used, but that pretty much keeps it from being a full family endeavor.

TRAVEL TO SKI AREAS - To say that skiing and snowboarding are burgeoning sports would be an understatement. As alpine resorts expand and become almost as much a tourist attraction as the Nevada gambling hotels, travel to and from the slopes becomes a primary concern. That travel many times involves snow and ice on the roads, of course, and in California, four-wheel-drives are usually exempt from tire chain requirements. The ski resorts are also aware of the fact that their client base grows when they make skiing a family affair and taking the little ones to the snow in an all-weather, all-terrain SUV is the most comfortable way to do it. And in most cases, the skis and other equipment can be carried inside. In addition, many resorts tout SUVs as their "official vehicles," and park several of them in their parking lots as advertisements.

TOUR OFF-ROAD - There are some tourist spots around the country that are simply inaccessible to travelers in conventional family vehicles. The San Juan Mountains of Colorado are breathtaking, I'm told, but if you want to see them up close, don't take your Cadillac limousine. An SUV or 4X4 truck is the only way to go and that Mitsubishi Montero you bought to take the soccer club to practice will be quite at home on the dirt roads of the area. Most sections of the U.S. have similar "wilderness" areas and it's usually the state's park system that can provide information on how to get there and what to see.

TOW A VACATION TRAILER - Being the owner of a full-sized Class C RV, I know the advantages of driving your own self-contained vacation "cabin" to your get-away destination. I also know the disadvantages of getting to an RV park and not being able to cruise the surrounding area, especially those sites that are off the beaten (and paved) path. The alternatives are to: 1) tow a "dingy," (a small vehicle to be used once the leviathan RV is parked and leveled), 2.) rent a full-sized vacation trailer, tow it with your trusty SUV, park it and then go off the see the sights. And the nice part is that when you get back home, you can go back on the "soccer trail" by simply disconnecting the ball hitch and pulling the electrical connectors.

ENJOY THE SOCIAL SIDE OF OWNING AN SUV - Car clubs abound in this country, and they range from street rod builders to Ferrari owners. There are also numerous clubs dedicated to owners four-wheel drive vehicles. While many club members are devoted to pushing their specially-modified mounts through frame-cracking, boulder-strewn terrain, others are content with more genteel tours and camping trips. In the social world of off-roading there's something for everyone and Land Rover owners are a shining example. There are over 30 Land Rover clubs nationwide offering a full calender of events, from watching factory-sponsored polo matches to trans-Canadian tours.

Owning a new minivan is a pleasant experience, but the fun and excitement can end when it comes off the showroom floor and gets a few miles of pavement under its wheels. With a sport/utility vehicle, the fun and excitement begins when it's taken it off the pavement.