Full-size 4-wheel-drive workhorses are back in brisk demand

The 4-wheel-drive market took a severe drubbing in the early 1980s, plummeting from about a million units a year to less than a half million. With the prospect of $2-a-gallon gasoline staring the motorist in the eye, it wasn't the best of times to be building the big Broncos, Blazers, and Jeeps.

How times have changed! Now, with gasoline prices soft and the spigot continuing to gush fuel, shoppers are buying larger, more powerful cars - and the 4-wheel-drive market has shot back up again.

Thus, despite the introduction last fall of smaller, lighter-weight, sports-utility vehicles by Ford, General Motors, and Jeep, the full-size jobs are back in brisk demand.

Dinosaurs or not, the heavy, low-mileage, high-cost utility units still have a place on the highway. They can do a job which the minisize vehicles - Bronco II, Chevrolet Blazer, and American Motors Cherokee and Wagoneer - were never designed to perform.

If you own a 30-foot trailer or fair-size boat, for example, you can't expect a Ford Bronco II or Chevrolet mini-Blazer to pull it. The big jobs, however, are right in their element.

Indeed, they're the workhorses of the utility-vehicle market and include a hefty engine under the hood. Ford's independently sprung, full-size Bronco offers a 4.9-liter 6 and two V-8s, either 5 liters or 5.8. Result: It can tow up to 5,500 pounds with ease.

The standard-size Chevrolet Blazer offers two V-8s, a 5-liter (5.7-liter in California) gasoline engine or a 6.2-liter diesel. Chevrolet expects to sell 44, 000 full-size Blazers in 1984, up 83 percent over 1983.

I've just been driving a big Dodge Ramcharger, which seems huge after piloting some of its much-smaller competitors. A lot of buyers are willing to pay the higher price and endure the fuel penalty to drive one.

To extend the driving range, a 35-gallon fuel tank is standard equipment.

Granted it uses a lot of gas, but there shouldn't be any repair bills for rust damage for a few years at least. Chrysler provides a 5-year/100,000-mile rust-perforation warranty for 1984.

Towering above the standard auto traffic on the highway, the Ramcharger really comes into its own when you take it off the blacktop - on the dirt roads, where it can navigate the tire ruts and deep holes without murmur.

It also does a good job on rutty urban streets with their potholes and heavily worn blacktop. Despite the deep ruts and streetcar tracks on a major route into Boston, the Ramcharger easily outperformed any standard-type vehicle, taking the bounce with ease. Also, the height of the vehicle gives a commanding view of traffic all around.

Two-wheel-drive models are equipped with Chrysler's 318-cubic-inch V-8 engine with 2-barrel carburetor and automatic transmission.

The 4-wheel-drives include the same engine but with a 4-speed manual transmission as standard and 3-speed automatic as an option. An optional 360 -cubic-inch, 4-barrel engine replaces the 318 4-barrel V-8 for all light and heavy applications in 1984.

Heavy-duty shocks are standard, as are power brakes.

Barring a return to the gasoline lines of the 1970s and sharp rises in the price of fuel, the full-size sports-utility vehicles should be around for some time.

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