In Luv With SUVs

Americans' love affair with sport utility vehicles continues.

SUVs made up 35 percent of new vehicle sales last year, according to Jim Harbour, chairman of Harbour and Associates in Troy, Mich.

But the form those sport utilities will take is changing.

Sales are stagnating, Mr. Harbour says, in the mainstream, mid-size SUV segment, which is saturated with 22 basic choices. All but the newest models now carry big incentives.

Full-size SUVs, despite a recent resurgence, have also peaked at 550,000 per year, he says. Some buyers will always have a need for these vehicles to tow trailers or tote large families. But their numbers aren't growing.

What is growing is compact-car-based SUVs, such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Subaru Forester.

At roughly $20,000, they're more affordable than mid-size SUVs, now pushing $30,000. Ford and Nissan have compact entries planned by 2000. And others are in the works.

To push prices back up, carmakers are making SUVs less trucklike and more carlike - more luxurious, more nimble.

But they're not going away.

"The fact is, people are in love with SUVs, and they're not going to give them up easily," says Ron Pinelli, president of Auto Data, a consulting firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

Lincoln Navigator

Starts & stops

* Lots of room

* Plenty strong to tow a boat or horses

* Popularity - will keep up with the Joneses

* Worst fuel economy

* Fewer seats than cheaper Ford Expedition

* Too big to park in the city

GMC Yukon Denali

Starts & stops

* Strong engine

* More manageable size than Navigator

* All the best features

* Still poor fuel economy

* Only-a-mother-could-love-it looks

* Seats only five

GMC Envoy

Starts & stops

* Good handling

* Nifty on-board air compressor

* Best sunroof

* Too small for $34,000

* Uglier than cheaper Jimmy sibling

* Mediocre reliability record

Lexus RX300

Starts & stops

* Will leapfrog you right past the Joneses

* Good fuel economy for an SUV

* Most comfortable ride

* Un-Lexus like electrical glitches

* Hard to decipher radio and heater controls

* Noisy Sunroof

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