After Sport-Utility Grand Slam, Carmakers Try Car-Truck Blend

Honda CR-V arrives on US market after success in Japan

These days, it seems there are two types of car drivers: Those with big, bad sport-utility vehicles and those who wish they had them.

Now comes a new class of car that promises to expand the burgeoning sport-utility market even further. It's the car/truck hybrid, designed to appeal to those who want the rugged, all-wheel-drive feel but also want to drive something more affordable, easier to maneuver, or more comfortable than the typical sport-ute.

The early models are Japanese designs: Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, and Subaru's Legacy Outlook. But American and European carmakers have plans for little sport-ute's of their own.

"The vast majority of generation-Xers and baby boomers aspire to own sport-utility vehicles," notes auto analyst Joe Phillippi of Lehman Brothers. "But [with traditional models] you're buying a lot of things you don't need." Things like a truck's heavier frame, which translates into lower fuel economy.

Conventional sport-utes have bodies mounted on heavy, truck-like frames. The CR-V is a unibody design, more like a conventional passenger car. In fact, it is based on the same chassis as the popular Honda Civic subcompact.

Sport-utes and other light trucks make up the fastest-growing segment of the American market for new cars. Buyers love their rugged, go-anywhere versatility, their higher seating positions, and added cargo capacity.

The body-on-frame design also means light trucks are more difficult - and costly - to build. And they're rougher riding and harder to handle than passenger cars.

Enter the new generation of car-truck blends. The CR-V, since its introduction in 1995, has taken Japan by storm. It appears likely to be a hot-seller here in the US, as well, when it goes on sale this month.

Honda hopes to sell as many as 60,000 CR-Vs this year. About the size of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the $19,300 CR-V is more stylish and a lot less macho than Honda's larger Passport or the Ford Explorer.

The Toyota RAV4, meanwhile, has been winning rave reviews - it recently was named Automobile Magazine's "Automobile of the Year" - and plenty of buyers.

Like the CR-V, the RAV4 looks like a conventional sport-ute, but they both have trade-offs of their own. They don't have quite the rugged, off-road capabilities the Jeep Wrangler, for example. But Mr. Phillippi argues that doesn't matter. Studies show only about 5 percent of sport-ute buyers ever traverse anything rougher than a dirt road.

At the other end of the car-truck hybrid spectrum is the Subaru Legacy Outback. It's a variation of the basic Legacy station wagon, with a taller roof and higher ground clearance. With Paul Hogan, star of the movie "Crocodile Dundee," in a series of engaging TV commercials, the Outback's sales rose 300 percent to 48,000 last year. That gave Subaru its best year since 1989.

"It's been a key to our turnaround," notes George Muller, head of Subaru's US sales subsidiary. The automaker is betting on hybrids to keep the momentum going. At the Detroit Auto Show, Subaru pulled the wraps off a second car/truck. The Forester mounts a much more conventional looking sport-ute unibody on its passenger car chassis.

Expect a second hybrid from Honda, code-named the MAV (for multi-activity vehicle), which will be based on the midsize Accord. Toyota will add at least one more car/truck as well.

Detroit and the Europeans also are getting ready to play the hybrid game. And for good reason. Phillippi estimates they may eventually account for a third of the total US light-truck market, which would be 2.5 million units a year. Hybrids won't replace all trucks. They don't have quite the cargo-weight-carrying or towing capacity of conventional light trucks.

Ford Motor Company officials quietly acknowledge they're working on a hybrid based on the same chassis as the compact Contour sedan. A car/truck appears to be on the drawing boards at General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division.

"It's reasonable to assume" that Chrysler Corp. will have one of its own, says Tom Gale, a product planning chief at America's No. 3 automaker. Chrysler offered an example of where it might be going in the form of the Jeep Icon. Unveiled during the Detroit Auto Show, Icon looks like the Wrangler, but it is based on a passenger-car platform.

As Subaru's Legacy Outback demonstrated, not all hybrids have to look like sport-utes. Some wild variations showed up in concept form at the Detroit show. The Pontiac 'Rageous, one example, looks like a futuristic sport coupe. But it boasts two small rear doors. And its trunk had two ways to open: a conventional hinged lid and a fold-down tailgate similar to a pickup truck. It easily totes a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood.

The Europeans are also weighing in. Early next year, Mercedes-Benz will roll out its new AAV, a stylish, car-based, luxury sport-ute. BMW and Volvo are working on hybrids that will look like conventional passenger cars but offer some advantages of trucks.

Volvo CEO Tuve Johannesson says, "Our definition will be somewhat different from what you would traditionally think of" as a sport-ute.

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