Smaller, gentler SUVs appeal to practical era

They're the vehicular version of the cross-training shoe, and they're showing up everywhere - so-called hybrids that blend car-like comfort with truck-type versatility.

Stubby but roomy, they can haul skis, kids, lumber, dirt - or all at once. No fewer than 15 such hybrids debuted at the North American International Automobile Show here this week. More are coming.

Americans' taste, it seems, is evolving past the brawny sport-utility vehicles - the ultimate emblem of suburbia - to a more pragmatic form of transportation that can handle snow without, in theory, rocking like a hobby horse.

Many of these new hybrids are smaller, more sensitive to the environment and urban traffic, and more realistic for buyer budgets. Call it a marriage of the stingy '70s and the prosperous '90s: Jimmy Carter meets Eddie Bauer.

"Hybrids have a huge opportunity to be the next big thing," says auto-industry watcher Christopher Cedergren, managing director of Nextrend in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

These hot-ticket hybrids, such as the coming BMW X5 "sport-activity vehicle" or the Hyundai Santa Fe SUV, can tackle tough dirt trails, though most won't blaze their own.

Like all American auto icons, this latest sign of the times reveals much about the nation's emerging wants and needs: the passion for an outdoorsy image, the penchant for safety, the fact that maturing baby boomers like lots of space to carry their legendary detritus, and in some cases even the creeping environmentalism that sees big SUVs as indulgent.

These typically all-wheel drive, do-everything vehicles sport free-spirited names such as Aztek, Xterra, Dakota, Nomad, and RECON. "Despite all attempts to make SUVs comfortable, they still drive like trucks," says Mr. Cedergren. "Hybrids have many SUV attributes, but they're basically just cars."

Trucks king of the road

To be sure, America's love of trucks is strong. In fact, in November, for the first time ever, "light trucks" - which include pickups, vans, and SUVs - outsold cars across the US. And with gas prices at historic lows, there's little reason for forced economy.

Hence, the other end of the hybrid spectrum is also expanding this week: big truck-based luxury vehicles. This includes the $40,000-plus Lincoln Blackwood - a four-door, leather-and-wood swathed all-wheel-drive pickup based on the trendy Lincoln Navigator.

Indeed, because of Americans' mythic desire take to the open road and to conquer new territory, "when you stand back and let the market go, it heads right for the big guzzlers," says Don Schroeder, senior technical editor at Car and Driver magazine. But with the big SUVs, he says, perhaps we've gone too far.

Sales of SUVs grew a still-strong 14 percent this year, but this growth rate fell off from 25 percent in both 1995 and 1996. So now there's an evolution - a melding of car and truck.

Some other trucks at the Detroit show with car-like characteristics include the Dodge Durango four-door pickup, Ford Explorer SporTrac, Ford F-150 Crew Cab, and Nissan Sport Utility Truck.

Such crossovers are designed to rekindle fast growth in the SUV market.

For hybrids already on the market, sales have skyrocketed. Subaru's hot-selling Forester and Outback helped save the brand. The Lexus RX300 has helped boost company sales by more than 50 percent.

Small hybrids pack two big advantages over ordinary cars. Their upright dimensions provide the versatility of a station wagon with more passenger and cargo room than small cars the same size; and their muscular looks lure hip baby boomers and image-conscious Gen-Xers who would never consider a station wagon.

Indeed, observers say Americans are buying cars based more on image than ever before. Baby boomers, for instance, like SUVs and hybrids because they conjure up images of people who go hiking and camping.

"They're part of this youthful vigorous image that boomers are clinging to even as they age," says Bob Schnorbus, director of economic analysis at J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif. Surveys find that as few as 1 in 10 SUV drivers actually take their vehicles off-road.

And the trouble with car sales based solely on image is that they can change quickly, says Nextrend's Cedergren. Hybrids, he says, are a kind of glorified station wagon, and as image-conscious consumers demand something new, he foresees a time when some designer says, " 'Hey, do we really need that rear thing in the back?' only to discover, 'Oh, it's a sedan!' "

Practicality of buying

Yet the more-practical part of Americans' car-buying motives is showing up in the hankering for hybrids.

The Nissan Sport Utility Truck, for example, was conceived by a designer trying to tote a palm tree home from the nursery in his pampered traditional SUV, according to design chief Jerry Hirshberg. The tree would not fit upright and spilled soil on his carpet.

Other hybrids, such as the radical-looking Pontiac Aztek, just provide more space inside, with minivan-like rear seats that lift out, a tall ceiling, and a bare aluminum floor designed for dripping wet suits and dirty shoes.

But hybrids don't even have to be able to venture off road. A few concepts, notably from General Motors, have blended truck versatility with ground-hugging sports-car performance.

This year's Chevrolet Nomad drapes a retro theme over a two-door wagon body with a hideaway tailgate and a roof that folds forward to reveal an open bed for cargo.

The car is designed for a rear-wheel-drive sports car drivetrain and a big V-8 engine. Insiders say it could replace the slow-selling and impractical Camaro.

Such hybrids mean consumers no longer have to choose between practicality and something fun and stylish. One car can do it all - maybe.

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