Sport utilities cut down to size

Sport utility vehicles have taken a lot of flack lately for inflicting undue damage on other cars and the environment.

Not only that, most of them have become extravagantly expensive.

But a new wave of mini-SUVs has sprung up to address all three concerns.

They're small, most have economical four-cylinder engines, and most are built on car chassis that are less menacing to smaller vehicles.

Count most mini-SUVs as snow cars rather than off-road rumblers. With all-wheel-drive, light weight, and nimble handling, they laugh at the slippery flakes.

Traditional mini-SUVs make sense as off-road vehicles, because they're smaller and fit better on tight trails, and they're inexpensive enough that owners don't worry so much about nicks and scrapes. Only one of these new models, however, fits that description.

While the mini-SUV market today comprises five basic vehicles from Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Suzuki, and Kia, most other large automakers are planning them, including Ford, General Motors, and Nissan.

Here's the lowdown on four of the latest offerings in the mini-SUV market.

TOYOTA RAV4 RAV4, the Recreational Activity Vehicle with four-wheel-drive, defined the market for a small, carlike SUV.

It retains the tall stance and jouncy character of an SUV, without the iffy handling and punishing ride that mark off-road vehicles.

While most RAV4s are sold with full-time all-wheel-drive, they're not designed to go off road.

The RAV4's interior is Spartan by today's standards, lacking even armrests on the doors.

The RAV4 is the second-most fun to drive of the small sport-utes, and is comfortable over the road.

It has plenty of cargo room behind the side-swinging rear door as long as your cargo can be stacked.

The most popular RAV4 is an all-wheel-drive four-door wagon with a rear door that swings to the side. (Watch your head when lifting things out, though, it curves in behind you at the top.)

The RAV4 also comes as a two-door in either a convertible or hardtop. Leave your luggage at home, though, or fold the rear seats forward in order to create some storage space.

Base RAV4s are only front-wheel-drive.

Base price (including destination): $18,198

Popularly equipped: $21,943

Miles per gallon (city/hwy/overall): 22/25/23

Engine cylinders/configuration: 4 in line

Engine size: 2.0 liters

Horsepower: 127

Drivetrain: standard - front-wheel-drive


*+ Toyota quality reputation

*+ High seating position gives good view over traffic

*+ Pretty fun to drive

*- An awkward cargo space

*- No rear knee-room

*- No armrests

Overall: Best looking. Fine choice if the deal's right or you've got to have a Toyota.

HONDA CR-V The CR-V is the biggest of the mini-SUVs, with as much interior room as last year's Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Honda filled the interior with thoughtful touches, such as a low floor that lets parents walk from the front to the back seat, a table that folds up between the front seats to hold cups and other driving detritus, and a removable picnic table on the floor behind the rear seats.

Some controls crop up in funky places, like the power-window switches on the left side of the dashboard.

The back seat is cavernous for a mini-SUV, and the cargo area is generous.

Unfortunately, the CR-V's size advantage is a bane to its performance.

Especially with the automatic transmission, the Honda can't get out of its own way in traffic. The 5-speed helps, but the handling is still lethargic compared with the Subaru Forester or the RAV4.

People who live in warm-weather climates can buy a less-expensive front-wheel-drive CR-V.

Base MSRP (including destination): $19,145

Popularly equipped: $20,645

Fuel mileage (city/hwy/overall): 22/25/NA

Engine cylinders/configuration: 4 in line

Engine size: 2.0 liters

Horsepower: 126 (145 coming soon)

Drivetrain: standard - front-wheel-drive


*+ Thoughtful interior layout and features

*+ Roomy seats and cargo area

*+ Honda reputation for quality, efficiency, and fun

*- Really slow, especially with automatic transmission

*- Squishy handling

*- Doesn't live up to the fun part of Honda's reputation

Overall: Good for families who want an economical SUV.

optional - all-wheel-drive (full-time)

Subaru Forester

The Forester is the fun-lovin', feisty friend in this group.

Because it's not as tall as the others, some shoppers think it's less rugged.

The back seat falls short of holding adults in comfort, but the interior still rates as the second largest in this group.

Like all Subarus, the Forester comes only in all-wheel-drive.

Forester rides on the small, lively platform of the Subaru Impreza, so it corners flat.

When the big, flat-four engine growls, the Forester hustles.

It's just as capable in snow and bad weather as the RAV4 and CR-V, but more fun to drive.

In contrast to the RAV4 and CR-V, the Forester is weighed down with gimmicks. A faux high-tech altimeter and compass perched on the dash are the most inane. A diagram of the road rolling undertread flashes constantly as you drive.

And the Forester doesn't even have a low-range gear to do the kind of serious off-roading where a tilt meter could be useful.

Other features such as heated seats and fog lights are useful pleasantries, but drive up the price needlessly.

Base price (including destination): $19,990

Popularly equipped: $22,990

Miles per gallon (city/hwy/overall): 21/27/24

Engine cylinders/configuration:

4 horizontally opposed

Engine size: 2.5 liters

Horsepower: 165

Drivetrain: standard - all-wheel-drive


*+ Fun to drive

*+ Optional features others lack, such as sunroof and heated seats

*+ Standard all-wheel-drive

*- Can't see over traffic

*- Goofy looks

Overall: Most fun. Best of the bunch.


SUZUKI GRAND VITARA Grand Vitara is an awfully fancy name for a rough-and-tumble truck. And it replaces the friendly and memorable Sidekick moniker.

Unlike today's other mini-SUVs, the Grand Vitara and its lesser siblings, the Vitara and the Chevy Tracker, are true off-roaders. They fare poorly maneuvering on snow, though they will clamber up slick hills without complaint.

All three little trucks are made by Suzuki; the Vitara and Tracker are twins, with four-cylinder engines, a sturdy frame to withstand off-road punishment, and efficient size to fit between narrow spaces.

Tracker went on sale Jan. 16; Vitara is rolling out now.

Suzuki's Grand Vitara, on sale since October, is the same vehicle, but with a bigger V-6 engine, and wider fenders and plastic "armor" that give it a slightly more aggressive look.

The Grand Vitara also comes loaded with features optional on the other two, such as power windows and door locks, and cruise control.

The Suzuki feels less sure-footed and more truckish on the road, though never dangerous. The ride feels OK up front, but feels punishing in the cramped back seat. Don't let the rear doors deceive you, passenger and cargo space is minimal.

Real off-roaders may opt for the two-door or convertible body available in the Vitara and Tracker.

All Grand Vitaras are four-doors.

The little Suzuki may be the ultimate modern off-roader, with a reasonably comfortable interior, modern amenities, compact size, a solid structure, and a requisite low-range gearbox.

Its $19,500 price tag is the ultimate advantage -who wants to scrape a $30,000 family wagon over rocks and against tree branches?

But the V-6 powered Grand Vitara adds nothing to the equation other than empty marketing promise. With the four-speed automatic transmission, its V-6 is just as noisy and overworked as the four-cylinder. It is faster, but not fast enough to make a difference. And the added power doesn't help off-road.

Base price (including destination): $19,429

Popularly equipped: $21,429

Miles per gallon (city/hwy/overall): 19/21/20

Engine cylinders/configuration: V-6

Engine size: 2.5 liters

Horsepower: 155

Drivetrain: standard - rear-wheel-drive

optional - four-wheel-drive (part-time)


*+ Off road ability

*+ Looks tough

*+ Marketing the V-6 will bring buyers

*- Lousy cornering and braking on snow

*- Skimpy cargo room

*- Tough looks are downright ugly

*- $21,000 for a Suzuki?!

Overall: For those who will venture off road, save your money and buy the four-cylinder Vitara or Chevy Tracker.

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