Eureka! It's the perfect car

Actually it's an SUV. And for model year 2001, automakers think they've finally hit the right formula.

Welcome to the new average American car - the one that's likely to put gas-guzzling, ill-handling, view-blocking sport-utility vehicles in their place. Surprise! It's the kinder, gentler SUV.

It does just about everything modern American families want: navigate treacherous roads with confidence; ride comfortably on annual family trips; provide a commanding view of increasingly congested roads; get reasonable gas mileage; and give its owners a taste of ruggedness.

More significantly, these vehicles don't attempt to excel at off-road rock hopping.

And model year 2001 is full of them. Starting this fall, six mid-size SUVs debut, selling at prices that aim to lure more buyers.

For the first time, "consumers have a choice" this year, says John Paul, an auto expert with AAA in Providence, R.I.

Among the choices:

Toyota Highlander It's literally a Lexus RX 300 trimmed down so more people can afford it. The Highlander (and the RX 300) use the same smooth powerful engine and nimble suspension found in the Toyota Camry. But it has the rugged looks and versatile space of an SUV. Expect prices to start around $24,000 when it hits dealerships next spring.

Ford Escape The Escape is built on the very tight, nimble chassis of the slow-selling Contour, but with much more space, a better view of the road, and 200 horsepower-enough to feel spry even with the extra weight of an SUV. Ford plans to build more than 200,000 of them a year. Prices start around $18,000.

Mazda Tribute This is the Escape's twin, but tuned more for sporty performance rather than soft comfort.

Hyundai Santa Fe Coming this month, it offers the same basic elements as the Escape and Tribute, but with less power and refinement. Still, priced below $17,000, it's the most economical of this group.

Acura MD-X This SUV goes head to head with the Lexus RX 300, selling in the mid-$30,000 range.It seats seven and feels bigger and more rugged than the Lexus.

Pontiac Aztek Without question the most interesting vehicle in the category, the Aztek is a cross between an SUV and a minivan. It's designed as an ultimate outdoor enthusiast's vehicle, with a camping package, a lift-out cooler, and a stereo for tailgate parties. It also offers lots of room for a family of five, good cargo space, and is surprisingly fun to drive. Nobody will ever accuse it of looking like a station wagon. The Aztek, priced at about $20,000, is already in dealer showrooms. But buyers aren't biting. Maybe it's the looks, say most experts.

The concept of SUVs that don't leave such deep tread marks isn't necessarily new. They first appeared in 1996, as automakers introduced "crossover" vehicles. But they either looked too much like station wagons (the Subaru Outback), were too expensive (the Lexus RX300), or came with wheezing four-cylinders and cramped interiors (the Toyota RAV4). Many SUV shoppers dismissed them as "sport cutes."

But after five years of stewing, the flavor of today's mid-size SUVs seems to have come out just about right.

Whether they will succeed, however, remains unclear. "The biggest question is whether the SUV bubble has burst," says James Rubenstein, a professor at Miami University, in Ohio, and author of "The Changing US Auto Industry."

The recent spate of Ford Explorer rollovers blamed on faulty Firestone tires could tarnish the Explorer's image, or it could rub off on all SUVs, warns Brett Smith, a senior analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Another factor that could put a lid on SUV sales is rising gas prices. But some observers disagree with that theory. "The public hasn't made a connection between gas prices and what they're driving -and it's not clear they ever will," says Dr. Rubenstein.

Also presenting competition to the latest batch of SUVs: three new crossover wagons. The Audi All-Road Quattro Wagon debuts this spring at about $40,000. An up-sized version of Volvo's Cross Country all-wheel-drive wagon rolls out this month. And Subaru is offering a new six-cylinder luxury version of its Outback.

Even conscientious nature lovers need not be embarrassed to drive any of these vehicles into the woods. Many of the tall crossover SUVs will get 25 miles per gallon or more on the highway.

Two are even scheduled to include hybrid electric power by 2003 - though their makers could be faulted for not including it earlier.

For the near-term, however, no one's going to be calling them environmental paragons.

Compared with economy cars, their extra height and weight makes them burn more gas and increases the likelihood that they could roll over in a crash.

But they're a step in the right direction compared with earlier SUVs. And they have enough practicality to lure many buyers out of large truck-based SUVs -leaving the lumbering workhorses to the relatively few American buyers who actually need them to drive off road or tow heavy loads.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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