A car for all reasons

SUVs? Yes, of course. But 2003 brings still more variations on the all-purpose 'crossover' vehicle.

Americans want it all – at least when it comes to their cars.

Consider the SUV craze. People bought them because they had room for a family, could plow through bad weather, and could do some light hauling and towing.

Now that's not enough.

Now buyers also want car-like handling, good fuel economy, and even the option of physically rearranging a vehicle's components to suit various tasks.

With sliding roofs, bifold doors, and rear ends that can be swung wide open or kept enclosed, some of these vehicles have more features than a Swiss Army knife.

Fourteen new SUVs roll into dealer showrooms this year, including four that replace older models. They range from the underpowered $18,000 Mitsubishi Outlander to the outlandish $80,000 Porsche Cayenne.

What sets this year apart is that most new SUVs have tilted toward more sensible car-based models, and away from heavy off-road-truck designs.

In general, the new crop of SUVs is "softer, more geared toward how people use them," says Ron Pinelli, president of Auto Data, an automotive-research firm in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

They also offer features that few SUVs had before, such as competent handling and brakes. Not to mention gobs of extra thrust from under the hood.

Take the Porsche Cayenne.

This brute has the requisite all-wheel-drive to pull it through Bavarian snow. It also offers a 444-horsepower, twin-turbo V8 that can serve up straight-ahead speed.

The Porsche name promises great handling. And the company promises some off-road ability to boot. Company spokesman Fred Schwab says there's no reason SUVs have to be slow or handle poorly.

In fact, he says, the second vehicle across the finish line in the grueling 1996 Paris-Dakar Rally after the Porsche 911 sports car wasn't a competitor – it was the 911's support truck, an SUV.

Just don't turn to the Cayenne for great gas mileage. And don't expect a bargain. It runs $60,000 to $85,000.

Economy 'utes'?

But in general, this year's SUVs are more economical. The tiny Honda Element, for example, sits low to the ground for better gas mileage and handling. The Nissan Murano uses the first fuel-sipping, continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) in an SUV.

Perhaps most interesting are the number of new models with movable panels that can transform SUVs into pickups or cars. Last year brought four-door pickups with cabs that opened in the rear. This year's small, car-based Subaru Baja mimics that concept.

The GMC Envoy XUV pushes the boundaries even further, with a sliding roof panel, allowing tall items (perhaps trees?) to stick out the roof. Better yet, it offers a weather-tight cargo area accessible from inside when the roof and rear window are closed.

The Element has so many opening panels it can be either a small van all closed up, or a see-through cube when open. A big sunroof in the rear even lets parade queens wave out the roof.

"People are really interested in buying a vehicle that will meet their every need," says John Watts, a spokesman for Honda in New York. "[In particular], young people who can't afford multiple cars need a car that can handle almost every situation, from hauling to light off-road duty," he says.

'Occasional-use' needs

Fortunately for automakers, having a car that can do everything doesn't necessarily mean people are buying fewer cars per household.

On the contrary, the number of cars in every garage is rising, says John Morel, program director at The Car Lab, a automotive-marketing research firm in Orange, Calif.

"People buy vehicles that can meet occasional-use needs," he says. It's part of the American mind-set that people don't want a limitation of their freedoms" – their freedom to move mulch, garbage, and muddy mountain bikes, for example.

Forecasts put overall 2003 sales at about 15.5 million units – down to about 1997 levels from a record of 17.5 million in 2000. Sales for 2002 were approaching 13 million through September (See chart), with the "light truck" category continuing to outsell cars. Light trucks include pickups and SUVs of all sizes.

Most of this emerging breed of Swiss Army cars officially falls into the "crossover vehicle" category: Tall family wagons derived from cars with economical car-like drivetrains, stable car-like platforms with lower centers of gravity than SUVs, and greater crash safety than traditional SUVs.

In wealthy snowbelt communities, SUVs have long been the "second cars" that pulled through when the Mercedes had to stay home, says Mr. Pinelli. So they have offered more and more luxury alongside surefootedness.

Now these families are buying crossover vehicles with car-like ride, handling, and safety instead.

"Originally, trucks were cool. Everybody wanted to say, 'Let's take my truck,' " says Sam Fiorani, an analyst with AutomotiveCompass.com, an industry-trend tracker in West Chester, Pa. "It has taken a while for the market to catch up and decide they want an SUV-like vehicle, but they don't want a truck."

In the early '90s trucks were often a fashion statement, says Mr. Pinelli, "and that's kind of shallow. But ... these [crossover] cars are designed around the way people actually use them."

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