America's bosom-buddying up to sport-utility vehicles is growing with the determination of a Jeep scaling Old Baldy.
Call them what you will--sport-utes, sub-utes, SUVs, suvees or RAVs--they account for 10% of all new vehicle sales, and the market is not just stretching up but bulging at both ends.
For years, the field had an aristocracy of one with the $53,000 Range Rover its crowned head. Closest pretenders were the $37,000 Toyota Land Cruiser and a $31,000 edition of the Jeep Grand Cherokee with courtiers waddling north and south of $20,000.
But now Mercedes and BMW are preparing to build luxury condos on wheels. Lexus has a sport-ute based on parent Toyota's Land Cruiser in the works, while Infiniti is working a wood-and-leather-lined expansion of the Nissan Pathfinder.
Prestigious Jaguar is debating the issue. Cadillac might throw its silk Stetson into the ring. Mercury is proposing an upscale something called the Mountaineer. Next month, Acura will introduce its SLX based on Isuzu's Trooper and aimed at big guys costing $30,000 or more.
Meanwhile, down-market a few blocks, manufacturers are poised to supply the more youthful and less affluent with a fuller inventory of barer, smaller sport utilities. Or sub-utes.
Toyota's new RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle) arrives soon to follow the small footprints of the Geo Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick. Suzuki's X-90 already has California chuckling because it sounds like something Spaceman Spiff flew against the Zods. Spies say Chrysler is working on something inexpensive, pint-size and grafted from the Neon.
It's suddenly a swollen, varied field serving a full-blown infatuation backed by no rational purpose.
Sure, a Land Cruiser has the capability of driving the Cucamonga Wilderness in search of the white bull rhino before it migrates north to Barstow. Yet 96% of sport-utility owners never take their vehicles off-road.
So four-wheel drive plus 80 cubic feet of cargo space has zero suburban purpose unless the mall is under construction or you plan on ordering 1,782 artichoke and anchovy specials to go from California Pizza Kitchen.
Suvees, however, do have a certain swagger when shouldering through traffic. Parents feel safer with their young shielded inside a Chubb safe masquerading as a Chevy Blazer. And one certainly does become a little imperial perched so high above the hoi polloi.
This month, four new or improved sport-utility vehicles enter the fashionable mainstream that is expanding so fiercely, its next dynamic may well involve shaking down, sorting out and survival of the fittest.
1996 Suzuki X-90
See this pretty duckling as Son of Sidekick for borrowing the chassis, engine, gearbox and suspension from its Suzuki sibling. It's also a sub-compact, T-topped, two-seater blatantly mimicking the two-surfboard, one-bikini, California-in-Coppertone concept of Honda's Civic Del Sol.
Its four-wheel drive is more suited to beach than deep boonies, with the intended role of plaything rather than hauler of drywall and band instruments. Image is everything to the X-90, from its purely decorative rear spoiler through Las Vegas lounge upholstery to the styling of a Air Nike balloon floating above Sneaker City.
The vehicle comes with air bags and anti-lock brakes, power windows, alarm, cruise control and alloy wheels, which isn't shabby for a vehicle in this price range. It stomps new ground for innovation and cuteness, and removing the T-top is a one-lever, 27-second snap.
A 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine delivers 95 horsepower, which means slow passage up the Grapevine. But the X-90 is peppy on flatlands, handles well for its short wheelbase and rudimentary suspension, and is more fun than a barrel of Jeep Wranglers.
Thumbs Up: Turns more heads than frontal nudity.
Thumbs Down: Traveling to Denver? Take the bus.
Verdict: Would you spend $14,000 on a Christmas ornament?
1996 Ford Explorer
It has taken six years, but Ford Explorer has finally been given a V-8 transplant. From 160 horsepower and lagging all seniors in its class, the Explorer moves to 210 horsepower and performance on the bumpers of Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevy Blazer.
To make the V-8 fit its bay, also to compensate for the added weight of the new engine, Ford was forced to redesign the Explorer's front suspension. While underneath, engineers changed the rear axle for larger, more constant rear tire contact. In addition to a sport utility that goes faster, the V-8 Explorer has the bonus of crisper handling and tons less body roll, on- and off-road.
Here's the whoops: Developing the V-8 took less time than designing a four-wheel-drive transfer case. So until next year, the Explorer V-8 is available only in rear-wheel drive.
Thumbs Up: More power, more reliable handling.
Thumbs Down: Two-wheel drive only.
Verdict: See Explorer remain the nation's best-selling sport utility.
1996 Range Rover 4.6 HSE