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First Drive / JOHN O'DELL

Sibling SUVs Deliver for Ford and Mazda

Nomenclature * These vehicles and others blur the traditional lines between car and truck. How about SUB, for sport-utility blend?

May 31, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The name game has always been competitive and copycat--every business wants to be Ultra Corp. or Mega Co., never Teeny Inc. Parents these days prefer calling offspring Jason, not John; Jasmine, not Jane.

And in the automobile world, if it isn't a roadster, sports coupe or sports sedan, then it had better be a sport-utility vehicle.

Problem is, every auto maker is burning up its designers and engineers these days in the race to make cars more truck-like and trucks more car-like, and every new blend that hits the showroom is called an SUV.

This includes the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.

They are part of a new crop of utility vehicles that are bigger than the cute utes (Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Kia Sephia, Suzuki Vitara) but smaller than the mid-sizes (Ford Explorer, Jeep Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero, Isuzu Trooper).

Ford insists that its new entries are indeed, real SUVs. But the line must be drawn somewhere, or else by the end of the decade we'll be calling almost every new vehicle on the road an SUV.

*

Auto industry marketers have trouble differentiating between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, so Ford says the Escape and Tribute come in both two-wheel and four-wheel-drive versions.

Purists will note, however, that the "four-wheel-drive" versions do not have a low range to improve hillside abilities--climbing and descending. And without low range, it is all-wheel drive, not four-wheel.

The Ford-Mazda siblings do, though, have sufficient ground clearance (8 inches maximum in stock trim), torque and all-wheel traction to do an excellent job on wet or snowy roads or on the only kind of off-road terrain--the gravel road to the lake, a sandy path to the beach house--that most utility vehicles are subjected to these days.

What they really are--and an honorable thing it is to be--are sure-footed, extra-roomy station wagons for those who wouldn't be caught dead buying a wagon (the Lexus RX 300, Mercedes-Benz's M-Class models and the new BMW X5 fit into the same category).

Instead of confusing consumers with half a dozen distinct vehicle types all claiming to be SUVs, auto makers need to come up with clever differentiation.

Some of the enthusiast magazines have begun using "XUV" for those that aren't quite true SUVs. The "X" stands for "crossover," in reference to their unibody construction (borrowed from the passenger car) and their car-like ride and handling characteristics.

Indeed, they are starting to blur the lines. Ford Escape platform engineer Keith Takasawa says the company expects that 70% of Escape buyers will be trading in traditional passenger sedans.

They are people who don't really want a full-fledged truck but expect to get truck-like roominess, high seating and visibility along with car-like handling, ride and amenities.

In fact, they want a vehicle that represents a blending of attributes rather than a crossing-over.

So how about SUB, for sport-utility blend?

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