New Breeds Of SUV

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You'd think the world's auto engineers had all taken up skiing. Like biotech gene splicers, they've figured out how to create versatile vehicles that meld the traction of SUVs, the hauling capacity of pickups, the conveniences of minivans and the handling of sedans. Most of the new-breed vehicles have tried everything to avoid being branded "another SUV." So now there's UAV (Urban Activity Vehicle), PPT (Passenger Priority Truck), UUV (Ultimate Utility Vehicle) and SRV (Sport Recreation Vehicle). Here's a look at some of the more innovative designs, available now or by the end of ski season.

HYBRID TRUCKS
Pickups have always been designed for cargo¿passengers be damned. Not anymore. The new hybrids are graced with four doors, sedan-like rides, comfort and luxury¿albeit with abbreviated cargo beds.

If you need a truck that can haul lumber during the week and your family of five on weekends, the Chevy Avalanche (about $32,000), due early next year, might be it. Built on Chevy's Suburban platform, it blurs the line between truck and SUV. Its unique Convert-a-Cab System lets drivers reconfigure the vehicle to function as a pickup, an SUV or something in between. In its standard setup, the Avalanche offers a roomy, five-passenger cab with stubby cargo box (5 feet, 3 inches). When more cargo room is required, a gate folds easily into the cab to create a 6-foot, 8-inch compartment. Loads can be protected from the elements by a cargo cover and locking tailgate. And the rear window is removable, opening up the cab for a relatively quiet open-air cruising experience or to accommodate extra-long cargo.
ALSO CHECK OUT Toyota Tundra, Ford F-150 Super Crew, Chevrolet S10/GMC Sonoma, Dodge Dakota Quad Cab.

ALL-WHEEL-DRIVE SEDANS
You could hear the cheers of skiers this fall when German automaker BMW returned AWD to its line. Its updated 3 series has two AWD models: the BMW 325xi (with a 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower engine; $29,310) and the 330xi (3.0-liter, 225-hp; $36,310). Thanks to a rear-biased torque split, both models get AWD surefootedness without sacrificing precision and agility. And stability-control makes them almost skid-proof on icy mountain roads.

Audi, meanwhile, has souped up its popular A4 sports sedan into a powerful road burner, the Audi S4 ($37,900). With 250 hp, tenacious handling and smooth riding, it holds its own against rear-wheel-drive super sports sedans, with the added benefit of Quattro AWD.

Speaking of Quattro, the A4 shares AWD technology, as well as its platform, with parent-company Volkswagen's Passat 4Motion ($27,050). The VW uses an almost identical AWD system, which splits power evenly front to rear for excellent handling. As with all Audis/Volkswagens, Quattro is available as a stand-alone item ($1,650), without the options you don't want. The Passat's suspension is softer than the A4, and its ride is smoother. Suitably powered (2.8-liter, 190-hp V6), it is, unlike the Audi, available only with five-speed auto stick.
ALSO CHECK OUT Audi A4/A6/A8, Mercedes Benz E 430 and 320 4Matic, Subaru Legacy and Outback, Volks-wagen Golf 4Motion.

MINIVAN/SUV HYBRIDS
A resourceful ski bum could well live out of an AWD Pontiac Aztek GT ($23,995). An active family will simply find it a pleasure to live with. Its angular nose and humpback rear combine for a love-it-or-hate-it Blade Runner look, but the Aztek borrows the best cabin features of a minivan (high ride, rear captain's chairs, lots of storage nooks) and adds a bold dash of SUV ingenuity.

Pontiac calls the Aztek a Sport Recreation Vehicle, and it's built for fun. A drink cooler latches into the console; two chairs are molded into the tailgate; an ear-crushing stereo patches into cargo-compartment speakers and controls; and an optional camping package includes a pop-up tent that extends the cargo compartment and even an air mattress with on-board pump. The drive is stable, if minivanedate (the Aztek is built on Pontiac's Montana van platform). And it's available only with a four-speed automatic. But with GM's new Versatrak AWD system, which directs torque to a single wheel with traction, it will get you down that dirt road to the chalet you rented. A Buick version, called Rendezvous, is due in the spring, larger and more demurely sculpted, with optional third-row seats.
ALSO CHECK OUT Lexus RX300, Dodge Grand Caravan AWD/Chrysler Town & Country AWD, Mazda MPV AWD.

SPORTSTER SUVs
When BMW and Mercedes set out to do something¿even something as incongruous as creating an SUV with sports-sedan handling¿they usually succeed. The BMW X5 and the Mercedes ML55 are arguably the best attempts at cross-breeding the two species.

BMW started from scratch with its X5 ($49,400). Uni-body construction gives it stiffness and road-stick. You may not find it extraordinary on suburban streets, but punch it through a speedy 0-60 and the BMW blood lines shine through at cruising speeds. The X5 is no mountain goat¿ground clearance is fairly low, and it lacks low-range gearing¿but its Hill Descent Control system keeps it stable and surefooted on tricky downhills. The ML55 ($64,900) is certainly one of the fastest and most expensive SUVs, at about $65,000. Mercedes has crafted a leather-lined rocket that hits 60 mph in 6.4 seconds on its way to a top speed of 144 mph. Despite its power, the ML55 is balanced, with a 50/50 torque split through independent front and rear suspensions. It's brawny off-road, too, with ample clearance and a low-range gear. And like all M-Class SUVs, it is among the safest, with features like stability-control, air bags, structural reinforcements and crumple zones.

CAR-LIKE SUVs
If getting around on snow is more important to you than plowing through it, the new dual-branded Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute ($19,320) adds another option to a growing category of car-like SUVs that sacrifice muscularity for vigor. The guts of the two are essentially the same. The Mazda is more elegant, the Ford more rugged. Unlike most "cute utes" with their poky fours, either can be equipped with a burly V6, 200-hp engine. The 4WD system is unique in that it automatically kicks in when needed but can also be engaged full-time. That's nice on ice.

Mazda, which did much of the engineering, managed to squeeze more comfort into a small box, with surprisingly generous seating space and reclining rear seats. Inside is a minivan like dashboard with a column-mounted shifter (on automatics; manual transmissions are floor-mounted). A nice convenience touch is the rear lift-gate. You can open either the whole gate or just the window¿something you'll appreciate when tossing that last boot bag into a stuffed cargo compartment.
ALSO CHECK OUT Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV 4, Honda CR-V, Isuzu VehiCross.

AWD WAGONS
Ever wonder why there are so many sport-wagon options when comparatively few people seem to buy them? It's because the highways of Europe are full of them¿workhorse vehicles in lands where SUVs and minivans are as rare as organized lift queues. If you need cargo space for your toys but don't want to drive a truck, an AWD wagon might be for you.

Subaru first popularized the "Sport Utility Wagon" and continues to make the most affordable ones with its Outback and Legacy. This year it goes up-market with a 212-hp, six-cylinder Subaru Outback H-6-3.0 VDC ($31,895), including a special LL Bean edition. Both feature a new AWD system that splits torque more evenly between front and rear. They're the only Subarus with stability-control¿and $30k-plus stickers.

Along with BMW's update of its 3 series came a surprise for skiers¿the compact AWD BMW 325xi Wagon ($31,720). As with all BMWs, the 325xi handles superbly, thanks to a rear-biased torque distribution. Stability-control is standard, and an optional cold weather package includes heated seats, headlight washers and a ski bag that protects the interior.

Volvo also checks in with a completely new wagon, an update of its popular Volvo V70 Cross Country ($36,675). You expect safety and practicality from Volvo; but this model is smooth and refined, as well. Of course, there are next-generation air bags aplenty, but the interior is reminiscent of the luxury S80, with leather bucket seats and secondary audio controls on the wheel. The rear seats fold in a clever 40/20/40 configuration, making it easy to stow skis inside and still carry four passengers in comfort.

You knew it wouldn't be long before Volkswagen turned the Passat into a snow crawler, given the ski-country popularity of sister-brand Audi's A4 Avant. Like the sedan, the Volkswagen Passat 4Motion Wagon ($27,850) is available only with an auto-stick transmission.
ALSO CHECK OUT Audi A4 and A6 Avant Quattro, Mercedes Benz E320 4 Matic.

TRADITIONAL MID-SIZED SUVs
Conventional SUVs are not disappearing. Despite its recent tire recall, Ford's Explorer has been the best seller for 10 years running, and a ground-up redesign with a 25-hp bump in its V8 engine debuts shortly after New Year's Day (price not available).

The Explorer had already been slated to incorporate larger, more rugged tires before the delamination problem surfaced, and a lowered front bumper better matches that of a car in a collision (good news for car occupants). Like all new go-anywheres, the Explorer grafts features from other vehicle genres: such niceties as third-row minivan-like seating, larger door openings, lower step-in height and optional adjustable accelerator and brake pedals for shorter drivers. The rear lift-glass is lower, closer to shopping-cart height for easier loading of cargo. Snow drivers might want to place orders later in the year, when stability-control becomes available.
ALSO CHECK OUT Jeep Grand Cherokee w/Quadra Drive, Nissan Xterra, Toyota Sequoia, Mitsubishi Montero, Nissan Pathfinder/Infinity QX4.

LUXURY UTES
Is there a price barrier for SUVs? Considering Americans don't flinch at $2 for a bottle of water, perhaps $40,000-plus isn't absurd. Lincoln has done well with the Navigator, as have Mercedes with its ML series and Toyota/Lexus with its Land Cruiser/LX 470 combo. Now, GM seeks a cut of the action with a completely new Cadillac Escalade (about $50,000).

Don't confuse this Escalade with the made-over Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon that Cadillac rushed to market two years ago. It has a massive V8, 345-hp engine, and stability-control is standard. It's a chromed behemoth meant for big¿or just wealthy¿suburban families, with roomy seating for eight in three rows. Removable third-row seats¿split 50/50¿give it flexibility. But it's more than room you're paying for. The seats are leather-lined (the first two rows heated); an 11-speaker Bose audio system features a six-CD changer; an audible alert system warns of any impending collision when you're in reverse, and the OnStar communications package offers help on everything from summoning roadside assistance to making restaurant reservations. Those and many other small touches combine to make this a Cadillac original.
ALSO CHECK OUT Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX470, Toyota Land Cruiser, Range Rover, Mercedes ML430/320.ge includes heated seats, headlight washers and a ski bag that protects the interior.

Volvo also checks in with a completely new wagon, an update of its popular Volvo V70 Cross Country ($36,675). You expect safety and practicality from Volvo; but this model is smooth and refined, as well. Of course, there are next-generation air bags aplenty, but the interior is reminiscent of the luxury S80, with leather bucket seats and secondary audio controls on the wheel. The rear seats fold in a clever 40/20/40 configuration, making it easy to stow skis inside and still carry four passengers in comfort.

You knew it wouldn't be long before Volkswagen turned the Passat into a snow crawler, given the ski-country popularity of sister-brand Audi's A4 Avant. Like the sedan, the Volkswagen Passat 4Motion Wagon ($27,850) is available only with an auto-stick transmission.
ALSO CHECK OUT Audi A4 and A6 Avant Quattro, Mercedes Benz E320 4 Matic.

TRADITIONAL MID-SIZED SUVs
Conventional SUVs are not disappearing. Despite its recent tire recall, Ford's Explorer has been the best seller for 10 years running, and a ground-up redesign with a 25-hp bump in its V8 engine debuts shortly after New Year's Day (price not available).

The Explorer had already been slated to incorporate larger, more rugged tires before the delamination problem surfaced, and a lowered front bumper better matches that of a car in a collision (good news for car occupants). Like all new go-anywheres, the Explorer grafts features from other vehicle genres: such niceties as third-row minivan-like seating, larger door openings, lower step-in height and optional adjustable accelerator and brake pedals for shorter drivers. The rear lift-glass is lower, closer to shopping-cart height for easier loading of cargo. Snow drivers might want to place orders later in the year, when stability-control becomes available.
ALSO CHECK OUT Jeep Grand Cherokee w/Quadra Drive, Nissan Xterra, Toyota Sequoia, Mitsubishi Montero, Nissan Pathfinder/Infinity QX4.

LUXURY UTES
Is there a price barrier for SUVs? Considering Americans don't flinch at $2 for a bottle of water, perhaps $40,000-plus isn't absurd. Lincoln has done well with the Navigator, as have Mercedes with its ML series and Toyota/Lexus with its Land Cruiser/LX 470 combo. Now, GM seeks a cut of the action with a completely new Cadillac Escalade (about $50,000).

Don't confuse this Escalade with the made-over Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon that Cadillac rushed to market two years ago. It has a massive V8, 345-hp engine, and stability-control is standard. It's a chromed behemoth meant for big¿or just wealthy¿suburban families, with roomy seating for eight in three rows. Removable third-row seats¿split 50/50¿give it flexibility. But it's more than room you're paying for. The seats are leather-lined (the first two rows heated); an 11-speaker Bose audio system features a six-CD changer; an audible alert system warns of any impending collision when you're in reverse, and the OnStar communications package offers help on everything from summoning roadside assistance to making restaurant reservations. Those and many other small touches combine to make this a Cadillac original.
ALSO CHECK OUT Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX470, Toyota Land Cruiser, Range Rover, Mercedes ML430/320.