Snow Driver: Unique Utes, Sports-Car SUVs

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When the sport utility vehicle (SUV) market heated up in the early Nineties, many auto manufacturers were caught flatfooted¿much the way many ski manufacturers were a few years ago when the super-sidecut ski concept exploded.

With skis, most companies were able to get updated designs to market within a year or two. New vehicles aren't as easy: It can take five years or more for new models to make it from concept to showroom.

Auto manufacturers met the populist rise of SUVs with one of three approaches: Those who could do so dropped a passenger compartment on top of a pickup chassis better designed for hauling firewood than people; others went to work designing all-new vehicles; the rest sat on the sidelines, hoping the American appetite for SUVs would diminish.

It didn't. Instead the reality of what an SUV is¿or can be¿has broadened. First came sporty "cute utes"¿less expensive, personal micro-machines such as the Chevy Tracker, Honda CR-V and Toyota's RAV 4. Then came luxury utes such as the Lexus LX 470 and the Mercedes M Class, pioneering a new niche with competent off-road prowess, excellent on-road ride quality and the interior splendor expected from marquee brands.

Today, with SUV sales showing no sign of slowing, manufacturers are rushing new SUV mutations to market. Virtually every significant car and truck manufacturer will have an SUV of some type in its lineup within three years, including models from such unlikely players as Porsche and Volkswagen (a joint project). In the past two years, American luxury brands Cadillac (Escalade) and Lincoln (Navigator) have introduced new utes. BMW promises an "ultimate driving machine" experience when its X5 debuts later this year. Meanwhile, other long-time SUV manufacturers are trying to broaden their appeal with niche SUVs. Isuzu (VehiCross) and Nissan (Xterra) are chasing the young outdoor crowd, while Ford (Excursion) is taking dead aim at GM's Suburban clientele with an even bigger ark.

Where will it stop? It depends on America's appetite for sport-utes¿and what your definition of one is. While most SUVs are trying to become more car-like, some small pickup trucks are trying to become more SUV-like. Nissan's Frontier Crew Cab is a first stab at this new genre. Its cab now has a pair of small front-hinged rear doors and a real rear bench seat, while the bed has shrunk to a stubby box. Chrysler's PT Cruiser, slated to appear late next year as a 2001 model, is reminiscent of a Woody wagon (sans wood cladding) but with design cues borrowed from the company's Plymouth Prowler hot rod. Chrysler calls it a "flexible activity vehicle" and is expected to eventually offer a 4X4 version.

In the meantime, here's a look at some of the new SUVs that have recently arrived in showrooms or are expected in the next few months.

BMW X5
Just so you know this isn't your brother-in-law's SUV, BMW has coined its own acronym¿SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle)¿for the sleek X5, which debuts in late November. Like all BMWs, this vehicle begs to be driven hard and fast.

The 4.4-liter V-8¿same as that in the 540 and 740 sedans¿will be the only engine available initially, with less expensive six-cylinder versions due next year. The transmission is a five-speed auto-stick. The engine powers a center differential that splits torque front and back, and four-wheel traction is controlled by selective braking to any slipping wheels. The X5 combines an all-independent suspension with BMW's performance dynamics, including stability control and a hill-descent control system to provide exceptional traction on slippery surfaces. Inside, it's loaded with creature comforts, including secondary controls on the steering wheel and copious storage space. Skiers will love the ski-sack pass-through in the rear seatback.
MSRP $49,970

Mercedes ML 55
After drumming its ML430 and 320 to the head of the luxury SUV paradde, Mercedes charged its designers with putting some "super" in the sport-utility category. And if you haven't already put down a deposit on an ML55, you'll probably be standing in line for what will most likely be the hottest limited edition SUV ever when it arrives this fall. Mercedes has infused the muscular-looking ML55 with an advanced 5.5-liter V-8 that churns out more than 340 hp. It hits 60 mph in less than 7 seconds and tops out at nearly 150 mph. Yes, it goes off-road, too, albeit at slower speeds.

The ML55 has a "smart" electronic five-speed automatic transmission that adapts to a wide variety of driving situations and individual driving styles. The transmission computer can discern uphill and downhill grades, adjusting to prevent annoying back-and-forth shifts on long inclines and to delay upshifts on descents in order to allow engine-braking. Like all M-Class SUVs, it also senses wheel-slip and brakes those wheels accordingly. It delivers maximum torque to the tires with the best grip¿even when three wheels lose traction. Meanwhile, its stability-control technology detects an impending spin or slide and applies selective braking to keep the car headed on its intended path.
MSRP $64,000