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.
The Escalade is not what Cadillac wanted or expected. It had hoped to wait a year or two and then introduce a trend-setting sport-ute, but with the success of arch-competitor Lincoln's Navigator, it needed an SUV in a hurry. So it dressed up a GMC Yukon Denali from its sister division and hoped for the best.
The best part of the Escalade is all the thoughtful extras tucked inside the cabin. It has the fabulous OnStar communications system, which, at the push of a button, connects you with a human being who will dispatch rescue services in the event of an emergency—or simply help you find your way when you're lost. The Escalade also has heated front and rear seats, a dual audio system that lets the kids listen to a different source via headphone jacks and control volume and radio station selection from the rear seat. That makes the Escalade incredibly popular with teenagers. Too bad the rest of the vehicle doesn't match up. The powertrain is GM's aging but muscular 225-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 with a suspension that works best when travelling in a straight line. The Escalade bounces and rolls when taken off road, and it neeeds to be gently nudged into turns.
Not even Lincoln could have predicted the Navigator's wild success. When it borrowed sister Ford's Expedition and added that fabulous Lincoln chrome grill to the front, it couldn't have imagined how captivated the country club set would be.
But why not? With its third row of seats, it has created an upscale and sporty alternative to the mini-van. And while it's not a Hot Rod Lincoln, its 5.4-liter V-8 packs 300 hp, which moves it along quite nicely and can tow 8,300 pounds. Considering its girth, the Navigator handles adequately when cornering and off-roading.
But what the Navigator does best is accommodate its passengers in comfort, style and safety. For small moms driving this big vehicle, there are power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals and large running boards for easy entry and exit. Bump-and-stop parking is eliminated with the addition of reverse sensors that beep with increasing frequency when the vehicle closes in on fixed objects.
The New Behemoth
Ford excursion Move over, Gulliver, there's a new giant in town. Ford's Excursion is longer, wider, taller and heavier than the 65-year-old full-size SUV champ, General Motors' Suburban, which has had the growing giant segment to itself. Some find the Excursion's size obscene, but if you need to move a ski team or a large family, there's room for nine. Moreover, adults can fit in the third row with reasonable comfort and a fairly good view of what's going on up front thanks to the slightly elevated deck. Climbing into the third row is surprisingly easy: A clever entry system slides the center seats forward.
The Excursion has whopping cargo space—almost 50 cubic feet behind the third-row seats—and its capacity more than triples when its center seats are folded forward and its rear seat is removed—a task one person can manage, thanks to a set of rollers. The 4WD models are equipped with a 6.8-liter V-10 that churns out 310 hp.
MSRP $40,880 (LE 4X4)
Subaru Forester It's almost 3 years old, but the Forester continues to stand alone as a "ute-like car"—as opposed to the "car-like utes" to which it is frequently compared (Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV 4). Hence its inclusion here with other unique utes.
Styled much like an Outback, but with high-rise roof and truck-like front-end, the Forester will be more at home tackling a snowy suburban parking lot in Denver than the Pike's Peak Hill Climb. The power plant is downright modest (a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, producing 165 hp), and it lacks low-range gearing. But it is not meant for off-roading, and that gives it a distinct advantage over most SUVs on pavement, where it is smooth, stable and controlled. Its car-like demeanor extends to its low center of gravity and its meeting all Federal safety standards for passenger cars.