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.
Powered by Isuzu's 3.5-liter, 215-hp V-6, the VehiCROSS resembles a shortened, two-door Trooper with agility and attitude. Its pavement performance is superior to most SUVs and its techno styling¿brawny fender flares, rugged unpainted polypropylene lower body cladding attached with visible Torx screws, two-tone hood and airplane-type gas filler¿is strictly 21st Century. Uniquely, the VehiCROSS's spare tire is fully concealed inside the tailgate, bulging equally into the cargo compartment (where it unfortunately eats up precious storage space) and into the face of trailing vehicles, where it screams, "Look at me."
I drove one for a week and received more stares, thumbs-ups, horn-honks and questions from other drivers and pedestrians than when I prowled around in Porsche's new Carrera 4.
The Vehicross features an advanced Torque-On-Demand (TOD) 4WD system. It routinely delivers 100 percent of the power to the rear drive for optimal handling, but in the event of wheel slippage, it instantly divides torque front and back. Rear passenger seating is also unique. It's accessible only by contorting your body through a sliver of space behind the slide-forward front passenger seat, but once you're in, there's huge leg room.
Nissan calls the Xterra "a backpack on wheels." It's aimed at active, budget-minded Gen-Xers who use their vehicles as mobile storage bins for mountain bikes (optional dual interior mounts are available), snowboards, skis, sailboards and other outdoor sports gear.
The interior is strictly utilitarian. While other SUVs struggle to emulate plush sedans, the Xterra is outfitted with durable fabric seats (waterproof neoprene covers optional) and plenty of nooks and crannies for cargo storage. It's a midsize SUV¿longer, wider and taller than the Jeep Cherokee¿but priced more in line with mini-SUVs. It starts at about $17,000 and even the fully optioned 4WD model with the Pathfinder's 170-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 costs just $25,500.
The optional heavy duty roof rack comes with a unique safari basket for keeping mucked up stuff outside. The rack package also includes multiple floor hooks and ceiling tie-downs and a rear powerport. Yakima-designed integrated rack attachments for skis, snowboards, kayaks and bikes are also available.
The back-to-basics Xterra lacks fancy torque distribution systems, but it does have auto-locking front hubs and shift on the fly capability.