What I'm Driving At: Toolin' Around

'Tis the season for jaunting, when thoughts turn to the outdoors and car shoppers finally consider, "All right, maybe it is time to jump aboard the sport/utility bandwagon." I've got nothing against recommending a good ol'-fashioned truck if that's what the shopper genuinely wants. It is important to remember, however, that a truck is what you're buying when you put your "X" on the dotted line for an SUV. Respecting that distinction is important if you intend to be happy with your purchase: A truck is a tool, and if you need that kind of tool, you're gonna love it. If you're looking for luxury, comfort, status, or some kind of supernatural ability to defeat the elements and certain laws of physics, an SUV is likely to disappoint in ways ranging from mild to spectacular.The following comparison of four SUVs is certainly not intended as an exhaustive review of the compact sport/utility category. By some counts, the category includes 35 to 40 different models. But even this four-way SUV summary can be instructive, particularly in the way manufacturers are attempting to satisfy nearly insatiable customer demand with a bewildering array of features and sticker prices. The contestants, please:* Chevrolet Blazer, 2WD 4-door--$26,545* Jeep Cherokee Country, 4WD 4-door--$27,970* Mitsubishi Montero Sport LS, 4WD 4-door--$30,410* Isuzu Rodeo LS, 4WD 4-door--$30,635All of these SUVs boast six-cylinder power--in fact, three of them share 190-horsepower ratings. The Mitsubishi's 3.0-liter V6 is the smallest of the lot and, accordingly, manages just 173 horsepower. (At only 3.2 liters, the Rodeo's V6 manages the pluckiest performance in matching the output of the 4.0-liter Cherokee and the 4.3-liter Blazer.) Ironically, it is the Blazer that musters the group's best mileage, posting 17 miles per gallon/City and 23/Highway. It does so (despite the old-fashioned pushrod engine design) thanks to Chevy's proprietary engine-management technology, called Vortec.The Blazer also offers the finest, most car-like ride of this bunch--but understand that with only two-wheel-drive, it's the orange among these apples. Of course, 4WD is available in the Blazer (for about $1,700 more), and each of the other SUVs also comes in 2WD (at similar savings). Even so, GM has devoted the most attention to the road-ride of its SUV (regardless of the number of wheels being powered). And since some 90 percent of SUV owners never go off-road anyway, comfort on the pavement is one of the Blazer's most persuasive selling features.In contrast, the Jeep Cherokee (not to be confused with the newer, plusher Grand Cherokee, which costs thousands more) rides like a tank. But among this Gang of Four it's also the Most Likely to Succeed whenever serious trail-busting is at issue. Its venerable straight-six churns out 225 gut-wrenching foot-pounds of torque, and the full-time Select Trac 4WD system virtually never takes "no" for an answer. On the road, though, the Cherokee feels like the clodhopper that it is, transmitting every road shock with a lumbering shimmy-shake throughout the chassis.To be fair, the Cherokee is quite a success story. Even though this Country edition represents substantial "freshening" for '97, this is basically the same Cherokee that debuted in '84, setting a new standard for all-'round versatility. It was quite something 13 years ago to combine seating for five with a mountain goat's scamper factor. For most of today's SUV shoppers, however, the ability to scamper freely through fen and forest takes a backseat (as it were) to a comfortable tush during long hauls down road and highway. But what the heck--Chrysler has long since earned back its development and tooling costs for the Cherokee. As long as (more than) a few folks still want one, why not keep taking their money?The same strategy goes for the Rodeo, in fact. For years, Isuzu's compact SUV topped the charts as best-selling import in the category. Now it's made in the U.S. and enjoys some long-awaited improvements like shift-on-the-fly 4WD; but it's essentially a decade-old design that has withstood the ravages of time. The Rodeo, too, is an irrepressible off-roader, and it actually feels a lot more nimble than Jeep's stump-pulling Cherokee. Its road ride also tends toward "harsh," but the interior is more comfortable and versatile than the Cherokee's. There's more rear-seat leg room, for example, and the rear seatback splits 60/40 for different cargo/passenger combinations. A rear-mounted spare tire saves precious cargo room, but manipulating it in conjunction with the tailgate is fraught with a Keystone Kops-complexity that can lead to pinched fingers.Mitsubishi's Montero Sport is the Johnny-come-lately of the bunch. Predictably, it's modern in both styling and feel; and even though it seats only five, it proffers more cargo space than the full-size, seven-passenger Montero that spawned it. Although I preferred the Blazer's 2WD road manners overall, the Montero Sport was the best-riding 4x4 in this bunch. Its interior, too, seems the most creative blend of function and convenience. Yes, engine power noticeably trails the rest of the pack, but the motor is quieter than the similarly sized, more powerful Rodeo V6.My chief complaint with the Montero Sport is with its price. Thirty grand should be absolute tops for this compact SUV category, no matter how up-to-date and fancy the new Mitsubishi is. And Isuzu should be whipped for topping $30,000 with its top-of-the-line LS, even if its lesser-equipped siblings are lesser-priced. Since even the Blazer (similarly equipped) would cost more than $28,000 with four-wheel-drive, the Cherokee Country suddenly becomes this group's value leader--Jeep's intention all along.If you need a truck, buy one; and if you think you want an SUV, just remember that it's really a truck with a trendy new image popularized by soccer-moms and -dads. Most of all, remember for heaven's sake that truck-based vehicles like SUVs are in many ways cheaper to build (and therefore more profitable to sell) than comparably priced cars. So be sure you do the deal rather than be done in by the deal.Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at 615.385-2930 or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.[Image] New Kid on the Rock '97 Mitsubishi Montero Sport LS 4WD, 3.0-liter V6, 173 HP, MPGs 18/21, $30,410


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