VMR Canada

Older Midsize Sport-Utilities


Note: This article appeared in a 1998 issue of Used Cars

SUVs come in several flavors - 2-wheel drive, part time, full time or automatic 4-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. Statistics indicate that most SUV owners neither need or use the 4-wheel drive capability of their vehicle. And they guzzle enough gas to put a smile on your friendly OPEC sheik.

So why is the public snapping them up, trading in far more efficient cars and minivans? Well, for one they offer an all-weather capability that most cars can't match. Most are versatile, with larger payload and towing capabilities than the largest cars. Because of their size and mass, they are perceived to be safer than cars.

But casting a critical eye at SUVs reveals some contradictions. Despite their size and bulk, many are not very space efficient. A minivan beats them hands-down.

On public roads, a modern front-wheel drive car with traction control will get you through all but the worst weather.

They're safer than cars if you hit something - or something hits you. But what about a car's better handling and accident avoidance capabilities? Doesn't that count for something?

So why buy an SUV? Well, SUVs are cool and in! Let's face it, they possess the outdoorsy, rugged look that Americans love. And they can tow and carry all the other stuff that we need to bring along to play in the big outdoors.

There are lots of SUV choices, and it seems that more are being added every month. For this issue we've assembled Part I of our SUV market survey - the immensely popular midsize segment. Part II, fullsize SUVs, will follow in the next issue.

Acura SLX 1996-97

Acura entered the sport utility marketplace by putting its mark, in the form of a new grille, wheels, and trim on Isuzu’s Trooper and making interior luxury features standard equipment. The Acura SLX is available only as 4-door, with part time 4-wheel drive, a 3.2 liter V6, and seating for five. Domestic competition such as the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe offer V8 power and, in the case of the Expedition, additional seating. You'll find reliable, useful, well-equipped transportation from an Acura SLX, albeit at a premium over the identical Trooper.

Chevrolet Blazer 1990-97

From the early ‘80s in what was then called the S-10 Blazer, this popular model has combined V6 power with 2-wheel or part time 4-wheel drive (without having to get out in the elements to lock hubs). Beginning in 1990, 2-door or 4-door versions were available. The engine compartment has received steady updates over the years, evolving from a rather weak and somewhat unreliable 2.8 liter V6 in the eighties to the robust and strong 4.3 liter Vortec V6 that resides there today. For 1995 it was renamed simply Blazer and received a full makeover. Sister division GMC offers a version called Jimmy. The most fully optioned version of GM’s mid-size SUV offerings is sold under the Oldsmobile Bravada name.

Ford Explorer 1991-97

The best seller, bar none, in this burgeoning segment, Ford’s Explorer consistently has combined the features buyers want at a perceived fair price with a reputation for reliability. This five passenger vehicle, which can seat six in some configurations, is powered by a V6 in 2- or 4-door body styles and offers a choice of 2wd only or part time 4wd. Explorer was introduced in 1991, was restyled in ‘95, an optional V8 engine coupled with permanent AWD was added in ‘96 and for ‘97 a SOHC V6, generating 45 additional hp over OHV V6, became another optional powerplant. Resale values remain some of the best in SUV segment as might be expected of this well-known best seller. The Explorer also spawned a luxurious clone, the Mercury Mountaineer.

GMC Jimmy 1990-97

GMC has always been the truck division of General Motors and its Jimmy was one of the very first midsize SUVs, available since early in the 1980s. For the ‘90s, Jimmy can be found as 2- or 4-door, 2-wheel drive or part time 4-wheel drive with Vortec V6 power and manual or automatic transmission. Model year 1995 brought the introduction of a completely redesigned Jimmy which enhanced passenger and driver ergonomics and ride isolation. All-wheel drive was available on some models. Regardless of on-road or off-road needs, Jimmy and sister clones Chevrolet Blazer and Oldsmobile Bravada are good values.

Honda Passport 1994-97

The fraternal twin of the Isuzu Rodeo, both are assembled at a joint venture plant in Lafayette, Indiana and little differentiates them aside from badging. Honda needed an entry into the hot SUV market fast, and this is how they did it. The Passport comes as a 4-door with V6 power. 2-wheel drive part-time 4-wheel drive versions were produced. Suspension, styling and amenities are directed to the "urban explorer", offering comfort and convenience while retaining a strong off-road look and good trail capabilities. Unless you absolutely have to have the Honda name we strongly recommend that you go for the Rodeo - it's cheaper and has a better warranty.

Infiniti QX4 1997

Take Nissan’s Pathfinder, rebadge and support it with the Infiniti customer service philosophy, make certain it is fully and luxuriously equipped, offer one engine -- a smooth but somewhat anemic SOHC V6, one 4-door body style and automatic 4-wheel drive, all standard. The ride is car-like but it’s also engineered to handle non-paved terrain. Only time will tell whether resale values will follow the historically steep depreciation curve of many other Infiniti products.

Isuzu Rodeo 1991-97

Slightly smaller in and out than its sister, Isuzu’s Trooper, the Rodeo seats five in a pinch. Equipped with part-time 4-wheel drive, shift-on-the-fly type of selection was available beginning with ‘96 models on the up-market LS model. Note that base S model and all pre-’96 models still requires the driver to exit the vehicle and manually lock the front hubs into 4-wheel drive mode. The S model houses an adequate 4-cylinder powerplant. It is testimony to Isuzu quality (and Honda's lack of anticipating the SUV explosion) that Honda cloned Rodeo into its SUV entry, the Passport, in 1994.

Isuzu Trooper 1990-97

Isuzu sold its first Trooper in 1981 and each successive model has improved on the original. The basic design continued through 1991. For 1992, the Trooper was completely revamped. The earlier versions ('90 and '91) are based on the original design and are a very different animal than the later models. Somewhat crude and very utilitarian looking, they nevertheless exude a certain charm and sense of purpose lacking in modern luxury SUVs. We like them a lot, but it is probably a good idea to stay away from the old GM 2.8 liter V6 installed in many models. By the way, GM owns almost 40% of Isuzu.

This is one of the more overlooked and underrated of the SUVs and often can be found used at good prices. Much of this has to do with the much publicized unacceptable rating Consumer Reports gave the '92 and up Trooper due to its tendency to roll over in one of their handling tests. Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cleared the Trooper of any design faults.

We believe the Trooper represents excellent value. The Trooper has useable and voluminous interior space, and comfortably seats five. It is well appointed and offers good performance both on- and off-road. Fit and finish is very good. So good, in fact, that Honda's luxury division, Acura, cloned the Trooper as its own sport utility, the SLX beginning with the 1996 model year. Trooper was revamped in ‘95, dropping the 2-door version in favor of 4-door access and added a more powerful DOHC V6 as an option to the SOHC V6. Part-time 4-wheel drive is standard with shift-on-the-fly control becoming available with 1996 models.

Jeep Cherokee 1990-97

The most versatile of the Jeep SUVs since its introduction in 1984 has been the Cherokee. It is very boxy and slightly smaller than many of those in this segment but will still seat 4 comfortably and five in a pinch. From the start, the Cherokee has been available as 2- or 4-door, in 2- or part or full time 4-wheel drive, with automatic or manual transmission and with 4 or 6 cylinder engines depending upon model and option group selected. A major redo didn’t come until the ‘97 model and calendar year so these later versions will not be a large part of the used market for awhile yet.

Jeep Grand Cherokee 1993-97

In spite of the name, the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee are two quite different vehicles. The Grand Cherokee is a slightly larger vehicle and available only as a 4-door wagon with one of Jeep’s iterations of full or part time 4-wheel drive. Initial offerings were equipped with a 6-cylinder engine, with the top-of-the-line Grand Wagoneer powered by a powerful V8. Subsequent years have offered both sixes and eights across the board, paired with an automatic transmission. These vehicles ride and drive exceptionally well, all the more amazing considering that they have solid axles front and rear. While reliability has been in question at times, on the used market these should not be overlooked, but if possible check service records to determine repair history.

Land Rover Defender 90 1993-95, 97

Short-lived U.S. availability may make this Land Rover a bit hard to find. It certainly helps make it expensive. It is a full time 4-wheel drive, 2-door, 4-passenger convertible with V8 power and manual transmission. In 1992 it was called the Defender 110, came with 4-doors and was quite an imposing presence wherever it went. ‘93s on are of the 2-door variety. With the Land Rover reputation for off-road prowess behind it, this is a purely recreational vehicle with lots of eye appeal.

Land Rover Discovery 1995-97

Basically replacing the Defender in the U.S. marketplace is the Discovery, a 5-door hardtop wagon with full time 4-wheel drive, V8 power and either manual or automatic transmission. Land Rover prices are high when new partially as a result of it being an import (made in England) and partly for its reputation, which is not for luxury but rather off-road ruggedness and utility. Repair and service costs are high as well, new or used.

Mazda Navajo 1991-94

Mazda (which is controlled by Ford) identified the growing SUV market and entered it in 1991 with a 2-door, 2-wheel drive or part time 4-wheel drive vehicle powered by a 4.0 liter V6. They called it the Navajo. Not surprisingly it closely resembled Ford’s Explorer because, as Mazda’s press material said, "The Navajo was designed and engineered by the Ford Motor Company...and is produced for Mazda by Ford in its Louisville, Kentucky assembly plant." The Navajo earned Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award in its introductory year. But by 1994 the Mazda/Ford marketing relationship was a bit strained (Ford wouldn't give them the 4-door version) and Navajo production ended.

Mercury Mountaineer 1997

A first-ever for Mercury but far from an untried product, the Mountaineer is cloned from Ford’s Explorer with added amenities. This vehicle was available only as 4-door and with only one engine, the 5.0 liter V8. Drive systems are a choice of 2-wheel drive only or all-wheel drive and all are mated to 4-speed automatic transmission. It’s an Explorer in Mercury clothing; special grille and badging, running boards, paint and trim and some interior creature comforts which are optional on Explorer are standard with this Mercury entry, thus making it worthy of consideration.

Mitsubishi Montero 1990-97

Montero became a 4-door in 1989, was redesigned in ‘92, the sleek & sporty Montero Sport was added for 1997 and the 4-door received restyling for ‘98 model year. V6 powered, the option of a second 6-cylinder engine with greater displacement was added in 1993. The operation of the part time 4-wheel drive, which Mitsubishi calls Active Trac™, offers drive variables adaptable to terrain and driving conditions. The Montero is big and boxy with a reputation for holding up well over the years and miles.

Nissan Pathfinder 1990-97

Nissan was once called Datsun. Remember? As Datsun they were building 4x4’s and selling them in this country in the early ‘60s. The Pathfinder was introduced in the late '80s with a 4 cylinder engine and 2-doors. Today it is a 4-door and power comes from a V6 with choices of manual or automatic transmission, and 2- or part time 4-wheel drive. The 4-wheel drive mode is not for paved surfaces and the selection of drive mode is made from the passenger compartment. Pathfinder has a solid and reliable reputation. Nissan completely redesigned and re-engineered this vehicle for the 1997 model year and Infiniti has a rebadged version for its first foray into SUV marketplace.

Oldsmobile Bravada 1991-97

This division of General Motors entered the SUV segment with a clone from the same platform as the Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy, but with a twist. Intended as a people mover with off-road abilities, Bravada entered with a long list of amenities standard including full time all-wheel drive. Bravada comes in one body style, a 4-door wagon, with V6 power and automatic transmission and a ride and suspension engineered for the open road. Bravada was updated to the new body style in 1996 after sitting out the 1995 model year.

Toyota 4Runner 1990-97

A strong seller with good reason, this vehicle competes for top spots with Ford Explorer and the GM trio, Blazer, Jimmy, Bravada. The second generation 4Runner was introduced as a 1990 model with 2- or 4-doors and 4- or 6-cylinder power. 2-wheel drive or part-time 4-wheel drive versions were produced with manual or automatic transmissions. The 4Runner has a muscular look and sits high off the pavement. It's one glaring deficiency: the back seat rests practically on floor, making it suitable for kids only. In 1994 all 4Runner’s became 4-doors. 1996 brought the latest redesign (as a '97 model) in 2- or 4-wheel drive with manual or automatic transmissions and a much improved rear seat!

Feeling Tipsy?

Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), especially those equipped with 4-wheel drive, have a higher ground clearance than most passenger vehicles. This means that, by definition, they have a higher center of gravity (Cg) than cars. While this places the driver of an SUV above traffic, enhancing visibility, it also means that, all things being equal, the vehicle is inherently less stable than one with a lower Cg. SUVs also tend to be heavier and taller overall than passenger cars, contributing to the problem.

While SUVs have made huge strides in comfort, handling, and responsiveness, they are still less responsive and sure-footed on pavement than most cars, especially in hard cornering, braking or avoidance maneuvers.

Awareness of these immutable physical laws will help SUV operators avoid unhappy consequences and provide a safer, more secure SUV experience.

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