VMR Canada

Small SUVs 1990-1997

Compact, Efficient, and Fun.  These Older Small Sport Utes Still

Make Fun 3rd or 4th cars.

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

by Helen Hutchings

Unless you've been under a rock the last few years, you know that the sport utility market has been booming. A seemingly endless number of consumers are trading in cars and minivans for the modern incarnation of the station wagon.

Our last two issues have covered large and mid-size sport utilities. Recently, the market has seen an explosion in the sales of the smallest of SUV's. Jeep's Wrangler (the granddaddy of them all), the Suzuki Samurai and the Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker twins have been joined by Toyota's RAV4, Honda's CR-V, Kia's Sportage, and Suzuki's latest--and smallest--entry, the X90. More are on the way from most major manufacturers, and they'll begin hitting showrooms next year.

Most importantly for the car companies, these vehicles are attracting relatively young buyers. The theory goes that once you've got a customer, chances are you've got a better shot at selling him, or her, another vehicle when it's time to upgrade. So these are prized buyers.

Some of these vehicles, notably the RAV4 and CR-V, aren't really off-road vehicles. They are equipped with full-time four-wheel drive, but offer no low range for the rough stuff. And they are engineered to drive and ride like cars (especially the Toyota) as much as possible. That's not necessarily bad if that's what you're looking for, and in fact that is where this market segment appears to be headed. Consider them great bad weather on-road machines, but you should stay away from the Rubicon Trail.

Geo Tracker

GEO Tracker 1990-1997

Made by Suzuki, and until 1998 marketed by Geo, the Tracker is now sold under the Chevrolet name. The Geo nameplate has been retired. The Tracker is essentially a rebadged Suzuki Sidekick.

Initially, the Tracker was offered with either a steel or canvas roof to cover the 2-door, 4-passenger body. A 4-door wagon was added in 1996.

The part time four-wheel drive system has manual hubs on all but the upscale LSi models. A low-range transfer case Power comes from a 4-cylinder OHC motor with a choice of 5-speed manual or automatic transmission.

The Tracker began as a pricier version of the Sidekick, so watch used values closely.

Honda CRV

Honda CR-V 1997

Bigger than most small SUV's but still smaller than mid-size models such as Honda's own Passport, the CR-V has four cylinders, four doors and, due to the fact that it came well-equipped, very few options.

Unlike some others in this group, the CR-V has ample room for passengers and cargo alike. A unique feature is a cargo floor that folds out into a picnic table.

The four-wheel drive system is not geared for serious off-roading and a 4-speed automatic was the only transmission available. The soft suspension and unibody construction contribute to a passenger-friendly ride.

Jeep YJ

Jeep Wrangler 1990-1997

If you're looking for the off-road vehicle in this group, you've found it. Despite a complete makeover for 1997, easily identifiable due to the return to round headlights, the Wrangler remains true to it's World War II heritage of being a capable off-road vehicle that can handle seriously scary terrain.

Wranglers could be equipped with a four- or six-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic (six-cylinder only before '97). A two-speed transfer case brings the gearing down really low for the tough stuff.

The torquey 4.0 liter six is the engine of choice in terms of performance and reliability. Fuel-injection was added to the six in '91 and was a big improvement over the previous carburetored version.

Creature comforts improved markedly in '97, but if you're looking for car-like transportation, even the new Wrangler is not for you.

Kia Sportage

Kia Sportage 1995-1997

A Korean newcomer, the four-door Sportage was produced in two- and four-wheel drive versions.

Initially, some Sportages were equipped with a somewhat anemic 94hp engine. A new 130hp four-cylinder motor took care of that for the '96 model year. We strongly recommend that you look for a model with the more powerful engine.

The Sportage is user-friendly, but its small dealer network could present problems at service time.

Suzuki Samurai

Suzuki Samurai 1990 -1997

Suzuki arrived on American shores in the mid-eighties with a small soft-top SUV at a small price. Samurai wasn't really intended as a daily driver. It works best as a weekend getaway vehicle. It's cramped, uncomfortable and noisy. Think of it as a small, even less comfortable Jeep Wrangler.

This vehicle was America's re-introduction to a small, affordable utility vehicle. Consumer Reports rated the Samurai as unacceptable due to its tendency (according to CR) to roll over during emergency maneuvers. Any tall, short wheelbase vehicle will be less stable than a low-slung long-wheelbase vehicle (see sidebar). The Samurai was eventually exonerated.

Available only as a two-door, it was outfitted in two- and four-wheel drive versions. The little 1.3 liter 4-cylinder (with manual transmission only) could barely keep up with highway traffic, but was enough to move the little vehicle around in the outback, where is was extremely competent and could access spots others couldn't because of its diminutive size.

If you plan on bringing any kind of gear or luggage along, it's best to consider the Samurai a two-passenger vehicle.

Suzuki Sidekick

Suzuki Sidekick 1990-1997

This SUV offered two engine choices (both with four-cylinders), two bodies (two-door convertible and four-door wagon), and either two- or four-wheel drive. The four-wheel drive system had manual locking hubs (requiring you to get out and twist the hubs on the front wheels) until automatic hubs were equipped on the '96 Sport model. Manual and automatic transmission were offered.

Economical operation is one of this SUV's strengths, even those with four-wheel-drive. Build quality is not world class, however, and you'll likely be confronted by various squeaks and rattles on any test drive.


Suzuki X90 1996-1997

Not quite fish, not quite fowl - the X90 is a rather confusing little two-passenger vehicle with two- or four-wheel drive. It's lack of versatility has hurt sales, and used ones can be picked up cheaply.


Toyota RAV4 1996-1997

It comes as a two- or four-door and is more carlike than any vehicle in this group. A choice between manual or automatic transmission is offered to handle the 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine and was offered with either two- or full-time four-wheel drive.

With the RAV4, Toyota became the only manufacturer offering home-grown vehicles in the small-, mid- and large-size SUV segments.


4-Wheel Drive Systems

When is 4-wheel drive not? What is Select Trac, Control Trac, and Shift-on-the-Fly? What's a locking differential and what can it do for you? Why is this so confusing?

2-Wheel Drive (2WD) is just like it sounds - two wheels, either front, FWD, or rear, RWD, transfer the drive, or motive forces, to the ground.

4-Wheel Drive (4WD) is all four wheels actually driving the vehicle. 4WD can be of three types:

Full-time - always fully engaged

Part-time - the driver selects when to engage four-wheel drive - usually in slippery or off-road conditions only. Engaging on pavement can cause excess wear and tear on drivetrain and tires.

Automatic - an on-board computer deter mines when to engage 4WD.

Some older vehicles in this group required the driver to physically lock the front hubs to activate 4WD, a chore much like putting on chains -- it seems to happen only when the weather is the sloppiest or coldest and most miserable. Current systems have proprietary names but all have a selector switch or shifter inside.

Some of the less sophisticated systems may require bringing the vehicle to a halt or even backing a few feet to disengage, but none are difficult or inconvenient.

A locking differential (or differential lock) "locks" the power delivery to both wheels on an axle, regardless of traction conditions. Combined with a locking center differential, power is transmitted to all four wheels. Without this feature, power actually gets transmitted to the wheel with the least amount of traction.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD) on newer vehicles utilizes electronics which interface with traction control and anti-lock brake systems to automatically direct, and redirect, power to the wheel(s) which, at any given time, have the best traction. It is always engaged.



Feeling Tipsy?

Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), especially those equipped with 4-wheel drive, have a higher ground clearance than most automobiles. Because of this, 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. The extra mass of SUVs also contributes to the problem.

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

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