by Greg Wilson

Cute-utes growing in popularity

If you’re in the market for a 2001 sport-utility vehicle, chances are you’re not looking for something like a ‘Canyonero’- the big, gas-guzzling SUV satirized in the ‘Simpsons’ TV show that’s “twelve yards long and two lanes wide, sixty-five tons of American pride..”

No, it’s more likely that you’re considering a compact SUV, like the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. Compact SUV’s are attracting an increasingly larger share of the SUV market – no less than nine new compact SUV’s have been introduced in the past five years – four of them for the 2001 model year – and more are on the horizon.

The growing popularity of compact SUV’s may be attributed to their lower price and better fuel consumption – most have standard four cylinder engines – and the fact that they’re easier to drive than heavier, mid-size and full-size SUV’s. Most compact SUV’s have unit body construction and a fully independent suspension which provides a car-like ride and stable handling with less body roll and choppiness than larger SUV’s.

In terms of size, compact SUV’s are generally taller and shorter than mid-sized cars like the Honda Accord. The most popular compact SUV, the Honda CR-V, is about twelve inches shorter than a Honda Accord sedan, but is almost as wide and about ten inches taller. This boxy shape provides considerably more headroom (especially for rear passengers), a higher driving position for better outward visibility, and more cargo space. But with a shorter wheelbase and a narrower width, rear legroom is not quite as generous and the back seat is better suited to two passengers rather than three. Though the CR-V’s step-in height is higher than the Accord, it is lower than bigger truck-based SUV’s.

Many compact SUV’s lack a low-range gear for serious off-road driving – but let’s be honest here, the typical compact SUV owner spends the majority of their driving time on solid pavement. The all-wheel-drive capabilities and higher ground clearance of compact SUV’s are more likely to be used for extra traction on the way up to the cabin or for negotiating an unploughed side street in winter than for tackling a tortuous mountain trail.

Ten of the thirteen compact SUV’s mentioned here are imports, and with the exception of Mazda and Suzuki, they all offer a 3 year/60,000 km complete warranty and a 5 year/100,000 powertrain warranty. Mazda, Suzuki, and Ford have a standard 3 year warranty but do not offer a five year powertrain warranty. Jeep began offering a five year powertrain warranty for the 2001 model year.

While most compact SUV’s have standard four cylinder engines, two are available with optional six cylinder engines and four of them with standard six cylinder engines. Seven offer a traditional part-time 4WD system with a Low Range gear (however, four of these are Suzuki Vitara models or its derivatives).

Here’s a brief rundown on what’s available, their features, and price ranges. (Note: prices range from base trim level to top trim level – some options and features may be over and above these prices.)

Honda CR-V $27,000 – $29,500

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Canada’s best-selling small 4-door SUV, the CR-V is noted for its roomy interior which features a ‘walk-thru’ design between the front seats to the rear bench seat. Based on the Civic platform, the CR-V offers a comfortable ride due to its fully independent double wishbone suspension, standard 15 inch tires and a comparatively long wheelbase. The CR-V has excellent outward visibility from the driver’s seat, a car-like ride, and roomy cargo area. The CR-V includes a standard 146 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine which offers fuel consumption of 10.9 l/100 km (26 mpg) in the city and 8.9 l/100 km (32 mpg) on the highway. Unlike some of its competitors, the CR-V is not available with a six cylinder engine.

The CR-V’s all-wheel-drive system runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time, sending power to the rear wheels when front wheels lose grip. In very slippery conditions, such as ice or loose gravel, this system can provide a momentary pause in grip as power is transferred to the rear wheels.

Unique CR-V features include a column shifter for the automatic transmission (which allows the walk-thru design), a folding table between the front seats, and a removeable picnic table under the rear cargo floor. The spare tire is mounted on the rear tailgate which swings out sideways towards the curb.

CR-V’s come in three trim levels: LX ($27,000), EX ($28,000) and LE ($29,500). Base models include air conditioning, but have rather ugly, standard black bumpers. Though it’s the most popular compact SUV, it is one of the oldest, having been introduced in 1998.

Toyota RAV4 $23,260 – $33,965

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Redesigned for 2001, the four-door RAV4 is bigger than the previous model, but still not quite as big as a CR-V. (The two-door RAV4 has been discontinued).

As before, the RAV4 offers an unusually low cargo floor which makes it easy to load and gives it a surprising amount of cargo space. In addition, the 2001 RAV4 has new sliding/flip-and-fold/removeable 50/50 split rear seats that add tremendous versatility. The spare tire is mounted on the rear tailgate which, like the CR-V’s, swings out sideways towards the curb.

The RAV4′s revised 2.0 litre four cylinder engine with variable valve timing now puts out 148 horsepower, up from 127. Fuel consumption is better than average in this class: 10.5 l/100 km (27 mpg) in the city and 8.1 l/100 km (35 mpg) on the highway. A V6 engine is not offered as an option.

The RAV4′s revised all-wheel-drive system has a new viscous coupling centre differential that sends engine power to all four wheels all of the time, improving grip and traction in slippery conditions. The new RAV4 is fun to drive around town, in part because of its unusually light, quick variable-assist steering, responsive engine, and nimble handling. The optional four-speed automatic transmission is responsive and smooth – it even shifts down a gear when coasting down a hill. Outward visibility is great – the rear tire is mounted low enough so as not to hinder vision – even the rear headrests have holes to improve visibility.

The previous uninspired dashboard has been replaced with a sporty, multi-tone dash design with three prominent instrument pods, a protruding centre control panel with metallic-like trim, dimpled vinyl door trim, and a sporty transmission floor-mounted shift-lever. Fit and finish is much better than before, although the interior design is fairly aggressive.

RAV4′s come in one trim level with three available option packages including a new Limited model with leather. Prices range from $23,260 to $33,965. Unfortunately, air conditioning is lumped in with a $3,343 option package which includes power windows and keyless entry. A RAV4 with automatic transmission and air conditioning goes for $27,895 plus freight.

Subaru Forester $27,095 – $31,795

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Arguably the quickest, best-handling, and most car-like compact SUV with a four cylinder engine, the Forester is based on the Impreza sedan platform. Its 165 horsepower 2.5 litre horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine is bigger and more powerful than its four cylinder competitors while fuel consumption of 10.8 l/100 km (26 mpg) in the city and 7.4 l/100 km (38 mpg) on the highway is actually better than some of its competitors with smaller engines. The Forester offers a fully independent MacPherson strut suspension, and full-time four-wheel-drive that maintains a constant 50/50 front/rear torque split (with the manual transmission) for instant traction in slippery conditions. With the automatic transmission, up to 80% of the torque can be sent to the front or rear wheels, depending on road conditions.

The Forester has a lower ride height and lower step-in height than other compact SUV’s, and offers excellent outward visibility – there’s no spare tire on the rear hatchback. Standard 50/50 split rear seatbacks will fold down to increase cargo area, and the rear hatchback swings upwards, so it doesn’t block access to the curb. The Forester’s weak point is its smaller interior – rear legroom in particular is not generous, and cargo space is tighter.

Forester’s come in three trim levels, L ($27,095), S ($31,795), and S Limited ($35,195) – making them among the most expensive of the compact, four cylinder SUV’s.

Ford Escape $20,245 – $28,695

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All-new for 2001, the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute were jointly developed by Mazda and Ford, and are both built in the U.S.A. by Ford. Available with four or six cylinder powerplants, the Escape offers different exterior and interior styling to the Tribute, an easier steering feel and a softer suspension.

Escapes offer unit body construction, a fully independent suspension, and a fairly wide track, so ride and handling are considerably more car-like than the bigger Explorer. Despite its tall height, the Escape offers excellent stability and is fun-to-drive on a twisty road. A 130 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine is standard but Ford is expecting most buyers to opt for the 200 horsepower V6 engine, the most powerful engine in this class. Though this engine has plenty of get-up-and-go, it is somewhat unrefined when compared with other V6 engines in this class. The all-wheel-drive system features a unique push-button differential lock which locks in a 50/50 front/rear power transfer to improve traction on slippery roads.

A roomy interior includes plenty of rear headroom and legroom, folding rear seatbacks which create a flat load floor, and a unique lift-up rear hatch that includes a separate liftglass that will allow a 4X8 sheet of plywood. The Escape’s spare tire is mounted underneath the car rather than on the tailgate, so it doesn’t impede visibility to the rear.

Unlike most compact sport utes, the Escape is offered in both 4X2 (front-wheel-drive) and 4X4 (all-wheel-drive) models. XLS 4X2 models ($20,245) and XLS 4X4 models ($22,895) come with a standard 130 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine or optional 200 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 engine. XLT 4X4 models ($28,695) have a standard 3.0 litre V6 engine and automatic transmission, but not leather or moonroof.

Mazda Tribute $22,500 – $32,600

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Similar to the new Ford Escape, the Tribute offers a slightly more upscale appearance with standard painted bumpers, and a sportier driving experience due to slightly stiffer suspension tuning and more responsive steering. Some drivers may find the Tribute’s steering a bit too heavy though.

The Tribute, like the Escape offers two (Ford) engines, each one available with only one transmission choice: a 130 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission, or a 200 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 with a four-speed automatic transmission.

Base models offer front-wheel-drive – AWD models run in front-wheel-drive until they lose traction – then up to 50% of the power goes to the rear wheels. Tribute’s also feature a unique centre differential lock that locks in a 50/50 front/rear power transfer. Tributes offer a very roomy, well-equipped interior.

For $22,500, base DX four cylinder models include air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, 16 inch tires, and a one-piece folding seatback. DX-V6 FWD models are $25,400 and AWD models are $26,800. LX-V6 FWD are $27,900 and LX-V6 AWD Tributes are $29,300. Top-of-the-line ES models are $32,600.

Hyundai Santa Fe $25,250 – $29,250

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All-new for 2001, the Hyundai Santa Fe is based on the Sonata platform. It comes with a standard 185 horsepower 2.5 litre V6 engine and is the only compact SUV to offer a standard 4-speed ‘Shiftronic’ automatic transmission – the Shiftronic transmission allows the driver to shift gears manually by pushing forward or back on the floor shift lever.

The Santa Fe is one of the most refined small SUV’s – it’s V6 engine is quieter under acceleration than its V6 and four cylinder competitors. The interior is well-equipped and offers an expressive, attractive design, but the small buttons on the radio are difficult to operate.

About the same size as a Ford Escape, the Santa Fe is well-equipped for its base price of $25,250. In addition to the standard V6 engine and Shiftronic transmission, GL models include 16 inch tires and alloy wheels (with a full-size spare tire and alloy wheel), power windows, locks and mirrors, CD player, cruise control, roof rack, 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, rear wiper/washer, and two-tone bodyside cladding. ‘Next generation’ dual front airbags are standard and the passenger airbag has a sensor which detects if a small child, or no one, is sitting in the passenger seat, and then automatically disables the passenger airbag.

GLS models ($29,250) add leather upholstery, heated front seats, air conditioning, privacy glass, keyless entry, anti-theft system, front fog lamps and ABS. Feature for feature, the Santa Fe is the best value in the compact SUV class.

Kia Sportage $20,995 – $23,595

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The South Korean-built Kia Sportage offers a part-time four-wheel-drive system with a Low Range gear activated by a separate gear lever on the floor. The Sportage has a very roomy cabin, and offers attractive exterior styling. The interior design is attractive, but ergonomics and fit and finish are below average. For example, the buttons for rear wiper/washer on the dashboard are obscured by the right wiper stalk.

The spare tire is mounted on a separate gate which must be swung out of the way before the rear hatchback can be lifted up. The cargo area is not quite as roomy as other small SUV’s – and the 50/50 split folding seatbacks will fold down, but not flat. To create a flat loading floor, the entire rear seat cushion must be flipped forwards which means a person cannot sit in one rear seat while carrying a load on the other side.

The Sportage comes with a standard 2.0 litre four cylinder engine, but is not available with a V6 engine. With just 130 horsepower, the Sportage lacks grunt going up hills, and the engine is rather noisy under hard acceleration. Fuel consumption of 11.3 l/100 km (25 mpg) in the city is decent, but 10.3 l/100 km (28 mpg) on the highway is poor. Highway cruising is quiet and comfortable and around-town driving is helped by good outward visibility and the Sportage’s compact exterior dimensions.

Sportage models range from $20,995 for the base model to $23,745 for the EX model. With all options including leather seats, the price runs to $27,195 making the Sportage relatively inexpensive in this class.

Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Vitara/Suzuki Grand Vitara $20,795 – $32,695

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Compact SUV comparison car comparisons

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The four cylinder Suzuki Vitara and Chevrolet Tracker are now the only ones offered in two-door convertible and four-door hardtop bodystyles. Four-door Vitara’s and Trackers have a 2.0 litre four cylinder engine while the Suzuki Grand Vitara has a 155 horsepower 2.5 litre V6 engine.

Unlike most of their competitors, Vitara’s and Grand Vitara’s are built on a truck-like frame and offer a part-time four-wheel-drive system that includes a Low Range gear. Despite their traditional design, these Sidekick descendants offer a surprisingly tight, squeak-free chassis, comfortable ride, nimble handling, and a quiet cabin – in addition to excellent off-pavement ability.

The standard 127 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine is peppy and more refined than some, offering city mileage of 10.5 l/100 km (27 mpg) and highway mileage of 8.5 l/100 km (33 mpg). The Grand Vitara’s 155 horsepower 2.5 litre V6 is considerably quieter and smoother, and rates as one of the best V6′s in its class. Fuel consumption is surprisingly good for a V6: 12.3 l/100 km (23 mpg) in the city and 9.7 l/100 km (29 mpg) on the highway.

Four-door Vitara’s start at $20,995, Chevrolet Trackers start at $21,445, and Suzuki Grand Vitaras start at $24,495 going as high as $31,495 with leather and all options. A mid-level Tracker, for example, with air and automatic transmission can be bought for $24,395 plus $810 freight – but you have to take alloy wheels and a tilt steering wheel with the automatic transmission. Still, mid-level Vitaras and Grand Vitaras are relatively inexpensive in this class – though a standard 5 year powertrain warranty is not offered.

Suzuki XL-7 $28,995 to $33,995

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All-new for 2001, the Suzuki XL-7 is a basically stretched Grand Vitara with three rows of seats, a bigger, more powerful 170 horsepower 2.7 litre V6 engine, and a 3000 lb. towing capacity. The XL-7 (XL stands for ‘extra large’) is 19 inches longer than a Grand Vitara and about ten inches longer than a Ford Escape. It’s the only compact SUV to seat seven passengers, although the third row seat is only big enough for children. The split 70/30 second row seats and split 50/50 third row seats will all fold flat creating 73 cubic feet of space, more than in a Honda CR-V. The rear tailgate and rear-mounted spare tire swing sideways towards the curb, just like the RAV4 and CR-V.

Like the Grand Vitara, the XL-7 is easy to drive, offers good visibility, and is surprisingly quiet and comfortable on the highway. The engine is smooth and powerful but fuel consumption is a bit thirsty: 13.8 l/100 km in the city (21 mpg) and 10.9 l/100 km (26 mpg) on the highway. The interior is better than the Grand Vitara’s, particularly the new radio with larger, easier-to-see control buttons. Though the XL-7 doesn’t have a fully independent suspension, the ride and handling are exceptionally good, and it’s off-road performance in 4WD High or 4WD Low is exemplary.

The base model, which will retail for $28,995, includes the V6 engine, three rows of seats, manual transmission, air conditioning, ABS, power windows and locks, AM/FM/CD, 16 inch tires, and keyless remote. The optional 4-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely but I found the standard 5-speed manual transmission rather balky and the clutch action stiff. The XL-7 Plus model adds rear air conditioning with separate fan controls, 16 inch tires and alloy wheels, cruise control and a hard spare tire cover. Top-of-the-line Touring model adds sunroof, fog lamps, and rear spoiler – but no leather.

Nissan Xterra $28,498 – $32,998

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Introduced last year, the Xterra is based on the Frontier truck chassis with rear leaf springs, so it’s more truck-like than most of its competitors. With a standard 170 horsepower 3.3 litre V6 engine, part-time 4WD system, Low Range gear, and generous ground clearance, the Xterra offers superior off-road performance when compared with most compact SUV’s. But the step-in height is relatively high and the ride is choppier. The driver sits high, so visibility is very good. Front and rear headroom and legroom are adequate – rear passengers have raised ‘theatre seating’ and a stepped roofline which provides plenty of rear headroom. The dashboard design is simple with extra-large, easy-to-read numerals on the gauges and controls.

Due to its tall, boxy design and raised rear roofline, the Xterra has a lot of rear cargo room, and access to the cargo area is via an easy-to-lift-up rear hatchback. To make the cargo area even roomier, the standard split 50/50 rear seatbacks can be folded down – however, to create a flat loading surface, the rear seat cushions have to be removed and stored somewhere else in the vehicle.

Xterra XE base models start at $28,498. Standard equipment includes the 3.3 litre V6 engine, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, tachometer, tilt steering wheel, 50/50 split folding seatbacks, rear wiper/defroster, tubular side rails and tubular roof rack, retractable cargo cover and 15 inch tires. For this money, I would have expected power windows and locks to be standard, but they’re extra. Top-of-the-line Xterra SE models ($32,998) add all the power conveniences, an automatic transmission, 16 inch tires and alloy wheels, sunroof, fog lights, cruise control, six-disc in-dash CD changer, and steering wheel controls.

Jeep Cherokee $28,550 – $31,610

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The Cherokee is the grandaddy of compact SUV’s. It was the first to offer car-like unit-body construction way back in 1984. Redesigned in 1997, the Cherokee received an updated interior and a mildly revised exterior. For 2001, the base four cylinder engine has been dropped leaving the 4.0 litre inline six cylinder powerplant. An all-new Cherokee is expected next year.

With its classic angular styling, the current Cherokee lacks the contemporary look of its import competitors, but it offers some unique features: it’s available in two or four-door bodystyles; it’s available with standard part-time 4WD and optional full-time 4WD; and its standard 4.0 litre inline six cylinder engine is the biggest engine in its class with the best towing capacity: 2268 kg (5000 lb.). For such a big engine, fuel consumption is reasonable: 13.8 l/100 km (20 mpg) city and 10.0 l/100 km (28 mpg) highway. Due to its angular shape, interior space is roomy but the step-in height is higher than some and the rear doors are rather small.

2001 Cherokee Sport models start at $30,220, and four-door Limited models at $31,610. Standard features on base model includes part-time four-wheel-drive with Low Range, 15 inch tires, 5 speed manual transmission, air conditioning, tilt steering column, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors and keyless entry, roof rack, 15 inch tires, and rear window wiper/washer. Cherokee Limited models add a standard automatic transmission, 16 inch tires and alloy wheels and roof rack. The leather-equipped Classic model was discontinued for 2001, but leather is now offered as an option on the Limited. The Selec-Trac full-time 4WD system, which also includes part-time 4WD, is optional.

Editor’s choice

As a consumer who’s not going to do too much serious off-road driving, who prefers a car-like driving experience, and wants to keep his purchase price under $30,000, my choice would be a compact SUV with sporty styling, a full-time four-wheel-drive system, a four cylinder engine, an automatic transmission, good cargo-carrying capacity, and a good warranty. In looking over the choices, I discovered that there’s nothing that fits all of my needs! I like the Forester, but the rear seat is a bit cramped and the price is high. The closest would be the Toyota RAV4, in part because of its roomy cargo area and removeable rear seats, and in part because it’s fun to drive and gets good fuel economy. And when it comes time to re-sell it, I can expect the re-sale value to be high.

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