High Gas Prices Hurt Some, but SUVs Remain Popular Among Car Buyers

It has not been the best of times for sport-utility vehicles.

Dec. 3—It has not been the best of times for sport-utility vehicles.

For most of 2004, those bigger-than-a-mountain SUVs have been under attack from environmentalists and highway safety advocates who consider them fuel-wasting behemoths capable of crushing a midsize sedan in a crash that would leave only a small dent on the SUV.

And $2.35-a-gallon gasoline might be the worst advertisement for full-size SUV sales in the history of the segment. Nationwide surveys taken throughout the year showed prospective SUV buyers feeling negative vibes as regular unleaded gas prices have hovered around $2 a gallon and up.

But here's the thing: Too many motorists tend to lump all SUVs into the same pile. There are plenty of practical-size sport-utes on the market, and when you factor in crossover vehicles — which will be examined next week — it's entirely possible to buy a small-garage-friendly SUV that likewise gets pretty good fuel economy.

Also, it's important to remember that some households truly need a big SUV to haul people and cargo in a trip that would otherwise take three outrageously wasteful journeys.

The bottom line is that, despite the hits they've been taking, SUVs remain popular in California and throughout the nation. When all the 2004 sales numbers are in, there's every indication that SUVs once again will be the most popular segment among light trucks, which have so far outsold passenger cars in 21st century America.

Still, I confess that I tended to favor smaller, more fuel-efficient sport-utes among 2005 models making the Best Bets final cut this year. The subjective choices — open to argument among thousands of SUV owners throughout Northern California — were judged on safety features, cargo/people-carrying variations, engine choices, crash-test results, interior amenities, fuel economy ratings, exterior styling and overall convenience.

Heavy emphasis was put on how much SUV can be had for the dollar. And I was not able to get seat time in a few of the new 2005 offerings, including the Hyundai Tucson, Mercury Mariner and Saab 9-7X, which will be up for Best Bets consideration next year.

Here, in no particular order of preference, are the Best Bets choices in the 2005 SUV field:

The all-new Land Rover LR3 is being called the state-of-the-art in SUV evolution. That's not an exaggeration.

Uniquely styled, exquisitely engineered and equipped with features that make it an off-road wonder, the LR3 is arguably the most well-rounded SUV ever produced. And it's about 1,000 percent better than the Discovery model it replaces.

Where to begin? The LR3 can seat seven in a spacious interior cabin as luxurious as any Lincoln. When seats are folded, you can darn near load a living room into the high-roofline back end. A Jaguar-derived, 4.4-liter V-8 delivers a robust 300 horsepower. The attractive exterior skin covers a rugged body composed of aluminum, magnesium and steel.

Dynamic stability control and anti-roll systems make it sure-footed on rocks and mud, as does automatic Hill Descent Control. The LR3's Terrain Response System automatically adjusts for dozens of driving surfaces and conditions. The SUV can ride through more than two feet of water.

Spectacular? Yes. Affordable? Actually, the fare is not that bad for a loaded Land Rover. The SE model starts at $44,330; the uplevel HSE goes for $49,330.

Nissan made extensive upgrades in two favorites for 2005. A bigger and more powerful Nissan Pathfinder officially is separated from the giant-size Nissan Armada (called the Nissan Pathfinder Armada last year). Given what the Pathfinder now has and a price that's about $5,000 to $10,000 less than the Armada, the Pathfinder gets the nod.

Nissan's Xterra also was reworked for 2005, with more space for passengers and cargo in the back. The 255-horsepower V-6 moves the Xterra with authority off-road and on arrow-straight highways.

New hardware also can be found in the reworked-for-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The exterior styling is more contemporary, and the new, 3.7-liter V-6 base engine raises the power curve to 210 horses, compared with 195 on last year's in-line 6. The Cherokee's four-wheel-drive systems can do some very heavy lifting.

The all-new Chevrolet Equinox turned my head away from the other Chevy SUV offerings for 2005. Sure, it's a compact vehicle, but four attractive trim levels, a lengthy list of enjoyable options (including XM Satellite Radio) and a starting price as low as $21,000 combine to make the Equinox a tempting sport-ute.

Last year's SUV sensation, the Volkswagen Touareg, is no slouch in 2005. It can climb a mountain, tow a large boat and still look good at the country club valet parking stand.

Style, terrific luxury features and comparatively affordable stickers can be found on a trio of other Best Bets repeaters — the Lincoln Aviator, Acura MDX and Lexus RX 330.

Ford Motor Co. has taken its share of lumps with SUV recalls over the years, but it still makes a couple of good sport-utes that have improved with age. For 2005, the Ford Explorer gets enhanced stability control systems; so does Explorer's close cousin, the Mercury Mountaineer, but the latter retains its distinctive Mercury exterior styling.

For those who want a smaller ride, the Ford Escape — and its near-twin, the Mazda Tribute — is a logical choice, particularly with a sprinkling of interior upgrades for 2005. The biggest news in the Escape camp is the addition of a gas-electric hybrid built to battle gas pump price inflation.

Toyota's Highlander has charms similar to the Escape — manageable size and the availability of a gas-electric hybrid model — plus Toyota's legendary dependability.

GMC enhances its reputation as a primo builder of light trucks with its 2005 versions of the GMC Envoy and GMC Yukon. There's seemingly no cargo a GMC cannot carry; you even can take home a palm tree in the back of an Envoy XUV with the power-sliding rear roof. The full-size Yukon can be had with four-wheel Quadrasteer and 20-inch alloy wheels — fancy shoes on a nimble big boy.

The Dodge Durango, which underwent a major makeover last year, still pleases with spacious interior seating for seven and an available Hemi V-8 engine with 335 horsepower.

With the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Korean automaker has won converts with peppy performance, generous interior amenities and over-the-top warranties. It will be interesting to see if Santa Fe sales hold up with competition lined up on the same dealer lots — the new-for-2005 Hyundai Tucson starts at an affordable $17,500.

If customer satisfaction were the sole standard for SUV buying, the Honda Pilot might likely rule the roost. With five variations, seating for up to eight and enough available features to put it on a level very near its more expensive cousin, the Acura MDX, the Pilot should be part of any prospective SUV buyer's test-drive list.

Subaru touts its all-wheel-drive vehicles, but there's more than that in the Subaru Forester, the SUV that drives like an agile wagon. Five versions of the Forester cover a wide variety of SUV buyers' needs, and the 2.5-liter, turbocharged, flat-4 engine is a blast with its salty 210 horses.

Safety, power and rock-solid handling remain the hallmarks of the Volvo XC90. The Volvo's upgrades for 2005 include a new V-8 engine and a new six-speed automatic transmission.

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© 2004, The Sacramento Bee, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.