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Mini-SUVs are starting to max out

By Marc K. Stengel

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Welcome to the Age of Diminishing Returns. As the SUV trend reaches the saturation point, more and more varieties of sport/ute make their way to market offering fewer--and more narrowly defined--distinctions between 'em all.

The following selection of mini-SUVs makes a perfect case in point. In their zeal to micro-size sport/utes to entry-level budgets and tastezxs, these manufacturers have succeeded best of all in crafting reduced-capability vehicles meant for specialized uses.

Suzuki Vitara JX+

As a segue from the bold debut of Suzuki's V6-powered Grand Vitara in early '99, a less grand, four-cylinder variant was snuck into the lineup midway through the year. Readers will recall the favorable impression Grand Vitara made as a rugged, albeit small, SUV boasting a 2.5-liter V6, a true four-wheel-drive transfer case, and a tough-truck pedigree. Now Suzuki adds a denatured Vitara version with a 2.0-liter, 127-horsepower four. Suddenly, 28-horses lighter and sapped further by an automatic four-speed transmission on my tester, Vitara is a candidate for Viagra.

Funny how a slower pace of punier performance allows time to notice things that didn't matter so much before. For one thing, the Vitara is small. Very small--and that's not all bad. Despite its truckish ladder frame and strut suspension, the tiny Vitara is fairly nimble on the road, and its slim 21 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the second row does open up to nearly 45 cubes when you fold and tumble the seats. Moreover, the four-door, five-seat layout is easy to scamper in and out of.

With the right amount of image spin, small and pokey are perfectly compelling arguments in favor of the Vitara--after all, there's less risk of exceeding one's driving abilities and more chances of squeezing into tight parking spots. Ultimately, however, I'll bet that the opportunity to get into a moderately well-equipped sport/ute (with standard A/C, alloy wheels, power conveniences, etc.) for just $19,429, as tested, is the most compelling argument of all. If Suzuki can exploit the me-too mania for sport/utes with a perfectly functional model that comes in under the magic threshold of 20-grand, more power to 'em--although a little more of that power underhood sure would be nice.

Chevrolet Blazer 2-door 2WD

By comparison, the 190 horses underhood Chevy's base-model Blazer represent a quantum performance shift. Even more important is the torque rating of 250 ft.-lbs., which is almost double what both the Suzuki and Honda's CR-V can muster. Torque is the primary concern in our stop-and-go commuter world; it's also the key to enjoying all those recreational toys that people like to trailer behind themselves.

For '99, Chevy's Blazer has--gratefully--resisted much change. Its chief highlight is that it embodies years of accumulated expertise in SUV technology, dating back to the original Blazer's debut in 1982. As a concession to the price competition of so many upstarts invading the category, Chevy has stickered its base-model, two-door, two-wheel-drive Blazer at $18,470. That's pretty impressive, and so is the $2,000 option package that combines upscale LS trim with CD audio and power conveniences. It took another grand to get the auto transmission, $130 for an overhead console, and $125 for radio controls on the steering wheel--resulting in an as-tested total of $22,250. Not a bargain, but competitive. Of course, you don't get four-wheel-drive, but you do get much nicer ride comfort and handling feel--on pavement only, of course.

You also only get two doors for a five-seater vehicle. And for anyone who intends to shuttle more than one front-seat passenger around town, you'll probably only get the same two days' worth of patience that I had with this punitive layout. Here again we see the power of diminishing returns: The Blazer may well be a more powerful and roomy SUV in comparison to the spate of new minis. But to remain competitive in price, Chevy has had to revert to rear-wheel drive and lopping off two doors. Such is the allure of sport/utilities that you can be assured some buyers will never notice that a Blazer with only two doors and pavement-only two-wheel-drive is neither very sporty nor particularly utilitarian.

Honda CR-V 4WD EX

And then Honda stepped up to the plate. In its first at-bat in the mini-SUV leagues last year, little-Honda-that-could swatted a home run with its Civic-based CR-V. Far from being a great rock 'n' roller for serious off-road use, the CR-V is nevertheless a jewel-like example of too-clever-by-half engineering.

Lift the hood, and you'll find a 2.0-liter twin-cammer with 20 more horsepower for '99. Think about that: When the CR-V debuted last year, it had the same displacement and horsepower as the four-cylinder Vitara. Now it makes 146 horsepower, thanks to some very clever engine massages. But look--torque is still Vitara-level puny, at 133 ft.-lbs. So, yes, CR-V does breathe deeper and rev stronger, but it still can't pull out of its own way.

Just the same, there's a lot to like with the CR-V. The interior is so perfect and efficient that it reminds me of the space-station decor in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has about as much liveliness too. But four doors, five seats, and boxy cargo spaces ranging from 30 to 67 cubic feet are a testament to Honda's special knack for problem-solving.

The CR-V's suspension and powertrain are likewise unique: Instead of less articulate strut- or leaf-type layouts, CR-V uses race-car-derived double wishbone suspensions front and rear. And its automatic four-wheel-drive system remains in front-drive mode until conditions automatically call for rear traction. By contrast, the Suzuki's shift-on-the-fly transfer case requires manual engagement from two-wheel/rear-drive to 4WD. The Honda system is more idiot-proof, but thanks to this year's higher engine pep, the Honda is also prone to front wheelspin when accelerating from a stop. The "Real Time 4WD" system isn't quick enough to catch it.

For four-wheeler traditionalists, that telltale chirp from the front tires is a pesky reminder of how far real off-road technology--and technique--have been diluted by cute little toy trucks like the CR-V. But as it rounds the bases after another best-selling year with its mini-SUV, Honda's not likely to care much what the traditionalists think.

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