Pod people 

As SUV fever rages, automakers prescribe a variety of remedies

As SUV fever rages, automakers prescribe a variety of remedies

I give in, already. Call 'em what you will—sport/utility vehicles, crossovers, sport wagons, whatever—the people pods have taken over our roads like an invasion of body snatchers. So long, family sedan; bye-bye traditional station wagon; sayonara minivan. It's a pod, pod, pod, pod world, so we might as well get used to it.

2004.5 Mitsubishi Endeavor Limited

In the midst of doom and gloom concerning Mitsubishi's very survival, the company's new Endeavor provides a dollop of good news. Its sales, if not actually growing, are at least not falling as fast as for certain other Mitsubishi stable mates.

Competence is why. Endeavor is one of those five-passenger SUVs that handles its people- and cargo-hauling chores competently and with some style. Granted, the Endeavor's pricing of $32,799 base/$33,694 as-tested tends to raise eyebrows. But keep in mind that this is for the all-wheel-drive powertrain and an upscale Limited package of trim and options (including $1,200 for a rear-seat DVD "theater"). A cheaper, front-wheel-drive model is also available for as low as $24,999.

Here's what you get for the moolah: Underhood is a 3.8-liter V6 from which Mitsu has newly coaxed 225 horsepower and 250 ft.-lbs. of torque. For trailer jockeys, that's good enough to tow 3,500 lbs., whereas inside, there's room for five occupants or anywhere from 41 to 76 cu. ft. of cargo. A respectable 8.3 inches of ground clearance qualifies the all-wheel-drive Endeavor for light off-roading.

Then again, here's what you don't get: There are no rear disc brakes on the Endeavor—only outdated rear drums. And because the Endeavor chunks in with 3,902 lbs. of curb weight, you don't get especially great fuel mileage either (17 mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway). What's more, that worthy horsepower output is dependent upon premium fuel.

Endeavor is stylish in a stand-out-from-the-crowd sort of way, although I find the interior—particularly the "center stack" in the dash—a tad gaudy. There's no particular thrill to driving the Endeavor, but its road manners are agreeable, pleasant, um, competent. Mitsubishi can certainly take pride enough in its Endeavor, but Endeavor is not the vehicle that's going to save this company's fortunes.

2004 Buick Rendezvous CXL Ultra

On occasion, I'm tempted to call Buick's crossover "truck" the Déjà-vu. We've seen this vehicle before, after all, in the form of Pontiac's laughably styled Aztec. A little makeover magic by Doctors Nip & Tuck, however, has done wonders, so that the Rendezvous only looks goofy from certain rare, odd angles.

It's hard to know what to make of this SUV. With a base-model 3.4-liter pushrod V6, the Rendezvous is porky (4,250 lbs.) and underpowered (185 hp, 210 ft.-lbs.). And yet it's also plush, comfy and cavernous. Rendezvous' cargo capacity ranges from 55 to 109 cu. ft.; and three-abreast seating in the rear is pleasantly roomy thanks to a long 112-in. wheelbase.

With a $29,370 base price, the all-wheel-drive Rendezvous CXL starts off fairly pricey. But that's before the optional Ultra package that bundles a "now-you're-talkin' " 242-hp V6 with literally dozens of other goodies like XM Satellite radio, 17-in. wheels, and heads-up speedometer/odometer display. As tested, the Ultra chimed in at $39,695. That single option package adds $9,640 to the bottom line.

Contrary to my instincts, I found the Rendezvous a pleasure to drive about town. With only seven inches of ground clearance, you can forget about even moderate off-roading; but in the guerilla warfare of urban commuting, this Buick's manners and creature comforts engender uninvited fits of calm.

I'm confident that Buick's original intention was to gird the Rendezvous for combat against the likes of spiffy rivals from Lexus and Mercedes. In a sense, this crossover SUV succeeds in that effort—not necessarily by outclassing its rivals but by outsoothing them.

2005 Subaru Forester XT Premium

Tricky little Subaru. Although Forester looks for all the world like yet another run-of-the-mill compact SUV—and a particularly bland one at that—it's a pocket rocket in disguise. Mind you, I'm referring specifically to the model wearing that cryptic "XT" designation. You'll note that all XTs sport a gaping gash atop the hood. This, my dear, is where you feed the little demon who lives underhood in the form of a 2.5-liter, twin-cam, turbocharged flat-four with variable valve timing.

Even with a dopey four-speed automatic transmission, the Forester XT scoots. Not that 210 hp and 235 ft.-lbs. are remarkable as simple numbers on paper. Instead, it's how these numbers mingle with other ingredients to wind up as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too sport/utility vehicle.

The Forester XT package includes trigger-happy turbocharging; firm-riding, racerboy suspension; and state-of-the-art all-wheel-drive. Subaru is deservedly world famous for specializing in this performance formula, and many of its vehicles are variations on this theme. In other words, take a world-class sporty/rally coupe, drape it with a dumpy-looking SUV box-body and voila! Forester XT.

Hands down, the Forester XT is a barnstorming delight for blasting around town. And although it seems expensive with its $28,095 base/$28,959 as-tested prices, it's very well and luxuriously equipped for under $30,000.

It's also quite small. Putting three folks in the rear seat is best restricted to occasions for dispensing penance; and cargo capacity of 32 to 64 cu. ft. is stingy in an SUV. A tow rating of just 2,400 lbs. limits you to pulling only toys. Despite Forester's pint size, mileage is unimpressive at 20 mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway—using premium.

Let's face it: the Forester XT is for folks who've succumbed to SUV fever but are hedging their bets just the same. Boxy, homely and fun to drive—what a concept.

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