The Utility Ploy 

By Marc K. Stengel

Let’s say you’re not especially interested in using your vehicle for sport and utility. Let’s say you’re keen enough on utility, but you can dispense with all the sporty trappings—particularly if it means saving tens of thousands of dollars both on the original purchase price of a vehicle and in ongoing fuel, maintenance, and insurance expenses. Chuck the four-wheel- or all-wheel-drive, downsize the overall package, lower the ride, and voilà! Now you’ve got a realistic utility vehicle—an RUV, perhaps?—more properly known as a station wagon. As the following three examples clearly show, you can easily fit one of the new crop of RUVs into a practical, real-world budget ranging from just over $15,000 to just under $18,000.

2000 Daewoo Nubira Wagon CDX

In some circles, mere mention of the Daewoo brand name is enough to get you labeled a devil’s advocate. The Korean upstart has endured changing economic fortunes at home even while attempting a sort of Trojan Horse invasion of the U.S. a few years ago that depended more on college-campus sales reps to sell cars than on actual dealers with real showrooms. Needless to say, the undergraduate proselytes failed to generate enough sales, so that scheme is gone. Dealer locations are beginning to multiply, but they’re still sparse by the standards of more established brands. (The closest to Nashville are Hays Daewoo in Madison and Royal Daewoo in Franklin; others are searchable via the company’s Web site, www.daewoous.com.) Consumers’ growing comfort level with direct auto sales over the Internet is another trend that stands to benefit this Johnny-come-lately.

For a new, unproven brand, a test drive is crucial, so it’s worth going to some trouble getting behind the wheel of Daewoo’s Nubira Wagon CDX to see for yourself what $15,355 will buy in a station wagon. Of the three closely matched rivals examined here, the Nubira wagon offers the biggest engine with the most horsepower (i.e., 2.0 liters and 128 HP). Despite a generous wheelbase of 101.2 inches, however, the Nubira wagon’s basic cargo space (with all seats in use) is just 19.4 cu. ft., which is about 20 percent less than either the Suzuki or the Saturn. The rear seats fold forward, of course, but that still leaves you with a choice between people or things that runs counter to the RUV manifesto.

Where Daewoo truly excels is on its standard equipment list. Although it’s the least expensive wagon discussed here (by nearly $1,700), its standard goodies include virtually every kind of power convenience, such as a 100-watt CD stereo, air-conditioning, cruise control, the works.

Since you’ve already decided to forgo sporty handling and performance, you won’t be disappointed in Nubira’s uninspired driving feel. It’s stable and solid, though, and if you’re willing to grow with the brand, your investment in a Nubira Wagon is likely to be stable and solid as well.

2000 Suzuki Esteem Wagon GLX+

While virtually everybody was looking elsewhere, Suzuki grew up. Sure, the biggest fuss in the last several years has been about Suzuki’s hip line of Vitara mini-SUVs. But in the RUV category, the company’s Esteem wagon has matured into quite an impressive contender.

It comes in second-priciest among the present threesome, with an as-tested sticker of $17,049, including standard power-everything, A/C, and a cassette stereo. Even though its wheelbase is shortest of all at 97.6 inches, there are still 24 cubic feet of boxy cargo space available while every seat’s in use. A reinforced roof and standard rack will accept up to 100 lbs. more.

Suzuki’s small 1.8-liter twin-cam four cylinder engine punches out 122 horsepower—not exceptional, but combined with the car’s relatively smaller dimensions and its reasonably tight independent suspension, this is the sportiest of the unsporty wagons tested here. My tester even wore an irrelevant but cute little lip spoiler over the rear window, which conspired with trick Speedline wheels to create a sort of rally car look. Priced between the Daewoo and the Saturn, I’d be pleased to recommend the Esteem wagon as best buy of the bunch, save for one thing: An annoying, maybe even ominous engine tick took ever longer to disappear after warm-up during my weeklong test. I’d hate to think this was the sound of my powertrain warranty marching toward its expiration date.

2000 Saturn SW2

While the SUV craze was raging, Saturn initially countered with a wagon version of its compact S-series sedans and coupes in hopes, perhaps, that the “realistic utility vehicle” concept would catch on. I still hope that it will, but Saturn is already famously on the record as promising an SUV of its own for 2002. Oh well. The Saturn wagon is still a practical, if somewhat dowdy, five-passenger vehicle boasting 24.9 cu. ft. of rear cargo space. It also gets the best fuel mileage of this bunch, at (25 mpg/city, 36/highway) thanks to an efficient 1.9-liter twin-cammer making 124 horsepower.

An option package adds almost enough power conveniences to compare with the Daewoo’s and Suzuki’s standard equipment lists (although there’s no cassette or CD in the Saturn). But the $1,130 option price plus $695 more for ABS brakes pushed my total, as-tested sticker to $17,655—the most expensive of these three. Saturns still leave me a bit cold in the aesthetics department—both in terms of their visual design and their driving feel—but the wagon has grown on me. Since the Daewoo’s still teething and the Suzuki’s engine tick has me guarding my wallet, I could feel pretty good about a Saturn SW2 wagon if it meant saving $8,000 to $12,000 off the price of a new, traditional SUV.

While the SUV craze was raging, Saturn initially countered with a wagon version of its compact S-series sedans and coupes in hopes, perhaps, that the “realistic utility vehicle” concept would catch on. I still hope that it will, but Saturn is already famously on the record as promising an SUV of its own for 2002. Oh well. The Saturn wagon is still a practical, if somewhat dowdy, five-passenger vehicle boasting 24.9 cu. ft. of rear cargo space. It also gets the best fuel mileage of this bunch, at (25 mpg/city, 36/highway) thanks to an efficient 1.9-liter twin-cammer making 124 horsepower.

An option package adds almost enough power conveniences to compare with the Daewoo’s and Suzuki’s standard equipment lists (although there’s no cassette or CD in the Saturn). But the $1,130 option price plus $695 more for ABS brakes pushed my total, as-tested sticker to $17,655—the most expensive of these three. Saturns still leave me a bit cold in the aesthetics department—both in terms of their visual design and their driving feel—but the wagon has grown on me. Since the Daewoo’s still teething and the Suzuki’s engine tick has me guarding my wallet, I could feel pretty good about a Saturn SW2 wagon if it meant saving $8,000 to $12,000 off the price of a new, traditional SUV.

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