For all the best-laid plans of automakers seeking slick publicity for new SUVs on slippery wintry highways, the weather has posed a balmy retaliation. Drenched we are indeed, but we have hardly been stopped in our tracks by a 50-degree February. The continuing avalanche of ’98-model sport/utes tumbling in for review, therefore, looks positively crestfallen at the bottom of my drive. At one point, in fact, a trio comprising Jeep Cherokee, Subaru Forester, and Kia Sportage assembled spontaneously to goad me into battle with the elements. In true Bumstead tradition, the best suburban scheme my family and I could contrive was an Operation Dessert Storm upon unsuspecting savories at Dalt’s.
Let it not be said, however, that I will blithely look a gift sport/ute in the mouthor grille, as it were. Turkey hunting season will be upon us before we know it, and it takes a well-prepared Nimrod to contend with those wily clucks. Promising enclaves like Egypt Holler, Bon Springs, and Tumblin’ Creek defy access to all but the most agile and determined muckrakers, for which a rutted road and soupy bog are but means to an end. Under pretense of participation in this year’s feathered food chain, it was a pleasure to scout out promising turkey trots in such diverse SUVs as the three that follow:
Jeep Cherokee Limited 4WD
Mind you, this is the venerable Cherokee that boasts of initiating (inciting?) the compact sport/utility trend (craze?) back in ’84. As noted before in this space, Chrysler has deemed it a shame to retire a still dependable profit-maker whose tooling is long-since amortized. In this day of jaded reactions to $30,000 and $40,000 window stickers for luxo-trucks, the Cherokee is euphemistically called ”the attainable Jeep.“ As-tested, the Cherokee Limited under review tallied $27,115, including over $5,000 in options. Its ”Limited“ designation encompasses a full panoply of plush-isms: leather seating, power everything, pinstriped accents. Big-time CD sound was there for $760, as were optional ABS brakes for $600.
For the practical purpose of turkey trackin’, however, my favorite add-ons were Jeep’s masterly SelecTrac transfer case (which incorporates both part- and full-time four-wheel-drive) and the rugged, agile ”Up Country“ suspension package, replete with skid plates galore. Thus equipped, and powered by Jeep’s now classic 4.0-liter straight-six making 190 HP, Cherokee is the enemy of deterrence; it simply will not be denied. Far from adopting a trendy car-like ride, Cherokee revels in an outright truckishness that is solid without being harsh and rigid without being inflexible. Indeed, in spite of twin live axles front and rear, Cherokee’s ”scamper-factor“ is still a benchmark among serious off-roaders.
By today’s mommy-car standards, Cherokee feels rugged, unrefined. Its seating positions are high, stilty. Interior space is compact, utilitarian. All ye who enter this place must needs forsake kiddy carpooling. Cherokee is one tough son-of-a-buck whose cargo space is meant for gear, not groceries, and whose destinations are strewn with rocks and ruts. Cherokee is not so much an attainable Jeep as it is a Jeep that can attain those nether and nefarious reaches most SUVagabonds don’t really care to tread.
Subaru AWD Forester
If Cherokee makes back-country scouting a pleasure, Subaru’s all-new Forester turns it into a wary patrol. Taking precisely the opposite approach from their Jeep counterparts, Subaru engineers have transformed a tried and trusty car platformthe all-wheel-drive Legacyand rendered it a sporty and utilitarian tiny truck.
It’s cute as a bug; comfy as a car; and right on target and on time for a direct-marketing assault upon the raging SUV sub-niche known as mini-sport/utes. Although Subaru’s Legacy Outback will no doubt continue to enthrall station-wagon partisans, Forester is meant to lure prospects away from Honda’s CR-V, Toyota’s RAV4, the returning Isuzu Amigo, the Kia Sportage described below, and the Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick twinlets.
At its release, Forester gained mileage on its truck-based competition by touting full compliance with the more stringent safety and emissions regulations for cars. This PR perfume is already diffusing somewhat as other manufacturers make the mods that allow claims of ”Me too!“ But what no one except Subaru enjoys is its compact and powerful drive system, which couples a horizontally opposed 2.5-liter engine (making 165 HP) to a rally-tested all-wheel-drive powertrain. A driver never notices that all four wheels are pulling their weight: There’s no sluggish steering, no hesitant acceleration, no whining drive-line. Best of all, there’s no reluctance to apply motive force where it’s needed mostand, conversely, to reduce drive to a given wheel when it’s momentarily spinning free.
This type of system makes most sense for the mass of buyers who crave relentless traction while rarely straying off-road. Of course, the Forester will track a bona fide trail, and its four-wheel independent suspension affords a supple ride whether terrain is smooth or rough. But there’s a distinct difference between tackling an existing trail and blazing one of your own. This Forester is new, eager, and attractive; but it’s a lot more reassuring to drive into uncharted territory when you’re following somebody else’s lead.
Kia Sportage 4x4
The most important things about the pert little Kia Sportage are the things most people don’t yet know: Who is Kia? (A South Korean firm part-owned by Ford and Mazda.) Where can you buy a Kia in Middle Tennessee? (Franklin and Clarksville, so far.) Will Kia survive for the long haul? (Can’t say for sure.) On the other hand, what is plain as day is the fact that the Sportage is a relatively inexpensive way to get into a new four-wheeler (at $16,396 base, $19,529 as-tested). And for the rest of your days behind the wheel, you’ll know you based your decision on price.
For starters, let it be known that a 130-horsepower two-liter engine in a 3,300-lb. vehicle has no need of an optional automatic transmission. That news will save you $1,000 right off the top. The Sportage flogs through its four-speed auto like an egg-beater, and in comparison with Forester’s lighter curb weight, 5-speed manual, and 35 extra horses, Sportage betrays a distinct shortage of git-up-’n’-go. Despite the poopy performance, however, the Kia’s mileage estimates are only 19/23 MPG for city/highway; you’d expect better, especially in comparison with the Cherokee’s 15/21 rating for a motor exactly twice as large and nearly 50 percent more powerful.
For ’98, the Kia’s new part-time four-wheel-drive system will shift on the fly and is a far cry better than the ”back-up-to-disengage“ system it replaces. But it clunks into action and fights the driver for control of the wheel. While busting trails in ”crawl mode,“ the Sportage feels nimble enough with its four-wheel independent suspension and vacuum-actuated front hubs. Returning to smooth pavement, however, begs a quick return to two-wheel-drive for the sake of improved steering feel and reduced engine load.
Inside, a frill-free, budget-conscious interior actually succeeds as a clean, well-lighted place for five passengers and 26 cubic feet of cargo. And the knee-bolster airbag for the driver is a welcome industry ”first.“ But too little pizzazz and too many competitive alternatives will likely place Kia’s Sportage low, if not last, on most SUV shopping lists.
To comment, recommend or blow off steam, your e-mail is welcome at Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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