Sport utility vehicles, referred to affectionately by their owners as Utes, have grown increasingly popular among today's auto-buying public. By the year 2000, industry watchers predict, car buyers could be bombarded with as many as 35 offerings, up from 22 this year, and just 14 in 1987.
More buyers--particularly younger, affluent, and child-rearing ones--are opting for the roomier, high-ride vehicles over what they perceive to be less versatile passenger cars. From the 1995 level of about 1.7 million sales of full-sized, compact, and mini-sport-utilities, sales will skyrocket to 2.2 million units in 2002, projects analysts from AutoPacific Group. And, they add, the next generation of Utes will have more carlike attributes, which should keep buyers enthralled with the vehicles. These new vehicles could have unibody construction, or even be derived from car platforms for a smoother ride.
Just how versatile and well-engineered are these vehicles? We posed this question to Design News readers who were in the market for 1996-model Utes. Here are their responses, based on a 100-day diary they kept beginning on the date they took delivery of the vehicles.
Chevy Blazer LT: Family workhorse
With a new addition to the family, it was time to replace my 1983 two-door Monte Carlo SS with a Ute to make it easier to load both children into their car seats. Although my wife and I liked the look of the Ford Explorer, thanks to styling changes and a lower sticker price for the 1996 model, the Blazer won out.
After visiting several dealers, we located the exact vehicle we desired--the LT model. Chevy brought back the popular emerald green metallic exterior paint and made the Vortec 4300 V6 standard. To go with these features, we selected the graphite custom-leather interior, an in-dash CD player, and the heavy-duty towing package options.
The LT comes as a four-door, 4WD with Insta-Trac pushbutton control, cast-aluminum wheels, daytime running lights, air dam with fog lights, remote keyless entry, and six-way power driver's seat. Gone are the days of sacrificing comfort for the utility of a truck. Price with preferred equipment options: $28,770.
Engineering vote getter. As an engineer for an automation supplier to the automotive industry, I get the opportunity to review the design and assembly techniques for all makes of cars and trucks. The Blazer gets my vote as a well-built and engineered vehicle. For the most part, the instruments are well laid out, and driver visibility is excellent. The only drawbacks seem to be the lack of a passenger-side airbag, and the minor ergonomic nuisance of having to reach around the gear selector lever to change a CD.
There's also an annoying tendency to release the rear light-glass when retrieving the keyless remote out of your pocket or purse. Many times we have driven off unaware that the glass was unlatched, only to have it open fully once the vehicle is in motion. I would suggest that Chevrolet add a warning light or bell to notify the driver when such a condition exists. However, the engineers did have enough forethought to disable the latch release when the vehicle is in gear.
Another item that needs to be added is a door-ajar bell for the passenger and rear door. Only the driver's door activates the bell when the key is in the ignition. Child safety locks on the rear door keep kids from opening the door from the inside, a must with my inquisitive three-year-old.
Few defects. As far as reliability goes, I've had to take the vehicle back to the dealer twice. The first time was to find a fluid leak around the left front suspension, the second to eliminate a squeak from the left rear wheel-well area. The red fluid was the 100,000 mile anti-freeze. It came from a pin-hole leak in the overflow hose. Apparently someone had over-tightened the hose clamp during installation. The squeak was attributed to the emergency brake cable rubbing on the grommet at the front of the wheel well.
After six months of driving, I don't know why I didn't get a Blazer earlier. The extra cargo room allows us to carry about anything, even a full-sized dryer. I've recommended the vehicle to several friends. I think I'll get another.
--Jim Dailey, senior applications engineer, ABB Flexible Automation, Auburn Hills, MI
Jeep Cherokee Sport:A Rocky Mountain high
With six inches of new snow, the day seemed perfect to pick up my 1996 Jeep Cherokee Sport 4WD. It would spend more than half of its first 3,000 miles in four-wheel drive while running the Colorado mountains. The vehicle replaced a 1990 Ford Bronco II with over 130,000 miles. The fact is, I longed for something with four doors.
My reason for choosing the 4WD Cherokee Sport was based primarily on price. As I examined available four-wheel-drive Utes in the $20,000 price range, the Cherokee quickly rose to the top of the list for its powerful six-cylinder engine and relatively roomy interior. A comparably equipped Chevy Blazer, Ford Explorer, or Jeep Grand Cherokee would have cost $4,000 to $6,000 more.
The white Cherokee Sport arrived eleven weeks after the original order. Paint availability and a Christmas factory shutdown delayed the delivery by about five weeks. The vehicle has a manual transmission, air conditioning (a "no-charge" option), power windows and door locks, rear window defroster and wiper, deep-tinted rear glass, and cruise control. The Up Country suspension package includes high-pressure shocks, trac-lok rear differential, full-size spare, skid plates, heavy-duty radiator, and tow hooks. Standard equipment includes a driver's-side airbag. The Cherokee currently does not meet 1997 side impact requirements.
The Cherokee comes with Chrysler's 36-month, 36,000-mile warranty that encompasses the entire vehicle except for brakes, wipers, and clutch. Chrysler also includes a roadside assistance program that covers breakdowns during the warranty period.
Quality check. Initial quality proved excellent. The only defects found included a broken rivet that held the ashtray bracket and defective window stripping on the driver's window. The rear hatch was difficult to latch until the weather stripping had been exposed to a few warm spring days.
The only other problem encountered during the first 100 days involved engine starting in -30F weather. A slight touch on the accelerator prevented the apparent flooding, and the engine would start quickly.
Engine appraisal. The Power-Tech 4.0l engine was updated for 1996 with aluminum pistons (replacing cast iron), a stiffer block, and revised valve timing. It now achieves its rated 190 hp at 4,600 rpm (down from 4,750 rpm), and a peak torque of 225 ft-lb at 3,000 rpm (down from 4,000 rpm). The result: a strong performance while hill climbing, even with the loss of power due to the high Colorado elevations. My fuel economy for all driving conditions matched the EPA highway rating of 20 mpg. When burning the winter oxygenated fuels, the ecomony dropped to 18 mpg.
The Sport is rated for Class III (5,000 lb) towing with an automatic transmission. I was disappointed to learn that the manual transmission is only rated for Class I towing to 2,000 lbs. Even so, the Cherokee handled a 1,500-lb trailer and load with ease in the Colorado mountains.
In comparison to many Utes, the Cherokee's interior is somewhat starkly appointed. The front seats have little lumbar support and no side bolstering. The large transmission and transfer case cover, along with the center console, dominate the front-seat area. A cup holder attaches by a clip unit to the passenger side of the center console where passengers would prefer to rest the left knee. Interior storage is at a minimum.
However, the most annoying aspect of the Cherokee was the dismal defroster performance. It is difficult to keep the side windows clear with more than one person in the vehicle. The air controls must continually be sequenced between floor heat, windshield defrost, and dash vents in the winter. The small accessory defrost vents for the side windows are unconnected.
All in all, the Jeep Cherokee Sport delivers solid value for around $20,000. Although the design is slightly dated, the overall performance is more than acceptable. Excellent handling on slick roads, four doors, and the ability to accommodate four adults make the Cherokee a winner.
--Terry Norton, electrical development engineer, Colorado Memory Systems Div., Hewlett-Packard, Loveland, CO.
Ford Explorer: Tasteful snow toy
When I began my search for a 1996 Ford Explorer, I visited two local dealers--one close to home, one close to work. The price and trade-in was better near work, and the dealer was extremely helpful. Because of all the extras I desired, I ordered the new vehicle from the factory. The dealer told me exactly when it would be delivered, and they lived up to their word.
My first impression when driving the Explorer off the lot was how well you could see in all directions, especially the potholes. And with winds hitting broadside at about 40-50 mph, I wasn't pushed around. However, I found the optional P235 OWL, all-terrain tires a bit noisy.
After dark, I appreciated the eye-pleasing blue back lights on the dash and the illuminated controls for the power windows and locks and cruise control. The driver's seat tilts front and rear and has a pull-out thigh support and side air bolster. This helps hold you in your seat when maneuvering corners. And, at 6'4", I find the Explorer one of the easiest vehicles to get in and out of.
Winter wonder. The winter-of-the-century hit the northeast last year. It reinforced my decision to purchase a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a 4.0l, six-cylinder engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. Lucky for me, we had a five-inch snowfall shortly after I took delivery. Switching to 4WD made it feel like there was no snow on the ground.
My basic complaints concern the sluggish engine and gasoline mileage. Around town, the engine is adequate. But when traveling the Parkway on a daily basis, passing another vehicle leaves something to be desired--like a V8.
All repairs needed proved minor, expect one. They included: a misaligned steering wheel, faulty installed taillight, defective hold down on the luggage rack, and a burned out fog-light bulb. The major problem: a fuel pump not up to the recommended spec that caused an idling problem. The dealer handled all the repairs. In fact, when they needed to keep the vehicle another day to fix the fuel pump, they arranged and paid for a rental car. That's what I call going the extra mile to keep a customer happy.
Randolph Adrian, production manager, FreedomElectronics, Inc., Cliffwood, NJ