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Roughing It with Style

Whether you call them SUV's, SAV's or sport-utes, off-road-capable vehicles are getting as luxe as their on-road cousins
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 2)

Volvo follows a similar line of thinking with its V70 XC. The Cross-Country boasts a more macho body and higher ground clearance, but under the skin, it's still a V70 wagon. Volvo plans a more ute-like spin-off due out two years from now.

These vehicles are car/truck crossovers, but soon you'll be able to buy truck/truck crossovers, as well. Is it a pickup, an SUV or a luxury sedan? It all depends on how you look at the 2002 Lincoln Blackwood. From the tip of its waterfall grille to the C-pillar (the post behind the rear seat), Blackwood is a Lincoln Navigator. From there to the tail, it most resembles an F-Series pickup -- with a shortened, 56-inch cargo bed. But Blackwood sits three inches lower than a Navigator, and it's designed to deliver the ride of a sporty sedan.

Due to debut this spring, the Blackwood's cargo bed exterior will be covered in dark wood-grained fiberboard, while the interior will be lined with stainless steel and lit by two cool-touch LED strips. Like the prototype, which debuted at the 1998 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Blackwood's bed will be covered by a nonremovable, electric, pinch-proof tonneau. And instead of a conventional fold-down tailgate, there'll be a pair of Dutch doors. "This is not a pickup box; it is a trunk," insists Al Kammerer, Lincoln Mercury vehicle director. Despite the Blackwood's SUV and pickup roots, group brand manager Jim O'Sullivan says most buyers are not likely to think of the Blackwood as a truck. "This could very well be the new iteration," he proclaims, of the traditional American luxury sedan.

Does it matter whether you're driving a car-based crossover or a "true" truck? The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the most off-road-ready sport utes you'll find, yet it's built off a car-like unibody platform. Toyota is playing it safe. The automaker is taking a two-pronged approach, introducing an array of new utes that fall into both categories. In the luxurious lineup, there's the car-based RX300, as well as the rugged, body-on-frame LX450, an upmarket spin-off of the time-tested Toyota Land Cruiser.

You'll find nothing but true utes in the Land Rover lineup. The British marque, now owned by Ford, has built an almost cult-like following with its blend of sophisticated features and all-around ruggedness. A year from now, Rover will add a third model to its American offerings, introducing the Freelander, which has already proven a big hit in Europe.

Mercedes has steadily upgraded its popular M-Class sport utes, especially in the powertrain department. Its latest edition, the ML55, features a tire-spinning 5.5-liter powertrain developed in cooperation with AMG, the manufacturer traditionally responsible for the German marque's Autobahn-burning sedans and coupes.

Whether they're car- or truck-based, SUVs make up one very hot niche. Add them in with minivans, pickups and full-size vans, and the overall light truck market now accounts for half of the U.S. new car market. How long will the trend continue?

When fuel prices surged to $2 a gallon last spring, some skeptics thought the boom would go bust. They were wrong. Sales of a few low-end models slipped, but that had more to do with the arrival of newer, more competitive products. On the luxury end, volume kept building as if nothing had happened.

A fuel shortage is one thing, says analyst Hall, but when it comes to rising fuel prices, "Luxury SUVs are the last ones to be affected. If gas goes up 30 cents a gallon," he predicts, "it's not likely to have any impact on a guy spending $70,000 for a vehicle."

The overall sport-ute market has been benefiting from the growing awareness of safety. Check federal statistics and you'll find that you're more likely to survive a crash in a big vehicle -- read truck -- than in a smaller passenger car. That doesn't mean trucks are invulnerable. Indeed, more than a few frustrated SUV owners have learned the hard way in winter that even with four-wheel drive you can skid off an icy road. Sport-utes are also notably more prone to rollover accidents, one of the most serious causes of vehicular fatalities.

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