Tested: Seven-Way 1990 SUV Showdown

Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
From the car and driver
From the April 1990 issue of Car and Driver.
Sport utility vehicles are nothing more than Brussels sprouts, except in one respect: either you naturally love the little beasts or you can't quite understand what other people see in them. Both views are completely valid for personal reasons. And, as it turns out, everyone is well represented in the ranks of the car and driver editors. That's a good thing, because it meant that a three-day seven-vehicle expedition in the deserts and mountains of central Arizona would lead to lively discussions, conscientious judgment, and clear conclusions about today's competitive, medium-sized crop. four-door sport utility machines with all-wheel drive.
Fans of this truck / station wagon hybrid welcome the vehicles for their robustness, their ability to go anywhere, and especially for their far-reaching versatility. You can load these machines with everything from mothers-in-law to mining machines, and make your way to the corner shop or the watershed. A three-quarter million new sport utility vehicles (SUVs) found their home in 1988, and the buyers were diverse, including hardcore truckers and family types looking for a safe and spacious limousine alternative. The category shows every indication of continued growth, with more buyers, more models, and more brands (even Oldsmobile, for heaven's sake) flocking to the market.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
At the same time, skeptics are absolutely right when they find that almost all SUV drivers spend most of their time on perfectly paved roads. Many modern four-wheel drive trucks never see a mud bog or a rocky stream bed in their lives. And if it's just snow you're worried about, there are four-wheel drive cars at almost every price level. In the truest sense of the word, these SUVs that do everything have affected their driving on the road and their handling in favor of a task that they rarely perform. Maybe never. Is this a reasonable approach to developing personal transportation? Is it a reasonable concession to buy a family car?
Those who like SUVs will say for sure that this can be a good compromise - if the engineering is done adequately. Those who aren't educated about the inherent attraction of SUVs will say I don't know that these things still have to work as automobiles.
And that gives us the makings of an insightful comparison test. How do SUVs work? How well have they been developed? How effectively have different manufacturers dealt with the compromises? In short, how can the players in this league really compete according to the standards of the hard-working street testers?
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
We installed seven editors in seven SUVs and sent them over 350 miles of freeway, side street, dirt road and stream bed to get the answers.
Our field comprised the seven SUVs that fit between the light fun mobiles of the Sidekick class and the prestigious heavy hitters of the Range Rover class. We specified four doors, six-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions across the board. Here is the group in alphabetical order: the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer, the GMC S-15 Jimmy SLX, the Isuzu Trooper LS, the Jeep Cherokee Laredo, the Mitsubishi Montero LS, the Nissan Pathfinder SE and the Toyota 4Runner SR5. And here they are again in the order that emerged after our editors found their way with them and rated them according to their general goodness.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Seventh place: GMC S-15 Jimmy SLX
General Motors' popular SUV has developed a second pair of doors for the 1991 model year, and you can choose between different badges: GMC, Chevrolet or Oldsmobile. Of course, it offers more space and versatility than the two-door version, but it still doesn't feel finished to us. The 4.3-liter Vortec V-6 offers good performance (160 hp, the second-highest performance in this group), but is a rough son of a weapon that is only inconspicuous when driving light gas. Every other time, from idling to a full grunt, it feels and sounds like a V-8 with two pulled connector cables - not surprising when you consider that it was made by cutting a pair of cylinders from GM's small V-8. The Vortec V-6 is also one of only two engines in this group (the other is the 2.8-liter six-cylinder Trooper supplied by GM), whose injectors are still in a throttle body rather than directly in the intake ports.
Compared to its two-door siblings, the 6.5-inch longer wheelbase of the four-door Jimmy (at 107.0 inches the longest in our group after the new Ford Explorer) offers a much quieter and quieter freeway ride - one that compares well with this the other SUVs in this test. But that's the easy part. As soon as the surface becomes rough, corrugated or rocky, the suspension behavior of the S-15 becomes irregular, with more jumps and hits than we would like.
Most of us judged the basic driving position of the Jimmy to be very good, but we also agreed on two negative points: the seats are too flat and weakly padded, and the instrument cluster should have simple, readable dials instead of Swoopy video displays.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
To his credit, GM has blessed his four-door SUV with an anti-lock braking system for all four brakes (the ABS only works in two-wheel drive mode). In this group, the Cherokee is the only other vehicle offering all-wheel drive ABS (its system can work in full-time all-wheel drive mode). The Explorer and the 4Runner have rear anti-lock brakes, the other no ABS. And GM still kept Jimmy's price solid at just over $ 20,000 in the test in the bottom half of this field.
Yes, the bigger Jimmy has something to like: it fulfills the basic promise of the SUV for versatility. But even a quick look at this highly competitive market suggests that the world's largest automaker would have concentrated its extensive technical resources on refining the engine and chassis rather than the graphics of the gas display.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Sixth place: Isuzu Trooper LS
As one of the first SUVs to offer four doors and one of two - together with the Montero - the "High Boy" utility school, the real blue soldier does his job diligently and puts a smile on the face of the many loyal followers. But when other, newer players entered the game and pulled the standards for the class toward more car-like comfort and sophistication, the trooper started to look a bit agricultural.
On a positive note, the Trooper's tall, boxy shape is highly efficient - it has a lot of capacity compared to its footprint on the street - and is particularly generous in the headroom section (although its narrow width of 65.0 inches elbows less considered). . With its emphasis on the benefits of SUV talents, the Trooper is a robust and capable off-roader that seems to be more and more at home with increasing terrain. In addition, everyone liked the silky power steering with variable support and the smooth running of the 60-degree V6 engine (although more urge would be nice). And the trooper is obviously well put together and neat - if a little simple - done.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Unfortunately, the sidewalk ride is a bit stiff, the high profile scratches in the corners and there is simply no reason to do anything other than a truck. With the second lowest sticker price of the bundle (only undercut by the remarkable Explorer), the trooper is a good value, especially for those buyers who actually imagine a significant amount of taxes on their SUV. For most others, however, something more similar to a car probably looks better, and Isuzu agrees: the Trooper will soon be taken out of service in favor of a wider range of modern sports cars.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Fifth place: Mitsubishi Montero LS
The Mitsu and the Trooper have almost identical box scores, and for good reason. They are related souls, both of whom take the "civilized farm equipment" approach and accept the aesthetic downsides along with the associated benefits in terms of speed utilization. Therefore, many of the soldier's general comments apply here too. However, a significantly stronger engine (without sacrificing smooth running) increases the daily viability of the Montero and lets it nose in front of the trooper.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Almost every driver commented on how comfortable and quiet the Montero was when driving on highways, and everyone found it safely on the sidewalk. However, a few nits were selected: the driver's seat (a controversial hanging unit that pumps up and down on certain bumps) should slide a little further back to accommodate long legs. The manually adjustable truck-style exterior mirrors look more retro and dirt road running caused a fairly old turmoil between the inner rattles and the suspension racket. Then there were the expected concerns about the high-seat seats and cornering that are part of the group's tallest vehicle deal.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
The Montero still has its inclinometer, which most of us find either amusing or amusing. It also has the largest sunroof in this universe, so passengers in the back seat can get up on a whim and give the crowd a royal surge.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Fourth place: Jeep Cherokee Laredo
When the masses want to apply a term - generally and in lower case - to what they consider to be off-road vehicles, "Jeep" is the name they use. And that tells you something. With applause, the Cherokee is a difficult task-it-all-car, and the whole world recognizes its legacy. But this has become a tough battlefield, and tactics are changing quickly. Even if the Jeep is the flag bearer of this class in some way, the charges are now way ahead of the colors.
On paper, the Cherokee has a lot to offer: the most powerful engine (177 hp), the lightest overall weight (3652 pounds) and all-wheel ABS. The transfer case is also the only one in the group with an inter-axle differential that allows four-wheel drive on hard, grippy surfaces without loosening the ABS or stressing the drivetrain (useful when the conditions change between wet and dry or clean and dusty). And most of the jeep's log entries praised its handling and handling, its structural integrity, its ability to bring power to the ground regardless of the surface, and its overall comfort. Apparently, confidence in a solid front axle, the only non-independent front end in this group, hasn't been hampered by the Cherokee. Instrumented tests confirmed our impressions: the Jeep achieved a number of top awards - zero to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, a top speed of 107 mph, 17.7 seconds at 76 mph in the quarter mile - and a solid second place of 0.70 g on the skidpad.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
But we also had some reservations. The over-assisted steering without effort and without feedback comes from a different time - and should return there as soon as possible. The front seats, which are reminiscent of the French-American Renault Alliance, are really only comfortable for passengers who fit into their cozy shape. The rear seat of the Cherokee is narrow and particularly difficult to climb due to the intrusive rear wheel arches (due to its very short wheelbase). The instrument panel looks terribly old. Our Cherokee, at just $ 164, avoided being the most expensive vehicle in the group (thanks, Toyota). And the old fears about the reliability of the small parts have not been dispelled: our rear seat lever for the driver's seat came loose and the spare wheel fastening nut kept coming loose.
It seems right that the venerable Cherokee has hit the deadlock in our ratings. From there it anchors the field and pulls the stragglers with it while keeping an eye on the leaders.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Third place: Toyota 4Runner SR5
Here we entered the sub-group of the modern cultivated, and the talent deepens with increasing competition. Imagine a comfortable, fully equipped sedan that was given compact combi proportions and then lifted up to take a "tough truck" position. This is Toyota's 4Runner.
Adherence to the layout is an unnaturally high floor, which requires a sporty climb into the cabin and a low sitting position with straight feet, which at first feels strange. Not everyone likes the look either. Toyota may have correctly identified its customers' preferences, and we certainly don't have a quarrel with the rounded and neatly contoured sheet, but the sky-high image is just not us. We seriously doubt that a 2-inch fall would take away a lot of real ground clearance, and we believe that this would greatly improve the appearance and convenience of the 4Runner.
A back seat that tensed up adults was all anyone could complain about. Otherwise, the elegantly designed and extremely readable instrument panel of the Toyota, the good quality of the materials and the assembly as well as the high equipment (even a CD player) made it the most attractive interior of the series.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
The 4Runner received a high B-plus for the chassis performance. The wheel movement appears to be well damped over washboard surfaces - flexible enough to run through deep ruts and fairly well insulated on the freeway - but the 4Runner lags far behind the high driving and handling standards our winner set.
Everyone also wanted more engine power, and the highest value of the 4Runner under the high test price of $ 25,779 hurt him in the valuation. But all of our drivers enjoyed being behind the wheel, and most felt that they could live fairly happily with the big Toyota - without the presence of two other vehicles.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Second place: Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer
Being new doesn't always mean being the best, but Fords Explorer is the only really new vehicle in this class and has several important differences: it has the longest wheelbase (111.9 inches), the heaviest curb weight (4336 pounds) , the most spacious seating, and - get this - the lowest sticker price here (carefully estimated $ 19,400). True, it has a lot of Bronco II parts under the skin, but the Explorer is so fresh and never as good as the Bronco II that you simply don't care where Ford got the hardware from.
A new 4.0-liter version of the old 2.9-liter V6 from Cologne drives the Explorer - and moves the powerful machine very effectively, with a hint of vibration every now and then, but a lot of reaction. The transmission feeds the torque through the best-to-use transfer case we've ever seen. It only has two soft-touch buttons on the dashboard: one to turn on the all-wheel drive and the other to select the low range of 2.48: 1.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Suspension elements recognizable by the Bronco II provide a smooth, luxurious ride on the road that still doesn't manage to go all the way from the sidewalk to hell. The Explorer feels heavy and can float a little on unpaved roads, but the chassis swallows bumps well and maintains a good stance. Steering that borders on too light and too isolated still works perfectly.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
Our test crew raved about the Explorer's spacious, well-designed and neatly cut cabin. You sit deep behind a high panel, but a very low beltline and tall windows prevent you from being on the bottom of a bucket. And this panel contains a collection of readable instruments right where you want them. Perhaps the best of everything: wherever you touch - seats, controls, door panels - you'll be rewarded with a high-quality feel, thanks in part to the leather-lined luxury of our Explorer's Eddie Bauer trim package.
This pretty new Ford fun car almost looks like it should be driving with the big boys in Range Rover Land, but feels light and light. Think of it as an SUV sedan, a recent interpretation of what these machines are supposed to be good for. Especially at the price, Ford seems to have nailed one here.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
First place: Nissan Pathfinder SE
Nobody in this test hit the brand like Nissan. The original two-door Pathfinder set new standards in style and driveability on SUVs, and now it goes up and down with the four-door field.
The new Pathfinder may look less noticeable than its two-door sibling, if only because it lacks the striking triangular rear windows of the two-door. But we still like the sharp, folded paper contours, especially the way they squat on the big General Grabber tires. Inside, the similar rectangular shapes of the dashboard are no longer as modern as when they first appeared, but we can live with them, especially because the instruments are so legible and the small controls look so silky.
When refining the chassis, however, the Pathfinder really collects its points, offers an astonishingly high degree of grip and maneuverability on the sidewalk and then proves to be almost perfectly selected for quickly scratching on fire roads or jumping over rocks and stuttering bumps. His logbook was full of praise for his handling and handling, no matter what surface or speed, and then the Pathfinder passed the skidpad test with a first-class grip of 0.74 g. Nissan's little miracle therefore spans barriers - between car and truck behavior, between highway handling and sovereignty on uneven roads - better than anything else we can imagine. It shows real brilliance and someone, probably the man responsible for shock absorption, deserves a medal.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
In other areas, the Pathfinder achieves a solid "good" or better. Its mildly tuned 3.0-liter V-6 keeps the vehicle at least in the middle of the field in our performance tests and runs smoothly and economically on the road. Steering takes a little more effort than most, but feels much more positive. And Nissan's body structure sounds as solid here as any other. The entire package exudes quality.
At $ 23,354, the Pathfinder is barely cheap, but only the third most expensive SUV in our test. And the best always costs anyway. In our rating, the Pathfinder won more categories than any other vehicle - in addition to the impressive Explorer in the important overall rating. The Pathfinder can really do everything without the compromises that we generally expect. It almost takes the notion of SUV versatility to an absurd extreme: most people could happily live with it when they drive on public roads every day, and then be surprised that their machine will come in handy one day when the main street washes out into the city A tree can climb if you ask for it.
We learned a few things out there in the Arizona desert. The SUV sympathizers of the staff were reminded that the design, however attractive the general concept, still makes the difference. Even if all of these SUVs offer ruggedness, versatility, and incredible off-road capabilities, some of them still embarrass others' mud flaps.
Those of us who are less inclined to appreciate the SUV experience have also found something out: some of these compact cars can indeed be pretty decent to drive. Technology also counts here: if you do not plan to drive off-road, some of these vehicles feel severely impaired for you - but others may not.
Photo credit: David Dewhurst - car and driver
The good news is that competition improves the breed as we watch, and there is real technical excellence in the hot sports utility market. Prove with a Nissan Pathfinder on any type of road, near and off the road you can drum. If you haven't driven a modern SUV lately, you will be surprised.
You may also be surprised if you're a sports service provider who hasn't paid close enough attention or isn't moving fast enough. And you know who you are. Buyers in this market may have subscribed to the unique SUV formula, but don't push your luck. Even die-hard Brussels sprouts will go away from last week's servings.
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