Have More Style, Will Still Travel Anywhere

Sport-utility vehicles, once built only for folks who wanted to go where the roads don't, now appeal to car buyers who seek the roominess of a minivan or station wagon but prefer practicality with panache. This year, three well-established sport-utilities are replaced by all-new and more upscale models: Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Isuzu Trooper, and the Mitsubishi Montero.

The off-road amenities offered by all three are a far cry from the Spartan features of the original Jeep (box). Some options, such as headlight wipers on the Trooper and Montero, are apt for vehicles built to drive through muddy gullies. But other extras, including leather interiors and sunroofs, attempt to put these vehicles in the luxury-car class.

GUZZLERS. It works--up to a point. Sure, you won't be directed to the service entrance if you drive one of these to the country club. But sport-utilities aren't cars: To handle rugged off-road driving, they sit higher and ride rougher. A tight curve or a quick dip in the road will prove that they handle differently. And they get lousy fuel economy.

When it comes to price, however, the luxury-car comparison holds. The Jeep Cherokee, predecessor to the Grand Cherokee, and the earlier versions of the Trooper and Montero started at $14,000 or $15,000. Now, the Isuzu and Mitsubishi models start at around $18,000. The Grand Cherokee starts at about $19,000, although unlike the Trooper and Montero, the old Cherokee is still available at the old price. Loaded with extras, all three newcomers top out close to $28,000.

-- Jeep Grand Cherokee.With the smallest exterior dimensions of this trio, the four-door Grand Cherokee has the least cargo space--and a full-size spare tire stored inside cuts into that. However, rear-seat legroom is spacious, and in general the interior is smartly executed. The seats are comfortable for almost any size passenger. Highway wind and road noise are minimized by sound-insulating panels covering the entire underbody. From the smooth feel of the switches to the lack of any visible screw heads, the interior shows keen attention to detail.

The Grand Cherokee handles well on the freeway, although it's not as carlike as, say, the best of the minivans. Off-road is where it shines. Jeep offers several choices of four-wheel-drive systems. All are good, but the top-of-the-line "Quadra-Track" full-time version is perhaps the most sophisticated one on the market. Clamber over boulders, head down slopes suitable for slalom skiers, or get airborne by bouncing over bumps--the Grand Cherokee handles all with aplomb. For the diehard off-road enthusiast, a special package is available with four sturdier gas shocks, higher spring rates, bigger tires, and extra skid plating on the transfer case for protection if you scrape the bottom.

The 4.0-liter I-6 engine carries over from the old 190-horsepower Cherokee. But this fall, Jeep adds a 220-horsepower V-8 capable of towing 6,500 pounds. For safety, the Jeep comes with antilock brakes that work in four-wheel-drive mode and the only air bag available on any sport-utility.

-- Isuzu Trooper.Still boxy after all these years, the redesigned Trooper shares none of the styling flare of its smaller stablemate, the Rodeo. The new Trooper is longer, taller, wider, and heavier than its predecessor. You can choose between two aluminum V-6 engines offering either 175 or 190 horsepower, considerably more than was available in the prior model. But even the 190-horsepower power plant is whiny and slow to respond in the lower gears. Still, the Trooper cruises smoothly on the highway and can tow up to 5,000 pounds. Rear-wheel antilock brakes are standard, while all-wheel antilock brakes are optional on expensive versions.

An unusually stiff body structure helps to reduce squeaks and rattles while keeping the Trooper sure in the corners. Its comparatively primitive four-wheel-drive system is aided by dual-purpose tires: mud-and-snow-rated radials with a tread designed for the highway.

In back, the Trooper carries over from the old model its asymmetrically split rear doors. When loading cargo, it helps to be able to open the smaller door on the right without having to grapple with the larger left door that holds an outside-mounted spare tire.

Inside, the Trooper is filled with all the usual goodies, from cup holders to lower-door-mounted puddle lights. Cargo space is greater than in the Montero by several measures, even though the Mitsubishi is larger on the outside. The controls on the squarish instrument panel, however, are unnecessarily small for a vehicle meant to go bouncing over boulders.

-- Mitsubishi Montero.The new Montero is a techie's delight. The highlight is the "Active Trac" four-wheel-drive system, which can be used at any time on any surface. Several sport-utilities allow so-called shift-on-the-fly transition from two-wheel to four-wheel drive, but they generally recommend driving at fairly low speeds when you switch. In the Montero, you can shift easily and smoothly from one mode to the other at speeds up to 62 mph.

A pointless gimmick is the "Inclinometer," which tells you how far you're tipping to the right or left--but only when the Montero is fully stopped. A more useful option for off-roading, available only on the top versions, is a package that includes an altimeter, an electronic compass, and a temperature gauge that displays both inside and outside readings. Other good ideas: a tool kit inside the rear door and a detachable inspection lamp in the rear that comes with a 9.5-foot extension cord and a magnetic back so you can mount it anywhere on the Montero's body.

The 151-horsepower V-6 engine seems underpowered for a vehicle that weighs up to 4,225 pounds. It can tow just 2,500 pounds. The transmission is balky when shifting from first to second gear after a cold-weather start. The driver can select from three shock-absorber settings to match ride and handling to road or off-road conditions, but the differences are less noticeable than you would hope. More impressive are antilock brakes that work in all two- and four-wheel-drive modes, including both normal and the "low" range used for extra grip in slow-speed, serious off-roading.

In more prosaic areas, the Montero falls short. Its 19.5-inch step-in height is one of the highest in its class, a result of its tall, boxy design. Entrance and egress for the rear seats are tight, as is passenger legroom. And the stubby, driver's-side armrest, which barely flips down far enough from the back to support your elbow, is a major annoyance.

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