Three For The Road Or Trail

They're rugged, they're roomy, and they're roaring off showroom floors.

Sport-utility vehicles are the hottest segment of the auto market today, so makers keep introducing new models and upgrading their old ones. The all-new Land Rover Discovery and Chevy Blazer and the heavily revamped Ford Explorer are three of the latest in the so-called compact segment.

The Discovery is supposedly the veddy British auto maker's family model, an oblique reference to its dual air bags and price tag of $29,525 (all prices include destination charges). While still rather high among this trio, that's not quite as stratospheric as the $53,125 for the Range Rover County LWB.

Other features are different, also. The excessive body roll associated with most Land Rovers is gone--good news for those prone to sea-sickness. Above the far rear windows are extra windows running along the crease where roof meets side panels. Together with the optional dual sunroofs--one each above the front and rear seats--they provide more light and visibility for passengers on the optional jump seats in the cargo area. In theory, those seats allow room for two more people in back. In reality, Discovery's claims of spaciousness apply only to headroom. There is so little knee- and legroom in the jump seats that fitting seven people means you won't have room for carrying any stuff.

Also on the negative side, this vehicle emits a whine from the full-time all-wheel drive, has a high step-in height, and contains nothing solid to completely close off the sunroofs, only dark-mesh shades to keep the sun out. You wonder if they'll do the trick in Arizona.

Yet if four or fewer folks climb in, they'll find a well-appointed, luxurious interior for a vehicle built to handle serious off-roading. The high ride height is misleading: Although the Discovery offers plenty of ground clearance, the center of gravity is still low enough for stability. And there's considerable oomph from the 182-horsepower V-8 engine. It is the most powerful among this trio of sport-utes, but then, the Discovery needs more power because it is the heaviest at 4,379 pounds, vs. Explorer's 4,189 and Blazer's 4,020. Notice, though, that there is no red line on the tachometer warning you to shift now or else: This engine is ready to rev in any gear.

In contrast, the rough-revving engine is one of the few disappointments in the Ford Explorer. The V-6, carried over from the previous-generation Explorer, delivers 160 horses. That's enough to do the job but well below the other two vehicles' muscle. The optional running board is almost a necessity, given the steep climb into the seats. The price for the base four-door, four-wheel-drive version is $22,805. (Both Explorer and Blazer offer less pricey two-door, two-wheel-drive models.)

INTERIOR MOTIVE. Elsewhere, the Explorer shows numerous signs of improvement and refinement. The Explorer has a new front suspension and new power steering, the better to handle on-road driving. Also, the interior has been redesigned, giving it a vastly improved instrument panel and controls--and dual air bags. Check out the tissue dispenser between the front seats. A simple rotary knob on the dash switches you from two-wheel drive to the excellent four-wheel-drive system and on to four-wheel low, used for even bumpier off-roading. There's a reason the Explorer has been a best-seller, and most of it is in the interior.

The boxy instrument panel is one of the few weak points in the new Chevrolet Blazer, which is virtually identical to its sister model, the GMC Jimmy. Most of the controls are laid out well, but you have to reach behind the gearshift lever to toggle between AM and FM radio bands.

Still, Chevy's all-new sport-ute is vastly superior to its predecessor. The step-in height is quite low, an obvious and welcome nod to the large numbers of women buying these vehicles. Wind and road noise have been reduced substantially, and the resulting quiet at highway speeds is fitting, since the Blazer has the best on-pavement ride of this trio. The Blazer is competitively priced at a base $22,763 for four doors and four-wheel drive.

What don't you get for that money? The Blazer has only a driver's-side air bag. Moreover, the four-wheel-drive system is trickier to engage than those of its rivals, and the four-wheel antilock brakes are startling in their loudness. After all, who needs more sensory overload when panic braking? Nonetheless, the Chevy Blazer offers quite a lot for the money in a segment where price tags are getting steeper than the hills that four-wheel drive can conquer.

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