Test Driving Cushy But Costly Su Vs

They're comfy--and tough enough to go most anyplace

There's a tree stump on the right, a boulder on the left, and we're heading toward a ditch. Stay off the brakes, keep away from the gas pedal, and head right. The silver Jeep Grand Cherokee strains as it lurches into the gutter, right rear wheel lifting into the air. Now swing left and accelerate past that stump. We pitch from side to side, and the tires scrabble for traction, but we're through. The Vivaldi trilling on the CD player has not missed a beat.

If that kind of driving is your style, you're not alone. The luxury sport-utility vehicles that captivated Americans are crossing the Atlantic. Sales of four-wheel drives in Europe have nearly doubled over the past five years, to more than 560,000 in 1999. Just as in the U.S., customers are dazzled by the combination of rugged off-road ability with carlike comfort and technology.

Of course, this doesn't come cheap, with prices topping $50,000. And in densely populated Western Europe, most of these vehicles will rarely venture off the pavement. So before buying, it's wise to think about what you want from your SUV. To get the best off-road performance, you'll have to sacrifice on fuel economy and on-road handling. A comparison of three top-of-the-line models--the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4.7 Limited, the Mercedes-Benz ML320, and the Land Rover Discovery V8i ES--illustrates the trade-offs.

Unless you plan to drive in rough terrain, your best bet may be the U.S.-built ML320. With lower ground clearance and somewhat tighter suspension than the Jeep and the Land Rover, it can't go quite as many places. But for on-road driving, its sophisticated all-independent suspension gives sharper handling than the other two. And its 3.2-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission offer a good compromise between performance and fuel economy: It takes 9.5 seconds to reach 100 kilometers per hour, just 1.2 seconds less than the more powerful V8 Grand Cherokee. Fuel consumption averages a respectable 11.2 liters per 100 kilometers on the highway and 18.2 liters in the city. Prices vary across Europe, but the ML320 generally costs slightly less than the Jeep and the Land Rover (table).

At the other end of the spectrum is the Jeep. With its 4.7-liter V8 engine and automatic transmission, the Grand Cherokee Limited oozes American power, whether cruising the highway or climbing a trail. But that power has a cost. In addition to the higher purchase price, you'll use 12.6 liters per 100 kilometers on the highway and 20.8 liters around town. Like the Mercedes, the Jeep's interior resembles a luxury sedan's. The body looks much like that of a station wagon, with a low roofline and raked windshield. There's room for just five people.

The Land Rover is more open and airy, with a higher roof and windows that afford panoramic views. There's room aboard for seven, thanks to optional folding seats that stow ingeniously in the rear. Like the Jeep's, the Discovery's off-road credentials are impeccable. But Land Rover has worked on making it easier to drive. On steep hills, for example, the driver can push a button on the dash to keep the car at a constant speed without touching the brakes, and a sophisticated traction control system ensures optimum grip. The Discovery is more comfortable than the Jeep off-road, though both go places beyond the nerve of most drivers.

The Discovery's downside is fuel consumption. You can expect to use 12.7 liters per 100 kilometers on the highway and 23.3 liters in the city, slightly worse than the Jeep. Like the Mercedes and the Jeep, the Discovery offers a diesel model, which is less powerful but more fuel efficient. Among diesel models made by these manufacturers, the least expensive is Land Rover's Discovery TD5 S, a five-cylinder model with manual transmission. It costs $40,300 in Britain, vs. $56,350 for the Discovery V8i ES.

For those who want a go-anywhere vehicle that doesn't look like a truck, a new wave of "crossover" cars is about to hit European showrooms. BMW's just-released X5, for example, looks like a station wagon but can climb a muddy trail or hit 228 km per hour on the Autobahn. It will go on sale in Europe in April for $55,000. Audi and Renault are also coming out with crossovers.

With new choices on the way, the ranks of European SUV enthusiasts are expected to keep growing--high oil prices notwithstanding. True, you may not often need to navigate tree stumps. But it's nice to know you can.

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