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Civilized Adventures

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It took a while for off-road machines to learn their manners. First, sport utility vehicles offered passenger-car features like leather seats. Over time, the amenities have grown more luxurious. Now the latest SUVs have adopted car platforms and morphed into CUVs – "car-based utility vehicles," also known as "crossover utility vehicles."

Just a few years ago, this crossover market didn't exist, says Marty Collins, general marketing manager of the Ford division. "The segment is on a growth curve with nearly 800,000 units forecast for 2006," he says.

The big difference between SUVs and CUVs lies in the chassis. SUVs are built on the platform of pickup trucks, while CUVs are based on car platforms – enabling them to handle and ride more like sedans. In most cases, the rear-wheel drive mechanics give way to a front-wheel drive car configuration. All-wheel drive also is an option for CUVs, but without the low growler gears beloved by serious off-roaders.

Some CUVs are basically small station wagons – a label which in the current auto market carries little prestige. By contrast, the CUV label conjures images of rugged adventuring, and some CUVs even feature the bold exterior styling cues and off-road performance prized by SUV enthusiasts. In this issue, Hispanic Business offers reviews of some prime examples of the new CUV craze.

Lexus RX
Base Price: $37,825
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg): 18 city/24 hwy

The first real crossover was the Lexus RX, now the RX 330. When it debuted in 1998 as an elite offshoot of the Toyota Camry, doubters were plentiful. But the RX provided a pleasant, comfortable, all-wheel drive experience. That still holds true, but current models sport more bells and whistles. There are headlights that track around corners, adjustable rear seats, a navigation system with a backup camera, vehicle stability control, and plenty of wood and leather.

The 3.3L V-6 engine has horsepower to move the RX 330 to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds. Stoplight acceleration feels brisk, however, and while the softly sprung RX doesn't handle curves eagerly, it is competent.

Inside, the trademark gear selector pod remains, bracketed in wood trim, but underneath RX 330 is still a Camry. Likewise for the Toyota Highlander, another CUV that's less posh than the RX.

Chevrolet Equinox
Base Price: $23,760
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg): 19 city/25 hwy

The Chevrolet Equinox is on a long car platform that translates into plenty of passenger and cargo room – the rear seat even slides back and forth. With a longer wheelbase, the ride is passenger-car smooth and handling feels more like a car than a truck. The 3.4L V-6 gets to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, a bit faster than most CUVs.

Chrysler Pacifica
Base Price: $25,395
Power: FWD
Mileage (mpg): N/A

Chrysler's Pacifica is a nice three-seat wagon with a high roof, firm ride, and avant garde styling. Behind the wheel, the Pacifica doesn't give much lean on curves, but the handling doesn't encourage courageous turning either. Off line it revs up to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, thanks to a 3.8L V-6 engine.

For the driver, the Pacifica has thoughtful touches like a speedometer with large numerals for 0 to 70 (smaller from 70 to 160). In the back there's a power liftgate similar to those on some minivans. Chrysler plans to launch a fancier touring version of the Pacifica this year.

Honda Pilot
Base Price: $27,350
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg):
17 city/22 hwy

The Honda Pilot is that brand's version of the MDX with fewer goodies but the same car-like handling. Both vehicles inherit the Honda hallmark of a gear selector that slips from fifth to fourth where the detent starts.

Base Price: $36,995
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg):
17 city/25 hwy

A growing segment of the CUV market emphasizes performance. BMW's X3, modeled on the 3 Series sedan, represents this niche well with its nimble handling and precise steering. The inline, six-cylinder engine gets to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. For off-roaders, stability control and hill descent control (brakes) come standard.

Limited cargo space means the X3 is more of a sports sedan than a sports wagon. The six-speed manual transmission is rough in first gear, so the five-speed automatic may be preferable. Likewise, drivers may want to avoid any sports handling packages – the ride is already athletic enough.

Saturn Vue
Base Price: $24,890
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg): 19 city/25 hwy

The Saturn Vue has a platform similar to the Chevy Equinox, but a little shorter. Its big draw is the Redline version ($26,885 base), which brings a 3.5L V-6 with 250 horsepower into play with a punch. Zero to 60 mph is a sprightly 7.5 seconds. The Vue also comes in a front-wheel drive version.

Acura MDX
Base Price: $36,700
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg): 17 city/23 hwy

No trucky feel here – the Acura MDX is a smooth rider. The 3.5L V-6 powers to 60 mph in the mid-9 second range.

The MDX touring model ($42,700 base) negotiates curves nicely and has a good on-center feel for long trips. Inside, legroom is ample, side mirrors are large, and controls fall easily in hand. In the back it features three rows of seating with the last one folding beneath the floor if needed. All-wheel drive with vehicle stability control comes standard.

Infiniti FX45
Base Price: $45,450
Power: AWD
Mileage (mpg): 15 city/19 hwy

The performance-designed Infiniti FX45 features a 4.5L V-8 engine and can hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds – very fast for a CUV. In fact, the FX45 rides on the same platform as the Nissan 350Z sports car. Although FX45 starts at $45,450, a navigation system, smart cruiser control, and interior goodies can quickly increase the price to the mid-$50,000 range.

Ford Freestyle
Base Price: $25,595
Power: FWD
Mileage (mpg): 20 city/27 hwy

The Freestyle drives solid and stable, controlled over bumps with minimal lean on curves. The seats (in three rows) feel high and the driving position is excellent. It favors the SUV look with wheel opening bulges and a grille like a Ford Expedition.
The six-speed automatic has only "drive" and "low" selectors, equipped instead with a technology called continuously variable transmission. A pulley arrangement seamlessly picks the right ratios, giving higher fuel economy and better acceleration.
Underneath, Freestyle rests on a Volvo XC90 crossover chassis. The 3L V-6 grinds out enough power to go from 0 to 60 mph in a crisp 8.5 seconds

Nissan Murano
Base Price: $27,000
Power: FWD
Mileage (mpg): 20 city/25 hwy

The Nissan Murano is a twin to the FX35, a smaller version of FX45. Murano works off the same sporty platform as the Nissan Altima. A leather package is optional, as are other upscale luxuries, but at a base of $27,000 it costs little more than half its FX45 cousin.

Some SUVs behave like CUVs even though they're not technically crossover vehicles. These machines were designed from the ground up, so they can't be called a spin-off from a car, minivan, or truck.

Range Rover HSE
Great off road or on long trips. Permanent 4WD configuration. Luxury package includes a heated steering wheel.

Jeep Liberty Renegade
Comes with a row of roof-mounted spotlights. A bargain at the low end of the price scale.

Subaru Outback
Not much crossover – it's a 4WD station wagon. Designed for bad weather or treacherous roads, not off-roading.

Volvo XC90
Rides like a much larger vehicle. Great for long drives. Styling mixes traditional Volvo and aggressive SUV touches.

Mercedes-Benz M-Class
An early non-crossover that feels compact by today's standards. Comes with leather, wood interiors, navigation system, and heated seats.

Volkswagen Toureg
Cross-country cruiser. The smooth ride stiffens with an optional suspension setting when going off pavement.

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