Dude...are you ready for a pop quiz in four-wheeling economics?
PROBLEM: Sport/utility vehicles costing $30,000 are everywhere. But do you really have to spend that much, putting your portfolio and grad-school funds at risk, to get into a useful SUV?
MULTIPLE CHOICE: If you can't spend a ton, but you still want the load capacity and all-weather capability of an SUV, there are rationally priced solutions. But before we turn our papers over and get started, ask yourself a few questions. Is "off-road" just a hard-packed dirt path to your favorite fishing spot? Will you be driving mostly cleared winter highways and not steep, unplowed grades? Is a lighter-duty, unibody vehicle tough enough for your needs? Can you live without a full frame and big-bore torque for towing giant, 3000-lb trailers? And is five-passenger seating adequate? Can you do without a third-row bench?
If you answer yes to each question, you've targeted a segment filled with tidy, fuel-sipping models like the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Subaru Forester, Pontiac Aztek, and Honda CR-V. And of course, the Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe LX. The second-generation RAV4 and the new Santa Fe are pretty smart answers-each costs less than $25,000. The first-gen RAV4 pioneered this car-based segment in '96. The Santa Fe, with its quirky styling, is fresh meat in this market, but it checks in with lots of standard features and a smooth V-6. How do these two score on our VATs (Vehicular Aptitude Tests)?
MT's lesson plan takes our diminutive duo to the track and out on the road. With our minor in-sand and dirt-road studies, we have a handle on capabilities and personalities. Here's the report:
At the test track, with instruments suction-cupped in place, we confirmed what we suspected after street cruising: The RAV is faster. Despite its additional 658cc and two extra cylinders, the 181-hp Santa Fe lost at the dragstrip. The RAV4 was almost 2 sec quicker to 60 mph. How? The RAV's 2.0L/148-hp DOHC four enjoys two big advantages: a five-speed manual transaxle (only the four-cylinder front-drive Santa Fe is available with a manual) and 875 lb less weight to shove around. But the Santa Fe's street manners give it the on-road edge.