Sunday, February 12, 2006

Winter Wonder Land for less the $30K

With almost the entire Northeast getting hit with the blizzard of 2006 it's going to be one heck of a job clearing the streets! With plow trucks and salt trucks lining the roads, let’s grab a cup of hot coco and a warm blanket and sit in front of the computer and price out some four or all wheel drive SUV's. "But what about the national average of $2.50 for a gallon of gas, I traded in my Explorer for a Puris because of I didn’t want to pay at the pump" you say? Well the Big three have you covered.

As European and Japanese manufactures tried to play catch-up to the big three in terms of truck based SUV's, America was still one step ahead... Ford and Chevy and even Dodge and Jeep knew that there was a market for the small imported crossover SUV. Now the imports are trying to figure out how in the world did the big three get the small SUV to sell when they could not. It's simple really; while the imports where trying to market cheep the big three are marketing design.

Before we get too far into the reviews and the final prices, I would like to take a time out and describe the difference between the four types of power transfer. First, rear wheel drive; the engine in mounted in a front-to-rear configuration and the transmission is mounted just aft of the firewall. a drive shaft connects the transmission to a differential which splits the power to the rear wheels and allowing one wheel to slip so the car can turn corners. Second is front wheel drive where the engine is (in most modern cars) mounted transversely, or passenger-to-driver side configuration. In place of the standard style transmission is a trans-axle which combines the transmission and the differential. Third is four wheel drive, which is set up similar to rear wheel drive, only just aft of the transmission is a transfer case which through a set of gears splits the power direction. half to the rear diff, half to the front now connected to a diff. Fourth is all wheel drive. Most all wheel drive setups are similar to front wheel drive but now a drive shaft connects the front trans-axle to a rear trans-axle. all four wheels turn, but are now controlled by an on board computer. There are no diffs at all and this set up is not recommended for anything but road and light trail use.

Now for the fun stuff, for this post, I have selected some of the strongest domestic sellers in the compact SUV segment. First up is the Chevy Equinox. This wonderful little SUV comes in two models the LS and the LT. the LS is the basic no frills compact SUV, but for the extra thousand dollars you are better off getting the LT1, and if you want to ride in high Chevy fashion, the LT2 gives you standard power seats, auto dimming mirrors, 17in wheels, and a leather wrapped steering wheel. The best bet for a bad weather SUV that is still fun to drive in the summer and can haul all your stuff without breaking your budget at the pump is the LT1 with a few options.

All of the Equinox's come with GM's 3400 V6 in a front drive configuration with traction control or all wheel drive (see above). The most important thing to note is the fuel economy. The Equinox will bring you 19 city and 24 highway per gallon with the front wheel drive and 18/23 with the all wheel drive. Not bad considering the trailblazer will get you about 18 in mixed use.

The Equinox is not just a quirky import wannabe either, this little monster is fun to drive, and turning diameter of 40 feet is quick and responsive (for SUV's). With the rear seats locked upright, you can shove almost 36 cu-ft of your favorite sports gear and four of your tailgate buddies in comfort. With the rear seats folded down you almost double your space with a grand total of 67 cu-ft. Still not enough you say? You want to tow your boat too??? Well Chevy has you covered there too, with a max trailer weight of 3,500 pounds you can take along everything you need to go camping and lake fishing and still have room leftover.

GM worked hard in the interior to make it look and feel better than past experiences, but still has a lot of shortcomings. The dash is simple and to the point, but the radio is confusing and controls are mounted too low. The many different ways to configure the seats helps, and the rear seats even move fore or aft 8"! Leather can only be ordered on the LT2, and the plastics are still cheep looking no matter how improved they are from the older Chevy’s. My biggest complaint is the door panels, as almost rubber like plastic covers them; get a scratch in that and your brand new baby will be sacred for life.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel when you see the bottom line, and I like it. Specked out with LT2 trim, leather, XM radio, On Star and a convenience package, the MSRP came t0 $28,280 but according to Edmunds the same spec has a TMV of $26,914. I'm sure I can get about another $500 out of the dealer when the day is over.

Don’t like the idea of General Motors going bankrupt, and defaulting on warrants? That’s ok too, because there are plenty of small SUV's made by Jeep, Dodge, and Ford all with four or all wheel drive.

Lets look at what Chevy's oldest rival, Ford, has to offer us. This contender comes in the form of the Ford Escape, as in escape from the ordinary. The Ford is a little cheaper at a MSRP of $28,040 and Edmunds TMV of $26,650 and for February; Ford is giving $2000 cash to buyers and $500 cash to those who finance with Ford Mo. Co. Not bad really, and you get a lot in that little package...

The best part is even with the AWD configuration (see above), this little Ford gets about 20 city, and 24 highway miles to the gallon. A lot better than the Chevy, and you can haul just as much if you check the "no boundaries" package which will give you 3500 lb tow capacity, a receiver hitch (an option in the Chevy) with wire harness, and all season tires. Check off the leather pack in the XLT or better models and you’re rolling down the road in Ford Fashion!

While the Chevy is totally modern and fresh, the ford (being an older design) has a less active interior. about the only thing I liked about the Ford Escape was the position of the radio and HVAC controls and the fact that if I get a tan interior, I get a tan dashboard. The seats are nice, nicer than the Chevy's, but I feel like I am in a larger truck, and not in a more nimble compact SUV. Power comes from either an inline 4 making 153hp at 5,300 rpm and 152lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm, or a V6 making 200hp at 6000 rpm, and 193lb-ft at 4,850 rpm.

Cargo may be a little bit of a problem with the Escape. You can only get 29.3 cu-ft of your favorite gear behind the rear seats; only 62.8 if you leave your friends behind and fold the read seats. the fully independent suspension may temp you to get out and go off roading but be careful, the weak all wheel drive may cause some headaches if you get too hardcore oh the open range.

What About Jeep you ask, after all Jeep is the all American little truck that could right? well yes, and no. it all depends on what kind of small SUV you want from Jeep, if you go the Wrangler then you want off road capabilities, if you go with the Liberty, then you want to haul your soccer kids around. the best way to defuse this dispute among jeep buyers is to simply make the statement that a Cj-7 is for kids, and a Liberty is for adults (or rather the ones with the money).

The Liberty, in true American capitalist style has a truck load of options, no pun intended of course. It's almost impossible to choose what options are the best, but if you go for the limited, you might want to check off one of the three, that’s right three "quick order" packages. these are all good in their own way, but I went with the option 22G which loaded up this Jeep nicely but also broke the bank with the highest MSRP so far of $29,185, and an Edmunds TMV of $28,070. there is a 2,500 cash back offer that’s makes this Jeep a little easier to buy.

This Jeep is also the OLDEST design of the three so far. When the Cherokee stopped running in 2001, the Jeep brand had to fill the void left by one of the best selling Jeeps ever. Enter the Liberty in all its wannbe Wrangler glory! This funny looking Jeep reminds the older among us why some towns banned trucks and SUV's (other than the repair man's) from being on the street back in the good ol days. That was back when trucks where ugly and SUV's where ugly-er trucks with roofs over the cargo bed. when I look at the Liberty, I cringe a little at how Jeep messed up their only but best selling point--it was a box on wheels. (This is now trying to be fixed with the Commander, but not very well)

The Jeep is the only SUV here that can say for sure it is a true 4x4. Jeep's have always offered duel locking diffs sine that technology was available, and since 1941 jeeps have been going in and out of some of the worst areas. The Jeep brand is engrained into every American in some way or another... Maybe you had an uncle in WWII, or maybe you or your friend drove a Wrangler in high school, but how ever the way, this little truck has a lot to live up to. Standard Jeeps have four gears to select from. There are the traditional 2 high, 4 high and 4 low, plus a jeep exclusive neutral. The neutral is so you can tow your jeep behind a camper or such with out having to disconnect the driveshaft, COOL! Because of the awesomeness that is four wheel drive, this Jeep can do things the Ford and Chevy can only dream about right out of the box, including rock trails.

The style is lacking a lot though because of the age of this SUV. Than again the Style was never something to brag about, most people hated it wanting something more like the very outdated Cherokee. the round headlights are moved as far out and up as possible, and the Wrangler like fender flairs give this jeep an unnecessary fat look to it. The interior has bad plastics, and weird positions for the HVAC controls.

Cargo room was also lacking in this 4x4 if you and your friends wanted to go camping for the weekend, to get all of your gear in, you would have to leave at least two of your buddies home there is only 31cu-ft behind the rear sears but 69 with them folded. That better than the Ford, but not as good as the Chevy and no where near the older Cherokee’s 34/66.

So what about Dodge? well there is no offering as yet from Dodge, but the 2007 Nitro is going to be fun to test drive!

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