Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

My Next Vehicle?

It is time (past time, actually) to replace my gas-hogging Dodge Durango. It seemed like a great vehicle when we purchased it nearly 7 years ago – at the time all three of our kids were living with us, shortly thereafter we used it to move two of them and their stuff to and from college in Southern California, it provided access to interesting places like Death Valley and the White Mountains, it carried large groups of Talusdancers back and forth to the Sierra,… and I could camp inside it when necessary. It was my main “going to the mountains vehicle,” though more recently I’ve been inclined to take our Honda Civic whenever possible.

But the time for such a vehicle has passed. There are only three of us living here now, and next year our youngest will be off to college. Moreover, I can no longer justify – or afford! – driving a vehicle that gets (at best) 15-16 mpg.

My ideal vehicle will…

  • have four-wheel drive and decent ground clearance for rough gravel roads (It must pass my “Racetrack Playa Test,” or sometimes my “White Mountains Test.” I don’t do “real” four-wheel drive stuff, but I do drive some pretty rough roads)
  • carry up to five people if necessary
  • provide room to sleep inside in a pinch
  • get twice the gas mileage of the Durango
  • be relatively small
  • be presentable for city use
  • be quiet enough inside that I can hear the stereo/radio (iPod input is a plus!)
  • have a place to conceal some gear inside
  • accept a rooftop luggage box
  • handle skis and bikes
  • be reliable
  • have relatively long service intervals
  • …and be inexpensive.

Good luck, right?

So far, the following have caught my attention:

***Subaru Outback
– This is probably the leading contender right now. I think the current version looks pretty good and it seems to have a good reputation for quality. The minimum ground clearance seems to be about the same as my Durango. The small engine and manual transmission get EPA 23/29 mpg. It has full-time AWD. Some shortcomings include: doesn’t seem big enough to sleep inside, other options might provide more gear carrying capacity.

***Subaru Forester
– Seems like it might have many of the same positive qualities as the Outback. Looks more like it is intended for rough use – though I have no idea if this is really the case. Looks like it might have a bit more ground clearance, but I can’t tell from the info at the Subaru web site. Has full-time AWD. Mileage looks to be about the same as the Outback. Downsides: I don’t think it is as attractive as the Outback – in fact I would descibe it as “dowdy.” Note: Other than their appearance, I can’t quite figure out what differentiates the Forester and the Outback: they seem to have the same engines, more or less the same clearance, similar seating capacity, etc. Anyone?

***Toyota RAV4
– I’ve never really liked the appearance of the RAV4s (they look like toys to me), but the newest model seems to be a distinct improvement. The body styling is a bit less affected, and it is more than a foot longer than the previous model. Obviously, Toyota has a great reputation for quality and durability. Interior space looks good. I understand that the four-wheel drive has an option to “lock” at speeds below 25mph. Mileage seems to be in the same range as the automatic transmission versions of the Subarus. Downsides: Has perhaps an inch less ground clearance, only available with automatic transmission (minor nit), spare tire stored outside (though this does create more interior space). Given that they push a 6 cylinder version, I wonder if the 4 cylinder version has sufficient power.

***Ford Escape Hybrid
– A friend owns one of the older Escapes and likes it quite a bit. The hybrid engine claims quite good EPA mileage – above 30mpg city and highway – and should reduce CO2 emissions. Decent interior space. AWD available, and decent ground clearance. Downsides: While the hybrid system is fine for most driving, I wonder how it would perform on long, difficult climbs – say high into the eastern Sierra or to places like the White Mountains. I don’t have total faith in Ford regarding hybrid vehicles – this is their first. I understand that one really pays a premium for the hybrid version of this vehicle as well.

***Honda CRV
– There are a ton of these on the road around here, and I’ve had good luck with other Hondas that I have owned. It gets about the same mileage as the Subaru and Toyota alternatives. Body style is fine, if not exactly inspired. Downsides: “Real Time AWD” is not full-time AWD – I understand that it simply kicks in automatically when the front end starts to slip. Ground clearance seems a bit tight to me, especially around the rear suspension. Spare tire stored outside.

***Honda Element
– In a lot of ways this could be the ideal vehicle for me. It carries lots of stuff. It has AWD. One apparently can sleep in it. I’m OK with its appearance. It is a Honda, with all that implies about design and reliability. Downsides: Ground clearance seems even less than the CRV. Mileage is not as good as the other options. So-called “Real-time AWD.” My family thinks it looks dumb… ;-)

So, any other options I’m missing? Experience and feedback on these? There is a comment feature below, and site members (See About Site Membership) can post a discussion message. Keep in mind that certain things are not negotiable here (AWD, decent mileage, ground clearance, quality/reputation of manufacturer, etc.) This leaves out some other excellent vehicles such as Honda Fit, compact hybrids, etc. And, no, I’m not getting another Durango-class SUV either…

August 22, 2006 Posted by | Commentary | 8 Comments


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