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


  1. I too am looking to replace my Durango for all the same reasons, and had come up with about the same list as you, although I also included the Hyundai Santa Fe. The Forester is at the top of my list right now. Good milage, good ground clearance, good standard feature set.

    Comment by Patrick Cauldwell | August 22, 2006

  2. Why are you thinking of the Forester rather than the Outback? Aside from appearance it doesn’t seem to me like the differences are significant… but I’m probably missing something.



    Comment by Dan Mitchell | August 22, 2006

  3. I will be doing something similar in a couple of years (after my 92 4runner passes 250,000 miles). Does Toyota still make the electric RAV4?. I would look at something like that or a 4WD Toyota Tacoma with a shell.

    Comment by Tom Clifton | August 22, 2006

  4. I was *this* close to sucking up the extra cost and getting the RAV4 — the V6 w/a 5-speed automatic is rated at the same MPG as the 4 cylinder in my Element. But I got my Element brand new for 20k and the tricked-out RAV4 was 30K.

    I would rate RAV4 quality above possibly better footing in the Subaru.

    I saw a comment that sums it up as: Get the Subaru if you spend most of your time in the mountains and the rest in the flatlands. Get the RAV4/Element/CRV if you spend most of your time in the flatlands and the rest in the mountains.

    I was up stopped in the gravel shoulder north of Mono Lake on Sunday and had to really punch the throttle to get back onto the main road ahead of traffic and those rear wheels kicked in as designed and I was out of there like a shot w/no wheel spin. “Real time” really works, though the Element is not an off-road vehicle.

    Come to think of it, Toyota is putting hybrid drive in one of its SUVs now — that might the best bet if you don’t mind a mid-30k price.

    Comment by tom | August 22, 2006

  5. The Forester has almost 2 inches more ground clearance than the Outback Sport, and almost twice the cargo volume 32 cu. ft. vs. 18, probably because the Forester is a bit taller. Other than that, yes, the FOrester 2.5X and Outback Sport seem mostly identical.

    Comment by Patrick Cauldwell | August 23, 2006

  6. Let’s see, the Outback Sport is a smaller version of the Outback based on the Impreza, right? It certainly does look like it has less ground clearance to me, too. I suspect it would be fine for, say, driving to the snow – but not so fine if one wants the extra clearance.

    I was thinking more about the “regular” Outback, which is larger and longer and appears to have more ground clearance – something like 8.1 inches if I remember correctly.

    Do you know the actual ground clearance for the Forester? (Last time I checked the Subaru online specs, this figure wasn’t included for the Forester.)



    Comment by Dan Mitchell | August 23, 2006

  7. I don’t think there is an electric RAV4 any more. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hybrid version of this vehicle at some point – it would probably sell like crazy. Currently it only comes with either a 2.4L (?) 4 cylinder engine or a 3.0L 6 cylinder engine. Interestingly, the 3.0 is reported to get almost the same mileage as the 4 cylinder engine, though the initial cost is significantly higher. All RAV4s are only available with automatic transmission.

    I believe that the hybrid Toyota SUV is the Highlander, which is a bit more expensive and a bit larger than the RAV4.

    Comment by Dan Mitchell | August 23, 2006

  8. Ah, I see what you mean about the Outback. I was comparing against the Sport since it’s about the same price. The regular Outback is a bit more expensive than the Forester 2.5 X. The specs I was looking at I got from autos.msn.com. They seem to have pretty detailed specs, and a good comparison feature.

    Comment by Patrick Cauldwell | August 23, 2006

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