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Cute 'Utes' Hit The Road

When it comes to transportation, sport utility vehicles are the status symbol of the '90s. But the '90s are almost over. And as we approach the millennium, some motorists are opting for a kinder, gentler "sport ute." CBS This Morning Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum is at the International Auto Show in Seattle to explain why bigger isn't always better.

You'll find plenty of full-size sport utility vehicles on display at the Kingdome. These monsters are still very popular. In fact, the newest entry in that market is the Cadillac Escalade. It's loaded with luxury and carries a luxury price tag - in the neighborhood of $46,000. But not everybody needs this much machine.

Now, you can get your sport and your utility, with far less vehicle. In this world of giants, some folks are choosing to go smaller.

In Bellevue, Washington, Erin Talley's new car has all of the features of a full-size sports utility vehicle: four-wheel drive, good visibility, and plenty of room inside. But her new Honda CR-V is less "sport ute" and more "sport cute:" a go-anywhere vehicle that also parks anywhere.

Talley explains: "I need something I can whip in and out of the store and not have to worry about doors getting dinged, and it's perfect for me."

If you want one of these smaller vehicles, you'll have plenty of choices with the 1999 models.

Among them is the Lexus RX 300, named Motor Trend's SUV of the year. The RX 300 is aimed at the deluxe end of this market. It's a four-wheel-drive built on a car-based platform with side air bags and other luxury features not often found on SUVs.

Suzuki has high expectations for its all-new Grand Vitara. It's main selling point is a V-6 engine with more power than most of the competition. Suzuki hopes people will come to them, if they want a smaller SUV that still has plenty of power.

Another strong seller in this part car, part truck segment is Toyota's RAV-4. While writing her latest book, automotive journalist Lesley Hazleton put 15,000 miles on a full size sport utility vehicle. But when she came home to Seattle, she bought a RAV-4, and puts it simply: "These things are a major sign of intelligent life in the automotive universe."

Hazleton adds, "I think in the future the major expansion in the sport ute market is all going to come at this end, the low price end, the smaller end, the sensible end."

For some drivers, even these smaller sport utes are a bit much. So many of them are going back to the future, choosing a classic family vehicle that was popular when they were kids: the station wagon. The world's automakers are working on a whole new generation of wagons, especially at the high end.

The new 9-5 premium wagon is the first station wagon from Saab in 25 years. They'll be available here sometime in late spring.

Audi calls its A4 Avant a true German sport wagon, combining the handling of a sports sedan with the practicality of a station wagon. For many parents who have owned or considered SUVs or minivans, station wagons seem like a more practical alternative.

Cynthia Evans is glad she went with the Volvo wagon: "This car just seems to fit me better. It has plenty of room for my kids, and yet I still feel like I'm having a good time when I'm driving it by myself."

Finally, if you want to split the difference between wagon and SUV, Subaru calls its Outback the world's first sport utility wagon. Like all Subarus, it has all-wheel drive with fog lights, a roof rack, and other touches to give it more of a sport ute feel.

Safety is something that's important to car buyers these days. So the latest crash tests by the Insurance Institute are mighty timely. They ran a bunch of these smaller SUVs into a barrier at 40 miles per hour, and the results were disappointing.

The worst performer: the Isuzu Amigo, which got a poor rating. The Institute says the crash caused a major collapse of the Amigo's occupant compartment.

The best performer, and the only vehicle to get a good rating in this group, the Subaru Forester, which is really classified as a station wagon.

So when it comes to safety, both size and design count.

By Herb Weisbaum
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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