- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

As sport utility vehicles have come to dominate a large portion of the American automotive market, their popularity has spawned such a cache of new segment models, hybrid versions and category-crossing offerings that it is hard to tell what an SUV really is anymore.

Does the oversized, largest-in-the-land Ford Excursion count? How about Crocodile Dundee's SUV-chaser, the Subaru Outback SUV/wagon? And, where do we classify some of the latest entries, such as the Pontiac Aztek, with attributes that span the sport utility, minivan and sedan markets?

Land Rover, the only automaker in the world to concentrate its entire product line in the four-wheel drive, sport utility vehicle market has some very strong and very clear opinions on the subject. So many, in fact, that the British manufacturer has compiled its beliefs, as well as many facts, into a book, "The Authoritative Guide to Sport Utility Vehicles."

The latest edition now the fourth annual is designed to help the average car buyer have a better understanding of the market that Land Rover helped invent more than half a century ago.

Land Rover starts with the premise that a true sport utility vehicle must have the following key characteristics:

It should just as easily go off road as on; be able to handle a wide variety of weather conditions; have four-wheel drive; and be capable of toting at least four (preferably five) adults and their gear.

Therefore, Land Rover's book omits the mini or small-sized SUVs and provides information only on midsized and large/luxury segment vehicles a total of 34.

The true value of the guide, however, is not in the methodology for choosing vehicles to highlight, but in providing basic specifications on those vehicles included, such as drivetrain, dimensions and transaxle, along with a listing of options packages.

In addition, the guide is an invaluable reference work for all SUV and 4WD enthusiasts because it is designed for both gearheads and everyday drivers alike. Striking a remarkable balance, it simultaneously provides a comprehensive overview of the SUV market, complete with a glossary and introduction, along with driving techniques for the back country as well as technical information.

Explicitly designed to educate the consumer before the purchase of an SUV, the overview section encourages the reader to carefully review the features and benefits of each vehicle highlighted in the book before visiting a Land Rover dealer. It's a predictable marketing plug that, nonetheless, doesn't diminish the value of the book.

There are 10 chapters in the book, eight of which focus solely on the engineering of SUVs, off-road driving tips and safety, and ways to find an appropriate off-roading venue. Chapters such as "Making Sense of 4WD," "Four Is Better Than Two," "Sport Utility Safety," and "What Makes SUV Engineering Unique" offer an in-depth look at the mechanics and technology behind SUV design, including diagrams and language that is easily understood by neophytes.

Other questions answered include: How is an SUV's chassis built? What drives the wheels? How many safety belts should you look for, and what kind of brakes are ideal? Is a manual transmission more appropriate? How many cylinders does an SUV need, and how does four-wheel drive make a difference over two-wheel drive, even on dry, even-surfaced roads?

Another interesting and helpful feature is a sidebar within the sport utility safety chapter titled "An SUV Is Not a Car." With an increasing number of former sedan and wagon drivers now traveling the roads behind the wheels of Explorers, Durangos, and RX 300s, this simple point stands out. Based on the safety warnings placed in SUV iterations through the 1980s and 1990s, this sidebar points out the unique handling characteristics of SUVs, which can, in fact, be more dangerous in certain conditions.

There are also tips to help with the buying process as well as for after a purchase is made. And, at the end of the book, there is a glossary of terms that includes clear descriptions of mechanical parts and technical language such as limited slip differential and final drive ratio.

A list of off-roading tips from Land Rover's experts includes:

1. Get To Know Your Vehicle. Review the owner's manual and be familiar with your vehicle before taking it off road.

2. Be Prepared. Bring a tool kit and basic supplies, including a shovel, tow hooks, a recovery strap and a good hydraulic jack.

3. Plan Your Trip. Never head to the trail without having studied maps and guidebooks; know basic survival and first aid for emergency situations.

4. Behave Yourself. While on the trail, use your head. Never use drugs or alcohol while off-roading; make sure your vehicle conforms to state and local regulations; follow tread lightly guidelines and respect the environment.

5. Use Proper Driving Techniques. Travel with at least one other vehicle; keep thumbs on the steering wheel and out of the spokes due to potential steering-wheel kickback on rough roads; know your vehicle's dimensions; do not lean out of the vehicle to judge distances.

6. Use Common Sense. Never put yourself or your passengers at risk. Use a spotter outside the vehicle to help negotiate difficult trail sections; use caution when climbing, parking on, or descending hills; raise the suspension in rocky conditions; be responsible for the vehicle behind you in a convoy.

Free copies of the award-winning buyer's guide may be picked up at any Land Rover retailer including the 78 Land Rover centers. For further information, call 301/731-9041, or visit the Land Rover Web site at www.LandRover.com .

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