The Reputation: With room for nine passengers, this uber ute all but replaced the family station wagon. Despite prodigious off-road abilities, carpools rarely encounter anything more daunting than the neighbor's gravel driveway.
Bells and Whistles: The ultimate Suburban is the Sony Limited Edition (sold exclusively through the Neiman-Marcus catalog) complete with television monitors built into the front four seat backs, an additional nine-inch monitor, a VCR, a Sony Playstation, a cellular phone, a 10-CD changer, plus 100 CDs, and 24 videos. All this for just $72,975 — too bad they're sold out.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: One expects a vehicle this large to maneuver with all the finesse of an ocean liner. Surprisingly, it responds with sedanlike quickness. I actually parallel parked one of these behemoths. When kids get whiny, it's nice to relegate them to the third row of seats.
The Backseat Perspective: The kids thought the digital compass mounted on the rearview mirror was pretty entertaining until they got wind of the Playstation option in some Suburban models.
Mileage (city/highway): 13/18 mpg
Price Range: $25,129-$32,852
The Reputation: Hands-down, the best-selling minivan on these shores. With a car- as opposed to a truck-based platform, dual sliding doors, center aisle, and front-wheel drive, it all but defines the genre.
Bells and Whistles: Redesigned in '96 — and why mess with a good thing? We've seen, but still love, the vise-grip cup holders, reading lamps, windshield wiper de-icer, integrated child seats, and roller-mounted third-row seats for easy removal. New this year: rear-seat grocery-bag hooks.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: The ultimate Mom Mobile, comfortable and functional, with plenty of oomph for seamless highway merges. There's a permutation of the Caravan model to fit every budget and driving need, including two different chassis lengths, four engine sizes, and the option of all-wheel drive.
The Backseat Perspective: So many of the kids' friends get chauffeured around in one of these that this car is pretty much a been-there, done-that proposition.
Mileage (city/highway): 18/25 mpg
Price Range: $17,995-$30,890
The Reputation: Unlike past pitiful efforts by other car manufacturers to challenge the Dodge minivan juggernaut, Toyota's entry makes a serious run by subscribing to the notion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Bells and Whistles: The Sienna gets good buzz because it's a minivan mounted on a stretched version of the deluxe Camry platform. It's the first U.S. minivan with the sophisticated seat-belt engineering found in European sports cars and a low-tire-pressure warning system to reduce the instances of collisions caused by blowouts.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: I'll be darned — it does drive like a Camry.
The Backseat Perspective: The hunt to scare up all seven cup holders and 12 storage compartments was good for 15 minutes of uninterrupted driving. Kids gave high marks to the backseat 12-volt outlet for a TV or video games.
Mileage (city/highway): 18/24 mpg
Price Range: $21,200-$31,000
The Reputation: Ford's best-selling Explorer on steroids.
Bells and Whistles: Introduced last season, a Texas-sized, Bigger-Is-Better Monster Truck. Running boards help you vault into this taller-than-average vehicle. Way cool directional blinkers flash not only in the car's front and back but also its exterior signal mirrors.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: If safety is your buy button, here is an armored tank with Rolls-Royce appointments. The Expedition handles well but the height does take some getting used to — I felt like I needed FAA clearance just to leave the sales lot.
The Backseat Perspective: When you're a kid, it's pretty cool to go eyeball-to-eyeball with the guy at the McDonald's drive-up window.
Mileage (city/highway): 15/20 mpg
Price Range: $27,985-$34,590
The Reputation: While most luxury SUVs tap dance around the fact that they descended from something as déclassé as a pickup, the Durango openly celebrates its truck heritage.
Bells and Whistles: The vehicle is brand-spankin' new this year. Optional is a 5.9-liter V-8 engine, top in its class, with a rumbling growl at start-up that sounds not unlike a cigarette boat. (Macho drivers will love it.) With nearly all the capacity and savoir-faire of an Expedition without the garage-hogging bulk.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: Less bulk improves maneuverability, especially when compared with the other beefcakes in Durango's competitive set. Despite all the truck chitchat, drives as carlike as any SUV I've ridden in.
The Backseat Perspective: Kids complained that the third seat didn't offer the leg room of the larger models. (Oh brother, this assignment is creating juvenile car snobs.)
Mileage (city/highway): 15/ 18 mpg
Price Range: $27,000-$29,000
The Reputation: Picks up where the Outback left off, though the Forester scale tips slightly more in favor of being an SUV, whereas the Outback is decidedly more of a station wagon.
Bells and Whistles: New this year. All-wheel drive, Subaru's well-established bailiwick, comes standard. For driving purists, the five-speed manual transmission, all but vanquished from the face of the earth, is a welcome option.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: Fast becoming known as a "sports cute," this vehicle is zippier than full-grown sports utes. The Forester's maneuverability also reminds us just what lumbering bears those oversized vehicles can be. However, clearance can be somewhat of a problem when you're off-road.
The Backseat Perspective: It's squishy back here. (Though, in all fairness, we did hop in a Forester not long after luxuriating in the opulence of an Expedition.)
Mileage (city/highway): 21/27 mpg
Price Range: $18,695-$22,195
The Reputation: Pretty much the Timex of sports utes, it keeps on tickin'. Proven dependability.
Bells and Whistles: Seven, count 'em, seven suspension packages to choose from to handle anything from the Merritt Parkway to the Darien Gap (OK, maybe not the Darien Gap, but just about any other off-road challenge). Oh yes, and dig the groovy new bumper in the same color as the car's body paint.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: No-nonsense handling. Purists will love the fact that the Blazer combines ruggedness and comfort, without going over the top. (Those drivers who appreciate being able to distinguish between riding in an SUV and sitting in the library of the Harvard Club still do exist.)
The Backseat Perspective: Testing ennui is fast setting in with my crowd. (That's it. I'm putting in for combat pay.)
Mileage (city/highway): 18/25 mpg
Price Range: $22,718-$25,691
The Reputation: Chevy Chic (without the Chticker Chock).
Bells and Whistles: Introduced last year, the Venture offers such upscale options as the new OnStar communications system, which includes a cellular phone, not to mention access to travel directions, roadside assistance, and emergency systems. Dare I say it? The best-looking of the minivan bunch.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: Drives great, as minivans go. But the minivan market suffers from Caravan-envy. The category could benefit greatly from the equivalent of a Subaru Forester bursting in and carving out a whole new market segment.
The Backseat Perspective: Whoa! This radio (some premium audio system) rocks.
Mileage (city/highway): 18/25 mpg
Price Range: $20,819-$22,829
The Reputation: The Secretariat of GM's compact (meaning normal-sized) SUV pack; impeccable breeding coupled with world-class performance. (But watch out, the bar is being raised thanks to Mercedes-Benz's brand new M-Class SUV.)
Bells and Whistles: The new grille design further fudges the SUV truck genealogy by imitating the one on GM's sedans. Rear disc brakes are new, as are the vehicle's upgraded all-wheel-drive system. The dashboard has been made more ergonomically efficient (read: you can reach the radio dials while in full recline).
Comments From Behind the Wheel: Gutsy little thing that can chug up hills better than most I've driven in its class. Fair to say, too, that it's the most luxurious in its class.
The Backseat Perspective: What can I say? I was losing my mind. I ditched the kids at the neighbors.
Mileage (city/highway): 16/21 mpg
Price Range: $30,645-$31,925
The Reputation: Since 1991, claimed its place near the top of the SUV heap with competitive pricing and Federal Express-caliber reliability.
Bells and Whistles: This year the exterior was completely overhauled, giving it a more modern and decidedly Grand Cherokee-esque look. Personally, I found the old design much more stylish. The 205-horsepower V-6 engine, also new this year, supplies some needed ponies for on-ramp élan.
Comments From Behind the Wheel: I rate car maintenance right up there with clearing out rain gutters; luckily, my Rodeo always runs flawlessly. The four-wheel drive already had shift-on-the-fly, but the more pedestrian stick shift has been replaced by a push-button system right out of The Jetsons.
The Backseat Perspective: Granted, we're more comfortable putting this car through its off-road paces. Even so, the kids rate it as performing the most epic donuts and catching the best air.
Mileage (city/highway): 20/23 mpg
Price Range: $17,995-$28,000