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2001 Vehicles - Off Road Fun Meets Clean Air

by Jim Bray

The environmental lobby may look with chagrin at model year 2001's new Sport Utility Vehicles, but they can also be heartened that we've entered an age of environmentally sensitive, high tech wheels.

Regardless of environmentalist angst, SUV's are hot, and even more of the beasts will be on tap later this year from diverse manufacturers like Hyundai, Daewoo Toyota, Ford, and Mazda.

Toyota and Ford appear to be going in opposite directions with their handsome new entries. Toyota's Sequoia - based on the company's Tundra pickup - is BIG, while the Ford Escape is much more diminutive. Sequoia, Toyota's first truck to be certified as "an ultra low emission vehicle" (ULEV) shares Tundra's V8 engine and power train, taking 240 horses off the road with you.

The eight passenger beast is about the size of a Ford Expedition, though Toyota claims its third seat and rear cargo area are bigger and that it offers more ground clearance - for those who actually go off road. Sequoia will feature four wheel disc anti-lock brakes and the four door, four wheel drive model can be equipped with Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control system.

Ford's Escape, meanwhile, is a classy-looking vehicle the company will offer in a 2 liter, 4 cylinder 5 speed version as well as with an optional 3 liter V6. The four banger will be available with front or four wheel drive systems.

Designed, according to Ford, to appeal to "the young and young-at-heart," the five passenger Escape V6 will tow up to 3500 pounds of stuff (with the towing package), and come with toys like air conditioning, an optional CD changer and ABS.

One nifty feature is a dual mode tailgate in which you can flip up the glass window separately from the tailgate itself, which could come in handy when you're trying to load or unload stuff in a relatively tight space.

Mazda's new SUV, the Tribute, is the Escape's twin brother - though not its identical twin. Built on the same basic platform as the Escape, it'll be offered in a variety of trim levels - from the 4 cylinder-based DX to the 200 hp, 24 valve V6-powered LX, DX, and ES, all of which feature a four speed automatic transmission and that nifty two piece tailgate.

Korean carmakers, who can obviously sniff a profit as well as anyone, are jumping on the SUV bandwagon with both feet. Hyundai's first sport ute is the 2001 Santa Fe, a six cylinder critter that looks like a Toyota RAV4 on steroids, while Daewoo is unleashing the 220 hp Korando, a vehicle which has no danger of being remembered as the world's most handsome SUV.

Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - and only as deep as the vehicle's sheet metal.

Besides, one can't take shots at ugly wheels without mentioning the new hybrids.

"Hybrids?" Yessiree. "Y2K+1" promises to see the production introduction of the first mainstream hybrids, vehicles that combine petroleum and electrical power to vastly increase gas mileage while decreasing emissions - and, unfortunately, assaulting consumers' eyes.

Hybrid vehicles rely mainly on their gasoline engines, but enhance their performance with an electric motor whose batteries are automatically recharged as you drive and as you brake.

Honda's Insight and Toyota's Prius ("Pree-us") will be the first models to duke it out for consumer's "greenbacks", beginning this summer.

The 5 passenger, 4 door Prius has sold more than 30,000 units since its Japanese introduction in 1997, but the version coming to North America has been changed somewhat to make it more drivable and efficient. Toyota says it wants the Prius to fit into the "Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle" (SULEV) category, the standards of which are nearly twice as tough as Ultra Low Emission.

The Honda Insight, meanwhile, is only a two seater, but claims 70 miles per gallon - and drivers will be treated to ABS, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors and other creature comforts.

As mentioned, however, both hybrid vehicles are hideous enough to frighten small children.

Hybrids are pretty nifty ideas, though, but they're just one of the new, clean automotive technologies coming down the 'pike. Watch for even cleaner vehicles in the next few years, including fuel cell-powered ones whose only emission is water.

Which will definitely bring a new meaning to the term "puddle jumper."

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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