Recipes for Summer Fun: Trusty Trucks
It’s been a while. We’re sorry. But look on the bright side: today, StudentWheels hits back. And what are we hitting with? Well, we’re covering a topic we’ve sold short in the past. You see, with the exceptions of the Honda CR-V, Element, and Hyundai Santa Fe, I don’t know that we’ve ever covered anything on this site that isn’t essentially a car (rather than a truck or SUV). We’re going to right those past wrongs, however, and spend some time today taking a look at small, honest, rugged trucks. By which we mean small SUVs. Righto.
A little background: in the 1970s and 1980s, Washington implemented CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) legislation, which essentially mandated fleet fuel consumption averages to be followed by each manufacturer. This very quickly killed off big cars and the manliest of muscle cars. It’s hard to satisfy Uncle Sam’s requirements when your line-up is composed of Newports and Monacos bringing back 7-10 miles to the gallon.
What the feds didn’t do, however, was expand the mandate of CAFE to light trucks. When fuel prices took a dive in the mid-eighties, manufacturers — the Big Three in particular — met the increased demand for big vehicles by hawking gussied-up, four-door versions of their most popular pickup trucks.
Throughout the 1990s, SUVs became bigger and bigger, as well as less and less likely to ever see a forest path. As the decade closed, the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator hit showrooms across the continent. It would’ve been hard to imagine two vehicles less inclined to “sport” or “utility.” Hugely heavy, gaudy, and each eight miles long, these luxury SUVs were simply the all-wheel drive successors to the Eldorados and Mark IVs of the 1970s. They’re the blingy monsters most people think of when they hear the word “SUV.”
Understandably, we’re not so fond of the Tahoe, Escalade, and company. But we also understand that an SUV need not be what the Brits cynically call a “Chelsea Tractor.” There are still plenty of small SUVs around, and it’s these scrappy little ruffians that we’re interested in. Cars like the GMC Jimmy, the original Honda CR-V, and the old Land Rover Discovery may be tippy and unrefined, but they can ford streams and tackle muddy hills alongside the best of ATVs.
A few weeks ago, I looked at a Kia Sportage from 2001. The Sportage had all the refinement of a Soviet tractor. Its 2.0 liter engine wheezed out 130 or so horsepower, the ride was loathesome, and it constantly sounded like a jet was taking off from the roof of the car. But the basics of the good, tossable small SUV were all there. There was a selectable four wheel drive system, a five speed transmission, good visibility, good ground clearance, and a hardy hose-down interior.
Does this make the Sportage a good road car? Well, I won’t waste your time with that one. But if you live in the country — as I do, in the summers at least — it’d be tough to find a better car for plowing through mud roads and back fields. All of which is, of course, good fun. Moreover, because the Sportage is light, simple, and rugged, it actually can take an off-road beating.
But Kia wasn’t the only one to do a tidy SUV. In fact, they weren’t even close to the top of the game. Some other rough-and-ready contenders:
- The old Jeep Cherokee. These were made forever. They weren’t fast, or refined, or safe, but they were honest, fun, and reliable. If it’s not a daily driver, what more can you want?
- The original Ford Explorer. The first of the really popular SUVs, this Explorer was essentially a dressed up Ranger/Aerostar. Everything about the Jeep Cherokee also applies here. If you like luxuries, they did a sweet Eddie Bauer Edition.
- The original Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4. The quintessential Japanese cute-utes, these little trucks were simple and tiny, especially in comparison to their successors. A manual transmission and bull bars are absolutely necessary here.
- Any GMC Jimmy/Envoy/Oldsmobile Bravada/Chevrolet Blazer from the 1990s. Before these SUVs were supersized in 2002, they were compact, basic, and essentially reliable trucks available in two- and four-door variants. Lots of promise, but slow down in the corners.
- Subaru Forester (first and second generation). The Forester isn’t a truck, but it has the same go-anywhere, rugged characteristics found in most of the other vehicles on this list. Get one with a stick.
You get the picture. Simple. Basic. Reliable. Fun. Unpretentious. That’s what all these vehicles are. Are they smooth and quiet and powerful? Are they loaded up with active safety technology and SatNav? No. But they’re real trucks for real people, who recognize that you can get through life just fine without having a computer as your nanny. The trucks listed above will take you into quarries, into forests, and into stony back fields. And most importantly, they’ll bring you back out again. We respect that, and we believe that, for students — those with few obligations and active lifestyles — small trucks ought to be given their time in the sun once again.