Buyer's Guide: 2006 Autos

Crossing over to better mileage

October 1, 2005

With gasoline prices now at record highs, sport-utility vehicles have become a gas-guzzling guilty pleasure that gets harder to justify, especially with the driving demands inherent in real estate. But gas mileage is only one of the reasons sales of SUVs, long a favorite of U.S. auto buyers, are slumping. SUV buyers may be getting bored, too.

“Ten years ago, when we studied SUVs, the emotional metrics measured off the chart,” recalls Dan Gorrell, chief analyst with the California-based market research firm Strategic Vision Inc. But new data show sport-utes generating little more than yawns this year, he notes.

Picking up the slack: the next generation of crossovers, a practical alternative for real estate professionals, whether you’ve preferred SUVs or cars in the past. Crossovers may look a lot like conventional SUVs, but under the skin they use a more car-like chassis. They’re also usually a lot more nimble to drive than truck-based utes. And perhaps best of all, they generally yield far better mileage than what some industry analysts like to call “truck-trucks.”

Sure, there’s a trade-off. Although it’s not an absolute rule, crossovers tend to be less rugged and agile off-road. But let’s face it, typically less than 10 percent of SUV owners ever experience anything rougher than gravel. And most crossovers offer all-wheel-drive—at least as an option.

Until recently the number of these car-based crossovers was relatively modest, and the majority, including the Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CR-V, were offered in lower-priced product segments. Many of the coming year’s crossovers are also quite affordable, including the all-new Chevrolet HHR, which starts at just $15,990. At the other end, the new Mercedes R-Class nudges $80,000 fully loaded.

In 2006—along with plenty of traditional sedans and sports cars, coupes and convertibles, and easy-to-identify SUVs and pickups—there’ll be a veritable explosion of hard-to-categorize crossovers, such as the new Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX, and Mercedes R-Class. The latter incorporates elements lifted from minivan, wagon, and SUV design guidelines.

Although Detroit dominates the traditional truck market, imports are blazing a trail with products like the sporty Mitsubishi Outlander, which will make it to market late in the 2006 model year.

Many of the changes in crossovers are obvious, but others—like gas-electric capability—are hidden under the hood. Rising fuel prices have increased interest in hybrid-electric vehicles, or HEVs, such as Toyota’s fuel-stingy Prius sedan. And the 2006 model year brings with it an assortment of hybrid-powered SUVs and crossovers. Ford was first to market with an HEV SUV/crossover, the gasoline-electric version of its Escape. The automaker is now adding the Mercury Mariner Hybrid to its lineup. Toyota weighs in with an HEV version of the big Highlander crossover, as well as its Lexus RX400h crossover, America’s first luxury hybrid.

The growth of hybrid technology is “unstoppable,” says Jim Press, president of Toyota’s U.S. operations. In coming years, he expects to see hybrid power trains “become a transmission option. You’ll have a choice of a manual, automatic, or hybrid.”

Although there may be reason to fret over the continuing increase in fuel prices, the 2006 model year offers plenty of new options that will allow you to put the brakes on your fuel bills—without giving up all the features that have made SUVs so popular in recent years.

2006 model year crossovers

CHEVROLET HHR $15,990
Chevy’s crossover is roomy, inexpensive, and unabashedly influenced by Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. Engine: 2.2 L DOHC 16V I4, 143 hp/150 lb. ft., cast aluminum block, cast aluminum head; 2.4 L DOHC 16V I4, 172 hp/162 lb. ft., cast aluminum block, cast aluminum head. Standard features: AM/FM CD player. Five-speed manual transmission. Power windows, mirrors, and doors. A/C. Options: Head curtain side-impact air bags for front- and rear-seat occupants. Four-speed automatic. Dimensions (in inches): Front head room, 39.5; rear, 39.6. Front leg room, 40.6; rear, 39.5. Cargo room, 55.6 cu. ft. with rear seat folded; 61.3 cu. ft. with rear seat removed. Safety: Dual-stage front air bags with GM’s passenger sensing system.

FORD EXPLORER $27,175
Long the best-selling traditional SUV, it goes through a major re-skinning for 2006. Engine: 4.0 L SOHC V6, 210 hp/254 lb. ft., cast iron block, aluminum head; 4.6 L SOHC V8, 292 hp/300 lb. ft., cast iron block, aluminum head. Standard features: AdvanceTrac. AM/FM single-disc CD player. Power windows, mirrors, and doors. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Safety canopy air curtain system, roof rail crossbars, and AM/FM six-disc CD player. Dimensions (in inches): Front row head room, 39.4; second row, 38.7; third row, 37.4. Front row leg room, 42.4; second row, 36.9; third row, 34. Cargo room behind second row, 45.1 cu. ft.; cargo room with second row folded, 85.8 cu. ft. Safety: AdvanceTrac braking with roll stability control. Side seat-mounted air bags. Dual-stage front air bags. Five-level front-passenger sensing system.

JEEP COMMANDER $27,985 ($29,985 for 4x4)
Finally a replacement for the full-sized Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Engine: 3.7 L SOHC V6 210 hp/235 lb. ft.; 4.7 L SOHC V8 235 hp/305 lb. ft., cast iron block, aluminum head; 5.7 L HEMI V8 330 hp/375 lb. ft., cast iron block, aluminum head. Standard features: Power windows, mirrors, locks, and driver’s seat. AM/FM CD player. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: N/A Dimensions (in inches): Front row head room, 42.1; second row, 40.2; third row, 35.7. Front row leg room, 41.7; second row, 36.1; third row, 28.9. Cargo room behind second row with third folded, 36.4 cu. ft.; behind first row with second and third folded, 68.7 cu. ft. Safety: Antilock brake system. Multistage air bags. All-speed traction-control system. Child seat anchor system. Electronic roll protection. Emergency brake assist. Accident response system sets off safety features in the right order depending on the situation. Occupant classification system disables air bag when passenger is too small.

LEXUS RX400h $49,060
Lexus has finally launched the hybrid version of its popular RX330 crossover. Gas engine: 3.3 L V6 208 hp/212 lb. ft., aluminum block and heads. Front axle electric motor: Three-phase AC permanent-magnet synchronous motor powered by 30 9.6-volt nickel-metal hydride batteries, 165 hp/262 lb. ft. Rear axle electric motor: Three-phase AC permanent-magnet synchronous motor powered by 30 9.6-volt nickel-metal hydride batteries 67 hp/96 lb. ft. Standard features: Automatic transmission. AM/FM stereo with six-disc CD changer and tape deck. Navigation system. Rear-facing camera. Bluetooth. Dual-power seat adjusters and power windows, mirrors, and doors. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Rear-seat entertainment system. Heated front seats. Rain-sensing wipers. Mark Levinson 11-speaker, 210-watt premium audio system with in-dash, single-feed, six-disc CD changer. Dimensions: Front head room, TBD; rear TBD. Front leg room, 42.5; rear, 36.4. Cargo room, 38.3 cu. ft.; with rear seats folded, 84.7 cu. ft. Safety: Driver and passenger front and side air bags. Computer-controlled all-wheel drive. ABS with Brake Assist for help with quick stops. Stability control. Head curtain air bags.

MERCEDES ML350 $40,525
The original M-Class helped create the luxury SUV segment; now it’s back in crossover form. Engine: 3.5 L DOHC V6 268 hp/258 lb. ft., aluminum block, aluminum head. Standard features: AM/FM CD/tape player. Automatic transmission. Power front seats, windows, doors, and mirrors. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Choice of trim package, comfort package, sunroof package, and entertainment package. Heated front seats. Dimensions: Front head room, 39.9; rear, 39.8. Front leg room, 42.2; rear, 40. Cargo room, 29.4 cu. ft.; with second row folded down, 72.4 cu. ft. Safety: Manual three-point belts. Driver and passenger front, side, and curtain air bags. Rear: Manual three-point belts, available curtain air bags.

MERCEDES R-CLASS $48,000
Is this stylish and roomy crossover a minivan, an SUV, a wagon, or something entirely new? Engine: 3.5 L DOHC V6 268 hp/258 lb. ft., aluminum block, aluminum head; 5.0 L SOHC V8 302 hp/339 lb ft, aluminum block, aluminum head. Standard features: AM/FM/weather band, CD player. Automatic transmission. Power windows, mirrors, and locks. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Dual-source rear-seat entertainment system. Airmatic adjustable air suspension. Dimensions: Front head room, 39.8; second row, 40.4; third row, 37.2. Front leg room, 39.8; second row, 36.2; third row, 32.4. Cargo room with third row up, 15.2 cu. ft.; third row down, 42.2 cu. ft.; second and third rows down, 85.0 cu. ft. Safety: Two-stage adaptive front air bags, window curtain air bags that span all three seating rows. Belt tensioners and belt force limiters; sensor can deploy the belt tensioners and the curtain air bags if the vehicle senses an imminent rollover.

MERCURY MARINER $29,840
A year after Ford launched the first hybrid-powered SUV, the automaker weighs in with a second HEV, the sporty, mid-sized Mariner. Gas engine: 2.3 L DOHC 16V I4 133 hp/129 lb. ft., aluminum block, aluminum head. Electric motor: permanent magnet AC synchronous motor, 155 hp/133 lb. ft. Standard features: AM/FM stereo with six-disc CD changer in dash. Power driver’s seat and power windows, mirrors, and doors. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Power moon roof with sunshade. Audiophile sound system with six-disc in-dash CD player, seven speakers. Heated, premium leather trim with perforated leather inserts. Six-way power driver’s seat and driver/passenger map pockets. Hybrid Energy/Audiophile/Navigation screen system. Heated leather seating surfaces and exterior side mirrors. Reverse sensing system. Cargo shade. Safety canopy side air curtains with rollover sensor and front side-impact air bags. Dimensions: Front head room, 40.4; rear, 39.2. Front leg room, 41.6; rear, 35.6. Cargo room, 27 cu. ft.; with rear seats folded down, 65.5 cu. ft. (slightly less than the non-hybrid Mariner) Safety: Driver and passenger front air bags, side, and chest side air bags. Seatbelt pretensioners. Four-channel antilock brakes. Occupant classification sensing.

SUBARU B9 TRIBECA $30,695
Subaru moves up-market with this roomy new crossover. Engine: 3 L DOHC 24-valve flat-6 250 hp/219 lb. ft., aluminum block, aluminum head. Standard features: AM/FM stereo CD player with MP3. Five-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and Sportshift “manu-matic” transmission. Dual power seats. Power windows, mirrors, and doors. Adjustable steering column. A/C. Options: Navigation system, DVD entertainment system, and third-row seat. Dimensions: Front head room, 38.9; rear, 38.2. Front leg room, 42.3; rear, 34.3. Cargo room, 37.6 cu. ft.; with second row folded down, 74.4 cu. ft. Safety: Dual-stage smart front-passenger air bags, side-curtain air bags front and second row, and seat-mounted front side-impact air bags. Height-adjustable active front-seat head restraints. Rear child-safety door locks. Safety brake pedal system.


This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of the products in this category. NAR doesn’t evaluate or endorse these products and isn’t responsible for changes in product info. Prices are the vendors’ suggested retail prices and are subject to change.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.

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