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2004 Sport Cute Buyer's Guide - compact SUVs - reviews and comparison shopping

by Martha Hindes

OK. So where do we draw the line?

It used to be easy to figure out what was what in a car or a truck. Cars were smaller and trucks were bigger. Cars hauled your kids, your groceries, your friends to a concert, while that unwieldy cord of firewood would be better off in a truck. When sport utilities followed minivans into a broadening vehicle market, the neat dividing line began to disintegrate. Those multi-purpose wheels dubbed "sport utilities" could fill those or many other requirements, and they came in all sorts of flavors to boot.

Now it seems just about everything on the road is taking on multiple personalities: sometimes sassy, definitely eye-catching, with a growing conscience for the planet where we live while often indulging in a generous portion of pure creature comfort.

We went looking for this year's best "cute utes," those less-than-monstrous, multi-functional sport utility-type vehicles that can do double -- or even triple -- duty without losing their basic good looks or costing a fortune to operate, and to do it all with a truly affordable pricetag.

As the small sport-crossover-van segment continues to fragment, we reached for our editing pen and inked out some you're probably more familiar with or that border too closely on other identities, such as cars. Think Honda's longtime and trusty CRV (due for an upgrade next year), Subaru's Forester, and the category originator Jeep Wrangler (even with its extended longer wheelbase version coming soon) for the first consideration. Think Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe or the new Suzuki Aerio (small car with some crossover pretensions) for the second. (And since RTM has tested such vehicles in previous issues, we suspect you're just a quick click away for a peak if you're curious.)

What we came up with for our Cute Ute Buyers Guide for '04, after considerable mulling, is a list of what we believe to be the best, most up-to-date and trendiest buys in a small, affordable sport utility field that seems to change by the hour. Call it today's snapshot of an ever-blending landscape of contenders that will grow with such upcoming newbies as the Ford Freestyle cross utility vehicle -- but not for a while. For now, we offer these as the best the industry has to offer in looks, use and price for a decidedly independent buyer.

A fork in the road....either navigate through our sport cute buyer's guide by clicking on 'Start' or by selecting one of the models listed below!