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As a biologist I drive off-road throughout the United States...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



As a biologist, I drive off-road throughout the United States and Mexico. My 2000 four-wheel-drive Toyota Tacoma gets terrible mileage, but I have a motorcycle for my everyday (non-work) vehicle, so the mileage isn't a daily concern. However, in a moment of indiscretion, I got married and, shortly thereafter, pregnant. Obviously, I can't get away with the pickup-truck/motorcycle thing anymore. We're considering an SUV. Hubby wants a Toyota 4Runner. The problem is, I'm having difficulty evaluating off-road capabilities. Most reviews criticize SUVs if they drive like trucks, and summarize their off-road abilities by saying, "You're probably never going to drive this thing off-road anyway." Basically, I want it all -- something that won't get me stuck when I do something stupid in a remote location, something that gets better-than-abysmal mileage, and if it looks like a BMW Z4, all the better! New or used doesn't matter, although it will need room for that little twinkle in our eyes that's coming. Any suggestions? -- Leah

RAY: Well, first of all, congratulations, Leah. I heartily recommend the institution of marriage.

TOM: So do I. So much so, I've entered into it several times!

RAY: Here's the story. There are basically two kinds of SUVs these days. There are truck-based SUVs and car-based SUVs. For the vast majority of people, we recommend car-based SUVs. Why? Because they handle better, ride better, are less prone to flipping over, are easier to get into and out of, are safer for other cars on the road and get better mileage. And for on-road and bad-weather conditions, they're fine.

TOM: But for the few people, like you, Leah, who actually DO drive off-road and have to climb over tree stumps, we would recommend a truck-based SUV with a more rugged truck frame. And the 4Runner happens to be one of those truck-based SUVs.

RAY: So your husband's idea is not a bad one. The new, redesigned 4Runner is a very nice vehicle. But it might be more than you have in mind. It's bigger, taller and more luxurious than the old 4Runner. And as such, it'll easily cost you more than $30,000 to get into one with four-wheel drive.

TOM: But it certainly will give you everything you want, except for good gas mileage (as we said, truck-based SUVs get trucklike mileage). It'll be great off-road, it should be very reliable and it will have plenty of room in the back for little Tommy or Thomasina (I assume you'll be naming the baby after me).

RAY: If that's a little rich for your budget, Leah, I have a couple of other suggestions. One would be a used 4Runner, which is based on the very same chassis as your Tacoma pickup. That's durable enough, right?

TOM: A used Nissan Pathfinder might also fit the bill, Leah. Or, if you want to buy new, some of the smaller, truck-based SUVs on the market are the Nissan Xterra, the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Kia Sorento (essentially the same vehicle), the Jeep Liberty and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport.

RAY: Based on our experience fixing cars, I'd lean toward one of the Nissans or Toyotas. They're rugged, reliable and have plenty of room for the three of you and whatever biological substances you're carrying on board ... those that come from the baby and those that don't. Good luck, Leah.

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