Drive Time

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2007

It seems that as sales of vehicles drop off in a souring economy, vehicles for review increase. Delivery folks have been dropping off as many as three a week. So instead of focusing on a single vehicle this month, let's play catch-up and take a shorter look at the good, the bad and the ugly.

Easily my recent favorite was a Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG two-seat sports car that flips its hard top to become a roadster. It's the AMG part that's special. AMG is a company that takes some Mercedes-Benz models, injects them with performance steroids and sends them off to compete with performance models from any other company.

AMG gave the little SLK a $6,800 rehab, which brought the final price to $77,195. But what a car. Under the hood is a V8 that produces 355 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and an automatic transmission that has seven—count 'em, seven—speeds.

Power, however, is just the start. It corners well, stops fast and, with its spoiler on the rear trunk, looks like it just might reach the 200 mph on its speedometer.

It also has all needed safety features, a premium sound system and many creature comforts.

The Mazda CX-7 is my idea of functional utility. It's a crossover vehicle, meaning it's a blend of a car and sport utility. But it rides on a car platform, which means it won't pound passengers on rough pavement or skip sideways when crossing a railroad track the way trucks do. The bottom line, fully equipped, was $30,660.

You can choose from several excellent crossover vehicles. The Ford Edge is exceptional. Chrysler's Pacifica is aging a bit, but still nice. The Nissan Murano is still striking. Lexus and Infiniti offer higher priced crossovers with even higher levels of creature comforts.

But this one is all I'd ever want or need.

Suzuki Grand Vitara XSport. No, I don't like everything I test. This Grand Vitara did not inspire confidence as its drive train made strange protest noises and its turn signal indicator made no noise while blinking lights. The doors opened narrowly unless pressed hard to open wider. Real-world fuel mileage was worse than the EPA-estimated 19 city and 24 highway.

At least this Suzuki Vitara, unlike the older models, has the gas tank under the rear seat, where it won’t be ruptured during impact. But it still has the spare tire on the tailgate, where it can cause damage to other cars in a rear end collision, and the tailgate door swings the counter-clockwise, blocking a person on the sidewalk from reaching the cargo bay opening.

The Grand Vitara is $21,499. I can't recommend one.

Volvo XC90. I can recommend two Volvos with truly advanced safety technology.

In traffic, a glance to either exterior mirror tells you whether it's safe to change lanes. How? The mirrors provide a nice view, but located on the interior of the car, in line of sight with each mirror, is a light that comes on if a vehicle is in a blind spot on either side. It’s called the "blind spot info system" and it is joined by an ultrasonic parking assist feature.

This $54,592 sport ute has just about every other comfort, safety and convenience feature, including headlights that turn with the direction of travel, satellite radio, all-wheel drive, traction and stability control and a great driving feel.

What doesn't it have? Good fuel mileage. This is estimated at 15 city and 20 highway.

The Volvo S80 car model with similar features was also tested. It's $56,025 and has better mileage of 17 city and 25 highway. Either is worth serious consideration.

Dodge Nitro R/T. Dodge is pushing this funny-looking sport utility as a performance machine. Not for me.

The power steering is so over-boosted that I had trouble keeping the Nitro in its traffic lane at highway speed. It's plain darty. Visibility front and rear is poor. And it's just another Chrysler product with a pedestrian-killing front design, hoping to make its owner look macho with its "mean" look. Mileage is 18/23 and the sticker price on our tester was $29,275.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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