The Geo Tracker is, depending on your personal taste, either cute and compact or small and boxy. Economical or underpowered. Sensible or silly. These are the kind of controversial qualities that turn little oddball vehicles such as the four-wheel-drive Tracker into cult stars. Young people have flocked to the two-door ragtop version of the Tracker (actually a Suzuki Sidekick in disguise) and the longer, more practical four-door has picked up its share of cheery followers. As an inexpensive little transport capable of some off-highway excursions or forays into snow country, the Tracker's not a bad little creature. It's also superior to its Suzuki Samurai predecessor, a mini-Jeep that spelled fun with capital letters until it showed an unfortunate propensity for rolling over. But the Tracker tested here loses much of its luster because of a $20,000 price tag, perilously close to the base price of more up-market vehicles. And as cute as it is, the road-going reality is that the Tracker feels narrow and tippy, with limited power and a choppy ride. It was seriously compromised by an automatic transmission that sapped so much power that the 1.6-liter engine couldn't pull hard enough to peel the skin from a grape. The combination of small size and leisurely acceleration made the Tracker feel seriously out-gunned on Phoenix streets. Up until now, the Tracker has been able to get away with these compromises as long as it lived in a world of its own, the only sports-utility vehicle that could accurately call itself a mini. But like a coddled only child suddenly facing competition from a new sibling, the Tracker could have some tough times ahead. The new kids on the block are the Toyota RAV4 and the yet-to-be-released Honda CR-V, both softer, more carlike hybrids trying to get a piece of the same action as the Tracker. Plus, the greatly improved Jeep Wrangler is making inroads of its own, and the appealing Kia Sportage has been attracting some attention. With the new competitors, the Tracker/Sidekick needs some extra attention. It did received a decent styling upgrade for '96, giving it a brighter, more-rugged look and sharper interior, but the four-door model still looks too minimalistic and boxy. Actually, the four-door lacks much of the cheeky appeal of the convertible, a funmobile that evokes images of beach scenes and campus cruising. But where the Tracker slips in comparison with, say, the RAV4 is in its driveability. The Toyota behaves with much more sophistication and comfort, and its 2-liter engine provides considerably more pickup and freeway-cruising ability. Part of the RAV4's advantage is its more carlike all-wheel-drive system, formerly used on the Celica sports coupe. The Tracker's heavy-duty four-wheel-drive, with a truck-derived transfer case and low-range capability, would be better at handling difficult terrain, but its higher weight and complexity detract from its on-pavement ride. The Tracker is also fairly noisy on the highway, with engine buzz, tire rumble and wind roar detracting from relaxed driving. We didn't tackle any mountain grades, but the limited engine power doesn't make the prospect very inviting. Passenger space in the Tracker is surprisingly abundant. Luggage space is limited with four on board, but a nicely designed folding rear seat provides plenty of space for two. At the base price of just over $15,000, the Tracker's limitations seem reasonable. But at $20,000, and compared with some of the latest offerings in mini-sports-utility vehicles, the Tracker's appeal as a value leader begins to fade. 1997 Geo Tracker Vehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door sport-utility vehicle, rear/four-wheel-drive. Base price: $15,710. Price as tested: $20,785. Engine: 1.6-literi n-line four, 95 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 98 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. C urb weigh t: 2,619 pounds. Length: 158.7 inches. Wheelbase: 97.6 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
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