BRANTFORD, Ontario, Canada -- It's the middle of a cold winter's night in the birthplace of hockey's Wayne Gretzky, but I'm not here in search of memorials to the Great One.I'm looking for doughnuts -- Tim Horton doughnuts -- and a big, strong cup of coffee. My annual pilgrimage to Detroit for the big auto show in January includes a weekend in another not-so-hot spot -- Buffalo, N.Y. -- where I visit relatives. This year, going from Detroit to Buffalo, I foolishly took the southern route from Detroit to Buffalo through Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio and Erie in Pennsylvania. On the way back to Detroit, I took the more familiar, shorter, and more scenic route through the plains of Ontario. My traveling companion this year was a 1998 GMC Jimmy SLE four-door sport-utility. When I fly into Detroit in winter I always drive a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle. The theory is that I'll get a chance to put these vehicles through a "real world" test with "real world" ice and snow on the "real world" battered roads of the region. This year, the weather was unusually cooperative. It was rainy, but in the 40s in Detroit. And, later in the week, it was single-digit cold in Buffalo and Canada, but there was no precipitation. So, four-wheel-drive remained unengaged, and the Jimmy got rated on its own merits, and not how well it did in keeping me out of a ditch. After a week and more than 800 miles behind the wheel of this four-door, I'm more convinced than ever that this -- and its sibling, the Chevy Blazer -- are solid citizens of the sport-utility world. And it's decidedly non-trendy, too. Look at the Mercedes ML320 and the new Lexus RX300. These are sport-utilities that really drive like cars. Or consider the Lincoln Navigator, the chrome-coated behemoth that truly reflects the excesses of today's sport-utilities. Or ponder the Honda CR-V or the Toyota RAV4. These mini-utes are adorable. But the Jimmy isn't car-like, or excessive, or cute. No, the Jimmy is a sport-utility built for people who need one, not people who want one. Interior room is good, but not gargantuan. Cargo capacity is more than adequate but less than extraordinary. The 190-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-6 engine is functional, but not fast. And the exterior design is squarish rather than cutting-edge. But everything works well. And the ride, especially hours long jaunts over pockmarked Midwestern roads, is quite nice. You can still tell that the basis for the Jimmy is the GM's small pickup platform, but it's a good match here. At the end of a long night, I emerged tired from the trip, but not tired from the ride. The Jimmy has partially cashed in on the SUV boom. Redone and released in 1994, sales have stayed in the 75,000 to 80,000 range in each of the last three years. Easily outsold by its rivals -- Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Blazer -- but the Jimmy has held solid, wh ile the other three saw goodly drops in sales in 1997 from 1996. The Jimmy gets only minor changes for 1998, including a slightly different front-end treatment, a new instrument panel and some new colors. Most noticeable is the arrival -- finally -- of a passenger-side air bag and the fact that four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are now standard on all models. Sold in two- or four-wheel-drive, in two- or four-door configuration and in four trim levels (only two in two-door models), the Jimmy caters to a wide swatch of the sport-utility-buying population. You can get a spare, manual-transmission, two-wheel-drive, two-door Jimmy for as cheap as $22,000 or a fully loaded four-wheel-drive, four-door version with options like a power sunroof and trip computer for $31,000-plus. Still, even when this vehicle is equipped with a lot of luxuries, it doesn't pretend to be a Jaguar or BMW. No, it's simply a nicely dressed truck. The biggest drawbacks for pot ential Jimmy buyers is that you can't get a V-8 engine or full-time four-wheel-drive. Those features are found on some competitive models. Also, the four-door Jimmy's smaller, 18-gallon fuel tank meant a shorter driving range than on some other mid-size sport utilities.
NUTS AND BOLTS What we drove: 1998 GMC Jimmy SLE, a four-door, four-wheel-drive sport-utility with a 4.3-liter V-6 engine and an automatic transmission. Base price: $25,855 Price as tested (includes options, delivery charge and discounts): $28,921 Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds Length: 183.8 inches Curb weight: 3,683 pounds Ground clearance: 7.5 inches Turning circle (curb to curb): 39.5 feet Standard features: Electronic four-wheel-drive transfer case; dual air bags; four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; daytime running lamps; air conditioning; tilt steering; cruise control; AM/FM stereo with cassette; deep-tint solar glass; rear split folding bench seat; cloth interior. Options on test vehicle: Marketing option package with overhead console, heated outside mirrors, power driver's seat, luxury ride suspension and AM/FM stereo with CD player; two-tone paint. EPA figures: 16 mpg (city); 20 mpg (highway)
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