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By Paul Dean
Los Angeles Times
November 24, 1995
America's bosom-buddying up to sport-utility vehicles is growing with the determination of a Jeep scaling Old Baldy. Call them what you will--sport-utes, sub-utes, SUVs, suvees or RAVs--they account for 10% of all new vehicle sales, and the
market is not just stretching up but bulging at both ends. For years, the field had an aristocracy of one with the $53,000 Range Rover its crowned head. Closest pretenders were the $37,000 Toyota Land Cruiser and a $31,000 edition of the Jeep Grand
Cherokee with courtiers waddling north and south of $20,000. But now Mercedes and BMW are preparing to build luxury condos on wheels. Lexus has a sport-ute based on parent Toyota's Land Cruiser in the works, while Infiniti is working a
wood-and-leather-lined expansion of the Nissan Pathfinder. Prestigious Jaguar is debating the issue. Cadillac might throw its silk Stetson into the ring. Mercury is proposing an upscale something called the Mountaineer. Next month, Acura will
introduce its SLX based on Isuzu's Trooper and aimed at big guys costing $30,000 or more. Meanwhile, down-market a few blocks, manufacturers are poised to supply the more youthful and less affluent with a fuller inventory of barer, smaller sport
utilities. Or sub-utes. Toyota's new RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle) arrives soon to follow the small footprints of the Geo Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick. Suzuki's X-90 already has California chuckling because it sounds like something Spaceman
Spiff flew against the Zods. Spies say Chrysler is working on something inexpensive, pint-size and grafted from the Neon. It's suddenly a swollen, varied field serving a full-blown infatuation backed by no rational purpose. Sure, a Land
Cruiser has the capability of driving the Cucamonga Wilderness in search of the white bull rhino before it migrates north to Barstow. Yet 96% of sport-utility owners never take their vehicles off-road. So four-wheel drive plus 80 cubic feet of cargo
space has zero suburban purpose unless the mall is under construction or you plan on ordering 1,782 artichoke and anchovy specials to go from California Pizza Kitchen. Suvees, however, do have a certain swagger when shouldering through traffic.
Parents feel safer with their young shielded inside a Chubb safe masquerading as a Chevy Blazer. And one certainly does become a little imperial perchedso high above the hoi polloi. This month, four new or improved sport-utility vehicles enter the
fashionable mainstream that is expanding so fiercely, its next dynamic may well involve shaking down, sorting out and survival of the fittest. 1996 Suzuki X-90 See this pretty duckling as Son of Sidekick for borrowing the chassis, engine,
gearbox and suspension from its Suzuki sibling. It's also a sub-compact, T-topped, two-seater blatantly mimicking the two-surfboard, one-bikini, California-in-Coppertone concept of
Honda's Civic Del Sol. Its four-wheel drive is more suited to beach than deep boonies, with the intended role of plaything rather than hauler of drywall and band instruments. Image is everything to the X-90, from its purely decorative rear spoiler
through Las Vegas lounge upholstery to the styling of a Air Nike balloon floating above Sneaker City. The vehicle comes with air bags and anti-lock brakes, power windows, alarm, cruise control and alloy wheels, which isn't shabby for a vehicle in
this price range. It stomps new ground for innovation and cuteness, and removing the T-top is a one-lever, 27-second snap. A 1.6-liter, four-cylinderengine delivers 95 horsepower, which means slow passage up the Grapevine. But the X-90 is peppy on
flatlands, handles well for its short wheelbase and rudimentary suspension, and is more fun than a barrel of Jeep Wranglers. Prices: $13,500-$16,000. Thumbs Up: Turns more heads than frontal nudity. Thumbs Down: Traveling to Denver? Take the bus. Verdict: Would you spend$14,000 on a Christmas ornament? 1996 Ford Explorer It has taken six years, but Ford Explorer has finally been given a V-8 transplant. From 160 horsepower and lagging
all seniors in its class, the Explorer moves to 210 horsepower and performance on the bumpers of Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevy Blazer. To make the V-8 fit its bay, also to compensate for the added weight of the new engine, Ford was forced to
redesign the Explorer's front suspension. While underneath, engineers changed the rear axle for larger, more constant rear tire contact. In addition to a sport utility that goes faster, the V-8 Explorer has the bonus of crisper handling and tons less body
roll, on- and off-road. Here's the whoops: Developing the V-8 took less time than designing a four-wheel-drive transfer case. So until next year, the Explorer V-8 is available only in rear-wheel drive. Price: $25,000. Thumbs Up: More power,
more reliable handling. Thumbs Down: Two-wheel drive only. Verdict: See Explorer remain the nation's best-selling sport utility. 1996 Range Rover 4.6 HSE When you're already the best and most expensive--and buyers haven't picketed dealers
for being asked to pay $53,000 for a workhorse in Connolly leather and burled walnut tack--the only thing left is to be better and costlier. Hence the Range Rover 4.6 HSE, a limited, sportier edition of the 4.0 SE, with a few more toys and a heftier
engine. Muscles are improved from 190 to 225 horsepower. Ghastly wanders have been removed from the steering process. A firmer suspension--plus 18-inch alloy wheels shod with low-profile Pirelli tires--vastly improves freeway manners without
diluting the off-road rock and roll. Yet it's clearly engineered more for boulevard commandos than jungle explorers. Acceleration is quicker,but one hardly needs an 11-speaker CD system, sport shifting, speed-limit beepers, dual automatic climate
controls, and the most sophisticated alarm and disabling system this side of Ft. Knox when crossing the Kalahari. Price: $62,000. Thumbs Up: More power, less steering wallow. Thumbs Down: Electronically overwrought. Verdict: For the same
price you can buy 2.5 Explorer V-8s. 1996 Kia Sportage Korean vehicles, like Hungarian wines and dog-pound mutts, must work twice as hard to be accepted. All the Kia Sportage needs is a quick glance and a few miles of your time to be
considered an ideal starter set for those ready to switch from Saturns and Civics to a compact sport utility. Two engines are available, but we recommend the new 2.0-liter, double-camshaft, Mazda-refined engine developing 130 horsepower. It needs
prodding to stay ahead of freeway masses, but it's ideal for a fun vehicle geared more to in-
close family camping trips than scampering the Sierras. Don't expect Range Rover luxuries for a base of $16,200--the headliner is foam instead of fabric--but that tab does include 4WD, power windows, cruise control, central locking and alloy wheels.
Automatic transmission, limited-slip differential and external spare tire carrier are among options. Sadly, until next year, air bags are not. The Sportage is buzzy when pressured, and its five-speed manual is like stirring a wooden spoon in
pudding. It doesn't pay to get really physical with the handling, particularly at speed. But it's thrifty, well-assembled, good-looking and far roomier inside than it looks from the outside. Prices: $16,200-$20,000. Thumbs Up: Feels durable,
reliable, friendly. Thumbs Down: No air bags. Verdict: A scamp worth considering as Suvee 101.