For a long time, the diminutive Geo Tracker and its fraternal twin, the Suzuki Sidekick, were about the only residents of Mini-apolis, that small suburb of the sport-utility community.
But the population is growing. The Toyota RAV4 arrived in town recently, and Honda will drop its CR-V into the mini-ute fray this winter. And there is also the Kia Sportage, a Korean entry that is being sold out West and that will eventually make its way to the East.
What’s notable about the Tracker I tested recently is that it, like its Sidekick, is the only truck-based mini-ute in the neighborhood. The RAV4 and CR-V are car-derived.
This means that the Tracker is constructed like most larger sport utes, with a truck-type suspension and ladder frame underneath it. The Toyota and Honda are unibody designs based on small pleasure-car platforms.
As a consequence, the Honda and Toyota are more refined, exhibiting more car-like ride and handling qualities, while the Tracker is better suited to rugged off-road use.
The Tracker’s off-road edge is enhanced by its greater ground clearance and the fact that its part-time 4wd system includes a low range for powering through deep mud and snow. The convenience-oriented full-time systems in the Japanese entries do not have a low range.
The chief appeal of the Tracker is its price, which is even lower than those of the budget-minded CR-V and RAV4. The 1996 model I tested had a starting price of $15,710, and that was for a top-of-the line, LSi four-door hardtop with 4wd. The smaller, two-door, soft-top model is considerably cheaper.
With that kind of price tag, and a funsy image, the Tracker is particularly appealing to young, entry-level ute buyers.
While the Tracker is as cheap as it gets in Mini-apolis, that doesn’t mean you can’t bulk up the sticker by working out on the optional equipment. The test vehicle was fitted with about every Tracker goodie they offer and had a sticker of $20,151.
To make matters even costlier, the tester was also equipped with about $3,800 worth of sporting gear as a marketing experiment. The recreational stuff included tubular fishing-rod holders on the front bumper, an inflatable two-person raft, a 10-horsepower outboard motor, a gas can, and a drinking-water container that doubled as a chair.
(Unfortunately, the weather was so crummy while I had the “hunt & fish” model that I never got a chance to motor around in the raft, which probably rides as well as the Tracker.)
Actually, the four-door Tracker doesn’t really ride that badly. It certainly rides a lot better than the two-door model, thanks to its longer wheelbase (97.6 inches). That extra 11 inches of wheelbase also translates into more room for back-seat passengers and an additional 12 cubic feet of cargo space.
In addition to affording decent rear legroom, the four-door interior is reasonably comfortable and well laid out. Instrumentation and controls are readily accessible, and visibility is generally fine, although the tester’s outside-mounted spare did encroach slightly on the rear view.
Like the rest of the Tracker models, the LSi I tested was powered by a 1.6-liter four that develops 95 horsepower. That doesn’t sound like a huge serving of testosterone, but it’s quite adequate in a vehicle that weighs less than 2,500 pounds.
That low weight (close to a ton lighter than most compact sport utes) also engenders outstanding mileage by sport-utility standards. The tester had EPA mileage ratings of 24 city and 26 highway and gave me 24 m.p.g. in mixed driving.
The fact that the Tracker is so light and so short (158.7 inches) makes it a very maneuverable customer off-road. It will go places that Ford Explorers and Toyota 4Runners only dream about.
The 4wd system on the Tracker is your basic, part-time setup. A floor-mounted lever is used to put the vehicle in high- or low-range 4wd. The base Tracker has manual ront hubs, which means you have to get out of the car and engage them by hand before you can employ 4wd. The tester had the optional automatic locking hubs.
GEO TRACKER LSI
Base vehicle: Part-time 4wd with manual locking hubs, 1.6-liter engine, five-speed manual transmission, power steering, power disc/drum brakes, 15-inch steel wheels, P205/75R15 all-season radials, dual air bags, rear-window defogger, carpeting, console, manual outside mirrors.
Test model: Four-speed automatic transmission, antilock braking system, air-conditioning, automatic locking hubs, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear-window wiper/washer, cruise control, skid plates, stereo/cassette, clock, power windows, door locks and mirrors.
Base price: $15,710
Test model: $20,151
EPA city rating: 24
Test mileage: 24
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, roadside assistance, courtesy transportation for warranty repairs.