EXPERT REVIEW

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What looks like a sport-utility vehicle on a balmy day behaves a lot like an ordinary station wagon in the snow.

That’s the lesson from a week in the 2001 Chevrolet Tracker LT, a two-wheel-drive crossover model competing in the mini-sport-utility market.

A crossover vehicle attempts to bridge the perceived gap between a car and a truck — providing a car’s generally smoother ride and handling, some of a truck’s utility and the appearance of all of a truck’s ruggedness.

Popular crossover models include the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda Tribute and Toyota RAV4. They are good conveyances for urban hauling, such as carrying bulky loads in congested areas. In the mid-Atlantic region and the South, where snowstorms aren’t the norm, it makes sense to buy those models with two-wheel drive instead of the available four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive systems.

That is, it makes sense until “normal” weather turns “abnormal,” leaving you with a sudden, pervasive sense of vulnerability. That is what happened on a recent trip through northern Maryland.

I should’ve paid closer attention to the weather reports. Snow was supposed to fall on the District of Columbia. It didn’t. I seized the moment and hit the road moving north, where snow — lots of it — fell instead.

Very quickly, the two-wheel-drive Tracker LT (in which the rear wheels get the power) reminded me that it lacked lockable front hubs for four-wheel-drive traction and that it had no ability to apportion power, to automatically transfer power from gripping to slipping wheels, as would be the case with all-wheel drive.

The rear end slipped — not badly, but just enough to get me to slow down. I was grateful for the warning, but my resulting behavior frustrated drivers behind me. Many motorists believe snow means “Go faster!” They have little patience for people in supposed sport-utility vehicles who choose that moment to go slow.

But in better weather and on drier roads, the 2001 Tracker LT held its own. Under those circumstances, the little sport-ute was discernibly better than earlier Trackers, with their standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. That 90-horsepower engine was adequate for short, urban commutes without cargo or passengers. But on the highway, and under loads, it was a slouch.

The new Tracker LT comes with a 16-valve, two-liter four-cylinder that develops 127 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 134 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. That engine revs nicely — producing more-than-adequate power without much noise. That’s saying something, considering that the Tracker is more like a truck than its rival mini-utility vehicles, which have car-type unibody construction.

By comparison, the new Tracker LT is built on a traditional, rigid truck frame. That means in four-wheel drive — with skid plates underneath its engine, fuel tank and transfer case — the Tracker would be a better bet off road than, say, the Honda CR-V.

But genuine off-road enthusiasts are a distinct minority in the sport-utility world, which is one of several reasons that market is breaking up into myriad sub-segments. For example, the true marketing intent of the two-wheel-drive Tracker LT is to capture “young adult” buyers — that is, young couples with jobs, apartments and homes — who are psychologically unable to commit to minivans or station wagons.

It’s a form of motorized escapism that works — until it snows.

Join Warren Brown tomorrow at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/ liveonline for “Real Wheels,” his live discussion about cars.

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