You can’t drive a golf ball into traffic these days without tagging some new sport utility vehicle.Like the BMWs of the 80s, it seems every yuppie with stock options and an REI membership has one … ortwo. The sad reality of these quasi-trucks is that they’re seldom utilized to full off-road or road-trip potential.Still, with explosive growth in outdoor recreation and the U.S. economy at large, auto manufacturers haveanswered unprecedented demands for this breed of car. And with standard features such as on-the-flyfour-wheel drive, generous horsepower, and enough cargo space to haul the contents of multi-sport maestroShaun Palmer’s garage, they create a veritable second home for many snowboarders. Bottom line: sport utesare the most efficient and reliable way to get to and from the mountain. It’s difficult, though, to know whichare best suited for the snowboard lifestyle, meaning whether a vehicle is fit to sleep in when an avalanchecloses the road to Kirkwood.

And what if you signed your life away on an SUV lease only to later learnyour brother’s Honda Civic hosts a better tailgate party? You’d feel justifiably ripped-off. To answer thoseconcerns and then some, we scrutinized seven of the best. Along with our take on each ride, we’ve providedan SUV-by-SUV comparison in the following crucial categories: Cup Holders: Perhaps the mostoverlooked interior feature, the cup-holder system can make or break a vehicle. A vehicle with minimal cupcapacity and poor placement is like a board with only one set of binding mounts-limited. And if theyskimped on the cup holders, what other corners might’ve been cut? A one-to-ten rating accompanies each,ten being virtually unattainable (at least in our lifetime). Tailgate party: Imagine showing up to Blackcomb’sspring B-lot party with a keg and your sparkling new SUV to find it has no tailgate to speak of. Humiliatingto say the least. The ability to form an instant party by popping the rear hatch or tailgate is timeless,especially in resort parking lots.

Camp factor: Whether it’s at a rest area, ski area, or friend’s driveway,sleeping in your vehicle is often the best way to score freshies. In this arena, an SUV’s cargo area isconsidered first-class accommodations. A reclined passenger seat is business class, whereas the driver’s seatis coach with the steering wheel filling in for a bothersome kid. Forethought when packing is key. Be mindfulof how you’ll arrange the gear and when possible, keep the rear passenger-side split-seat down for fullreclining. Plug-ins: We’re hip-deep in the gadget age-cell phones, Game Boys, laptops, navigation devices,boot warmers, air compressors … Indeed, with the advent of 110-volt lighter adapters, a vehicle cannothave enough plug-ins. You can now brew a pot of coffee or access the Internet from your car … if you’re soinclined. Chicks dig it: Sorry, ladies, this is a one-way street. Although you’ll attract guys with a nicefour-by-four, men have been using their transportation to attract women since it was on four legs and pissedin the street. We polled several women, gauging how much each vehicle turned them on. Each SUV isranked from first to seventh. Chevy Tahoe Engine: 5.7-liter V8 Horse Power (HP): 255 Miles pergallon (MPG): 12 city/16 highway Seating for: six or more Cargo (cubic feet): 118.2 Minimumground clearance: 8.6 inches Price range: $24,000-33,000 The Chevy Tahoe starts out with a greatname; if you like Sierra cement, that is-and we do. Further, you have to love the fact that it’s the basis for theCadillac SUV, known as the Escalade, which is appropriate since the Tahoe is definitely the Caddy of thisreview. As of 2000, Chevy says goodbye to its two-door models, leaving several four-door versions tochoose from with a variety of package deals. An option most worthy of noting is the coveted OnStarSystem-a GPS-driven, 24/7 cellular service allowing drivers to call for assistance with any on-the-road needthey might have.

For example, imaginyou’re approaching Salt Lake City on I-15; it’s been a long drive,you’re thirsty, and you know locating a bar in Salt Lake can be a tricky proposition-you need all the helpyou can get. Once you hit the OnStar button, the stereo volume drops and a voice comes over the speakers,”OnStar, this is Sonja. How can I help you this evening, Mr. Shredder?” Before you know it, you’ve gotyour directions. This could also come in handy when trying to locate hotels, restaurants, hospitals, gasstations … you get the picture. Gear-wise, there’s plenty of room for boards and bags behind the secondrow of seats, without even folding them flat-this is a full-sized SUV. A roof rack can be used for a packedhouse, but at six feet tall, it may require a ladder for loading. Alternatives include several hitch-mounted rackoptions.

Crucial Criteria Cup capacity: Seven-four cups of coffee, one 44-ounce Big Gulp, and twosodas. Rating: 8 Plug-ins: Three Tailgate: Has optional tailgate or split doors-you know which one is right.Camp factor: Two steps down from a RV Chicks dig it: Second Dodge Durango Engine: 5.9-liter V8HP: 245 MPG: 12/16 Seating for: seven Cargo (cubic feet): 88 Minimum ground clearance: 7.9inches Price range: $25,000-28,000 If you live in Durango, you don’t frequent the local resort as often assomeone in, say, Crested Butte. Instead, you become intimate with the backcountry. Appropriately enough,the Dodge Durango is built for remote access. Based on the Dakota pickup, the 4X4 Durango sports thesame aggressive grill area that’s characteristic of all Dodge trucks. Its bubble-shaped trim almost looks liketoo much for an SUV, but something has to give when cramming such a big engine into a vehicle of this size(also available in smaller, more efficient sizes). At over two tons, it’s more of a truck than most of itsmidsized brethren, with a comparably rough ride to prove it. But the handling is consistent and solid. Thecoolest aspect of the interior is the third-row seat.

Allowing comfortable room for one adult or two kids, italso folds completely out of the way to form a flat bed behind the second-row seat, which also folds to openthe Durango’s maxed-out, 88 cubic feet of cargo space. Otherwise, the 60/40 seat can be employed for anideal three-totally-comfortable-passengers-with-gear-on-a-long-road-trip scenario. Crucial Criteria Cupcapacity: Five-two lattes, two Jolt colas, and one 44-ounce Powerade. Rating: 7 Plug-ins: two Tailgate:Hatchback with sizable bumper and small storage area under trunk bed. Camp factor: By folding the 40part of the 60/40 rear seat, it sleeps two with gear-one person in the fully reclinable passenger seat and onelaying almost fully stretched in the cargo zone. Chicks dig it: Sixth Ford Excursion Engine: 6.8-liter V10HP: 300 MPG: Not many Seating for: Nine Cargo (cubic feet): 165 Minimum ground clearance:N/A Price Range: ?!?!?!?!?!?

This behemoth weighs more than three-and-a-half tons, is longer (by seveninches) and wider (by nearly four inches) than the Chevy Suburban, and provides more cargo area than mostManhattan apartments. The Excursion-next in the evolution of the Explorer and Expedition, of course-isdestined to set new standards in SUV prowess, especially considering its 44-gallon fuel appetite. Inside,there’s seating for nine with at least one cup holder for each and front-seat comfort in all positions. After all,why shouldn’t little Timmy be able to control the stereo and climate control from the back seat? Optionalpowerplants include a 7.3-liter turbo diesel behemoth with 500 pounds of torque. In addition, a tripcomputer calculates miles to empty, average fuel economy, compass reading, and outside temperature, muchlike a 70s-era Lincoln or Caddy. Essentially, it’s designed as a first-class ride to the mountains for six adults,their stuff, and a trailer-full of sleds. Crucial Criteria Cup capacity: Ten-a twelve-pack minus two. Rating:9 Plug-ins: Five Tailgate: The glass lifts up and split doors swing out. Not ideal, but the doors providenooks for condiments and the like. Camp factor: A rolling condominium. Chicks dig it: Fourth LandRover Discovery II Engine: Four-liter V8 HP: 188 MPG: 13/16 Seating for: five to seven Cargo(cubic feet): 62.6 Minimum ground clearance: 8.2 inches Price range: $35,000 For starters, it’s aclassy British automaker now run by BMW. With a complete makeover (85-percent new parts, actually) for’99, low-pro tires, five-spoke wheels, and a V8, the Discovery II’s the best cornering model in this reviewand claims best off-road capability to boot.

The unique feature here is its Hill Descent Control (HDC). Inextreme conditions, the HDC supplements engine braking by monitoring wheel speed and applying brakes tohelp maintain proper velocity when descending steep, slippery slopes. Its distinctive Alpine windows in theroof and dual sunroofs make it especially desirable for friends who often ride in the back. To protect theinterior, beefy rubber floor mats are standard, and in the absence of third-row seating, large plastic storagebins come in handy for saturated snowboarding gear. Topping it off, a Harman/Kardon eleven-speakerstereo with steering wheel-mounted controls was by far the best sound in this test. Crucial Criteria Cupcapacity: Four-two decaf coffees up front and a couple caffeine-free sodas in back. Rating: 4 Plug-ins:Two Tailgate: Swings to the right, allowing a small-scale parking-lot get-together. Camp factor: Recliningfront seats only. Chicks dig it: Third Nissan Xterra Engine: 3.3-liter V6 HP: 170 MPG: 15/19 Seatingfor: Five Cargo (cubic feet): Enough Minimum ground clearance: 8.4 inches Price range:$17,000-25,000 Introduced for 2000, this is Nissan’s attempt to grab Gen-X consumers as they near theage of lease qualification.

Thing is, Nissan has done a good job of filling this micro niche. For those whoenjoy multiple sports on a modest budget, there are few vehicles catering to this lifestyle like the Xterra. Builton a Nissan Frontier pickup platform, our top-of-the-line test model was loaded with options: neoprene seatcovers, stout tubular roof rack with exterior cargo bin, sunroof, slotted rubber floor mats for boot runoff,foot rails to keep feet dry during the shoe/pant change, first aid kit, CD player, and interior bike rack. Astandard feature we particularly liked was that the rear seat cushions popped out so the rear seat backscould be folded down for cargo space while maintaining a low-rider seating position up front. The Xterra isjust short of a midsized SUV, and even at 170 horsepower was slightly undergunned with two people andgear. Dollar-for-dollar, though, it’s the most adventurous vehicle on the market today. Crucial Criteria Cupcapacity: Five-two Red Bulls and a mocha up front and two Mountain Dews in the rear. Rating: 6Plug-ins: Three Tailgate: Hatchback is good for a 3.2 beer bash, but can’t hold a candle to the real thing.Camp factor: Enough space for a diagonal sleeper in the cargo area or one fully reclined passenger.Chicks dig it: Seventh Subaru Outback Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder HP: 165 MPG: 21/26 Seatingfor: Five Cargo (cubic feet): 69.9 Minimum ground clearance: 7.3 inches Price range:$22,000-24,000 It’s the sport utility wagon, and it’s ushered in a new trend for 2000 as Mercedes, BMW,and Audi are now jumping on the, er, band wagon. The Outback is synonymous with practicality. Forextended leisure tours of the country, there is no better vehicle, especially if you want a 4WD that handleslike a car.

The low overall height allows for easy roof-rack loading, leaving plenty of room inside forbaggage or bedding. In snowboard terms, it’s a freestyle model: small, agile, efficient, stylish. Like shorterboards, though, its weakness is speed. The four-cylinder engine is great for a couple people with minimalgear, but with four passengers and a full load on a mountain pass, you’re climbing slower than George Burnson Everest. Look forward to a V6 available in g out. Not ideal, but the doors providenooks for condiments and the like. Camp factor: A rolling condominium. Chicks dig it: Fourth LandRover Discovery II Engine: Four-liter V8 HP: 188 MPG: 13/16 Seating for: five to seven Cargo(cubic feet): 62.6 Minimum ground clearance: 8.2 inches Price range: $35,000 For starters, it’s aclassy British automaker now run by BMW. With a complete makeover (85-percent new parts, actually) for’99, low-pro tires, five-spoke wheels, and a V8, the Discovery II’s the best cornering model in this reviewand claims best off-road capability to boot.

The unique feature here is its Hill Descent Control (HDC). Inextreme conditions, the HDC supplements engine braking by monitoring wheel speed and applying brakes tohelp maintain proper velocity when descending steep, slippery slopes. Its distinctive Alpine windows in theroof and dual sunroofs make it especially desirable for friends who often ride in the back. To protect theinterior, beefy rubber floor mats are standard, and in the absence of third-row seating, large plastic storagebins come in handy for saturated snowboarding gear. Topping it off, a Harman/Kardon eleven-speakerstereo with steering wheel-mounted controls was by far the best sound in this test. Crucial Criteria Cupcapacity: Four-two decaf coffees up front and a couple caffeine-free sodas in back. Rating: 4 Plug-ins:Two Tailgate: Swings to the right, allowing a small-scale parking-lot get-together. Camp factor: Recliningfront seats only. Chicks dig it: Third Nissan Xterra Engine: 3.3-liter V6 HP: 170 MPG: 15/19 Seatingfor: Five Cargo (cubic feet): Enough Minimum ground clearance: 8.4 inches Price range:$17,000-25,000 Introduced for 2000, this is Nissan’s attempt to grab Gen-X consumers as they near theage of lease qualification.

Thing is, Nissan has done a good job of filling this micro niche. For those whoenjoy multiple sports on a modest budget, there are few vehicles catering to this lifestyle like the Xterra. Builton a Nissan Frontier pickup platform, our top-of-the-line test model was loaded with options: neoprene seatcovers, stout tubular roof rack with exterior cargo bin, sunroof, slotted rubber floor mats for boot runoff,foot rails to keep feet dry during the shoe/pant change, first aid kit, CD player, and interior bike rack. Astandard feature we particularly liked was that the rear seat cushions popped out so the rear seat backscould be folded down for cargo space while maintaining a low-rider seating position up front. The Xterra isjust short of a midsized SUV, and even at 170 horsepower was slightly undergunned with two people andgear. Dollar-for-dollar, though, it’s the most adventurous vehicle on the market today. Crucial Criteria Cupcapacity: Five-two Red Bulls and a mocha up front and two Mountain Dews in the rear. Rating: 6Plug-ins: Three Tailgate: Hatchback is good for a 3.2 beer bash, but can’t hold a candle to the real thing.Camp factor: Enough space for a diagonal sleeper in the cargo area or one fully reclined passenger.Chicks dig it: Seventh Subaru Outback Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder HP: 165 MPG: 21/26 Seatingfor: Five Cargo (cubic feet): 69.9 Minimum ground clearance: 7.3 inches Price range:$22,000-24,000 It’s the sport utility wagon, and it’s ushered in a new trend for 2000 as Mercedes, BMW,and Audi are now jumping on the, er, band wagon. The Outback is synonymous with practicality. Forextended leisure tours of the country, there is no better vehicle, especially if you want a 4WD that handleslike a car.

The low overall height allows for easy roof-rack loading, leaving plenty of room inside forbaggage or bedding. In snowboard terms, it’s a freestyle model: small, agile, efficient, stylish. Like shorterboards, though, its weakness is speed. The four-cylinder engine is great for a couple people with minimalgear, but with four passengers and a full load on a mountain pass, you’re climbing slower than George Burnson Everest. Look forward to a V6 available in 2000. Critical Criteria Cup capacity: Three-two nonfatlattes and one McDonald’s o.j. in the rear. Rating: 3 Plug-ins: Two Tailgate: Not really Camp factor: Bygod, man, it’s a wagon! Chicks dig it: Fifth Toyota 4Runner Engine: 3.4-liter V6 HP: 183 MPG: 17/20Seating for: Five Cargo (cubic feet): 79.8 Minimum ground clearance: 9.8-11 inches Price range:$20,000-35,000 If the SUV market were Tibet, the 4Runner would be the Dali Lama (except it wouldn’t bein exile). It’s been around longer than most others, garnering praise year after year for its performance andreliability. The ’99 model saw some refinement in the grill and lighting areas on the exterior, and restyledconsole and cup holders on the interior. Boasting the most available options across the three models-Base,SR5, and Limited-the pricetag varies 15,000 dollars from intro to ultimate.

The Limited received the mostsignificant change in the form of 4Runner’s first full-time 4WD system. Aesthetically, the Highlander stylewith hood scoop sets the 4Runner apart from others in its class, giving it an even sportier look.Edge-to-edge handling is better than you’d expect from a truck, tackling mountain roads with minimal bodyroll and precise steering. Suspension-wise, it surpassed all others in repeated pedal-to-the-floorspeed-bump testing. Crucial Criteria Cup capacity: Four-two Arizona Ice Teas and two medium7-Eleven coffees. Rating: 5 Plug-ins: Three Tailgate: Like the classic, full-sized Ford Bronco, the rearglass rolls down into the tailgate, which then folds for seating, e.g., a tailgate party with front-row seating forthree. Camp factor: A 50/50 seat allows for boards on one side and room to crash-out on the other in aslightly diagonal position. Chicks dig it: Champion in 2000. Critical Criteria Cup capacity: Three-two nonfatlattes and one McDonald’s o.j. in the rear. Rating: 3 Plug-ins: Two Tailgate: Not really Camp factor: Bygod, man, it’s a wagon! Chicks dig it: Fifth Toyota 4Runner Engine: 3.4-liter V6 HP: 183 MPG: 17/20Seating for: Five Cargo (cubic feet): 79.8 Minimum ground clearance: 9.8-11 inches Price range:$20,000-35,000 If the SUV market were Tibet, the 4Runner would be the Dali Lama (except it wouldn’t bein exile). It’s been around longer than most others, garnering praise year after year for its performance andreliability. The ’99 model saw some refinement in the grill and lighting areas on the exterior, and restyledconsole and cup holders on the interior. Boasting the most available options across the three models-Base,SR5, and Limited-the pricetag varies 15,000 dollars from intro to ultimate.

The Limited received the mostsignificant change in the form of 4Runner’s first full-time 4WD system. Aesthetically, the Highlander stylewith hood scoop sets the 4Runner apart from others in its class, giving it an even sportier look.Edge-to-edge handling is better than you’d expect from a truck, tackling mountain roads with minimal bodyroll and precise steering. Suspension-wise, it surpassed all others in repeated pedal-to-the-floorspeed-bump testing. Crucial Criteria Cup capacity: Four-two Arizona Ice Teas and two medium7-Eleven coffees. Rating: 5 Plug-ins: Three Tailgate: Like the classic, full-sized Ford Bronco, the rearglass rolls down into the tailgate, which then folds for seating, e.g., a tailgate party with front-row seating forthree. Camp factor: A 50/50 seat allows for boards on one side and room to crash-out on the other in aslightly diagonal position. Chicks dig it: Champion