Once upon a time, people didn't buy SUVs because they looked cooler or meaner than the other cars on the road. And they didn't shun them because of high gas prices, either. When sport utility vehicles first came on the scene, it was because they served an important purpose -- recreation. Because let's face it, there are some things you just can't do in a car.
Perhaps those who say the SUV is dead aren't looking at the big picture. Sure, most trucks make for less friendly commuters than your average car. But as outdoor recreation vehicles, they're the best way to go. Whatever you're into, these outdoorsy vehicles will take you back to the sport utility basics.
Honda Element: Sweet Surfer
For hanging ten, there's no better vehicle than the boxy Honda Element. The cargo area can be configured to create 77.1 cubic feet of space. According to Consumer Guide, that's large enough for "a 10-ft surfboard" or to "sleep two adults who are less than 5-feet-9-inches tall."
And there's no need to worry about your wet longboard messing up the interior. LX and EX models come with a floor that's covered in rubber-like urethane for easy cleaning. The EX even gets waterproof seats. If that's not enough for you, Honda offers a surfboard attachment that integrates with the car's roof rack. It retails for $382 and carries up to two surfboards. Even better, Edmunds adds, "If, after a day of getting pummeled by the trails or waves, you need to catch a few z's, all the seats fold down flat, making a bed."
Jeep Patriot: Happy Camper
For people who like to sleep with the bears, the Jeep Patriot is the ultimate camping vehicle. It may be a relatively small SUV, but it offers an impressive amount of cargo space -- 23 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 54.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat -- plenty of room for your picnic basket. MSN even lists "ample space for camping trips/gear" as one of the Patriot's pros. In addition, the cargo area features a washable and removable vinyl load floor.
And that's not the half of it. The Patriot has several innovative features to make you feel right at home in the wilderness, including a cargo dome light that can be removed and used as a flashlight. To bring a little of the indoors out, there are also liftgate speakers. "For camping trips and tailgate parties, the optional premium sound system features unique liftgate-mounted speakers that rotate and direct the sound toward the great outdoors," explains Edmunds.
Land Rover Range Rover: Serial Tailgater
With its luxurious interior and go-anywhere capabilities, the Land Rover Range Rover is a tailgater's dream. Autobytel, which lists it as one of the "Top Ten Tailgating Cars," says, "The Land Rover Range Rover's sleek bulk is easy to guide through crowded parking lots thanks to nimble handling, and its high ground clearance with adjustable ride-height suspension is a nice feature for rocky, muddy fields."
Automotive.com notes that the tailgate "was designed to support the weight of two adults." As an added bonus, the split tailgate "is convenient for accessing the rear cargo space, and in bad weather you can lift the rear glass to block showers and sit on the dry tailgate," says Autobytel.
In case you need a little distraction, the Range Rover is available with a Rear Seat Entertainment System that includes a six-disc DVD player and two video screens embedded into the front head restraints. Or, you can crank up some tunes on the 710-watt digital surround-sound system and MP3 player audio jack. Road & Travel, which also names the Land Rover as a great vehicle for tailgating, notes: "The Range Rover has the classiest interior of any SUV, with efficient, pollen-filtered air conditioning to isolate you from the surrounding odors."
Volvo XC70: Precision Skier
Skiing can be a dangerous sport if you're not careful -- and the same goes for getting to the slopes. But with the Volvo XC70 on your side, there's no need to worry. With its all-wheel drive system, Edmunds says the XC70 has "enough all-terrain capability to get to a ski resort or your summer cabin."
Key to the XC70's off-road abilities is its electronic Hill Descent Control, which limits speeds when it detects that the vehicle is going down a steep slope. Top Gear confirms: "Snowy lanes to the ski-lift? Muddy fields with a trailer behind? Greasy slipways to launch the speedboat? No prob. In fact, it can cope with moderately severe upland tracks, thanks to decent ground clearance and hill-descent control." Forbes concludes that "this sweet little Swede is as frisky in the snow as an amorous Eskimo."
Volvo offers several equipment options for carrying skis, including a sliding ski/snowboard holder with space for six pairs of skis or four snowboards. There's also a fold-down ski pass-through in the cargo area.
Toyota Land Cruiser: Rock Climber
BusinessWeek reports that the Land Cruiser "joins quite a few other models in the SUV field by supplementing its heavy-duty hardware with some electronic gizmos that increase stability during some of the most precarious off-road maneuvers." The full-time four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser boasts Toyota's Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which uses a hydraulic link between its front and rear anti-roll bars to effectively respond to rough terrain.
The Land Cruiser also comes equipped with Crawl Control. Edmunds reports, "Crawl Control works so well that it took a big chunk of the fun out of tackling rocks and moguls during our time negotiating the barren summertime ski slopes (black diamond, no less) of the Big Sky Resort in Montana." BusinessWeek had a similar experience: "We wondered at one time if we'd gotten ourselves in too precarious of a situation, but as we took shallow breaths the Crawl Control system didn't flinch, operating the stability control system and anti-lock brakes -- its sound oddly percussive -- getting us securely through." For ultimate security, the Land Cruiser also comes with Active Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Control.