Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finally coming of age

Compact SUVs are a hot ticket in the used market

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Although sport utility vehicles have been around for many years, in the 1990s they were king.

Automakers couldn't build enough of them, profits were huge and families lined up to buy them. Say what you want about the styling and fuel economy of these truck/wagon combos, but there was no denying the practicality they delivered. Soccer moms and hockey dads utilized them to move players around town, while outdoor enthusiasts packed them full of gear and hit the road less travelled.

Fast forward to the late '90s and beyond and thanks to surging gas prices a new player emerged, the compact sport utility vehicle. Offerings from practically all the big manufacturers entered the market and included the Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty, Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V.

With many of the same appealing features as a full-sized SUV but lower prices and improved fuel economy, these mini-marvels not only replaced many larger SUVs in family garages, but also put a major dent in the minivan market.

Because the popularity of these compact cruisers really only came into play in the last decade, finding one used for a bargain has been all but impossible. But in recent months, they are finally starting to come down in price.

As an owner of a massive pickup truck that passes everything but the gas station, I surmised that a fuel-efficient ride for daily driving would be a nice complement to my big rig and have been looking for just the right compact SUV for the better part of the last year.

About a month ago I spotted a post from a friend on Facebook offering a 2000 Honda CR-V that needed work and was for sale cheap. After checking it out, I made a deal to purchase it for $1,600.

These first-generation CR-Vs hit the market in 1997 and are essentially a jacked up Honda Civic with a roomier passenger and cargo area. The model I bought is a silver CR-V LX complete with air conditioning, power windows and locks and cruise control. It features a 2.0 litre, 4-cylinder engine, an automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive. Although it only churns out 147 horsepower the engine runs like a top. I drove it home from the seller's place on a temporary permit and despite the fact that I get to test drive all sorts of amazing new vehicles and own a few speedsters of my own, you couldn't have wiped the dumb grin off my face. It is loaded with thoughtful interior cues including multiple storage bins and a roomy cargo area and although the ride is a bit noisy, it sits up quite high compared to a small car.

With 230,000 kilometres on the clock, it requires a bit of work to get it road ready. A small amount of rust that will require patches to be welded in above the rear wheels is the first order of business and the steering rack is leaking so that will have to be replaced. A complete tune-up and replacement of the timing belt will also be required. I've already replaced the stereo and the interior is in mint condition. In total, I'm anticipating about $1500 in repairs to give it a new lease on life. Once its completed, I will be cruising in my new/old CR-V for just a touch over $3,000.

When these small SUVs initially entered the market, they made such perfect sense to me but for a country boy who relies on a large truck, it simply wasn't in the cards to buy a new model. Thanks to the huge popularity of these compact cuties, buying an older one used and doing a few repairs finally makes them an affordable second vehicle or a great choice for young drivers.

Today there are numerous compact SUVs available in the new car market and if you only require one vehicle, that is the direction I'd steer you in. But thanks to more than a decade of popularity, you can finally find decent used ones for the similar price of a comparable small car. There are so many of these small SUVs out on the road today that they are poised to dominate the used vehicle market in the coming years, and that popularity will translate into great buys for folks in the market for a good used vehicle.

Although math has never been my forte, when I compare the anticipated fuel economy of my 12-year-old CR-V against my massive gasoline-gulping Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD, it will likely only take a couple of years of moderate driving to basically own the Honda for free. As an added bonus, driving it allows me to preserve the big truck for the hauling and towing duties it was intended for.

In a line from one of my favourite movies, Slap Shot, I do, however, intend to make the little CR-V look mean. No worries, though. I won't be hitting it with a hockey stick. Painting the wheels black, however, is a good start.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2012 F5

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