2001Kia Sportage, GM Tracker, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Honda CRV

I'm buying a new car for my dog. Okay, I'm buying a new car because the dog's too lazy to jump into the back of my Acura Integra and 30 kg have become too much to heave in.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

I'm buying a new car for my dog. Okay, I'm buying a new car because the dog's too lazy to jump into the back of my Acura Integra and 30 kg have become too much to heave in.

(The Acura joined the family before Kyra, in case you're wondering how anyone with a large, non-jumping animal could be so dumb as to buy a car with a trunk.)

But I'm also buying a new car because my two teenagers have grown a combined 23 cm (that's including the 10 cm platforms Nikki wears everywhere) since I got the Integra three years ago.

So, two main considerations are legroom and dog room, also known as cargo space.

Easy access for a lazy golden retriever is also high up on the list of must-haves, leaving a choice of station wagon, minivan or sport utility vehicle.

Now, for some people, a car is just a car. It gets you from A-to-B.

For others (me included), a car is an extension of yourself. You are what you drive. (I don't expect the A to B people to understand this.)

That having been said, I am not a minivan or wagon kind of person. I also don't need anything as big as a minivan.

So the choice comes down to an SUV, though not a full-size version. Most of them are out of my price range and cost too much to feed.

That might not have mattered so much a year ago. But with gas prices hovering around 70 cents a litre, the ouch factor bears some consideration. Let's say you average 300 km of city driving per week (which I do). An SUV uses about 14 or 15 litres per 100 km – that's about $29 worth a week.

Compare that to a smaller vehicle, which, for argument's sake, consumes 11 L per 100 km. That's $23 a week, or a difference of about $325 a year.

So the mission is: find a fuel-efficient, scaled-down SUV with adequate space for long and multiple legs that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, several possibilities, including the Chevy Tracker, Honda CRV, Kia Sportage (the new kid on the block), Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara and

Toyota RAV4. They're all well under the $30,000 mark.

I narrowed it down to four for a serious test drive with dog and kids on board – the Sportage, Tracker, Grand Vitara and CRV, all with manual transmission.

The Forester, I decided, was too wagon-like for my liking and the RAV4 lost out when my neighbour unwittingly steered me away. He said his was too small even for two beagles and no kids, so he's upsizing to a Ford Focus wagon.

First up was the Sportage, a Korean-made vehicle that has been around in the U.S. for several years, but only arrived in Canada last year.

Spacewise, it's a bit of a squeeze. With 731 L of cargo space, the dog had little room to roam. And with only 790 mm of rear legroom, the complaints flowed freely from the back seat.

Fuel consumption of 11.3 L/100 km in the city puts it in the middle of the four cars tested – not the best but not the worst, either.

If you're looking for things to turn you off this car, there are several – like the dumb positioning of the spare on its own support that you have to swing out of the way in order to open the back.

Or the silly location of the cupholder high up on the dashboard, so your coffee cup blocks your view of the heating and ventilation controls. And there's nowhere to put anything.

Aside from the oddly designed centre console, parts of which lift, slide and pull open, there are only a couple of small, slippery spaces that things keep falling out of. On the plus side, the knobs and buttons are large and easy to read.

On the road, there aren't a lot of impressive things going on, either. It has a clumsy stick with way too much wobble and the 2.0 L four-cylinder engine, good for 130 hp, means you're not going to leave anyone in the dust.

But the Sportage is an enigma. In black, with wood trim and black-and-taupe interior, it's kinda cute. Somehow you can't help but like that friendly chrome grin. And while it's not a great performer, it's inexplicably fun to drive.

For $20,995, it's a nice little truck that fills a niche – a mini sport-ute at a mini price. The EX package, including air conditioning, CD player, roof rack and assorted other features, adds $2,600 but, even at $23,595, the Sportage doesn't have much competition.

Very similar in size and features is GM's Tracker, a twin of the Suzuki Vitara (the plain one, not the Grand) with only a few differences in options.

It has a definite trucky feel – solid, with a ladder-type frame, and throaty growl that sounds powerful at least. The reality doesn't quite measure up, thanks to the feeble 127 hp from the 2.0 L four-cyclinder engine. But you can't quibble with a starting price of $21,065, which puts it in the same league as the Kia.

Unlike the Sportage, this car has a sensible centre console with nice, deep compartments for a coffee cup and odds and ends. And fuel consumption is a reasonable 10.5 L/100 km in the city.

Bigger in back than the Sportage, the Tracker offers 912 mm of rear legroom, but only 572 L of cargo space, which left a claustrophobic look on the dog's face every time she got in.

It got 14-year-old Kyle's vote, however, because it was closest to the car he thought we should really get: a Grand Cherokee, Jimmy or Blazer.

Nikki couldn't get past the shiny new-penny colour of our test model to say what she thought of the car itself. She likened it to . . . well, not something you'd want to be driving around in.

The shade, she thought, was more befitting someone a little "older," which might explain why I liked it.

Next up was the Suzuki Grand Vitara, so named because it's a fancier version of the Vitara. Aside from a few decorative differences and a price tag that's $3,200 higher ($23,995 for the Grand Vitara vs $20,795 for the Vitara), the Grand's main distinction is a V6 engine, which kicks out 155 hp.

The extra guts are noticeable, and this is where the Grand Vitara has it over the other test cars. But you pay for it at the pump – it takes 12.3 L to go 100 km in the city.

And, oh my, how poor Kyra suffered. While there's the same 572 L of cargo space as the Tracker, we lost about a third of that because the cargo cover wouldn't come out. A Suzuki Canada spokesperson insisted it lifts out, but I couldn't budge it.

Consequently, the dog had to sit sideways the whole time, with barely enough room to wag her tail – not that she had anything to wag about.

Legroom is the same as the Tracker's, but the cab felt smallish. Maybe it was just sympathy claustrophobia on the dog's behalf.

More annoying than perhaps they should be are the ditsy little stereo controls. You wouldn't want to risk changing stations while you're driving, for fear of ending up in a ditch.

No such problem in the CRV, which has large, easily readable knobs and buttons and a useful fold-down table with cup holders between the front seats.

If you're wondering what CRV stands for, it's Comfy Roomy Vehicle. Or at least it should.

Looking deceptively small from outside, the car is spacious inside, with 931 mm of rear legroom and 837 L of cargo space. Kyra could easily invite two or three large canine buddies along for the ride and still have room to swing one of her favourite cow leg bones.

The four-cylinder engine pumps out 146 hp, which is good enough for the city and better than the Tracker or Sportage. But you wouldn't want to put a lot of faith in its ability to get past a tractor-trailer on the highway in a hurry.

The first impression was of a lot of noise coming from under the hood at higher speeds but, after a few runs, it seemed quieter. Either that or I just got used to it.

Gas consumption is an acceptable 10.9 L/100 km, second best of the bunch. With a starting price of $26,000, the CRV is the priciest of the lot, but it feels solid and well constructed.

When it came to pleasing the passengers, it was a win-lose situation. The long legs loved their stretch space both in front and back. But esthetically, the car just isn't cool enough for teenage taste.

Kyle thought it was "too boxy" – like a station wagon after a growth spurt.

The furry passenger didn't have a lot to say, but the pained expression from her rides in the other cars was absent.

Ultimately though, it's the person behind the wheel who gets final say. And all that interior space got my vote, especially with regular runs to Home Depot for building materials for summer projects looming ahead.

The price might have been a deterrent, but I was able to swing a good deal on a '99 model.

And several years down the road, when it comes time to replace the car, the Honda name pretty much guarantees there will be a ready market for it.

One minor problem remains: the dog still won't jump in. But we've worked out this arrangement where, if she puts her front paws up, I hoist the back end in.

It's not pretty, but it works.

Carola Vyhnak is The Star's deputy Special Sections editor.

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