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Top used SUV picks

If you've got an itch to get into a four-wheeler before winter blows, we've assembled a list of five reliable, used SUVs you can purchase for around $10,000 or less.

Two or three on your tongue is sweet innocence. A handful thrown at your boss or the neighbour’s incontinent dog is fun.

But when 300 gazillion snowflakes descend on your route to work, the commute can be a frustrating exercise in turning gasoline into copious wheelspin but little progress.

Welcome to that salty, gritty Slushee known as winter.

Despite all the yakking about global warming, winter continues to make itself felt in southern Ontario with significant storms that bring chaos to streets and highways.

For some, four-wheel drive has become a technological saviour, replacing the time-honoured favourite: four snow tires.

The merit of four driven wheels is often overstated, but with four- and all-wheel-drive vehicles selling like Napanee Home Hardware t-shirts at an Avril Lavigne concert, we’d be remiss if we didn’t examine this burgeoning market niche.

If you’ve got an itch to get into a four-wheeler before winter blows, we’ve assembled a list of five reliable, used SUVs you can purchase for around $10,000 or less.

With an eye to real-world budgets, the first three are relatively frugal conveyances that give you 4X4 mobility with fewer outlays, decent fuel economy – and a less burdened conscience.

You could drive one to a Greenpeace rally and probably receive only a mild rebuke.

1996-2000 Chevrolet Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick/Vitara

The lone Canadian-made 4X4 in this bunch, the Tracker/Sidekick was introduced in 1989 in a joint venture between General Motors and Suzuki. The original “sport-cute” was assembled in a new plant in Ingersol, Ontario.

Blessed with stout body-on-frame construction, it was available in both two and four-wheel drive, so double-check before you buy. Early models were powered by an anemic 1.6-litre four that could barely turn the chunky all-terrain tires.

Things looked up when the four-door wagon arrived in 1991. With its extended wheelbase and twin-cam 1.6-litre making 95 horsepower, it was more civilized than the bucky two-door.

The pair was redesigned for 1999 (the Sidekick was renamed Vitara). They gained more power with a 127-hp 2.0-litre four, more refinement and a fourth gear in the automatic transmission.

Despite their diminutive size, the Tracker/Sidekick/Vitara are competent off-roaders that take their knocks well. These trucklets are fairly durable, but avoid high mileage examples since oil consumption and head gasket failures have been reported. Watch for rust.

The four-door wagon is recommended, but the noise and jittery ride can wear you down over a long highway jaunt. The two-door softtop is the cheapest convertible you can buy.

Real Canucks drop their tops on the way to the Polar Bear swim.

1997-98 Toyota RAV4

Kudos to Toyota for busting the mould when this one popped out. Unlike the trucky Sidekick, this looker is built on the Japanese-market Camry platform.

You see, the RAV4 is really a jacked-up car.

Precisely why it’s such a refined and well-mannered SUV. It corners nicely, the 2.0-litre Celica engine doesn’t suck (much gas), and the all-wheel drivetrain is easy to use.

No surprise the RAV4 has been a big hit in Japan and Europe. On the down side, this capable “soft-roader” is cramped and carries little cargo. But you’re going to have too much fun driving to bother bringing friends.

The RAV4 is a typical Toyota: enduring. The automatic transmission has been the subject of some complaints, and the exhaust system has been known to leak. That’s it.

Like the Tracker/Sidekick, a two-door model was available but it’s exceedingly rare – and too cute for its own good. The RAV4 is a common target for thieves. And if you park on a street where “parking by feel” is common, you’re going to dislike the RAV4 for its non-existent rear bumper.

The RAV4 has earned a fanatical fan base. How rabid? Consider this owner’s e-mail: “I’d marry my car if I could. Heck, it might even be legal in California.”

1993-98 Subaru Impreza

Okay, this is not a traditional 4X4 that looks good wearing a brush-bar and big mudders, but hear us out.

Subaru – and not Audi – introduced the world to four-wheel-drive automobiles in 1972 and it spent the last 30 years perfecting its all-wheel drivetrains while other automakers were busy engineering cupholders.

The smallish Impreza arrived in 1993 as a four-door sedan and neat AMC-Pacerish wagon. A two-door was added in 1995. Early Imprezas were also available in front-wheel drive, so look for the AWD badge (as of 1997, all Subarus were all-wheel-drive exclusively).

All-wheel drive is an elegant solution, especially for a car. There are no levers to push; instead, a computer senses slip and directs more power to the wheel that needs it. The system is idiot-proof: there’s no driver involvement.

There’s not much ground clearance, but four-wheel grip is there precisely when you require it. The Impreza is endowed with remarkable stability at speed.

Subarus are very reliable and cheap to keep; fuel consumption is good. The 2.2-litre boxer four is preferred over the small 1.8 litre.

It’s the best choice for clandestine four wheeling, offering all the benefits and none of the trappings of owning a SUV. We have yet to hear of anyone barbecuing a Subaru as a political statement.

1994-97 Nissan Pathfinder

The fact Citytv/Cablepulse 24 keeps a fleet of 60 Pathfinders running hard around the clock begins to tell this SUV’s reliability story.

“It’s super durable; I can’t recommend the Pathfinder enough,” says managing assignment editor Peter Dworschak, whose busy newsroom has been using Nissan’s 4X4 over the past 15 years.

The first generation Pathfinder was based on Nissan’s ‘Hardbody’ pickup truck, complete with body-on-frame construction and part-time four-wheel drive. The four-door model arrived in 1991.

The Pathfinder changed significantly for 1996 when Nissan switched to a unibody platform, but took great pains to demonstrate that the SUV lost none of its truck genes.

Not that you could tell. The Pathfinder oozes refinement. The ride is exceptionally smooth and compliant, road noise wonderfully suppressed. It’s easy to drive and the cabin is reasonably roomy.

The only real liability is the lethargic V6, a weakling for such a lardy vehicle (Nissan addressed that in its 1999.5 model, but it’s beyond our price cap). It’s also fond of gasoline. Listen for leaky exhaust manifolds on the 3.0-litre V6 in the pre-1996 models.

A sophisticated full-time four-wheel-drive system, borrowed from Nissan’s Skyline supercar, can be found in the Infiniti QX4 (the Pathfinder’s clone), but you’ll pay a premium for it.

1995-99 Ford Explorer

This is the Juggernaut of the SUV class and for good reason: Ford did its homework and created a first-rate truck out of the utterly forgettable Bronco II.

Released in 1991, the Explorer featured the right combination of utility, comfort, style and familiar car-like options to help soccer moms cross over to the dark side without sacrificing anything.

For 1995, Ford replaced its archaic twin I-beam front suspension with a more contemporary control-arm design, improving ride and handling. Engines included a pushrod 4.0-litre V6, the Mustang’s V8 and, in 1997, a powerful SOHC V6.

Among its domestic competitors, the Explorer has proven to be the best of the bunch. In fact, the Explorer was the only domestic vehicle to earn a CAA Pyramid Award for owner satisfaction.

Still, this SUV can be troublesome. Owners have reported faulty transmissions, throttle bodies, locking hubs and leaky engine gaskets. This is a good candidate for an extended warranty if you can get one.

There are lots of used Explorers on the market – thanks in part to the Firestone scare of a few years ago. Due to the massive recall, most of them are riding on newer Michelins today.

Despite Ford’s best efforts, the Explorer guzzles like a merchant sailor. It’s a significant price to pay to sit up tall as you make your way to work, while your neighbours remain snowed-in at home.

Come to think of it, all-weather mobility does have its disadvantages.

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