There's been plenty of publicity recently about the continuing rise in popularity of SUV-type vehicles in New Zealand.
More than a touch of it negative, with concern about the planet-punishing effects of these fuel guzzlers.
Unfortunately, it's mild hysteria that comes at the expense of the facts. So many modern SUV-type vehicles are really no larger or more thirsty than conventional passenger cars. That's because they are 'crossover' vehicles - a genre pioneered by Honda, Subaru and Toyota in the mid-1990s that combines the looks and all-wheel drive technology of authentic off-road vehicles with the chassis construction and comfort of passenger cars. These days, it's getting hard to find an SUV that's not a crossover.
Compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 kicked the whole genre off, but many rival models followed. The good news is that a high-quality slice of that lifestyle goodness can be yours for as little as $15k. Here are five of our favourites.
FORD ESCAPE (2001-08)
Ford tried to market the Escape with the image of a tough off-road vehicle, but the reality is that it was always a soft-road vehicle: a co-development with Mazda (its version was the Tribute) that utilised an on-demand all-wheel drive system.
The truck-like styling inside and out will appeal to some, as will the command driving position, although it's probably the least satisfying of our group here to drive. Nonetheless, it's a good bet if you're heading off seal - it comes as standard with a pushbutton locking centre differential for 50/50 front/rear low-speed traction.
Escape was updated in 2006, with a facelift model built in Taiwan. A major change inside was the removal of the gearlever from the steering column onto the floor - a more car-like position.
HONDA CR-V (2001-06)
The first-generation CR-V helped create the compact-crossover segment and came with a few quirks: a column-mounted gearlever, fold-down tray table between the front seats that liberated walk-through space front-to-rear, and a cargo bay floor that doubled as a removable picnic table!
The second-generation model launched in 2001 carried over those key features, wrapped up in evolutionary styling. A great, truly practical family wagon: key attributes are a spacious and airy cabin, excellent build quality and durable mechanicals from a company known for its excellent engineering.
On the downside, the pump-driven on-demand all-wheel drive system can be slow to react to wheelspin, and the chassis does not reward brisk driving. Impressive all the same.
HYUNDAI TUCSON (2004-09)
Korean carmaker Hyundai knows a blue-chip market segment when it sees it, and the Tucson was its response to the winning ways of Japanese-brand compact crossovers. The emphasis with this model is on curvaceous styling and a car-like cabin - to the point where the driving position and interior might feel sports-car-snug compared with some crossover rivals.
Hyundai is now one of the most highly regarded mainstream car brands in terms of engineering and quality. Tucson is a capable crossover wagon but isn't quite up there with its Japanese rivals in terms of dynamic ability and packaging.
Tucson does offer a locking centre differential, an interesting range of engines (although the V6 is thirsty) and excellent standard equipment. Was also offered in a front-drive-only version.
The Tucson name was discontinued in New Zealand in 2009 when an all-new model was launched, picking up the brand's new i-nomenclature with the ix35 badge. Tucson fact: in Japan, the model was known as JM, for Joy Machine. A good reason to avoid a used-import model perhaps.
TOYOTA RAV4 (2000-05)
The original and still the big name in the segment. The RAV4 was launched in 1994 as a cute, curvaceous three-door - sort of a high-riding sports coupe. However, Toyota soon realised the potential in the concept for a family vehicle, and promptly added a five-door version.
The second-generation model featured here eschews the cute styling detail of the original RAV4 in favour of a more conservative profile, but it's still great to drive, even better built and a solid proposition in every respect. The full-time all-wheel drive system makes it a predictable, poised proposition on-road.
Perhaps not the most interesting vehicle in the segment, but almost certainly the default choice and with years of chart-topping sales performance under its belt, there are plenty to choose from.
SUBARU FORESTER (2003-08)
From the company that cares about your driving pleasure. Forester has never excited in a visual sense with its homely styling, but it has certainly inherited a sense of handling purpose from its sportier siblings, Impreza and Legacy. The Forester is simply brilliant to drive, especially on gravel, and is easily the most engaging of our group here.
The dowdy cabin architecture may disappoint, but it remains a highly practical wagon with excellent passenger space and large glass areas. The boxer engines are full of character, but also have a reputation for greater-than-average thirst.
Of course, Subaru knows a thing or two about soft-road vehicles. Its Outback was also an early example of the crossover genre - albeit in a slightly different mould, taking the standard wagon body style of the Legacy and adding increased ride height and chunky styling addenda. The Outback continues today - as does the highly regarded, fun-to-drive Forester. The enthusiasts' choice.