1990s kids will remember–there was a time when “car-like crossover SUVs” were novelties. And automakers, trying to reconcile a new combination of “fun off-roadiness” with practical compact designs, came up with some wacky stuff. Here are seven of my favorites and their significance.
There were a lot of strange small SUVs rolling around from the late ’80s into the mid-2000s. But for this particular breakdown, I’m just going to focus on the greatest, goofiest, two-door, compact, semi-convertible production vehicles that were sold in the United States.
I’ve also ranked them from stinky to sweet, you know, to guarantee that you’ll have something to argue about in the comments.
7. Suzuki X-90
The Suzuki X-90 deserves to be acknowledged for uniqueness, but it really is a ghastly looking thing. The proportions dictated by the short-roof cabin design and car-style trunk just make it too hard for my brain to process. I can’t lie, I hate it.
It looks like something a cartoon character would drive. But not in an endearing Richard Scarry kind of way, more like a disturbing low-budget CGI kind of way.
The ever-generous John Davis of MotorWeek described the X-90 as “creative,” and in his 1996 video review, you can see that this 95-horsepower abomination actually has a manual transfer case with low range. And... T-tops. Which is, admittedly, pretty cool.
The New York Times review headline from that same year read: “Built by Japan (Body by Fisher-Price?).” Because it looks like a toy. Get it? Writer Michelle Krebs didn’t bother being cutesy when it came to evaluating the vehicle’s performance, though:
“Cruising down the pothole-laced Southfield Freeway in Detroit, I felt I was riding in a metal crate. The slightest blemish in the concrete reverberated through the cabin and tossed me from side to side.”
To hell with the X-90. I award it no points, and may God have mercy on its soul.
6. Daihatsu Rocky
Daihatsu Rockys are pretty rare on American roads. In fact, I can’t remember seeing one... ever. But my dear friend and colleague David Tracy insisted that they were sold here, so I had to look into it.
And indeed, a website tallies up U.S. Rocky sales from 1988 to 1992: 7,429. For your reference, Ford probably sells about that many F-150s in the time it’ll take you to read this blog.
There were a few different versions of the Rocky sold around the world, but it appears that the sole U.S.-spec one was only available as a five-speed manual with four-wheel drive and a lever-activated transfer case, powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine farting out a claimed 94 horsepower. The Rocky had basic body-on-frame construction and weighed just under 2,500 pounds.
Daihatsu struggled in the United States from the get-go, and didn’t stick around long enough to be a part of the great crossover SUV uprising.
A 1991 Los Angeles Times article, written about Daihatsu’s failure to launch here as it was happening, lead ominously with: “In a fiercely competitive market where being first with the most is everything, tiny Daihatsu America Inc. in Los Alamitos is trying to keep its head above water while being last with the least.”
Autoweek did a feature story regarding what the deal was with Daihatsu three years ago, as “the other Toyota budget brand that left us” when Scion was shuttered. Check it out for a little more backstory.
If you’ve never driven a Daihatsu, it doesn’t sound like you missed much. That’s a damn shame, because the Rocky looks really cool. I was actually this close to buying one myself, when I lived in Australia 2011. But I got talked out of it by these two Estonian guys I worked with. They looked at each other gravely, shook their heads and said something like “you go outback with that, you’re not coming back.” I ended up with a Suzuki DR-Z400 bike instead. I did come back.
5. Kia Sportage
You might think the first generation Kia Sportage, which stepped on the scene in the U.S. in the mid-’90s and was sold through 2002, was the only ragtop Kia you’d ever heard of. And it might be, but it’s not the only convertible Kia that ever was—the Kia Elan, a re-badged Lotus, was totally a thing and another endearingly weird ’90s experiment.
Kia was badge-sharing a lot back then. In fact, a lot of the original Sportage’s running gear was borrowed from Mazda and it looks like the roof mechanism was borrowed from a folding chair in a closet at somebody’s beach house.
Like pretty much every vehicle on this list, the Sportage had a plucky four-cylinder engine that you could get with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and an automatic or manual transmission, and surprisingly weak fuel economy considering its size. In 2002 a two-wheel drive automatic Sportage could only manage 20 mpg on the highway when a RAV4, which had already graduated to its second generation, maxed out at 28.
But a few minutes of casual Kia research did yield one interesting fact, and one fun rumor. According to Kia’s history site, the Sportage completed the 1993 Paris-Dakar Rally and ran in the Paris-Dakar-Cairo Rally in 2000. And it raced in Baja!
No seriously, go look at the Baja link. It’s a very cool time capsule of an essay. I also found this picture on The Korean Car Blog which I’m pretty sure is the Dakar-competing Kia. Suh-weet.
All that racing stuff counts as one “fact,” by the way. And the “rumor” I alluded to is the existence of the 1994 Kia Daimler-Benz GLL200. That, apparently, was a quickly-scrapped Kia/Mercedes mashup concept. So far, all I’ve been able to find is a handful of unaccredited pictures on Kia-Forums. I’m not ready to say whether or not it was legit, but I’m definitely keen to come back to this for a deeper investigation. (If anybody knows where to start, hit me up.)
4. Isuzu Amigo
I do believe that the Isuzu Amigo was the only U.S.-market compact convertible coupe SUV that was allowed to exist for two generations. The first one was around for the early ’90s, and then the model took a hiatus and was re-launched with the new design in 1998. I found an “Amigo FAQ’s” [sic] site that refers to the three years in between as, well, I’ll let them tell it:
1995-1997: Only used Amigos for sale in the USA. Otherwise known as ‘The three years of Darkness.’”
I shudder to imagine what the author of that website would call the era we’re living in now, since we’re over a decade into a post-Amigo existence. But the site remains a strong source of Amigo info, regardless.
One thing I find interesting about this vehicle is the fact that the later ones look remarkably contemporary today. I mean, as much as a small two-door SUV with half a convertible top can look “modern” in 2019, the second-generation Amigo seems to have aged remarkably well.
The Isuzu benefits from reserved styling and bulkier proportions than the community of other machines on this list. It’s big enough to be taken seriously, like an early Toyota 4Runner. It was also available with a V6, so theoretically it’d have an easier time getting out of its own way. Or at least it should be able to handle highway cruising speeds without spinning itself silly.
3. Geo Tracker (AKA Chevy Tracker AKA Suzuki Sidekick AKA Pontiac Sunrunner)
The Geo Tracker is the quintessential “cute ute.” The proportions are perfect, so is its awkwardly unexpressive face and excellent color palette. Unfortunately there are not a ton of these left on the road anymore, but when they roamed free, they graced our highways and byways with glorious teals, pinks, high-contrast canvas tops and wonderful wavy side graphics.
A Tracker is 142.5 inches bumper to bumper and only weighs 2,365 pounds. Good thing too, because its 1.6-liter engine was only rated for 80 HP. That powerhouse was paired to a five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic,
neither of which afforded much in the way of acceleration or efficiency. Four-wheel drive models did get a real transfer case, though.
Tracker Ranch, an appropriately archaic-looking website dedicated to these adorable sport utility buggies, tells us that the Tracker was born from a badge-engineering endeavor between GM of Canada and Suzuki Motors of Canada. The Tracker was, of course, a rebadged Suzuki Sidekick and enjoyed a long life being sold through pretty much the entire 1990s.
I’ve been told that these are hard to keep alive today because parts are scarce, but I have trouble believing that simply because it was produced for so long. If you’re maintaining a Tracker now, I say more power to you. These things were an automotive staple of our society two decades ago and we should afford them a little respect!
2. Land Rover Freelander
I promise, I’m not trying to troll you. The original Freelander is one of my favorite cars. Or at least, the idea of it is.
OK–I am sneaking the Freelander onto my ’90s SUV list on a technicality. While the vehicle was launched in 1997, it wasn’t actually sold in America until 2002.
But I think it’s worth making an exception for, because the two-door Freelander (known as the SE3 model) is so freaking cool looking. Ideally in yellow. And I’m a sucker for three-spoke wheels, but my fantasy Freelander would have to be a facelifted 2004 or 2005 model.
That’s when the chunkiness of the chin got a little more chiseled, and the headlights were redesigned to be a bit more dramatic.
When Freelander first came out, Land Rover fans must have been pretty crushed. We lose the Defender and get this baby stroller instead?
Noteworthy Freelander features besides a reputation for self-immolation include a variable all-wheel drive system. Instead of solid axels and a transfer case like the early Discovery, Range Rovers and Defenders had, Land Rover loaded the Freelander’s little easter basket with things like “hill decent control” “all-terrain ABS.”
The Freelander was the first unibody Land Rover, and all U.S. trims ran a 2.5.-liter V6 rated to 175 HP. In this crowd of underpowered cute utes, that pretty much makes it the Bugatti of the bunch. Of course it was also 3,600 pounds, or about half a ton heavier than a Tracker.
Early Freelander reviews tended to call it “the most capable SUV in its class,” but I’m inclined to believe that might have just meant Land Rover had a muddier launch event than Honda or Toyota.
A top-spec Freelander was about $30,000 in 2002, and today you could have a clean-looking one for about $3,000. I know because I check Craigslist all the time, and let me tell you, there are some gems to be found!
Interestingly the Freelander was actually drawn up by Gerry McGovern, who went on to be Land Rover’s main designer, and the vehicle’s look has ripened nicely. That giant rear hoop roof rack-thing really ties the whole look together, and matching a vehicle’s interior door panel trim to the paint job has become a lost art.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone besides myself defending the Freelander. There are plenty of hilarious threads hating on it though–“Best served on fire, with a gin and tonic as you watch it burn,” somebody said on the Grassroots Motorsports forum.
But I do not care. I think early Freelanders look great and I’d love to put one in the museum of compact convertible SUVs I hope to build someday. (I’m sure as hell not going to put up with maintaining one of these just to drive it around.)
Anyway, these vehicles are generally described as beyond unbearably unreliable, so if any are going to get saved, I really do need to make that museum.
1. Toyota RAV4
Like the giant volcanic monster-king in Thor: Ragnarok, a Toyota RAV4 cannot actually die. Not until its prophesy is fulfilled, and that sounds like it’s going to take, like, at least 200,000 miles.
On paper, the 1996 RAV4 is pretty much a car: unibody construction, independent suspension and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Celica, shrunken and detuned to 120 HP. That helped the RAV4 hit a highway fuel economy rating of 24 mpg.
In practice, it was... also a car. With a helpful little boost in ground clearance to give the vehicle some extra terrain-traversing abilities and visibility. The RAV4 either had two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive that was always engaged; there was no big beefy transfer case lever or low range. But manual-shift RAV4s did get a center locking differential for extra scampering abilities. That driveline came from the Celica, by the way, and the automatic came out of the Corolla.
“This Toyota will sell like Happy Meals,” Car & Driver astutely commented when the RAV4 came out.
The three-door RAV4 only had a brief life at the end of the ’90s, but there were two iterations of it and there’s one great YouTube video detailing all the differences between early and later ones. The 1998 and ’99s are the ones you want, by the way. Later models feature cleaner front bumpers, glass headlamps and three-spoke steering wheels that are so much sweeter looking than the “big pillow” airbag wheels you’d find on a 1996 model.
Of all the compact convertible SUVs we had in America, first generation RAV4s are far and away the ones I still see on the road the most 20 years later. And I like seeing them, because the RAV4 design is simple but memorable. It has a bit of the X-90’s endearing toyishness, without looking so preposterous. It’s got some of the Freelander’s tough-guy cladding, without the pretentiousness.
It’s definitely a child of the ’90s, but as long as it’s in good condition it doesn’t look out of place anywhere.
In case you were wondering why the Suzuki Samurai was omitted from this list, the Sammy was just too much of a purpose-built solid-axle off-roader to count as a crossover, despite its diminutive size. Same goes for the Jeep Wrangler and early Toyota 4Runner. The Isuzu VehiCross wasn’t a convertible. And of course, we didn’t even touch the treasure trove of little trucklets that never made it to the U.S. market. That’ll have to be a tale for another time.
But now you have a little more background on the seven most significant early car-like crossover SUVs, and hopefully, a deepened appreciation for this inflection point in American automotive history.