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Think back to the 1950s and '60s when sports cars, with all their color and spirit, were exploding onto the American car scene. Because of its canvas top and two little seats tucked into a compact skin, the sports car was, well, cool.
Today, sport/utilities - with 4-wheel drive, oversize tires and brutish styling - have supplanted the sports car and redefined cool.
No other vehicle spans the generation bridge much better than the 1995 Geo Tracker, which more or less brings the sports-car formula to the sport/utility culture. In size, weight and tidy styling, the Tracker blends the driving flavor of a sports car with the go-anywhere, do-anything practicality of a sport/utility.
If the Tracker could speak, it would scream "cute." The cuddly look applies to all available Tracker models - 2WD or 4WD, hardtop or convertible, base or LSi. In both size and style, the shape is unlike other sport/utility vehicles, with the exception of the Suzuki Sidekick, which is also made by CAMI in Intersoll, Ontario - General Motors' joint venture with Suzuki Motor Company Ltd.
The Sidekick is an exception, of course, because it's the same vehicle.
The bite-size proportions of the Tracker are emphasized by the short overhangs - the part of the body that extends beyond the wheels at the front and rear of the car - and the fact that the wheels themselves are pushed out to the corners of the vehicle. The large tires encircle steel or aluminum wheels depending on your option package, and fill neatly flared fenders at all four corners.
Between the fenders, the Tracker has only two doors; beyond the fenders, the Tracker goes nowhere but up. The bumpers - body colored on the LSi but black in base trim - sit just ahead of the front wheels and immediately behind the rear. The body doesn't protrude beyond the wheels except vertically, where the Tracker is capped by either a convertible or a hard top.
For 1995, the two-position convertible top has been redesigned to make it easier to operate. The front half of the top folds back to provide a sunroof effect, or the entire top stows behind the rear seats for open-air driving.
Inside, the Tracker is by no means plush. Certainly not in the way that more expensive sport/utilities pamper passengers. But it gets by.
No airbag here. But the Tracker is equipped with manual lap/shoulder safety belts for the front and rear outboard passengers.
The front seats are quite comfortable and slide forward for easy access to the backseat. Standard front seats are high-back reclining seats with integrated head restraints, cloth bolsters and vinyl seat backs. High-back cloth bucket-seats with adjustable head-restraints are standard on the LSi.
The base seat-fabric is Dark Charcoal highlighted with multicolor accents to match youthful exterior colors that include Sky Blue Metallic and Dark Grape Metallic. The LSi version has blue-red accents.
The rear seat is only comfortable for short jaunts. It folds forward for additional storage.
Storage behind the rear seat is about as deep as a loaded grocery bag. Speaking of which, the rear door swings open sideways for easy loading, though we found it cumbersome unzipping the top and maneuvering the door latch that's hidden behind the externally mounted spare tire. A rear wiper/washer is now standard on the LSi hardtop model.
The analog instrument panel is spartan but easy to read. For 1995, all Trackers have a standard center console that includes a storage tray and the obligatory dual cupholders.
Three sound-systems are available on the Tracker. An AM/FM stereo with a clock and four speakers is standard on the LSi but optional on base models. The next-level system includes a cassette player and theft-deterrent mechanism. A CD player is also available.
Short wheelbases, such as that of the Tracker, usually translate to unsettled road manners and hoppy handling. Much to our delight, the Tracker was found "not guilty" of any such handling pitfalls.
By no means is the Tracker a sports car in terms of acceleration, but it scores high marks for agility and maneuverability. The small 32.2-ft. turning radius made parking a snap and really shone in close-quarters, off-road driving. While cruising on or off the road, the front MacPherson struts coupled with rear coil springs and solid rear axle keep the Tracker planted securely on the ground. All manner of bumps and potholes were absorbed by the Tracker's stout frame, with minimal body-shake or flexing.
In view of the likely age and experience level of their drivers - these are vehicles that clearly appeal to a younger crowd - a few words on sport/utility dynamics and safety are in order.
Some years ago, a well-known national magazine put the Tracker's even smaller cousin, the Suzuki Samurai, through a number of tests designed to show that it was prone to rollovers in certain kinds of extreme cornering maneuvers.
Given that goal, the testers did, in fact, manage to get the little Suzuki off its wheels.
It's true that sport/utility vehicles, with their relatively high aspect ratio - the relationship of the vehicle's track to its height - and high centers of gravity tend to be a little tippier than passenger cars.
However, if you're really determined to do it, you can put any vehicle on its roof. Keeping it upright is simply a matter of prudence.
The Samurai was later exonerated, and the point is that quick maneuvers in one of these sport/ute minis requires a little more attention than making the same maneuvers in your Taurus.
It's not a sports car. With that as a clear understanding, the younger drivers in your family will do just fine.
Every Tracker comes equipped with standard front-disc brakes and rear drums, with an anti-lock system (ABS) in the rear.
The brakes proved fade-free in day-to-day driving, and the rear ABS system was a great asset for braking on slippery or icy roads.
Unfortunately, our Tracker came equipped with the 3-speed automatic transmission. Mated to an 80-hp, 1.6-liter, 16-valve in-line 4, the shifts were smooth, and kick-down was immediate, but there never seemed to be enough power.
Cruising around town presented no major problems, but highway driving left us wishing for one higher gear in order to reduce engine noise. The 5-speed manual transmission would be a much better choice for everyday driving. With that one, acceleration improves and engine noise at cruising speed is reduced.
Speaking of noise, we expected much more wind and road noise in the Tracker because of its canvas convertible top. Wrong. We were pleasantly surprised to find that road noise was no worse than in other convertible passenger cars. Around town the top proved free of wind leaks. There was slight buffeting at highway speeds at the point where the vehicle's top meets the steel roll-bar.
The Tracker can be equipped to tow up to 1000 lb., enough capacity for a jet ski or motorcycle trailer.
For the price, the Tracker - a convertible and sport/utility rolled into one - is ideal for bopping around town or on college campuses.
Even though it's fairly basic transportation and a long way from delivering the performance or plushness of mightier - and more expensive - sport/utilities, the Tracker is not without pizzazz and would be a pretty good choice for a household's second or third vehicle.
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