Cute Utes: When SUVs knew how to have fun

Toyota RAV4 Beach Ocean

It’s summertime, baby! Time to round up your beautiful, gleaming friends and their matching Gadzooks shirts, load the coolers with Fruitopia and Zima, pop in Kriss Kross’ seminal 1992 debut album Totally Krossed Out, and hit the beach, amigo! Man, back in the halcyon ’90s— money in our pockets, with no more Cold War to fear, and a whole vast millennium ahead—we once knew how to have fun, and our cars reflected it.

And perhaps no class of vehicle could reflect Hypercolor-tinted optimism as the two-door SUV. Remember those? So often derided as “cute utes,” the little SUVs left out the utility and replaced it with convertible tops, removable roof panels, and an aura of cheap thrills—thrills that we have now lost.

What did we lose? Convertible SUVs, for one, so your buddies can stick their heads out the window on their way for orange mocha frappuccinos. The only such ride still around is the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle that too frequently evokes aggressive, “who hurt you?” vibes more than it does joy and innocence. But small, friendly-looking vehicles have always been a strange breed unto themselves—derided by males as “chick cars,” or worse, and nothing fits that bill as a shrunken SUV with the proportions of a telephone booth. They were never fast, or particularly useful, or off-roadable worth a damn. But here’s the thing: they never really tried to be.

Today’s new compact crossover segment—the Toyota C-HR, the Hyundai Kona, and the Jeep Renegade—attempts to capture that same spirit. Adventurous styling! Youth-oriented marketing! Actual colors! It’s all fun. But we’re in a recession now, at least in our minds, and we can only afford to have one car, and we expect the world out of it, and alas, you can’t fit IKEA Malm bed frames in a Suzuki Sidekick. It’s worth remembering that in the ’90s, nearly every car company had at least two sports cars, too. Remember sports cars? I hope you do.

So raise a Bacardi Breezer to these fun, oh-so-shameless SUVs. The following goof-mobiles and their corresponding ultra-bright press photos prove it.

Toyota RAV4

Toyota RAV4 Sunset crop
Toyota
Toyota RAV4

Fun fact: RAV4 stands for “Recreational Activity Vehicle 4-Wheel Drive,” because as one of the world’s first crossovers, it’s allowed to go by any name it wants. In two-door guise, it not only packed shrunken, sausage-like styling, but also came with the option of a five-speed manual. And the seats! And the convertible top! Toyota didn’t bother giving us the smaller RAV4 in its second generation, but by then, it wasn’t as much fun anymore, anyway.  

Geo/Chevrolet Tracker

Chevrolet Tracker front 3/4
GM
Chevrolet Tracker

Trackers once clogged the American freeways like cockroaches, but you’d be damned if you can find one now. We received two generations of drop-top Trackers, and the entire lineup still enjoys a healthy customization scene of dubious tastes. Suzuki, of course, was a master of this sort of thing, as you’ll soon see.

Land Rover Freelander

Land Rover Freelander front and back
Land Rover
Land Rover Freelander

Yes, even stodgy Land Rover built a tiny two-door, and even diehards of the brand deemed “too unreliable.” Imagine that. But, unsurprisingly, the Freelander could actually off-road. Rear panels could be removed for maximum sun-time fun, which brought a dose of fun to the entire Land Rover ethos—and that’s probably why the Freelander was Europe’s best-selling SUV for ages.

Isuzu Amigo/Rodeo Sport

Isuzu Amigo Rear 3/4
Isuzu
Isuzu Amigo

A car so fun, it’s named after the very concept of friendship itself! (To be fair, in Japan it was legitimately called the “Mysterious Utility.”) Good luck finding any Isuzu around today, much less the off-road-worthy Amigo or Rodeo Sport, billions of which have rusted into a fine, powdery dust that blankets Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes.

Isuzu VehiCROSS

Isuzu VehiCROSS silver volcanic rock
Isuzu
Isuzu VehiCROSS

Isuzu wasn’t done yet, though. The insane VehiCROSS was proof that an SUV could not only look ridiculous and cool at the same time, but it could also be put into production by a company that had nothing to lose. The two-door SUV that resembles a vampire bat starred in the awful 2000 Brian De Palma sci-fi movie Mission to Mars as an example of what we’d be driving in the year 2020, to which we can only hope.

About a billion Suzukis

Suzuki Jimny 4ALL Canvas Concept on beach
Suzuki
Suzuki Jimny 4ALL Canvas Concept

Next to Isuzu, Suzuki was a tiny-SUV maestro. Ok, so don’t call the Samurai “cute,” because its rock-crawling owners might get a little riled up—but certainly the aforementioned Geo Tracker/Suzuki Vitara was worthy of beach-crawling nostalgia. In Japan, Suzuki built the Jimny, pictured, in production since 1970. The Jimny truly hit its most adorable stride in 1997, with squared-off bulldog looks and a truly bizarre “Canvas Top” setup. But there’s still one more Suzuki that holds dominion over all.

Ford Bronco

Ford Bronco Advertisement
Ford
Ford Bronco

Now we’re talking: USA! USA! USA! These things are big money now, and for good reason, because few cars capture laid-back, long-haired, secretly wealthy California surfer-bum lifestyles than driving from Santa Monica to your quarter-million-dollar Venice Beach bungalow in a classic Ford Bronco. Just ask ICON’s Jonathan Ward, who elevates the Bronco into high art. Or ask a certain former USC football player, whose generation Bronco became American cultural canon.

International Scout

International Scout winter sled
International Harvester
International Scout

Long before the Bronco, there was the proto-SUV from a tractor company, which led the way with a true convertible roof, as well as fiberglass tops, pickup beds, and removable doors. In fact, you could convert a Scout across those configurations, which is truly an idea that needs to make a comeback. Back then, for fishermen, outdoorsmen, and woodsmen, the Scout talked the go-anywhere talk and could back it up.

Suzuki X-90

Suzuki X-90 Silver flower field
Suzuki
Suzuki X-90

And, here we are: the greatest “cute-ute” ever made, the epitome of soft-roading, the X-90 is the Chrysler’s TC by Maserati of SUVs: ironic, and a joy to behold. It looked like a jacked-up Volkswagen Beetle but had T-tops. Nearly every example was pastel-colored. Its seats were upholstered in, essentially, Portland Airport carpet. It is Vanilla Coke, it is the color teal on wheels. It couldn’t do anything well (though people try) except attract attention, which it did in droves. It then embodies both the philosophy and the aesthetic of the ’90s two-door SUV and deserves to be enshrined as an example of the zeitgeist.