From the October 1997 issue of Startups

You want it all, don't you? You're a real no-compromise kind of person. You've had to be, in order to command success from your business. You've invested too much of your blood, sweat and tears to misspend any of your hard-earned cash. You need a work vehicle that can also serve as a personal vehicle, and you'd be hard pressed to pay for something that isn't up to either task.

The current crop of minivans, light trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are as adept at chauffeuring you to your favorite high-class eatery as they are at lugging heavy cargo for hundreds of miles. Gone are the days of vans that jostle your insides and pickups that hammer your kidneys. Today, if you need the utility of a van or truck, yet don't want to spend money on two vehicles (one for work and one for personal use), you can get the equivalent of a Cadillac crossed with a 4x4.

Which businesses can benefit from these modern-day wonders? Any that need room to haul things around. Mobile service businesses need room for their equipment. Any retail business that offers a delivery service with the purchase of a product, such as computers or office equipment, needs a vehicle able to handle its largest orders. The vehicle used by a mobile auto-detailing service needs to be roomy enough to hold equipment and look good enough to show off its services. Business owners who spend entire days traveling to give estimates need something comfortable enough to maintain a good disposition in front of prospective customers and roomy enough to lug all their gear to the job site.

Many new design features built into modern utility vehicles make them pleasant to deal with on an everyday basis. The size of today's minivans, for instance, makes them much easier to drive than full-size vans. Manufacturers have made removing and rearranging rear seats a simple task. Nissan's Quest minivan offers a unique sliding, third-row bench that you never have to remove--you can either fold it up and slide it against the front seats when you need the most room for cargo or slide it from the third into the second row when you need more seating. And for the ultimate in convenience, Pontiac's TransSport offers a sliding side door that opens at the push of a remote-control button--making it easy to load and unload when your hands are full.

If your cargo is of a messy nature (carpentry tools or painting supplies, for example), pickup trucks may be a better choice for you. For a few hundred dollars, you can buy a "cap" that encloses the bed to protect your equipment from the elements. Today's light trucks also offer much in the way of comfort and convenience: Improvements in the rear seats in the extended-cab models now offer better rear-seat accommodations than some regular cars. These rear "jump seats" used to be extremely uncomfortable for anyone taller than four feet. Now full-grown adults can sit in them and will find shoulder straps on the seatbelts.

The SUVs are sort of a cross between minivans and pickup trucks. If you'll be driving on unpaved roads or need to tow a trailer, SUVs are better suited to your needs than minivans and offer more passenger room than the new light trucks. They have more powerful engines, higher ground clearance and greater maximum towing capacity.

Know Your Needs

Be sure to know the following terms you'll encounter when shopping for your utility vehicle:

M.S.R.P.: Stands for "Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price.

Maximum cargo capacity: Amount of room available with all rear seats removed or folded in minivans or SUVs.

Pickup box length: Maximum length of pickup bed, from leading edge to tailgate; most pickups offer a standard length as well as an extended length.

Maximum payload: The most weight a pickup can carry.

Maximum trailer weight: The weight of the heaviest trailer a vehicle can tow.

Make: Ford

Model: Explorer

M.S.R.P.: $20,610 to $35,530

Engine: 4-liter, V-6, 160 horsepower (standard), 5-liter, V-8, 210 horsepower (optional)

Transmission: 5-speed manual (standard), 4-speed automatic (optional)

Mileage (city/highway): 18 mpg/23 mpg (V-6, manual transmission); 14 mpg/18 mpg (V-8, automatic)

Maximum cargo capacity: 69.4 cubic feet (two-door); 81.6 cubic feet (four-door)

Maximum trailer weight: 3,500 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; four-wheel drive; air conditioning; leather seating; remote keyless entry; two heated, power outside mirrors; multi-disc CD player; integrated rear child safety seat; separate rear heating and air conditioning; rear stereo controls; fog lights.

Make: Ford

Model: Ranger

M.S.R.P.: $11,480 to $20,835

Engine: 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder, 112 horsepower (standard), 3-liter, V-6, 147 horsepower (optional); 4-liter,

V-6, 160 horsepower (optional)

Transmission: 5-speed manual (standard), 4-speed automatic (optional)

Mileage (city/highway): 22 mpg/27 mpg (4-cylinder, manual transmission); 17 mpg/23 mpg(V-6, automatic)

Pickup box length: 71.8 inches (standard); 83.8 inches (extended length)

Maximum payload: 1,650 pounds

Maximum trailer weight: 6,000 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Dual air bags; four-wheel drive; anti-lock brakes; air conditioning; remote keyless entry; multi-disc CD player; fog lights.

Make: Ford

Model: Windstar

M.S.R.P.: $18,995 to $25,875

Engine: 3-liter, V-6, 150 horsepower (standard); 3.8-liter, V-6, 200 horsepower (optional)

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Mileage (city/highway): 17 mpg/25 mpg (3-liter, V-6); 17 mpg/23 mpg (3.8-liter, V-6)

Maximum cargo capacity: 144 cubic feet (wagon); 159.5 cubic feet (van)

Maximum trailer weight: 2,000 pounds (standard); 3,500 pounds (with optional equipment)

Available features: Dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; integrated rear child safety seats; separate rear heating and air conditioning; leather seating; traction control; remote keyless entry; two power outside mirrors.

Make: Mazda

Model: MPV

M.S.R.P.: $23,095 to $28,895

Engine: 3-liter, V-6, 155 horsepower

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Mileage (city/highway): 16 mpg/22 mpg

Maximum cargo capacity: 103 cubic feet

Maximum trailer weight: 2,600 pounds (standard); 4,500 pounds (with optional equipment)

Available features: Dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; power door locks; power windows with auto-down driver's window; cruise control; two power mirrors; fog lamps; separate rear heating and air conditioning; leather seating; remote keyless entry; power sunroof; self-leveling rear suspension; four-wheel drive; comes standard with four doors.

Make: Nissan

Model: Pathfinder

M.S.R.P.: $22,899 to $27,949

Engine: 3.3-liter, V-6, 168 horsepower

Transmission: 5-speed manual (standard); 4-speed automatic (optional)

Mileage (city/highway): 17 mpg/20 mpg (manual); 15 mpg/19 mpg (automatic, four-wheel drive)

Maximum cargo capacity: 85 cubic feet

Maximum trailer weight: 5,000 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; two heated, power outside mirrors; overhead console with map lights and sunglass storage; 12-volt, DC power plugs in front and rear passenger compartments; four-wheel drive; semi-automatic temperature air conditioning; leather seating; heated front seats; Bose AM/FM stereo cassette/CD player with six speakers; power sunroof; fog lights; security system with remote keyless entry.

Make: Nissan

Model: Quest

M.S.R.P.: $21,249 to $26,049

Engine: 3-liter, V-6, 151 horsepower

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Mileage (city/highway): 17 mpg/23 mpg

Maximum cargo capacity: 114.8 cubic feet

Maximum trailer weight: 3,500 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Dual air bags; power front windows with auto-down driver's-side window; power door locks; two heated, power outside mirrors; side and rear privacy glass; leather seating; retained power feature lets you operate power windows and locks after the ignition is switched off; rear stereo controls; front underseat storage tray; luggage rack; cargo net; anti-theft door-lock cylinders; anti-lock brakes; in-dash, multi-disc CD player; power sliding sunroof with tilt feature and sunshade; second-row bench with integrated child safety seat; remote keyless entry with security system; separate rear heating and air conditioning with second-row controls.

Make: Nissan

Model: Truck (No model name)

M.S.R.P.: $10,999 to $19,999

Engine: 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder, 134 horsepower (standard)

Transmission: 5-speed manual (standard), 4-speed automatic (optional)

Mileage (city/highway): 21 mpg/25 mpg (4-cylinder, manual); 18 mpg/24 mpg (V-6, manual)

Pickup box length: 73.8 inches (standard); 74.6 inches (extended length)

Maximum payload: 1,400 pounds

Maximum trailer weight: 3,500 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Driver's-side air bag; anti-lock brakes (rear wheels only); four-wheel drive; air conditioning; in-dash, multi-disc CD player; fog lamps.

Make: Pontiac

Model: TransSport

M.S.R.P.: $20,479 to $23,369

Engine: 3.4-liter, V-6, 180 horsepower

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Mileage (city/highway): 18 mpg/25 mpg

Maximum cargo capacity: 126 cubic feet (standard); 155 cubic feet (extended wheelbase)

Maximum trailer weight: 3,500 pounds (optional equipment required)

Available features: Dual air bags; pollen filter; two auxiliary power outlets; automatic daytime running lamps; fog lamps; fourth sliding rear door; separate rear heating and air conditioning; leather seating; traction control; self-leveling rear suspension; remote keyless entry; power sliding door (right side only); integrated rear child safety seat.

How To Buy

The first thing to remember when shopping for such an important item is: Don't rush. You'll be spending a large portion of your income and living with your purchase every day, so it's important to become an educated consumer. Shop around as much as you can; salespeople will be glad to tell you about their products. Pick up lots of brochures at the dealerships. Pore over them, comparing specifications and features, and don't be afraid to pick your salesperson's brain about what features are standard on which models.

It may be helpful to make yourself a chart listing the specific features you want and those you don't, and which models come with them. Remember, you'll save money by specifying option packages instead of individual options, and you should look into buying a higher-end model instead of adding options to a lower-end model. Avoid dealers' strong-arm tactics, such as deals that are good only if you buy "right now," and don't let them steer you toward a model you don't need.

If you have access to the Web, you can visit many manufacturers' sites to find out the prices of the models and options you're interested in. Finding out just how much a vehicle is marked up is key information for your price negotiations. For $12, Consumer Reports magazine offers a complete breakdown of what a dealer pays for any specific model, as well as its cost for each of the available options. They'll even fax you this information within a few hours of your inquiry (call 800-933-5555). You can also turn to Consumer Reports to research a make and model's history of customer satisfaction and reliability--if it's done well in the past, it will likely do well in the future. For the history of a particular dealer in your area, turn to local publications, friends, family and co-workers. You can even ask a stranger in a parking lot whether she likes her new car. This may seem extreme, but any steps you take to educate yourself in the market can save you thousands of dollars--which you could invest in your business, instead!

Byron Veale shared his tips on shopping for home-office computers in the June issue of Business Start-Ups.