Outstripping their humble origins as mere pickup-truck variants, sport/utility vehicles (SUVS) enter a new era in the 1996 model year by spawning two new subsegments -- luxury and entry-level -- and doing so with products not derived from pickups.

At the market's lower end, new '96 products from Subaru, Toyota and Suzuki join the months-old Kia Sportage to create a sub-segment from what had been a near vacuum occupied only by niche vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler and the Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker.

At the luxury end, Japanese luxury brands Lexus, Infiniti and Acura will for the first time offer SUVs that will directly compete against Land Rover in an emerging pure luxury subsegment separate from special trim levels of mainstream Big Three SUVs such as Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Lexus LX450, Acura SLX and an Infiniti SUV, all due partway into the '96 model year, are the first of a series of luxury SUVS coming from other upscale brands by 1997 and beyond. Mercedes, Mercury and Lincoln entries are certain, with potential products later from GMC Truck, BMW, Jaguar and Volvo.

The approaches on both ends of the spectrum are efforts to cash in on the booming popularity of SUVS, the fastestgrowing segment in the U.S. light-vehicle market in recent years. U.S. SUV sales surged from less than 200,000 units in 1982, the year the Big Three started to introduce compact SUVS, to 1.56 million in 1994. SUV sales soared 430,000 units or 38.2% between 1992 and 1994 alone.

The upcoming new luxury-segment entries are somewhat defensive, intended in part to head off erosion of luxury sedan owners to SUVs and to give those buyers an alternative within the luxury brand. With the exception of Mercedes-Benz' All Activity Vehicle (AAV) that will be built at a new U.S. plant in Vance, AL, starting early in 1997, all pending luxury-brand entries will be derived from SUVS to minimize development and per-unit manufacturing costs.

The Lexus LX450 is based on the Toyota Land Cruiser and its debut virtually coincides with a Land Cruiser minor facelift. The Infiniti SUV is derived from the all-new '96 Nissan Pathfinder, also due later this model year. Borrowing a page from sister division Honda, which last year introduced a version of the Isuzu Rodeo called Passport, Acura's SLX will be a upscale V-6 Isuzu Trooper. Another upscale SUV will be the Mountaineer -- a rebadged top-of-the-line version of the Explorer -- arriving in Lincoln-mercury dealer showrooms sometime this spring.

All three of these new entries are based on specific SUV designs that are not themselves based on pickups, although each share some truck powertrains and other components. A prime example of this trend is the new-generation Pathfinder. It is specifically designed as an SUV with unibody construction instead of body-on-frame and no longer shares a platform with the Nissan compact pickup.

Against the newcomers, Land Rover is introducing a new 4.6L version of its aluminum V-8 in a limited edition 4.6 HSE model of the '96 Range Rover (which was all new in March). It also is extending the 4L version of the V-8 to Discovery for '96 and dropping the old generation Range Rover, sold in '95 as the Range Rover Classic. Lack of an OBD-II system (on-board diagnostics, as required by stricter exhaust emission mandates) eliminates the Defender from Land Rover's '96 lineup.

At the SUV market's lower end manufacturers also are foregoing shared SUV-pickup designs in favor of platform sharing and common components with passenger cars. The new Toyota RAV4 is car-based, for example. It's one of several designs introduced at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show that approached the small SUV market from a passenger-car perspective.

The '96 Subaru Legacy Outback being introduced this month is designed expressly for the U.S. market. It's not the paint and equipment Outback package Subaru introduced on the '95 Legacy. The '96 model is structurally different from the Legacy passenger car. The all-wheel-drive Legacy Outback has a raised, "stepped" roof, a reinforced chassis, modified suspension and rides 30 mm (1.2 ins.) higher greater ground clearance. Subaru calls it a SUV/station wagon.

Subaru expects to sell 30,000 Outbacks annually after full production is reached at Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. in Lafayette, IN. The Legacy Outback currently is available only in the U.S. and Canada but is being considered for other markets, including Japan and Europe, and Subaru also is weighing a similar approach for Impreza. The company sees an emerging U.S. subsegment of car-based SUV hybrids and believes Subaru's brand image for 4wd and wagons allows it to tap the trend.

Chevrolet offers an updated and slightly larger 4-door hardtop version of the 1.6L-powered Suzuki-designed Geo Tracker. Suzuki's bigger version bows this month (with exclusive 1.8L) as a separate model called Sidekick Sport. Suzuki's big news is the X-90, a two-seat SUV that starts under $13,500 for 2wd with manual transmission.

The SUV mainstream also will be active in the '96 model year. General Motors Corp. broke new ground this spring by introducing larger four-door versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon that bridged the gap between full-size two-door SUVs and the Suburban. Several other new-generation SUVs will be introduced later in the model year, but most are essentially replacement models.

The exceptions:

* Jeep replaces the venerable Wrangler in early 1996 with an all-new SUV that retains much of Wrangler's distinctive styling, but offers vastly improved suspension.

* Nissan will introduce a new unibody construction Pathfinder in early 1996 but will keep production in Japan. The new Pathfinder offers a beefier 3.3L engine and a longer, wider, restyled body.

* Toyota will replace the current 4Runner with a new version based on its new Tacoma pickup.

Ward's is completing a major research study on the U.S. SUV market looking ahead into the 21st Century, with publication scheduled for next month. For details, contact our Customer Service Dept. in Southfield, MI. Phone 810-357-0800. FAX 810-357-0810.