QDear Tom and Ray:

My brother Gary is 54 years old and recently divorced, with a 14-year-old daughter and a significant other with multiple children. They live in Great Falls, Mont. He works for a newspaper and recently won an award from the Wilderness Society for his environmental writing. His current vehicles are a nearly defunct pickup truck and an old Mercedes, which is costing a lot of money in maintenance these days. He is in the market for a new car and is obsessed with a Ford F-150 Crew Cab pickup. I have told him that if he buys such a macho vehicle, I will write to the Wilderness Society and tell them to revoke his award! He is 6 feet 4 inches tall, about two-thirds of which is legs. He does considerable cross-country driving and wants comfort. He also wants to be able to transport his significant other and two to three full-size children. To further complicate matters, he has a faraway cabin in the woods, and he needs a vehicle to haul building materials, passengers, firewood, etc. Is there any vehicle in existence that will work for all these things without compromising his and my environmental sensibilities? -- Jo

RAY: Yes. A Ford F-150 Crew Cab. Get off his case, Jo!

TOM: We're often critical of people who buy SUVs or other behemoth trucks when they really don't need them. I'm sure you've all seen the guy driving around the city, all alone in his full-size Suburban. Or the woman on the phone, driving an enormous Expedition with no one else in the car. But your brother sounds like he has every conceivable justification for a vehicle like this.

RAY: He's 6 feet 4 inches tall, he's got to carry four other people, he lives up North where it snows and he needs to haul lumber, firewood and dead grizzly bears. I mean, c'mon, Jo! This is the guy they had in mind when they made the F-150 Crew Cab.

TOM: And while you're absolutely right that the truck drinks gas (it's EPA-rated between 15 and 20 miles per gallon), it's probably a lot better than the old, broken-down pickup truck that he's driving now. And it's probably several orders of magnitude better in terms of emissions. We don't know how old his two older vehicles are, but today's new cars -- even those that drink a lot of gas -- emit a fraction of the carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and unburned hydrocarbons per mile that cars emitted just 15 or 20 years ago.

RAY: So let him get his F-150 Crew Cab, Jo. It's a very nice truck. And besides, you know he's going to do what he wants anyway, right? All you'll achieve by nagging him is excluding yourself from the delivery route next winter when he comes around with an F-150 full of firewood.

Dear Tom and Ray:

Am I safer in a bigger, older car that doesn't handle particularly well and has no new safety features (i.e., my '92 Volvo 940 sedan) or a newer compact car with side-curtain air bags that handles well and performs well in crash tests (i.e., a VW Jetta)? Does young but small trump big but old? -- Ruby

RAY: So, you've got the hots for a new Jetta, huh, Ruby?

TOM: It's not an easy question to answer. There are a number of things that factor into a car's "safeness." Size is just one of them.

RAY: There's also design. Some cars are designed to better protect their occupants with crumple zones, passenger roll cages and reinforced door beams. Some cars add electronics, such as dynamic stability control and anti-lock brakes. And then there are air bags: front, side, head and even knee bags.

TOM: And finally, there's active safety -- how well a car handles in emergency situations, to help you avoid an accident in the first place. So, size is an important factor, but it's only one.

RAY: In general, I'd have to say that newer cars tend to have more safety advantages than older cars. But your older Volvo may be an exception to this rule. Despite its lack of some of the modern electronics and additional air bags, it is a large car and was extremely well designed to survive an accident. If you were comparing a '92 Chevy Lumina with a newer car, I'd give the nod to the newer car for safety. But the Volvos were pretty good, even back then.

TOM: So, it's a tough call, Ruby. We certainly would like to see you with ABS, as many air bags as a manufacturer will give you and even dynamic stability control, if you can get it. But you really have to look up the crash-test ratings of the particular car you're considering, because the results can differ dramatically -- even with similar-size cars with identical equipment. You can link to the ratings from our Web site.

RAY: In your case, in a choice between a new Jetta and a '92 Volvo, it's hard to make the call purely in terms of safety, Ruby. So, I think you have to put aside the safety issue and make your decision based on other criteria. Like how much better you're going to look in that new Jetta, for instance. Good luck.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click & Clack in care of The Post, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk Web site at www.cartalk.com.

(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman