Q Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm a fun, sporty, active 46-year-old mom of three. I've been driving a minivan for 14 years now, and I need a change! I'm interested in the smaller sport-utility vehicles and recently test-drove a Hyundai Santa Fe. Needless to say, I loved it. But I'm curious as to your thoughts on that vehicle. Have you driven one lately? I know you guys like the Subaru Outback and Forester, but, to be honest, I felt they were both a tad too small. Plus, I did not care for the feeling of being low to the ground, like a sedan. I prefer to be "up" a little bit, if you know what I mean. I still have more test-drives to do, but I wanted some input. Thanks for your help. -- Janet

A TOM: We like the Hyundai Santa Fe. It's a small SUV that's based on a car platform. That means it's more economical, handles better, is easier to get in and out of, and is more comfortable than the larger, truck-based SUVs. So it doesn't tow quite as many mothers-in-law -- who cares?

RAY: And the Santa Fe still has the world's best-designed rear-lift-gate handle. Its shape fits your hand, and it's located right where your right hand would naturally reach out, rather than in the middle of the lift gate, where most of them are. If we had an award for rear-lift-gate handles, it would absolutely go to the Santa Fe.

TOM: Add to that a very reasonable price and Hyundai's 10-year power-train warranty, and you really can't go wrong.

RAY: But you're right to test-drive other vehicles, Janet. You might take a ride in the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape (which has a high-mileage, hybrid-electric version). You want to make sure that whatever you drive, you feel comfortable and in control behind the wheel. Some cars just "fit" some people better than others -- like that plaid suit, white belt and white shoes fit my brother.

Dear Tom and Ray:

What is CVT, or continuously variable transmission? I am thinking about getting a new car, and I am looking at the Mini Cooper. But I only know how to drive an automatic (and I can't find anyone who will teach me how to drive a manual on his or her own car). Will paying an extra $1,300 for a CVT on the Mini Cooper solve my problem? -- Kari

RAY: Yes, that will solve your problem, Kari. The CVT is an automatic transmission; it's just a different, more efficient kind of automatic transmission.

TOM: In the really old days, automatic transmissions had two gears. Then three, then four and now five, six and soon even seven. You can see where the trend is going here, can't you, Kari?

RAY: Well, a continuously variable transmission has an infinite number of gears. Instead of having "fixed" gears, like first, second and third, with specific gear ratios, a CVT simply "slides" along a continuum, from higher ratios to lower ratios depending on what the car needs at any given moment.

TOM: Here's a simplified explanation: Imagine that you strung a rubber band around an ice-cream cone (no ice cream -- that would lead to a messy transmission rebuild). Anyway, as the cone turns, it turns the rubber band, which moves the wheels. Now, when the rubber band is at the top, the widest part of the cone, that would give you your highest gear ratio, for starting and climbing hills. And as the ice-cream cone turns, the rubber band moves smoothly to the thinner part of the cone. That's where you'd get the lowest ratios -- for cruising on the highway, for instance.

RAY: And since, theoretically, it can always adjust itself to the perfect gear ratio at any time, it's more efficient than a standard automatic transmission, and gives you better gas mileage. And no jerky shifting.

TOM: But most important to you, Kari, it operates just like an automatic transmission, from the driver's point of view.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click and 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