As sales of sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, have soared in recent years, the vehicles have slowly traded some off-road capability for street smarts and a smoother ride.

Most are surprisingly carlike in their handling, and it's not unusual for a "sport ute" to sport a CD player, keyless entry, air bags, anti-lock brakes, heated mirrors, cruise control, sunroof and even leather interior.But SUVs can still take on the meanest streets, and when driven sensibly they can provide you and your passengers a measure of security. They give a commanding view of the road, and recent government studies indicate that in collisions with cars, sport utes provide better protection.

There's a sport ute for every buyer, starting with the so-called minis, such as the Suzuki Sidekick (which sells for about $15,700). At the other end of the spectrum, full-size SUVs strive for either an incongruous mix of toughness and luxury, a la the Range Rover HSE ($56,620), or the paramilitary demeanor of the AMG Hummer ($61,000).

If the wide range of prices boggles your mind, prepare for some real confusion: Despite their seemingly singular purpose, sport utilities range from wimp to ruffian when it comes to tackling inclement weather.

Two-wheel-drive SUVs are a lot like family sedans when confronted with anything but warm weather and dry surfaces. Their all-wheel-drive counterparts are good to go in slippery weather and snow, while the traditional four-wheel-drive is as much at home on the highway as it is crossing brooks and mountains.

So the questions become, what do you really need, and how much should you spend to get a vehicle that suits your needs?

Today's sport utes usually offer some version of all-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive, power is directed to the wheels as needed. With four-wheel drive, the front and rear axles are locked and power is locked into all four wheels, all the time. In this mode, you shouldn't drive on dry pavement.