People with pets, especially big dogs, have an extra challenge when shopping for a new car. Human beings who haul around their animal companions a lot or even a little need way more functionality, more interior room and ease of loading and cleaning.

You'd think a traditional four-door sedan wouldn't be the best option for pet lovers, but the sedan is actually a versatile choice for some. Justin Rudd, who runs a community organization benefiting animals in Long Beach, Calif., says his 1991 Lexus LS400 works best for him and his famous bulldog Rosie. (The smiling Rosie has been featured on Jay Leno as Rudd's inspiration for starting his highly successful dog-centered events such as the hilarious Haute Dog Easter Parade and for creating a legal on-the-beach dog park.)

Rudd says he loves his full-sized Lexus sedan because he can easily put Rosie's signature red wagon in the big trunk. "I'm always packing that trunk full of stuff for Rosie and my dog events, so this car works out great for us," says Rudd, who also can't say enough about Lexus' genuine leather seats for easily whisking off slobber, sand and dog hair.

My burly brother Randy Tucker, who has two big dogs, bought his Chevy Tahoe a few years back mostly for trips to the doggie park. Yes, he does use the Tahoe for frequent do-it-yourselfer trips to Home Depot, but that truck was used more for those times when he packed up the dogs with their wagging tails and knowing smiles for a semi-wilderness adventure. (Now that the 2008 Chevy Tahoe is available in a two-mode hybrid version, you can even save on gas money with this perfect-to-drive SUV.)

Today, it seems polyurethane materials, flat-fold and multi-use seating as well as a new generation of anti-stain fabrics are making it easier to use your vehicle as a rolling animal carrier. Whichever way you haul your pets around town or even on long road trips, you can certainly match your personal design and driving style to a car fit for your animal companions too.

We road tested eight great cars for pet lovers and here's what we found:

Jeep Liberty

The 2008 Jeep Liberty has bold good looks, a truck-like view of the road and those much-needed fold-flat back seats for trips to the vet or just around town. (The rear multi-fold seats actually lock in the down position for a truly flat surface.) The Jeep Liberty has a 3.7 liter, V6 engine and is truly a winner with its excellent handling, braking and suspension. The interior, as well, is pleasing to the eye with its upscale controls in black, gray and chrome. Dogs that sit in the back seat will love the "sky slider" open roof, which truly opens up to the sky in a swift sliding motion. Overall, the 2008 Jeep Liberty is definitely a good buy for its class.

Dodge Nitro

The Dodge Nitro is a pet-friendly vehicle with attitude in design, engine power and handling. Built on the Jeep Liberty platform, we found the 3.7 liter V6 with 210 hp has much of the Liberty's same excellent driving characteristics. The difference is in the overall size: The Nitro definitely feels beefier and bigger both inside and out and it rides higher off the ground. For pet lovers, Nitro's standard "Load 'N Go" flat cargo floor behind the second row seats is a good place for loading pet carriers. (The "Load 'N Go" floor actually detaches and can be used as a table for tailgating purposes.) And don’t worry about the upholstery. The Dodge Nitro Limited comes standard with stain- and odor-resistant fabric for muddy feet and stinky fur. Plus, the second row seats and even the front passenger seat all fold flat for a literal "dog run" inside the car.

Suzuki SX4

For big dogs, we'd pick Suzuki's XL7 for a great affordable SUV, but if you need an affordable car that gets the job done, think about the SX4. Suzuki claims this is a crossover vehicle to compete with the Kia Rondo and the Toyota RAV 4, but the SX4 seems more like a five-door sedan, albeit with standard all-wheel drive. Starting at just $16K, the SX4 is spacious enough and certainly fuel efficient at 28 mpg highway. We drove the 2-liter, four-cylinder, 143 hp manual transmission version and certainly enjoyed the capable handling, but the shifting was rather labored and the acceleration lackluster. But for pet purposes, the sporty Suzuki SX4 AWD Crossover's hatchback and easy-folding seats may be an economical answer to hauling around your furry friends.

Toyota FJ Cruiser

After several fun road tests in Toyota's funky retro FJ Cruiser, we believe this is one of the best vehicles around for pet owners. The FJ may have a funky exterior, but this 4x4 drives like a dream. Toyota made the FJ a seriously fun-to-drive 4x4 with its 4 liter, six-cylinder, 24-valve DOHC engine. Although big in size and ready for off-roading, the FJ has easy-to-control handling, strong braking and comfortable suspension. The huge proportions of the back seat, including its swing-out rear doors, make it a great hangout for big dogs. (The back windows do not roll down, so this may not be the car for dogs that love to stick their heads out of the window.) Like the Honda Element, Toyota's FJ Cruiser is almost indestructible with its rubber-like flooring, which can be wiped down or even rinsed with the hose.

Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi

Some just can't live without the comfort and convenience of a sport wagon and the Saab 9-3 SportCombi is one of the best choices for its luxury, versatility and pet-friendly attributes. The 9-3's smooth 2.8-liter, V6, high-output turbo engine has 255 horses and 258 lb. of torque. Plus, the sport-tuned suspension and superior handling really make you feel like you are driving a sports car rather than a family wagon. The upswept rear end of the Saab 9-3 makes this hatchback roomier than other sedans and it has generous trunk space for any sport, shopping or pet needs. At about $42,000 MSRP, we think of Saab's 9-3 as perhaps the most affordable European-styled turbo sport wagon on the road. And, your animal companion may be oblivious to feeling secure while driving, but you may feel safer knowing the Saab 9-3 recently earned a top safety pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for the third year in a row.

VW Rabbit

For those who don't want to sacrifice performance or space, but still want a zippy compact car, there's the VW Rabbit. Yes, VW's Rabbit is still a thrill to drive with its 2.5 liter, 170 hp, inline five-cylinder engine and excellent handling, braking and suspension. The Rabbit does look rather small on the outside, but inside it is very spacious and we enjoyed the well-placed controls. The hatchback reveals a rather large trunk and the split rear seats make for a big enough space for hauling even big dogs.

Hyundai Tuscon

Hyundai's Tuscon is a well-crafted compact CUV with just enough good looks, room and driving capabilities for any pet owner. We found the front-wheel-drive 2.7 liter V6 engine to be powerful enough for both city and highway driving. However, we were somewhat disappointed with the handling as we felt the steering could have been more responsive and less of a drag on the driving experience. We also wouldn't pick the lovely beige suede trim for a pet vehicle, but we did find this cozy material cleaned up like a dream. The rear cargo tray, a polyurethane piece of plastic that fits snugly in the rear compartment, really helps for easy cleanup, especially for fur and muddy paws. We also found the rear seats fold down quickly and flatten out quite nicely.

And one special addition ...

Honda Element

Although we have yet to road test the Honda Element, we did go out and ask some Element drivers their opinions about hauling around pets. Some Element owners say they are completely enamored with the urethane-coated utility floor, which cleans up easily and can even be hosed down. Others like the spacious interior that adapts to people and pets with its flat cargo floor and removable flip-up rear seats. The side cargo doors are also convenient for getting big or older dogs in and out of the Element. Some drivers also swear by the fun-to-drive 166 hp, 2.4 liter, four-cylinder, five-speed engine. As this is Honda's more tech-friendly car, there are also lots of storage bins and pockets, beverage holders and audio device inputs.


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