Contender: 2014 Mini Cooper S Paceman

By: Kim Reynolds

We Like: Fun styling, agile steering.

We Don't Like: Coarse ride quality; steep price; bump-steer recoils during cornering.

There can't be a simpler formula anywhere in automobiledom than that behind making a Mini: little on the outside, big(ish) on the inside, with gleeful cornering and instant-grin styling. Unfortunately, being a "brand" requires offering more than just one great model, so the Mini recipe has gradually added ingredients to stretch its array of variants. With the Paceman All4, the Mini may have finally reached the end of its stretch. Did we just hear a loud snap?

First of all, here's what the Paceman is: a slightly lowered and narrower Countryman with mostly new bodywork, a sloping roofline, a retuned suspension, and slightly lighter weight. Now, what it isn't: a coherent car. Frankly, many of us questioned whether the Paceman deserved to be in this lineup of often towering SUVs in the first place. Did it slip in through a side door somehow? Actually, no. Despite its appearance, it does possess the proper ground clearance and multi-surface credentials. Moreover, even Mini describes it as the first "premium-grade Sports Activity." The real problem, though, was how it drives.

Mortara: "This car has the worst steering-wheel kickback I have ever experienced in a non-front-drive vehicle, and it really upsets the car in corners. Hit any kind of bump, and it immediately wants to pull the wheel out of your hands." "Sure," began Lieberman, "the new Paceman is a charismatic little weirdo. But it has nearly cataclysmic bump steer, goofy rebounding, and an overall behavior that makes it difficult to predict." And its Mini-whimsical interior treatment seemed less entertaining in this setting.

The Paceman's biggest problem was the much nicer-driving BMW X1's alternatives we had on hand. Lieberman: "Um…$40K, really? I spent the better part of my drive trying to figure out who would spend that on this little guy when you could have the BMW X1 xDrive28i instead!" And, unfortunately for the Paceman, he had a point.

Mini Cooper S Paceman All4
Base price $29,295
Price as tested $39,895
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 2-door SUV
Engine 1.6L/181-hp/177-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 181 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 177 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 7.1 sec
Quarter mile 15.4 sec @ 88.8 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 111 ft
MT figure eight 26.4 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3307 lb (59/41%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 23/30 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 147/112 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.75 lb/mi

Contender: 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander

By: Scott Mortara

We Like: The edgy styling is replaced with a more mature look.

We Don't Like: Poor ride quality, weak engines, new but already dated interior.

It's no secret Mitsubishi has been struggling, but with its all-new Outlander, the automaker hopes to turn the tide. Nothing was left untouched, inside or out, and Mitsubishi tossed the book at its latest SUV, packing in every bit of tech it possibly could.

For our competition, Mitsubishi sent a 2.4-liter AWD and a 3.0-liter AWD, both pretty loaded. We did ask for one FWD, but none was available. The most notable change to the Outlander is the exterior styling. Gone is the face only a mother could love, replaced by a much more mature, conventional nose treatment. Some editors even remarked that the Outlander has Land Rover-esque styling.

The interior is definitely an improvement over the last-gen Outlander, though it breaks no new ground and some of it already looks dated. But Mitsubishi is banking on what you can't see. The Outlander has a massive amount of tech options available: lane departure warning, forward collision mitigation, and adaptive cruise control. For this new Outlander, Mitsubishi offers a 2.4-liter I-4 putting out 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, and a 3.0-liter V-6 that has 224 hp and 215 lb-ft. Many judges preferred the smaller engine, finding it more refined than the V-6, with performance more on par with what was expected. We all thought the V-6 was woefully underpowered.

On our drive loop, the Outlander felt nervous and busy, constantly chattering over every imperfection. Even when the road smoothed out, the ride quality barely improved. Everyone commented on the V-6's lack of power and how thrashy and coarse the engine note was.

We all conclued that the Mitsubishi Outlander is unfortunately an overwhelmingly underwhelming vehicle. Loh put it best: "The main issue with the Outlander is that it is only barely competitive when it needs to be a bases-loaded, walk-off home run (like our eventual winner). To win this award, the Outlander needed to be more -- a lot more."

Mitsubishi Outlander 2.4 SE S-AWC Mitsubishi Outlander 3.0 GT S-AWC
Base price $26,620 $28,620
Price as tested $32,720 $34,720
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.4L/166-hp/162-lb-ft SOHC 16-valve I-4 3.0L/224-hp/215-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission cont. variable auto6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 166 hp @ 6000 rpm 224 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 162 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm 215 lb-ft @ 3750 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 9.4 sec 7.4 sec
Quarter mile 17.2 sec @ 82.3 mph 15.8 sec @ 87.6 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 127 ft 119 ft
MT figure eight 28.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) 27.9 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3528 lb (55/45%) 3608 lb (57/43%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 24/29 mpg 20/28 mpg
Energy consumption city/hwy 140/116 kW-hrs/100 mi 169/120 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.75 lb/mi 0.85 lb/mi

Contender: 2014 Toyota RAV4

By: Benson Kong

We Like: Spacious second row; substantially updated, richer-looking interior.

We Don't Like: Brittle ride; having trouble remembering the driving experience.

Even long before the third-generation Toyota RAV4 hung up its boots, it had claimed its place as the elder statesman of the wonderfully competitive, mainstream compact-crossover set. The old RAV had everything suggestive of its mid-2000s origin: four-speed automatic, aging looks, and an available, marvelously potent 3.5-liter V-6. Surely, the current, fourth-gen model will shed the reputation.

That remains to be seen. The new RAV4 is powered solely by a four-cylinder/six-speed automatic combo, with your pick of front- or Dynamic Torque Control all-wheel drive. The EPA ratings are on par and the power is adequate, but the transmission hates sitting in the overdrive gears.

Mortara teed off on our main grievance against the Toyota: "Suspension tuning is way off on this thing." Ride and handling guru Reynolds continued: "My biggest problem is the ride quality, which at times is very, very three-dimensional, tossing your head around too much. Sometimes it crashes onto bumps creating excessively high g's." Yes, Toyota fans, "excessively high g's" is bad and will be felt by all occupants.

A lengthy list of interior refinements may alleviate the ride concerns: much improved cabin styling, eight standard airbags, lots of storage space, and an optional (even on our $29K-plus Limited test vehicle!) 11-speaker JBL sound system with a 6.1-inch touch screen and nav. The nav/infotainment software graphics appear to have been coded during the "Tron" era, but much of the functionality is locked out when the RAV is in motion anyhow.

Harwood's notes are all that's needed here: "This may have been my biggest disappointment of SUOTY. The RAV4 has never been super exciting, but this RAV is the closest to being an appliance that I have driven to date. There is absolutely nothing compelling about this vehicle. The best I can say is it isn't offensive."

And that's all she wrote (figuratively, not literally).

Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD
Base price $29,255
Price as tested $32,394
Vehicle Layout Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.5L/176-hp/172-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Power (SAE net) 176 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 172 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Accel 0-60 mph 8.7 sec
Quarter mile 16.7 sec @ 83.5 mph
Braking 60-0 mph 122 ft
MT figure eight 28.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
Curb weight (f/r dist) 3604 lb (57/43%)
EPA econ (city/hwy) 22/29 mpg
Energy consumption (city/hwy) 153/116 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.79 lb/mi