The compact sport/utility segment is one of the fastest-growing areas of the market. Why? Because these little workhorses appeal to a wide range of buyers. Younger generations want a vehicle that can cart friends around in carlike comfort, yet carry a ton of cargo for weekend getaways and fit into a compact parking space at Starbucks. Small families equally find small SUVs perfect load-haulers and kid-carriers. If you appreciate the efficiency and cleverness of affordably priced, do-it-all vehicles, check out compact sport/utilities. We did, putting the Saturn VUE, Ford Escape, and Honda CR-V under the Motor Trend comparison-test microscope.
Getting To Know You
For '02, Saturn enters the compact SUV fray with the all-new VUE, which boasts several firsts in its category, including electrically assisted steering, an optional continuously variable transmission (mated to a 2.2L/143-hp I-4 with either front- or all-wheel drive), and the use of polymer body panelsa Saturn trademark.
Fitted with the optional iron block/aluminum head 3.0L/181-hp V-6 with five-speed autobox, our AWD tester was a sprightly, if buzzy, performer. It clocked a 0-60 time of 8.6 sec and 16.6 sec at 83.3 mph in the quarter mile, although we noted severe torque steer under hard acceleration. This phenomenon usually doesn't appear in all-wheel-drive vehicles, but with Saturn's on-demand AWD, which sends power to the rear wheels only when front slip is detected, the force can wrench the steering wheel from your hands (read: immediate right-lane change) if you aren't careful.
Equipped with non-ABS 11.7-in. discs front and 9.8-in. drums rear (anti-lock brakes are an option), the VUE posted the best 60-0 stopping distance of 128 ft, with easy modulation and just a few chirps from the tires. This bettered previously generated ABS-equipped numbers by 3 ft.
Ford's Escape arrived on the scene last year, and examples have been flying off dealer lots ever since. Although the most expensive of our test, at $25,840, the Escape also came with midsize features not available on its competitors: leather seating surfaces, a class II tow hitch, and a locking center differential. Base models have a 2.0L Zetec I-4 that provides 127 hp and 196 lb-ft of torque. With the standard five-speed manual, it's a decent choice for those who want good fuel economy and front drive. Our bright-yellow Escape had the optional 3.0L/201-hp iron block/aluminum head Duratec V-6 (with a five-speed automatic) and optional Control Trac II 4WD. Of the three tested here, the Ford system is the most transparent, biasing drive to the front wheels on dry pavement, then sending power to the rear when the mechanism senses a shaft-speed difference in the transfer case's viscous coupling.
Unlike the rest of the trio, the Escape's system is lockable, providing a 4x4 high mode for light off-roading. Acceleration is brisk (with just a hint of torque steer), and upshifts are a bit on the soft side. With its best-in-test power rating, we expected the Ford to rule the acceleration tests. That wasn't the case, however, as it posted a second-best 8.5-sec run to 60 and a 16.3 at 85.4-mph pass in the quarter mile. Same for braking: Its ABS-assisted 10.9-in. front discs and 9.0-in. rear drums ground the Escape to a panic stop from 60 mph in 132 feet.