When you set out to redesign a three-year best-in-class seller, you'd better raise the bar by more than a few notches. While the CR-V has been with us since '97, this second-generation 'ute is new from the ground up. With increased performance, additional interior space, enhanced utility, and bolder styling than its predecessor's, Honda is looking to increase its sales lead. As the most affordable in our test (at $21,940), the upscale CR-V EX comes full of standard equipment: removable, folding picnic table; waterproof rear storage well; reclining rear seats; moonroof; six-disc in-dash CD changer; and full-size spare tire.

Available in base LX and up-style EX trim levels, both are fitted with Honda's new alloy block/head 2.4L/160-hp I-4 with i-VTEC, up 14 hp from last year. Torque is up 29 lb-ft to 162. With either a five-speed manual or optional four-speed slushbox, Honda coaxes V-6-like performance from an efficient I-4. Manually rowing gears in the CR-V, we almost felt we were driving a Civic Si. Our track testing said we were fairly close: From a standstill, 60 mph came in a scant 8.1 sec and the quarter mile passed in 16.1 sec at 85.2 mph. Who says a four-banger can't keep up with bigger boys?

Although the CR-V is the only one of the trio equipped with discs at all four corners (11.1 in. front and rear), it took the longest distance to stop: 133 ft. The ABS was busy, but provided consistent, linear stopping without a fuss.

Navigating the Urban Jungle

All of these sport/utes ride on carlike platforms, so we expected them to handle substantially better than their full-frame brethren. We weren't disappointed, but there were notable discoveries. Electric steering makes its SUV debut in the VUE, and while we're familiar and impressed by systems offered by Honda (and sibling Acura), Saturn's variant feels like it's still in the development stage. There's a definite ratcheting effect between driver input and system output, and feel through the wheel is numb with vague response. Think about playing the early '80s video game, Pong: It's slow on the uptake, then shoots into overkill before you want it to.

The VUE may have won our slalom test (at 63.4 mph), but as Senior Road Test Editor Chris Walton notes, "Don't let the numbers fool you. This isn't the slalom champ. With no feedback from the steering, you have to memorize how much input affects a directional change and repeat the process from cone to cone. The tires earned the time, not the steering or the chassis."

In the canyons, the VUE wallows through corners with a significant amount of body roll, but its grippy 235/65SR16 M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts stick well once the suspension takes a firm set. On the highway, we're impressed with the Saturn's compliant ride, which effectively quells road irregularities trying to enter the cabin. Saturn openly claims the VUE wasn't designed with off-road driving in mind, yet its softly sprung suspension and light-duty AWD system do allow for soft-road fun. Gravel and dirt roads are easily traversed. Just don't drive over anything more than 7.25 in. high, or nasty sounds will emanate from below as the VUE's underbelly makes contact.

The Escape is equally at home in dirt as on pavement. Leaving the AWD system in automatic mode, power transfer is practically invisible, its Continental Contitrac 235/70TR16 rubber clawing the whole way. Dial into 4x4 mode, and with its generous ground clearance (10 inches), it has no problem tackling light-duty exploring.