It's like choosing a date for the prom: Each of these beauties offers you some appealing attributes and others you could do without. The Saturn looks great on the surface, but dig down deeper and you'll find some deficienciesthe transmission's gearing is poorly spaced and material quality is lacking. Like most Honda vehicles, the CR-V won't offend you with its looks, and it proved the most athletic of the trio. But its lack of two cylinders becomes a factor when carrying passengers or towing. With its girl-next-door looks, the Ford was certainly the most attractive vehicle of the group. Its V-6 powerplant offers real-world performance for towing or hauling passengers and cargo, and it comes mated to a transmission that works in harmony with the engine. While the interior isn't breathtaking, it's functional in design, and it's the only one to offer both manual and automatic settings for its AWD system. Ms. Escape, would you do me the honor? Neil G. Chirico
The Honda completely surprised me, with great bang for the buck, catchy styling, and an I-4 that feels more like a V-6. I'm still not fond of the swinging rear-hatch door, and my wife wasn't pleased with having to lean over a spare tire to retrieve groceries through the rear-hatch glass. Strike the Honda. The VUE is perfect for repeat Saturn buyers or those who want a hassle-free buying experience. Its interior colors and textures are too busy for my taste, and the seats just don't offer enough support for my frame. Throw in the excessive torque steer under acceleration, and I'm looking for another "View." That leads us to the Ford: a consummate package that doesn't do anything perfectly, but does everything quite well. It has the most trailering capacity, has selectable 4WD, holds enough cargo for a family outing, has the most comfortable seats, and looks good in the process. It may be the most costly of the bunch (by $2465), but it's well worth the few extra payments. S.M.
Still the One
Running these three mini-SUVs up and down high-elevation mountain roads and back and forth over multilane super-highways made me appreciate how nimble and responsive their breed has become over the years. With that said, Honda's high-output I-4 feels like a V-6, while Saturn's V-6 works like a strongish four-banger. Then, right in the middle, was the predictably proficient, dutifully alert, Ford Escape. I almost wanted to be bored with the Escape, having spent a considerable amount of time driving them over the last few years, and (ashamed to say) half wanting to make the switch to something new and exciting. The Saturn was too "exciting" with its razor-body edges and dull-as-a-spoon electronic steering (the technology is getting there, but not just yet). The new CR-V, although better in just about every performance and handling way, seems obsessed with storage cubbies and other secret hiding places. But it's still too small (small tires, small interior, small seats) for the category. So there's the Ford. Vanilla good looks notwithstanding, its thoughtfully spacious interior layout and smoothly grippy all-wheel-drive system (the cheapest vehicle around with a manual-locking 4x4 switch) make the Escape the standard-setter for the class. Mark Williams