Call it the inevitable backlash, but as sport/utility vehicles have grown in size to rival aircraft carriers, some individuals have come to realize that bigger isn't always better. A smaller vehicle, capable of traversing marginal roads, holding a significant amount of cargo, and getting fuel mileage in double digits could fill needs better than the leviathans over-filling garages. So in the climate of a kinder, gentler SUV environment, we took the latest bunch, appearing as if they stayed in the dryer too long, into harsh, brutal surroundings to expose their faults quicker than you can say "diminutive."

A pair from the Land of the Rising Sun, the Honda CR-V (all new for '02) and the Toyota RAV4 (new in '01), brought the latest in innovation from a country known for unique ways of approaching old problems. The new-to-the-States Land Rover Freelander checked in as the European contingent from the company that virtually invented comfortable off-roading. And last up, the Ford Escape, a sport/utility in the classic American mold, looking like a 3/4-scale Explorer. The Asian offerings use inline-four-cylinder engines, while both the Freelander and Escape pack V-6s underhood, but all are fitted with all-wheel drive. We wanted to find out if the claims of inclement-weather prowess are valid.

We met up in the shadow of dinosaurs. No, not under the canopy at Mobil, but at a Cabazon, California, gift shop disguised to look like a brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex. Located next to Interstate 10, upwind to the windmills of Palm Springs, the beasts gazed down on our group--four vehicles, four different approaches to a goal. This was clear the moment we parked them next to each other under the stucco terrors.

Honda's CR-V takes a conservative tack, yet packs the vehicle with technological goodies. A remarkably low liftover in the cargo area had us wondering why other makers couldn't engineer as user-friendly an opening as this. Our Ford Escape had about 14K miles on it--looong life for a press vehicle. Similar to a smaller Explorer, the Escape felt like a mainstream Ford as well, the interior pure Dearborn. All-new, the '02 Toyota RAV4 surprised us with the most room behind the wheel, while editor Mark Williams noted that the body has a "very non-Toyota look, cool even." Okay, the Freelander has been on sale for a few years in Europe, but needed significant changes before being brought to the colonies. Now it was among its competition, all upright glassy sides, the surrounding hills seeming nothing like Solihull, U.K. It was time to see if these reduced-scale SUVs could play with the big boys.

On paper, the Anglo V-6 vehicles should have little trouble dusting the Japanese products in acceleration. The Freelander has 175 hp, the Escape enjoys 200, while the Toyota has 148 DOHC horses, and the CR-V's twin-cam four-cylinder engine is rated at 160 hp. But as we merged onto the highway, accelerators told another story. The Honda and Toyota had taken best times in the 0-60-mph category (both at 8.9 sec); the Escape and Freelander (9.0 and 10.5 sec) needed serious depressing of the fast pedal to keep up. But the speed limit was eventually reached, and our convoy headed toward the mountains above Palm Desert to inspect the next morning's sunrise-shoot location.

SUV-Lite: Which SUV Would you pick?

  • 2001 Ford Escape
  • 2002 Honda CR-V
  • 2002 Land Rover Freelander
  • 2002 Toyota RAV4
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