Climbing in altitude and twisting like a snake, the road told us more of what each vehicle had under the skin. Turn-in, body lean, stability, and transmission gearing were just a few of the items under scrutiny. A vehicle's performance in the slalom gives a good idea what it will be like in handling the real world. It was no different here, with the flingable Toyota a ball to drive when the road started to veer. With a slalom speed of 61.2 mph, it was heads above the next SUV, the Freelander, with a speed of 60.3 mph. Close behind it was the Ford Escape at 59.0 mph, while the 58.1-mph data for the Honda CR-V left test-driver Chris Walton to remark: "When pushed hard, seems ready to oversteer on each cone." Strong words, but the feel on the road backed up Walton's observation.

Coming down the mountain highlighted the brakes on each vehicle, all capable and fade-free in normal use. Each has ABS, and while all the mini-SUVs are fitted with front disc brakes, the Honda CR-V is the only one with discs in the rear. Each sport/utility stopped from 60 mph within a stone's throw of each other (Honda: 133 ft; Freelander: 126 ft; Toyota: 132 ft; Escape: 125 ft). Walton was impressed with the Freelander's pedal feel and no noticeable kickback or dead spot.

At the hotel, it was time to unpack, and the room, or lack of, in the cargo areas became evident. The Ford Escape allows for cramming in lots of stuff, while the Honda and Toyota make do with a bit less, but like the Escape, are well shaped. The Freelander surprised us with its shortage of storage behind the second-row seats. But the Land Rover has the highest-quality interior materials, the smooth leather seats turning the tall SUV into a Jaguar, at least as far as the nose knows. Seating positions were critiqued, and while everyone's anatomy is different, some vehicles beg to be lived in during a cross-country trip, while others are only good in the driveway or dealer's lot.

The Escape feels Ford familiar, for better or worse. Plush seats, dual driver grab handles, and white-face gauges got thumbs up. The oddly placed shifter got thumbs down, however, with most of us trying to get out of Park using the wiper stalk. The CR-V's seats are Honda comfortable, which means side bolsters that hold the driver, but don't crush him. The shift lever sprouting from the dash took about five minutes to get used to, then it was like, duh! It's a clever, well-executed design, similar to the emergency-brake handle. The center storage console needs about another 1/8-in. to accommodate CD cases, and the high-mounted audio controls are perfectly placed to increase safety. The Land Rover Freelander has an elevated seating position, which is great if you're 5 ft 5 in., but tall drivers need to put the top of their heads in the sunroof opening. Alas, there's no control for lowering the seat. The door opening is smallish, requiring care when getting in or leaving--or else the forehead takes a hit. Switchgear is strewn about the cabin with a typical British disregard for interior ergonomics, but the feel of the steering wheel shames anything else on this test. Toyota's RAV4, nonetheless, puts the others on the trailer in regards to proper driver position. Acres of legroom, perfectly placed steering wheel, easy-to-read gauges--Toyota has them down to a tee.

 Ford EscapeHonda CR-VLand Rover FreelanderToyota RAV4
Performance 5- 4+ 4+ 4
Interior space 5- 4+ 4 4
Livability 4 5 4 4+
Build quality 4- 5- 4+ 5-
Styling 4+ 4- 5- 4+
Off-pavement ability 4- 3 5- 3+
Comfort 4 4+ 4 4+
Ride/comfort 4- 4+ 4+ 4+
Value 4 5 4- 5-
Key: 1 = below average, 3 = average, 5 = superior