By Greg Whale

The Escape is the only one in this quartet available with two engine choices. Our loaded tester came with the 3.0L V-6 (automatic only, like the Freelander). A conventional 24-valve DOHC all-aluminum V-6, it generates 200 hp and torque, with just 1250 rpm between peaks. Service access is adequate (you can see the oil filter from the top, which can't be said for the others); the power-steering pump is in the vee at the front of the engine, and the water pump is driven off the back (driver) side of the forward cylinder bank. The transaxle vent is up high next to the transmission dipstick, for good water fording, and the tow rating is 3500 lb (the package is standard on '02 V-6 XLT 4x4 Escapes). The Escape is also geared tall like many American trucks, and with the engine turning 2800 rpm--where the others tend to cruise at 60-65 mph--the Escape is pushing 85. Needless to say, the four-speed auto will be in and out of O/D and converter lock-up into a head wind or grade.

If you think the CR-V engine looks like an Acura RSX unit, you're close. Bore is up by 1 mm, but stroke is up by 13 mm, bumping cubic capacity to 2.4L. Horsepower is 160, up 14 from the previous CR-V, and torque is up a significant 22 percent to 162 lb-ft. Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing and lift bring maximum torque by 3600, and the four-speed auto knows how to take advantage of it, matching the 460-lb-lighter RAV4 in acceleration. To ensure the engine remains reliable and unobtrusive, it's fitted with chain-driven cams, aluminum crank girdle, a balance-shaft integral with the oil-pump drive, and two liquid-filled engine mounts. Watching the idle momentarily drop to 500 when the air-conditioning is switched on may tell you this is a four, but excessive buzzing won't. Service access is aided by having the exhaust at the back of the engine and a high steering rack, should you lose a hose. The CR-V revs to 6500 and runs on regular unleaded, though the fuel tank and alternator locations show it's not designed for serious trail use.

The Freelander is the first Land Rover in which the engine sits sideways. This one is an all-aluminum, slightly undersquare 2.5L V-6 that sounds very German when twisted up--and was smoothest of this group. The Land Rover tradition of using smaller engines and shorter gears continues (rpm at 60 close to the four-cylinders), and the five-speed Steptronic has a gear advantage over Ford and Honda autos. However, unlike most other Land Rovers, this one can run on regular unleaded, despite its 10.5:1 compression ratio. Four cams, four valves per cylinder, and variable intake plumbing provide a decent spread between peak torque and horsepower, and though it redlined at 6500, it pulled to 7000 when shifted manually. Serviceability is good after removing one large cover, but don't open the hood after it's been running unless you're wearing gloves. Lots of cooling capacity gives the Freelander a 910-lb towing advantage over the Escape and 3000-lb over the CR-V and RAV4.

The Toyota's RAV4's 2.0L is the smallest engine (in the smallest SUV) here, but boasts the highest specific output. The torque curve suggests this powerplant is best when matched with the five-speed manual (tested). It pulls to just shy of its 6400-rpm redline and cruises right around 3000; indeed, the only chink in its performance armor was the soft engine mounts that made a fast shift at full throttle more work than usual. The perfectly square (3.4-in. bore and stroke) inline-four uses aluminum for block and head, a 16-valve twin-cam valvetrain with intelligent variable timing, and isn't quite large enough to need a balance shaft. The exhaust exits front with a catalyst covering the leading side of the engine, right next to the clutch slave cylinder. There's good access to the starter, alternator and steering rack, and the airbox sits directly on top of the engine.