Dawn saw us heading into the bright heat of Borrego Springs. A detour down a dry wash gave us an opportunity to push these vehicles beyond the possible demands of most owners, except possibly the Freelander's. We were pleasantly surprised when all the SUVs plowed through the dust, silt, and sand. It was no surprise that the Land Rover acted as if it was bred for the task--it was. The Honda and the Toyota gave a good accounting for themselves, especially considering that they're car-based platforms. The Ford Escape exuded a capable, press-on-regardless feeling. Any of these rides would handle a winter trip to the nursery with aplomb.

One thing about testing vehicles in the desert: The air-conditioning gets a serious workout. Happily for us, all four SUVs brought our core temperatures back into sane range after hunting for souvenir scorpions. Washing each vehicle by hand before the sunset shoot let us closely examine curves and contours, panel fit, and paint finish and reinforced the idea that every one of these are built to a standard inconceivable just a few years ago. The styling of each is sufficiently different to make a single choice of desirability difficult. The Escape is bold, in an American fashion, while the Honda and Toyota are instantly identifiable as quality Asian products. The Freelander has traditional Land Rover cues, but breaks new ground for this very British firm.

Putting only one of these SUVs in the garage is tougher than we first thought. They're all adept at light off-roading, the Land Rover being the exception; it's ready for a trip across the Serengeti. The Honda, with its numerous improvements, feels more carlike than many, let alone other SUVs. Toyota's RAV4 is flush with quality, and even though it was redesigned just last year, it's starting to age quickly. The Escape is ideal for those who want the convenience of an Explorer without its size or pricetag. In a lot of ways, it really comes down to personal preference.

Our pick? After much consideration and a particularly energetic debate, we leaned toward the Land Rover Freelander. Granted, it's like most Land Rover products, equipped with quirky interior ergonomics, but overall a well executed cute 'ute with gobs of look-at-me personality. We especially like the switchgear transmission and Hill Descent Control. Likewise, quality of materials, fit, finish, on- and off-road handling, and the intangible feeling of "it'll get me home, regardless," give the Freelander the nod. We have to say it was the successful melding of keeping true to Land Rover, while making it stand out from a crowd of vanilla look

Final Picks
Mark Williams: Freelander
Greg Whale: Freelander
Thomas Voehringer: RAV4
David Newhardt: Escape