The mini-'ute class continues to grow fast, siphoning sales from midsize sport 'utes, small wagons, and economy cars alike--and for good reason, as many mini-'utes offer as much cargo space (if not payload) as midsize utilities, decent road manners, and relatively low operating costs.
Debate centered around the Ford Escape V-6, Mazda Tribute V-6, and Honda CR-V. The Escape and Mazda share powertrains and are close in price, with the Escape being the better for occasional off-highway adventures and the Tribute better on-road.
However, for less cash, you could get a Honda CR-V, with a manual transmission not offered in an Escape/Tribute V-6, that is surprisingly quick (it'll keep up with the Wrangler 4.0), more economical, and an entertaining drive. In addition, the CR-V has four disc brakes, cargo space way larger than it looks from outside, super-flexible rear-seat configurations, better mileage, and a healthy 160-hp balance-shaft four-cylinder derived from Acura's RSX.
The CR-V isn't suited for off-road work, but if you need a functional little front-drive runabout or all-wheel-drive traction for inclement weather, we think this is where the money is best spent.