Off the trail and back on the road, the Ford is extremely predictable in turns, with precise steering and smooth transitions. "Absolutely confident, catchable, and had it been shod with better tires, it could go even quicker," noted Walton after posting a 62.6-mph pass through the 600-ft slalom. It doesn't ride as plushly as the VUE, but the Escape's suspension keeps the driver well informed of what's happening underfoot, without jolting occupants.

Agile is the ideal description of the CR-V's suspension tuning. "There's a lot going on with the CR-V," wrote Walton. "Weight transfer is followed by body roll, then power transfer with a little tire lift, and it still comes off as fun." It posted a decent 61.9-mph pass through the cones, and, in the canyons, stuck well in the corners with its 205/70TR15 Bridgestone Dueler H/T rubber. With a decent amount of body roll, the Honda takes a good set, gently transferring weight without flopping over, as the VUE tends to do.

During aggressive handling maneuvers, the real-time AWD system didn't seem as seamless as the Escape's, which was confirmed when we hit gravel roads. We could feel the sudden push of power being delivered to the rear wheels while drifting through the corners. Heading off on a well-trekked trail is possible in the CR-V, but with only 8.25 in. of ground clearance, it's best to stay off the big rocks.

Interior Issues

At first blush, you'd swear an overly quirky interior designer penned the VUE's cabin: Its multi-textured-and-colored parts easily throw you into sensory overload. There are no fewer than three separate textures on the door panels and three different colors (ours included black, chocolate, and tan) vying for your attention. It's high fashion, to say the least, and one look drew either praise or condemnation from our staffers.

The satin-black waterfall center stack breaks up the smooth lines of the tan dash pad that houses stereo and climate controls. The gear selector protruding from the bottom of the column isn't as smooth in operation as we'd like, and its clunky nature recalled units found in vehicles 10 years its senior. We also aren't fond of the placement of window switchgear, surrounding the gear selector. With the lever in Drive, it's nearly impossible for the driver to put the passenger-window down without reaching over the stalk and contorting the wrist.

The VUE's fabric-covered front and rear seats provide good lateral grip in cornering, but driver and passenger buckets lack necessary lumbar and thigh support for long stints. If you find a park bench a comfortable place to sit, you'll like the VUE's rear seat, which is rather upright in nature, without a recline function like the others.

Loading goods in the 30.3-cu-ft cargo area (63.5 with the rear seats folded) is easy, with a low load floor. We wish Saturn had integrated a hatch into the glass for stashing of small items. An innovative pop-up organizer helps keep small gear in place and won't allow grocery sacks to slide as a cargo net might.

"Lacking" is one adjective that continually came to mind as our staff rotated through the Saturn, especially when it comes to ingress/egress or overhead passenger grab handles (there aren't any) and useable cubby space (which is minimal at best). The opposite is true for the Escape, which boasts dual A-pillar grab handles and one overhead for each outboard passenger (six total). Cubby space is also plentiful, with map pockets in the front door panels that easily accommodated a Thomas Guide, four trays for driver and passenger, plus a cavernous center console for stowing Mom's purse.