Looking for a sport/utility small enough to thread through parking lots without nasty scraping sounds, yet big enough to haul everybody off for a camping trip without pressing them into sardines? And enough pluck to pick through 8 a.m. traffic, too?
Who do you think you are? Goldilocks?
Actually, there's a corner of the sprawling population of SUVs that might be, well, just right after all. It includes the facelifted 2005 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4WD with a V-6, a steady player that's just what its exterior design purports it to be--a steel and glass incarnation of a sprightly mountain goat; the aging but value-intense Hyundai Santa Fe 4WD GLS, rejuvenated by a new 3.5-liter V-6; and Saturn's VUE AWD Red Line, itself renewed via a new-for-2004 trim and suspension package, plus a serious-business 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter Honda-built V-6. And if you're not confused enough already, we have the all-new (but VUE-based) Chevy Equinox AWD LT, powered by a 3.4-liter V-6 built in China. China? A Ford, a Korean, a Japanese engine in a brand named after a giant planet, and a Bow-Tie American employing an engine made in the land of The Great Wall. This is starting to sound like a Henny Youngman "four-cars-walked-into-a-bar" joke.
To find out which would deliver the punchline and which the knockout punch, research demanded we probe their on-road performance, soft-road escapades, and, yes, their light-camping suitability. We ventured north into California's desert hinterlands to deploy tents, eat frozen lasagna blackened in its own tin atop a roiling fire, tell (or make up) road-trip stories, and otherwise rough it at the Red Rocks Campground located along Route 14 northeast of Mojave. Then, on to the eerie WWII Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, a stark juxtaposition of Asian-roofed stone guard gates and snowfrosted Sierra peaks. It was a scene you could sell as a postcard from Tibet.
There were rocky trails we scaled easily and some we carefully backed down after one too many klunks underneath. We even drove a quarter of a mile into a spooky old abandoned mine (cool!)--which we absolutely will not locate for you because it's our secret now. Everything else, however, we're happy to divulge.