Fourth Place
2005 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4WD

Parked before Red Rocks's eroding cliffs, the flinty Ford Escape could be a mechanical incarnation of wiry old Henry Ford himself, quietly pondering barren vistas, a twig slowly twisting in the corner of his mouth.

Actually, if Mr. Ford were alive today, we suspect he'd rather like the Escape. His favorite car was, of course, the do-anything, go-anywhere Model T, a square-deal machine that once was even driven down the Capitol steps as a publicity stunt. Our 2005 Escape could easily do the same (though it would likely wind up in Guantanamo before you could say Patriot Act).

So what has lowered it into the depths of fourth place?

An accumulation of niggling nickel-and-dime demerits rather than any calamitous catastrophe. Little stuff, like the chintzy-looking chrome-bezeled speedo and tach cluster, the cog-box's minimalist four instead of five ratios, and the engine's rough commotion accelerating under full-throttle.

On paper, the V-6's 200-horsepower figure would appear to make it a strong contender--indeed, it's second only to the Saturn VUE's halcyon 250. But further reading finds that its sub-three-liter displacement and low(ish) torque value (193 at a relatively high 4850 rpm) completely undermine things, resulting in acceleration that seems like a perpetual uphill battle. Additional culprits are those widely spaced transmission ratios, co-conspirators in making the Escape our quartet's solitary member not to make the 10-seconds-to-60-mph cut. Consistent in braking and going, it's the lengthiest emergency-stopper, too (139 feet).

On sinewy lanes, however, the Escape is strangely pleasant to handle. Not because it corners well--in fact, angling the wheel produces a virtual goulash of roll and groggy re-directioning. Rather, amid the lurid dynamics, the Ford feels as if it rotates--pirouetting is too dainty a word--about a vertical axis that's centered at, well, you. It's as if you were standing in a child's cardboard-box vehicle that you just picked up and rotated. It gives the Escape a peculiar sort of I'm-on-your-side handling friendliness that the others, even the comparatively Formula One-like Saturn, don't share. At speed, the interior is a noisy brew of road rumble and aerodynamic whoosh, but the Escape provides a reasonably supple ride given its tallish proportions.