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.

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.

2005 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4WD cont...

When the asphalt gives way to aggregate not coalesced by sticky tar, the little Ford becomes something of a scrambling Escape artist, avoiding pitfalls at least two of the others regularly stumbled into. When we'd occasionally encounter a debris field of rocks pretending to be a road ("Gee, there's a line here on the map..."), the Ford felt eager to press on when its rivals seemed inclined to lie back, tabulating the pros and cons of the situation. Of the rest, only the Hyundai even approached the Ford's rock-climber mentality.

As an aside, the undercarriages of our four test vehicles recorded a sort of unintended scorecard of their relations with the planet's crust, noting each encounter, scrape by painful scrape. On hands and knees, we'd occasionally inspect these records, and, surprisingly, the Escape's was consistently scratchless. Luck? No such thing.

In the rear, the cargo bay stands apart from the others for its sheer, back-to-basics simplicity. Whereas the aft quarters of the GM vehicles are busy with overthought folding plastic storage aids and parcel organizers you have to assemble, arrange, or otherwise tinker with, the Ford has just flat carpet. What a novel idea: You can put stuff in there and arrange it as you'd like. Also, when the rear seatbacks are folded, the extended floor lies perfectly flat, ideal for sliding multiple boxes into the back without lumps in the floor snagging them.

At a base price of $26,030, our Escape XLT Sport 4WD came standard with the V-6 engine, but also included an optional power moonroof ($585), added front side airbags ($425), and a leather comfort group ($575) that wrapped the steering wheel and seating surfaces.

Climb atop those seats, and you'll discover that the view through the big windshield is airily uncluttered, framed only by two welcome grab handles on the A-pillars. But the dash design below it led to arguments. Some felt it was elementally purposeful; how a manly-man's sport/ute interior ought to look. Others, more secure with such issues, thought it dull as toast and dotted with low-ball buttons and knobs. An example of the Ford's more utilitarian taste is the front-passenger airbag's unadorned fitment into the dash molding. You could fit a quarter's edge into the gap outlining it. In the other vehicles, this passenger bag is integrated so well it's almost hard to find. And, um, this is the Escape's new-for-2005 dash.

The touch-up job done to the nose, like that to the dash, is subtle (a line here, a bevel there); the biggest difference is the welcome addition of crisp-looking reflector headlights replacing the Escape's previously foggy-eyed sealed-beam trace.

Park the rectilinear Escape and lanky new Equinox next to each other, and they could be designed a decade apart. Dearborn's SUV design DNA has been replicated maybe a bit too often, making the Excursion, Explorer, and Escape look almost like the same vehicle, just at different distances away. However, there's something friendly, approachable, and genuine about this iconic SUV appearance that Americans evidently resonate with--and are continuing to buy in droves.

Third Place
2004 Saturn VUE AWD Red Line

It's easy to imagine the Saturn VUE Red Line as sort of a make-the-best-of-it vehicle a young sport-compact car-culture guy might turn to if a lost weekend in Vegas ended with an inexplicable bride and little-one-to-be. What to do? Buy the transformer-like Red Line.

It'll accommodate both sides of your awkward new life, offering such unusual feature pairings as easy-access LATCH attachments for the child seat and a big-attitude electric-lime paint job. Or how about room for the collapsible crib in the back and a 250-horse Honda-designed-and-built engine stuffed up front? Maybe married life can be tolerable. The idea of a cargo-swallowing SUV set up to perform entertainingly on the street isn't new. It just hasn't been pursued much below the mega-buck strata of Porsche's Cayenne or BMW's X5.

In Saturn's case, it exists in the form of the Red Line Performance Package, which consists of a bulked-up suspension beneath a one-inch-lowered body, 18-inch painted alloy wheels surrounded by 245/50 all-season tires, a special front fascia (with a serious underbite), the monochromatic treatment, and a chrome exhaust tip.Total: $1995. Together with the stout (Pilot and Odyssey-sourced) Honda engine that comes standard with the AWD V-6 model, the VUE Red Line is an SUV that can be maneuvered farther off-road than you'd imagine--although we sometimes had the feeling that a reel from "The Fast and the Furious" had gotten mixed into "Lawrence of Arabia."

While the others in this test--to varying degrees--steer, brake, and accelerate competently on the road, the Saturn elbows you to strap on Mr. Toad's goggles. When a corner approaches, you don't just estimate the steering angle you'll need and approximately when to apply it; you're invited to calculate an exact mental trajectory, dot by dot, from entry to apex to exit. The brakes, much like the Equinox's, have a good solid feel when you start to tap into them.

The VUE shares the Equinox's feather-effort, electrically assisted steering, which is so over- assisted that you wonder why it doesn't go all the way and steer itself. Yet it's interesting to note how the Saturn's stiffer suspension presents this steering in a much better light. For instance, in the middle of a long bend, the two vehicles probably have very similar steering angles and efforts. But the VUE's tightly tied-down chassis means you can inject much subtler steering motions entering and exiting it. There is a ride penalty here, but that's what often comes with such a marked increase in handling prowess.

2004 Saturn VUE AWD Red Line cont...

Oddly enough, the reluctance our Red Line's tires had for off-road adventuring probably saved its understructure from the sort of hammering the Chevy Equinox's better off-road tires invited. Frequently, our team would start off for a distant point of interest, trundle a bit, and then decide it might be wise to park the Saturn. Then we'd ramble a bit farther and park the taller Chevy, finishing the venture packed into the Escape and Santa Fe.

What separated the stopping locations of the VUE and Equinox (which rolls on a 5.9-inch-longer version of the same platform) was the Saturn's lower height. But what specifically parked them was concern about a particularly low-hanging (and blunt-faced) chassis box section that locates the rear suspension's trailing links. Both vehicles sustained evidence of repeated impacts exactly there, removing the paint from the Saturn's and positively puckering the Chevy's.

Of the quartet, the VUE Red Line was, to be perfectly honest, the only genuine performance grin-maker on the tarmac. Our test numbers bear that out, with a 0-to-60 best of 7.4 seconds, a stopping distance from that speed of 128 feet (11 fewer than the Escape), and skidpad laps that would do a sport sedan proud (0.81 g). Basically, comparing the VUE Red Line's athleticism with the others is like dynamiting fish in the performance barrel. While the terrific Honda V-6 can be had in the VUE sans the Red Line treatment, it sure seems logical packaged with it.

At rest, however, the VUE can be less convincing. Open the door, and you'll notice that the jamb is awkwardly black-painted and sprinkled with big screw heads. Climb in, and the door pull you'll grasp is disagreeable plastic, as are the flat, nearly featureless door panels.

The design of the interior is either refreshingly unique or just plain peculiar. For those who fondly remember the Klingons, it's a homecoming. The rest of us probably will see just a jumble of forced angularity, topped off by a steering wheel that might work better in a Pontiac. It's one of those "individual" things.

Lavished in its neon paint color, the Saturn VUE Red Line looks like a full-size version of a Hot Wheels car we might've stood before, agape, as a kid. For some, it's the car for the kid in us now.

Second Place
2003 Hyundai Santa Fe 4WD GLS

After an hour or two of driving, on-road and off, we began to notice a series of quiet, two-at-a-time discussions among our testers when we'd stop to switch keys. "You know, this Hyundai is, uh, pretty good--what do you think?" Pavement or not, over hills, through dales, the Santa Fe made us blanch again and again. "Gee, this thing isn't bad."

Our eyebrows weren't raised because this is a Korean vehicle. It was because it's a devil of a bargain. At $23,589, our vehicle's base price (and final price!) included the new 195-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 (now big brother to the continuing 173-horse, 2.7-liter V-6), a five-speed automatic transmission (with a manumatic shift slot), ABS, traction control, and loads more, including of course the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. It reads like a giant misprint, doesn't it? And, frankly, we can't exactly tell where Hyundai is compromising to whittle down the price like this.

On the road, the Hyundai's strength is, well, its strength. Not that it's fast (9.5 seconds to 60), but the engine's urge is nicely ladled over the rev range. And it's deployed with a full-throttle roar that's at least less harried than the Ford's.

Bend the Santa Fe into a lane change, and the steering reports an abrupt ramp-up in effort as you rotate it off-center. A subtle quirk. Less subtle is the tire's cornering noise (or howl, depending on speed), which can be dialed up and down as if the steering wheel were a giant volume knob. In hard cornering, this rises to a genuine wail--perhaps in despair of the tires' modest grip, evident in the Santa Fe's low skidpad (0.69 g) and slalom (57.8 mph) numbers. In normal driving, though, this isn't an issue.

However, an ever-present driving deficit is the brake feel. It's not apparent in the Santa Fe's emergency-stopping distance (which is right in there with the Escape and Equinox at 136 feet), but the softness of the pedal can lose you valuable fractions of a second during any brake application. We also noticed a slight pulsing in the pedal after a few downhill brake applications (sometimes indicative of warping). But it seemed to disappear after they'd cooled.

2003 Hyundai Santa Fe 4WD GLS cont...

While the Santa Fe's overstyled exterior seems simply dated, the dash is a convoluted sight to behold, a roiling sea of plastic. It's as if you squeezed Play-Doh between your fingers, painted it grey, and added gauges. The seat cloth drew our attention, too, not due to any unattractiveness, but because it just seems curiously antiquated (ours was a tough dark weave speckled with tiny flecks of green and blue--what we used to see in Japanese cars about 20 years ago).

These seats, by the way, offered by far the firmest foam of our group, almost as if they were tautly inflated with high-pressure air. At first sitting, it feels like a competition's going on to see whether the seat will shape to you or you'll shape to the seat, but over hundreds of miles, they somehow proved entirely comfortable. And like the Ford's, you fold the Santa Fe's rear seats by first flipping their bottom cushions up and then tipping the backs down. In the Santa Fe, though, the result is less successful, as the seatbacks resist folding flat causing a ramp in the cargo floor.

Although the Santa Fe must be a dream come true to the squeaky penny-pinchers among us, it doesn't take a bloodhound to detect the weak point in its economics--mileage. At 17 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, the Hyundai loses, on average, about 3 mpg to its rivals (although its tank carries three additional gallons, keeping its range comparable). It's interesting to note that the Escape--equipped with a lowly four-speed transmission--betters the economy of the Santa Fe despite the Hyundai's extra gear.

The Santa Fe is awfully impressive, however. Given a contemporary exterior, a tranquilized interior, and improved mileage, it could easily be the SUV to beat next time around.

First Place
2005 Chevrolet Equinox AWD LT

This is a tricky choice to explain. Like the beauty-contest winner whose smile reveals a particle of food in her teeth, the Equinox is blessed with prodigious charm and grace--but there's an aspect of it that causes you to roll your eyes.

The bit of spinach stuck between the Equinox's front teeth is its electrically assisted steering. It's hard to recall a steering system with less feedback, a slower ratio, or more over-assisted effort. It's so off-putting that it threatens to detract from any of the Equinox's other driving qualities, a shame considering these include a competent 9.1-second 0-to-60-mph time, emergency-stopping distances that better those of the Escape or Santa Fe, and a nicely sensitive brake pedal. But the Equinox's strongest appeal really isn't about performance at all; it's the repeated bull's-eyes it tallies in design and styling.

And that starts with its interior space packaging. Uniquely in this comparo, the Equinox features a nifty sliding rear seat that can be redeployed fore and aft by eight full inches--a boon to interior-space versatility. While the mechanism itself can be a struggle to operate (puzzling, given that plenty of moms likely will be drawn to the Equinox), the option to either provide generous legroom to rear adults or reduce it for children (adding cargo space) is simply smart. Smart, too, is the forward-folding front-passenger seat (shared with the VUE) that allows the Equinox to swallow, for instance, lengths of PVC piping that would otherwise have to be lashed to the roof rack.

The Equinox is as smart-looking as it is smart-functioning. Its exterior design is an impeccable piece of functional sculpture, from its clean new-face Chevrolet nose to its well-proportioned flanks to its crisp taillights. Handsome. Compared with the others, it has a uniquely alert, slightly forward-leaning posture.

Inside, it's a knockout, too. Where the Escape's interior is a study in truckish utility, the Santa Fe's in exuberant overdesign, and the Saturn's in Goth alternative angularity, the Equinox's is clean, crisp, and elegant. It shares a tasteful design vocabulary with high-end consumer electronic products; Apple's beautiful flat-panel monitors come to mind.

2005 Chevrolet Equinox AWD LT cont...

For instance, the simple thin molding surrounding the speedometer and tach (a detail you'll look at often) is thoughtfully shaped; black, soft-touch rotary knobs punctuate the silver-treatment center stack. Surrounding the shifter is a convenient nonslip tray, an ideal perch for a cell-phone.

Actually, this tray resides where the shift position indicator normally is, requiring its relocation to the bottom of the center stack, where it illuminates from left to right as you shift the transmission out of park.

A demerit for the Equinox--but really one for all our competitors--is the downsized dimensions of the driver and front-passenger seats. Actually, there's an interesting visual sleight-of-hand happening here: When you first glance at the seats, which are in correct proportion with the rest of the interior, they look full-size. But look again: They're actually about 7/8th scale. After settling into the driver's seat, your left leg (which is usually idle) easily spills off the bottom cushion's side (exacerbated in the Equinox by its particularly soft foam). Another oddity is the massiveness of the Equinox's horse-blinder A-pillars, wider even than the Saturn's.

Punching in at a base price of $24,900 (including a multiplicity of common standard features) and with such options as OnStar ($820), leather seats ($545), and XM Satellite Radio ($335), the Equinox represents a major upshift for Chevrolet's entry-SUV model--and an impressive feat of smart packaging and tasteful design at a sensible price. Food particle and all.


Cargo Capabilities







TEST DATA
 2005 Chevrolet Equinox AWD LT2005 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4WD2003 Hyundai Santa Fe 4WD GLS2004 Saturn VUE AWD Red Line
Acceleration, sec to mph
0-30 mph3.03.52.92.5
0-40 mph4.65.14.73.7
0-50 mph6.67.46.95.5
0-60 mph9.110.69.57.4
0-70 mph12.813.913.19.5
0-80 mph17.2 17.016.613.6
0-90 mph -- --25.718.3
1/4 mile, sec @ mph16.8 @ 81.217.4 @ 80.716.9 @ 80.815.5 @ 86.3
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft134139136128
600-ft slalom, mph 60.960.557.864.0
200-ft skidpad, g0.760.720.690.81
MT fig-eight, sec @ avg g28.9 @ 0.5629.8 @ 0.52 29.9 @ 0.5228.0 @ 0.60
Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph2000200020001600
Consumer Info
On sale in U.S.CurrentlyCurrentlyCurrentlyCurrently
Base price incl dest$24,900$26,030$23,589$24,535
Price as tested$27,875$27,615$23,589$29,070
Airbags Dual front Dual front, front and rear head curtainDual front, front-sidesDual front
Stability/traction controlNo/noNo/noYes/noNo/no
Basic warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles10 yrs/100,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Roadside assist period3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles5 yrs/unlimited miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
EPA mpg, city/hwy19 / 2518 / 23 (est)17 / 2119 / 25
MT observed mpg, avg19.418.217.117.9
Range, miles, city/hwy315 / 415288/268 323 / 399310 / 408
Recommended fuelUnleaded regularUnleaded regular Unleaded regularUnleaded regular