This is a good point to momentarily turn down the volume on our lunch conversation for a quick chat about how we've gotten here. Why, one might ask (I, in this case), does anyone buy a two-wheel-drive version of a vehicle theoretically conceived of as a light-duty all-roader?

Well, say you're a frugal Sunbelter. Snow is something you point at, puzzled, watching the Weather Channel. What could be better than a Civic, Corolla, Sentra, Aura, or Impreza sedan rejiggered to provide a lookout-tower road perspective, ground clearance to hurtle truck-tire carcasses, and a garden-shed trunk in back to haul away those Home Depot items? At something like $1500 below the stickers of their AWD brethren, those would seem to be four good reasons.

After one evaluation lap, it's evident that, in terms of personality, our five 'utes are driving off in five different directions. That's despite a host of dimensional similarities. Check the specs: Three inches separate the herd in length (about the length of an index finger, not very much); 2.4 percent covers the gap between least and most horsepower (lowest: the CR-V's and RAV4's 166, highest: the Nissan's and Subaru's 170).

However, the chief technical factor fissuring this compact 'ute Pangea probably is their transmission choices. Three of them, the RAV, VUE, and Forester, employ four-speed automatics-configurations you might remember from the last century. If you're a shifty sort, make some notes here that the VUE's box is manually controllable via shifter-mounted up and down buttons; the Forester has a toggle slot; and the RAV requires old-fashioned threading through the gear pattern.