"Cappuccinos?"Absolutely! The waiter at the Star Caf, just north of L.A. in Montrose, scribbles our order and hurries off to the espresso machine. Art St. Antoine, Ed Loh, Scott Mortara, Julia LaPalme, and I are going to need some seriously distillated java-juice to shake off our lunch-induced stupors and formulate some conclusions about these cars. Cars? Those would be the five compact SUVs we've parked nearby and are still occasionally popping and ticking to each other after pounding out evaluation loops, which have included swift climbs up Angeles Crest Highway, swifter descents, and several miles of choppy concrete freeway. Pull up a chair and listen in.
"I'll tell you, nothing leaps out at me," St. Antoine begins, graciously breaking the ice. Nothing leaps out at the rest of us, either, but then again, this is one of those situations where the leaping-from place is a lofty perch to begin with. All the vehicles here-the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Saturn VUE Green Line, and the spanking-new Subaru Forester-seem armed with arguments strong enough to melt a skeptical Antonin Scalia.
That's even after factoring in the general-admission level of the mechanical specifications we've requested: the most frugal engines available and the fewest-powered wheels you can get (our Forester, being a Subaru, is unavoidably AWD, while the CR-V and Rogue ship with a single engine choice). These are the decaf variants, if you will: all the 'ute-look without the extra cost, lower mileage, and unsprung-weight jitters. Speaking of weight and jitters, those foamy brown pools of caffeine are starting to get the upper hand on the pasta. After a few sips, Loh's eyes begin to focus: "I think the Subaru and the RAV are two of the best-handling vehicles." He looks around, expecting some small sign of agreement. Poker faces.
"You think the RAV is good-handling? The steering is awfully overboosted." St. Antoine blanches. Mortara: "I got into some of the worst understeer I've ever experienced with that thing. And I never heard a beep from the stability control." He seems mad. Whoa, boys, we did the "There Will Be Blood" parody in the last issue.
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.
Loh: "I was confused by the Honda's five-speed. If it doesn't let you manually select fourth, why have a five-speed?" St. Antoine: "You can punch up third with the button on the side of the shifter, but you can't get to fourth." What's up with that? And why is Nissan the planet's sole car company to figure out CVTs? Although our Rogue doesn't include the cool shifter paddles, you can still pop it into "low" for extra pep and all the rest of the time reap the CVT World-of-Tomorrow wonders-without the groaning and rubber-banding they typically inflict. At 8.0 seconds to 60, the Rogue's a rabbity 2.9 seconds quicker than the Saturn. If not for a middling stopping distance, it would run the table on the performance numbers.
Sometimes it takes just one or two specs to characterize a vehicle, and in the VUE Green Line's case, its width and weight are all the genetic code you need to know about it. The VUE is wide inside, its seats are wide, everything about it is wide. The bus-driver angle of the instrument pod suggests occupants who shout "Of course!" when the scratchy fast-food speaker-voice suggests supersizing lunch.
And here's a thought that ought to make you ponder: The Green Line's 3800-pound curb weight is 444 pounds-almost a quarter of a ton-greater than the trim-figured RAV4. A breakout perspective: According to sources on the Internet, offensive tackle Aaron Gibson is the heaviest player the NFL's ever known, once weighing 440 pounds. Imagine constantly hauling Mr. Gibson around in the back seat. Besides being creepy, it gives the VUE a tugboat feel. It's slow to accelerate, almost 11 seconds to 60 mph.
The silver lining is that the VUE glides over road seams and potholes with a sort of gravitational imperturbability. In corners, it doesn't fidget around. It can't. This prodigious weight is all the more reason to admire a combined EPA mileage of 27.7 mpg delivered from its belt-motor/generator-type hybrid system. And to smile, too, at tax time when you pencil in its $650 federal tax credit.
The VUE and Rogue share the hooligan trait of trading away cargo-hold functionality for the sportier looks of an angled rear. Beyond that, they're chalk and cheese, matter and anti-matter (don't let them touch).
Turning the lunch conversation volume up again: "The Rogue's handling is almost amazing given the crossover platform," continues St. Antoine, "impressive front-end grip, nice balance, and tactile steering. A lot of fun to drive, though the ride can be brutal."
Like the VUE and the Rogue, it's tempting to pair the RAV4 and CR-V as the two corporate-mindset 'utes. They're detailed-oriented. Consensus mongers. Nothing about them suggests the dice having rolled more than one tumble from their last iterations. The downside is being slightly-yaaawn (pardon me)-predictable. That's not to knock attention to detail; these two take the OSHA prize for human factors. Both have twin gloveboxes, the Honda has a flip-down tray between the front seats, both have triple-split reclining rear seats with built-in armrests, and the RAV's spare tire is attached to the swinging rear door, freeing up interior room (though at the price of partly blocking access to it). The principal ergo knocks go against the CR-V. One is its cranium-cracking door-opening to the back seat; the other, its strangely low-cut rear seatback cushion. Loh: "It makes my shoulders feel naked, like I'm wearing a sundress. Ah, you're not putting that in the story-right?" (Moi?)
And their dynamics? LaPalme: "After driving the Saturn and Forester, I got into the RAV and CR-V and thought, good gosh, there are horrible seams and bumps in this road I didn't even realize were there." St. Antoine: "The CR-V is disappointing in terms of ride. And I'm shocked at the RAV's ride. Typically, when you get into a Toyota, you expect soft and cushy." Through the back-and-forth curves, the Honda also has a peculiar squirmy thing going on: tiny gyrations deep down in its suspension joints. Worms in the bushings, maybe.
The Subaru Forester-the all-new 2009 Subaru Forester, mind you-walks off in first place in this survey because it apes almost everything the others do right and sidesteps nearly all their pratfalls. It rides like a La-Z-Boy (credit the new double A-arm rear suspension's 0.8-inch-longer travel), though it can slightly meander at times. It steers with a sweet buildup of rim forces. And unlike everything else here, affords this rare thing called "great outward vision." (Note to Nissan: That's the sensation of seeing things outside when you look over your shoulder or through the center mirror.)
Its power won't peel your toupee-its 170 horsepower is actually three fewer than last year's engine. But owing to a variety of tweaks (a new intake configuration, altered exhaust cam timing, a switch to dual mufflers), peak torque is up four pound-feet, and the rest of it is spread like thick frosting over the rev range. The most important headline, though, is the Forester's new suit of clothes. Out with REI; in with Urban Outfitters. And up in wardrobe size. The wheelbase is 3.6 inches longer, the length gains 2.9 inches, height, 3.3, width, 1.8. However, two numbers critically matter here: rear legroom, which stretches 4.3 inches, and the cargo floor that bellies 5.2 inches thanks to the new rear suspension. Some in the Forester blog community are aghast at all this, but we're up for the rescaling-as long as it doesn't dilute the Subie's chipper character. Which it doesn't.
You might be surprised to see the Rogue in second spot, but here's our reasoning: If you're hankering for a comfy, competent, and commodious baby 'ute, see above. But the Rogue is a different creature entirely, a barracuda caught in a net filled with groupers. Terrific if you match its audience demographic-and Ed Loh might be its demographic: "It's like a cool Northface backpack," he enthuses. "It's not the most functional, but it has a sporty, 'look at me! I've got a snowboard on the roof' thing going. "Loh is young and single, you understand. LaPalme, young and married, isn't buying: "Is it really 'masculine-enough' looking though?" she questions. The rest of us just think it looks kind of...French. However, there's no debating its razor performance (treacherous ride quality, aside) and value (though its cost-saving interior reflects this). Basically, we like sporty things here. Even if they do look like Renaults.
Third place goes to the CR-V, largely on the strength of its handsome interior. Smacks of a one-trick pony, but this is a really nice interior-and let's face it, that's where we spend our driving time, right? As with all Hondas, everything about the CR-V feels like it's built to tolerances alien to the hands of slapdash humans.
The Saturn VUE pops the RAV for fourth on two counts: One, its ride could stir Tempur-Pedic's patent lawyers; and two, in this era of gas-price muggings, the Green Line's combined mileage is 4.7 mpg higher than the average of the rest (although it evaporates once in maniacal magazine-test-driver mode). "What could this thing do if it weighed 440 pounds less?" St. Antoine wonders. What indeed. And what's the RAV4 lacking? Nothing really-except for a focused argument.
"Another cappuccino?" the waiter asks. No thanks. St. Antoine pays the bill, and we head back to the cars, into the afternoon traffic, and for home. Five compact sport/utes heading in five different directions-literally this time. One is velvety riding and frugal, another is X-Games gonzo, the third has an interior crafted like a Rolex, the fourth has the personality of an IBM controller. The final one? That's the winner.
1st Place Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium
Exorcized of cramped rear legroom and graceless styling, the Subie's charm becomes hard to resist.
2nd Place Nissan Rogue SL
The 'ute for the PlayStation generation. Fun and affordable-but bring a kidney belt.
3rd Place Honda CR-V EX
Quality construction and a handsome interior don't trump a busy ride and soupy handling.
4th Place Saturn VUE Green Line
Price premium isn't erased by its tax credit and better mileage, but it's fun to poke OPEC in the eye, isn't it?
5th Place Toyota RAV4
College-entrance committees are looking for more than solid SATs these days. You need a compelling story, too.
| || 2008 Honda CR-V EX || 2008 Nissan Rogue || 2008 Saturn VUE Green Line |
| POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS |
| Drivetrain layout || Front engine, FWD || Front engine, FWD || Front engine, FWD |
| Engine type || I-4, alum block/head || I-4, alum block/head || I-4, alum block/head |
| Valvetrain || DOHC, 4 valves/cyl || DOHC, 4 valves/cyl || DOHC, 4 valves/cyl |
| Displacement || 143.7 cu in/2354 cc || 151.9 cu in/2488 cc || 145.5 cu in/2384 cc |
| Compression ratio || 9.7:1 || 9.6:1 || 10.4:1 |
| Power (SAE net) || 166 hp @ 5800 rpm || 170 hp @ 6000 rpm || 167 hp @ 6500 rpm |
| Torque (SAE net) || 161 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm || 175 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm || 167 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm |
| Weight to power || 20.4 lb/hp || 19.8 lb/hp || 22.8 lb/hp |
| Transmission || 5-speed automatic || Cont variable auto || 4-speed automatic |
| Axle/final-drive ratios || 4.50:1/2.55:1 || 6.12:1/2.63:1 || 3.63:1/2.47:1 |
| Suspension, front; rear || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs anti-roll bar |
| Steering ratio || 15.7:1 || 17.0:1 || 18.5:1 |
| Turns lock-to-lock || 3 || 3.1 || 3.5 |
| Brakes, f;r || 11.7-in vented disc; 12.0-in disc, ABS || 11.8-in vented disc; 11.7-in disc, ABS || 11.7-in vented disc; 11.9-in disc, ABS |
| Wheels, f;r || 6.5 x 17 x in, cast aluminum || 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum || 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum |
| Tires, f;r || 225/65R17 102T M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/T 470 || P225/60R17 98H M+S, Dunlop Grandtrek ST20 || P225/60R17 98S M+S Goodyear Integrity |
| DIMENSIONS |
| Wheelbase || 103.1 in || 105.9 in || 106.6 in |
| Track, f/r || 61.6/61.6 in || 60.6/61.0 in || 61.4/61.8 in |
| Length x width x height || 177.9 x 71.6 x 66.1 in || 182.9 x 70.9 x 65.3 in || 180.1 x 72.8 x 66.2 in |
| Ground clearance || 7.3 in || 8.3 in || 6.9 in |
| Apprch/Depart angle || 29.0/21.5 deg || 21.8/21.7 deg || 18.2/22.7 deg |
| Turning circle || 37.8 ft || 37.4 ft || 40.0 ft |
| Curb weight || 3386 lb || 3359 lb || 3800 lb |
| Weight dist., f/r || 58/42% || 59/41% || 58/42% |
| Towing capacity || 1500 lb || 1000 lb || 1500 lb |
| Seating capacity || 5 || 5 || 5 |
| Headroom, f/r || 38.9/38.5 in || 40.4/38.3 in || 40.2/39.3 in |
| Legroom, f/r || 41.3/38.5 in || 42.5/35.3 in || 40.7/36.9 in |
| Shoulder room, f/r || 56.9/56.0 in || 55.9/53.6 in || 56.0/55.9 in |
| Cargo volume || 72.9/35.7 cu ft || 57.9/28.9 cu ft || 56.4/29.2 cu ft |
| TEST DATA - Acceleration to mph |
| 0-40 || 4.6 || 4.2 || 5.7 |
| 0-50 || 6.7 || 5.9 || 7.8 |
| 0-60 || 9.2 || 8 || 10.9 |
| 0-70 || 12.2 || 10.5 || 14.3 |
| 0-80 || 16.6 || 13.7 || 18.4 |
| Passing, 45-65 mph || 4.8 sec || 4.1 sec || 5.8 sec |
| Quarter mile || 17.0 sec @ 81.1 mph || 16.2 sec @ 86.2 mph || 18.1 sec @ 79.2 mph |
| Braking, 60-0 mph || 134 ft || 132 ft || 138 ft |
| Lateral acceleration || 0.76 g (avg) || 0.78 g (avg) || 0.74 g (avg) |
| MT figure eight || 28.8 sec @ 0.56 g (avg) || 28.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) || 29.6 sec @ 0.53 g (avg) |
| Top-gear revs @ 60 mph || 1900 rpm || 2000 rpm || 1900 rpm |
| CONSUMER INFO |
| Price as tested || $23,585 || $22,640 || $24,795 |
| Stability/traction control || Yes/yes || Yes/yes || Yes/yes |
| Airbags || Dual front, front side, f/r curtain || Dual front, front side, f/r curtain || Dual front, front side, f/r curtain |
| Basic warranty || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || 3 yrs/36,000 miles |
| Powertrain warranty || 5 yrs/60,000 miles || 5 yrs/60,000 miles || 5 yrs/60,000 miles |
| Roadside assistance || N/A || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || 5 yrs/100,000 miles |
| Fuel capacity || 15.3 gal || 15.9 gal || 19.2 gal |
| EPA city/hwy econ || 20/27 mpg || 22/27 mpg || 25/32 mpg |
| CO2 emissions || 0.86 lb/mile || 0.81 lb/mile || 0.70 lb/mile |
| MT fuel economy || 20.9 mpg || 22.2 mpg || 20.1 mpg |
| Recommended fuel || Unleaded regular || Unleaded regular || Unleaded regular |
| || 2009 Subaru Forester 2.5X Premium || 2008 Toyota RAV4 || |
| POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS |
| Drivetrain layout || Front engine, AWD || Front engine, FWD || |
| Engine type || Flat-4, alum block/heads || I-4, alum block/head || |
| Valvetrain || SOHC 4 valves/cyl || DOHC, 4 valves/cyl || |
| Displacement || 149.9 cu in/2457 cc || 144.1 cu in/2362 cc || |
| Compression ratio || 10.1:1 || 9.8:1 || |
| Power (SAE net) || 170 hp @ 6000 rpm || 166 hp @ 6000 rpm || |
| Torque (SAE net) || 170 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm || 165 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm || |
| Weight to power || 19.5 lb/hp || 20.2 lb/hp || |
| Transmission || 4-speed automatic || 4-speed automatic || |
| Axle/final-drive ratios || 4.44:1/3.08:1 || 2.92:1/ 2.98:1 || |
| Suspension, front; rear || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil, springs anti-roll bar || Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar || |
| Steering ratio || 16.5:1 || 14.4:1 || |
| Turns lock-to-lock || 3.2 || 2.8 || |
| Brakes, f;r || 11.7-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS || 10.8-in vented disc; 11.2-in disc, ABS || |
| Wheels, f;r || 7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum || 6.5 x 16 in, steel || |
| Tires, f;r || P225/55R17 95H M+S, Yokohama Geolander G95 || 215/70R16 99H Bridgestone Dueler H/T 687 || |
| DIMENSIONS |
| Wheelbase || 103.0 in || 104.7 in || |
| Track, f/r || 58.5/60.4 in || 61.4/61.4 in || |
| Length x width x height || 179.5 x 70.1 x 65.9 in || 181.1 x 71.5 x 66.3 in || |
| Ground clearance || 8.7 in || 7.5 in || |
| Apprch/Depart angle || 24.8/24.8 deg || 29.3/25.4 deg || |
| Turning circle || 34.4 ft || 34.8 ft || |
| Curb weight || 3308 lb || 3356 lb || |
| Weight dist., f/r || 55/45% || 57/43% || |
| Towing capacity || 2400 lb || 1500 lb || |
| Seating capacity || 5 || 5 || |
| Headroom, f/r || 41.6/40.4 in || 40.8/39.7 in || |
| Legroom, f/r || 43.1/38.0 in || 41.8/38.3 in || |
| Shoulder room, f/r || 56.1/55.6 in || 57.1/55.3 in || |
| Cargo volume || 68.3/33.5 cu ft || 73.0/36.4 cu ft || |
| TEST DATA - Acceleration to mph |
| 0-30 || 3.1 sec || 3.3 sec || |
| 0-40 || 4.9 || 4.8 || |
| 0-50 || 7.4 || 7 || |
| 0-60 || 9.9 || 9.5 || |
| 0-70 || 13.1 || 12.2 || |
| 0-80 || 17.9 || 16.5 || |
| Passing, 45-65 mph || 5.1 sec || 5.0 sec || |
| Quarter mile || 17.4 sec @ 78.4 mph || 17.1 sec @ 81.5 mph || |
| Braking, 60-0 mph || 129 ft || 123 ft || |
| Lateral acceleration || 0.78 g (avg) || 0.71 g (avg) || |
| MT figure eight || 28.8 sec @ 0.56 g (avg) || 30.0 sec @ 0.52 g (avg) || |
| Top-gear revs @ 60 mph || 2450 rpm || 2200 rpm || |
| CONSUMER INFO |
| Base price || $22,340 || $21,935 || |
| Price as tested || $23,140 || $21,935 || |
| Stability/traction control || Yes/yes || Yes/yes || |
| Airbags || Dual front, front side, f/r curtain || Dual front, front side, f/r curtain || |
| Basic warranty || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || |
| Powertrain warranty || 5 yrs/60,000 miles || 5 yrs/60,000 miles || |
| Roadside assistance || 3 yrs/36,000 miles || N/A || |
| Fuel capacity || 16.9 gal || 15.9 gal || |
| EPA city/hwy econ || 20/26 mpg || 21/27 mpg || |
| CO2 emissions || 0.87 lb/mile || 0.83 lb/mile || |
| MT fuel economy || 20.1 mpg || 24.5 mpg || |
| Recommended fuel || Unleaded regular || Unleaded regular || |