In May 2008, the last time we compared the crop of naturally aspirated four-cylinder compact crossovers, the all-new third-generation Subaru Forester handily conquered the likes of Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Saturn VUE, and Toyota RAV4. Fluke? Hardly. The small-but-stout Subaru only went on to snatch our coveted 2009 Sport/Utility of the Year award.
Since those victories, however, the Forester has happily basked in its glory and evolved, um, not at all. Under the sheetmetal reside the same 2.5-liter, 170-horse flat-four, the same four-speed automatic, and the same AWD system. Conversely, the crossover field has since been recast with new and updated players. The RAV4, for instance, received a power bump from 166 horses to 179, and the CR-V's pony count rose from 166 to 180. Then there are the new kids on the block: GM's fraternal twins, Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain, and Hyundai's second-gen Tucson. The General's offspring get 182 direct-injected horses and up to 32 mpg highway, while the stylish South Korean answers with 176 ponies and as much as 31 mpg.
To see which crossover now sits atop this feverish fray, we brought back our residing champ and pitted it against the more muscular CR-V, the all-new Terrain, and the promising Tucson. The Rogue failed to prevail in the last go-'round and received no significant changes, so we did not extend an invitation. And, of course, 2009 was the last year for the Saturn VUE. As for the Equinox and RAV4, we wanted both, but neither was available in four-cylinder/all-wheel-drive guise. Perhaps next time.
Until then, let's focus on this contest. After all, the winner may very well surprise you.