June 20, 2024


Automotive pure lust

Nine 2008 Compact Crossovers vs. Drummond Island

From the February 2008 issue of Car and Driver.

The mud hole didn’t look that deep. As it turned out, it was deep enough to be on a catfish farm. We did use a maple branch to gauge its depth. Okay, so maybe we didn’t get the branch all the way out there in the, uh, middle.

See, what happened was, we made an error in judgment common to off-roaders who are wet, weary, and want beer. The trail got rough—too muddy, too rocky, too vertical—but a paved road was only 1.2 miles distant. Who’d quit at that point? Especially since the only alternative was a two-hour off-road ramble in reverse. In the dark. In weather three degrees above freezing.

About 20 feet ahead of this deep catfish hole, the Mercedes-Benz GL320 CDI camera car had gotten stuck in another gooey clay hole. We took a vote and agreed to dispatch our fiercest off-roader, the Jeep Liberty, to go set it free. That’s how it was similarly torpedoed. A sunken Liberty ship.

Our plan was to subject nine of the best-known compact SUVs to a mixture of light off-roading and challenging paved roads. Destination: Drummond Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Twenty-five miles long and 15 miles wide, it is the largest freshwater island in the United States, a curious limestone escarpment dotted with cedar swamps, ridges, and prairie meadows. The island is home to 1200 full-time residents, not including bobcats, eagles, and wolves, and is the site of former Domino’s Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan’s controversial but bucolic 3000-acre resort, built in the late 1980s. We stayed next to the cabins that Pizza Man erected specially for his pals—a priest and two of his former employees, Sparky Anderson and Bo Schembechler. None of those guys showed up.

We hadn’t gathered this many soft-roaders since a snowy 2001 comparo that the Ford Escape won. Since then, the segment has exploded. “In a lackluster ’07,” noted Automotive News, “this is where the action is.” Sales of car-based SUVs climbed 23.5 percent in the first nine months of ’07. As of last fall, there existed 45 crossover nameplates, 11 more than the year before. The three hottest hot cakes? Honda’s CR-V, Ford’s Escape, and Toyota’s RAV4.

Our nine econo-ute contestants all featured four-wheel drive and stickers as close to $25,000 as we could arrange. Although Americans have thumbed their noses at wagons for years, these are, in fact, tall wagons.

None of our SUVs had a skid plate. None, apart from the Jeep and Suzuki, made more than faint claims to off-road prowess. “So how far do you want to take this?” asked our off-road guide, Craig Hoffman.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

“Let’s just take the straightest route to the nearest beer-and-burger joint,” we told him. Which is how we wound up having to return the next day with chains, come-alongs, snatch straps, a water pump with a three-inch hose, and a jacked-up Ford F-250. It took three hours, but we yanked the Benz and the Jeep back through the kind of primordial goo that would ruin an alligator. Both fired up instantly. Both continued unfazed.

“Tell me again, what magazine do you work for?” asked Hoffman.

“Women’s Wear Daily,” I informed.

Ninth Place: Jeep Liberty Limited 4×4

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

You can’t always get what you want, and what we wanted—but couldn’t locate—was a Liberty with one option only, the $445 Selec-Trac II four-wheel drive. Although this second-gen Liberty carried the steepest base and as-tested prices in this group, it remains a conveyance so squarely aimed at the segment that we couldn’t exclude it.

HIGHS: Vaultlike platform, a bull in the mud, a brand name with cachet.
LOWS: Cramped seats and footwells, too heavy, dismal fuel economy.

With its buttressed unibody, our Toledo terror felt even more solid and trucklike than the Suzuki. In fact, it was too insistent about its truckishness, what with that bolt-upright gun slit of a windshield, no dashboard, 4406 pounds of mass ( 952 more pounds than the winner of this comparo), and a trans tunnel so wide that it squeezed the front footwells into little bowling alleys. No room for a driver’s dead pedal. Neither was there room for proper seats, whose cushions were so narrow that we vowed to give up french fries. Or would those be liberty fries?

No one was comfortable in the Jeep. It was the tallest vehicle here and always felt tippy, and its springs—super compliant in the first couple inches of travel—induced uneasy yawing that, in turn, confounded its sense of straight-ahead. Steering corrections were obligatory every couple seconds. Combine that with a spongy brake pedal, a 194-foot stopping distance, and the worst engine NVH, and you have a vehicle relying too heavily on a previous reputation.

At least the SOHC 3.7-liter V-6 was a bull, offering the second-greatest power (210 horsepower) and the most torque (235 pound-feet). Throttle tip-in was smooth, too, a real plus during rock crawling. Alas, the V-6 delivered an observed 16 mpg, simply unacceptable. A fifth gear might have helped.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Of course, trolling through Drummond’s deepest and dirtiest off-road goop, all of those complaints vanished. On hand was an unbeatable 9.5 inches of ground clearance, hill-descent control, hill-start assist, ABS that knows to pulse longer in sand or gravel, zero body flex, big approach and departure angles, and a four-wheel-drive low range that multiplies engine torque 2.72 times. At which point, if the Jeep won’t climb it, just go out and buy some rappelling gear.

It’s still a real Jeep, live rear axle and all, which will warm the hearts of loyal Jamboristas. But as one editor put it, “If you want a four-wheel-drive truck, why not buy a four-wheel-drive truck?”

THE VERDICT: Happy in the mountains of Montana, unhappy on errands in Minneapolis.

2008 Jeep Liberty Limited 4×4
210-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 4406 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,785/$27,330
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 65/31 cu ft
Transfer case: Full-time 2-speed with auto rear-axle engagement
Ground clearance: 9.5 in
60 mph: 9.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.0 @ 81 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 194 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.67 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 16 mpg

Eighth Place: Hyundai Tucson Limited 4WD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The Tucson Limited is an exemplar of the Hyundai credo: a whole lot of stuff for a small pile o’ cash. Among other amenities, our tester came fitted with leather seats, XM satellite radio, alloy wheels, fog lights, a heated 10-way driver’s seat, six metal tie-down anchors for cargo, a composite cargo floor that’s easy to wipe clean, a 200-watt stereo, a flip-up backlight, and a twin-cam V-6. And then there’s Hyundai’s five-year/60,000-mile warranty.

But that’s where the excitement more or less hits a brick wall. Despite its V-6, the Tucson was the slowest to 60 mph and 100 mph and spent the most time lollygagging through the quarter-mile. Part of the problem was dilatory throttle tip-in—which at least made for silky step-off—and part of the problem was the four-speed automatic, which was apparently programmed in geriatric mode. On uphill grades at interstate speeds—where this vehicle, by the way, whipped up a hurricane of wind noise, tying it with the loudest in the group—the transmission hunted like a springer spaniel.

HIGHS: Standard amenities galore, cushy ride, seamless all-wheel drive system.
LOWS: Lethargic in all its moves, major understeer.

What’s more, the steering offers vague turn-in and goes leaden during hard cornering. The suspension needs to be stiffened to reduce body wallow, which might also mitigate the way-too-early understeer. And an upward bump in fit and finish would help.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

On the other hand, headroom is expansive, fore-and-aft visibility is superb, the turn-signal and wiper stalks move with Lexus-like precision, and the Tucson surprised us by its ability to hump along Drummond Island’s Jeep Jamboree trail. Its approach and departure angles are greater than the Jeep’s, and its on-demand all-wheel drive reacts instantly and can be locked manually into a 50/50 split. We about fainted when the Tucson, attached to a snatch strap, yanked our high-centered Jeep Liberty off a hummock.

In the end, the Hyundai felt old and too willing to remind that it’s an entry-level ute, making no attempt to trade on any emotional attraction. Noted one editor, “It seems aimed at folks who frequent bingo parlors.”

THE VERDICT: Looks old, feels old, could do with a jolt of adrenaline.

2008 Hyundai Tucson Limited 4×4
173-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3700 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,505/$24,665
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 66/23 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time with auto rear-axle engagement and manual lock
Ground clearance: 7.2 in
60 mph: 10.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.7 @ 79 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 186 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.73 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg

Seventh Place: Ford Escape XLT AWD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

For 2008, the home office in Dearborn has freshened the Escape’s exterior and interior, although you’d want to be holding before-and-after Polaroids to pinpoint the differences. You can’t blame Ford. How much stuff would you change if you’d sold a million Escapes since its introduction in 2001?

HIGHS: Open and airy cockpit, an accomplished long-distance cruiser.
LOWS: Needs more isolation from road noise, could use a fifth gear.

The Escape’s ride is firm, with minimal body roll, yet road imperfections are nicely filtered. The electric power steering is light if somewhat vague off-center. The two-tone seats are firm, high, and bolstered in all the right places. The interior surfaces are cheerful, airy, and pleasing to the touch. Even though it’s an illusion, the cabin feels as big as a gymnasium—probably a function of the super-thin A-, B-, C-, and D-pillars in tandem with a large backlight.

Off-road, the Escape proved more agile than we predicted, in part because its wheelbase is as short as the Honda’s and in part because of its good departure angle. In the sippy holes, it was hindered only by its rear trailing links, whose leading edges were adept at snagging the tops of sticks, sod, and parts that fell off the other SUVs. At day’s end, the undercarriage abaft looked like it had just plowed the lower 40.

Although Ford claims the Escape’s freshening included a major load of extra sound-deadening materials, we wish it had gone further. What’s more, back when this SUV was introduced, its rear seat was among the most comfortable for actual human adults. Since then, the Honda, the Saturn, and the Toyota have all surpassed it, and the skimpy fabric on the Ford’s seatbacks barely conceals the metal headrest posts.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Still, all major control relationships are bang-on. “Everything seems well thought out,” said one editor. “I could cruise all day in this.” Added another, “It’s such an honest SUV—no unnecessary gewgaws, just the essentials to get the job done.” Too bad the redo didn’t include a fifth gear and more effective brakes.

THE VERDICT: Honest and attractive, but the freshening didn’t go far enough.

2008 Ford Escape XLT AWD
200-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3540 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,485/$24,485
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 66/29 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time with auto rear-axle engagement
Ground clearance: 8.1 in
60 mph: 9.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.9 @ 83 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 198 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.68 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Sixth Place: Saturn Vue XE AWD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The new Vue, developed in Germany by Opel, is so much better than its predecessor that GM might well have considered changing its name. For one thing, the suspension tuning is now Teutonic—supple, yet with fine path control and no untamed wheel motions. For another, the ’08 Vue looks luxurious inside. Its faux-chrome and carbon-fiber trim bits feel rich to the touch, the amber IP backlighting looks Euro classy, and there’s been no attempt—inside or out—at styling gimmickry.

HIGHS: Luxo interior, soothing interstate cruiser, Euro suspension tuning.
LOWS: Daggerlike lumbar supports, smaller inside than it looks.

You sit tall in the saddle, with vast headroom and an unobstructed view of the world—a room with a Vue. We did, however, bitch about the seats’ super-aggressive lumbar supports, and we also complained about the big steering wheel, whose squared-off inner lip resists your grip. But the platform proved solid and rattle-free, and everyone agreed the Vue was as comfy as the Escape on long interstate hauls.

Nor was this Saturn humiliated off-road, although its poor approach angle resulted in the dismemberment of its chin spoiler. Otherwise, GM’s all-wheel-drive system was quick to transfer up to half of the pushrod V-6’s 222 horses—the most in this group—to the rear wheels. That power, by the way, pulled the Vue to 30 mph sooner than any of its competitors and placed it only 0.2 second behind the Nissan on the journey to 60 mph—all of it accomplished with minimal engine or road thrash. Combine that with the only six-speed in the group, not to mention the 181-foot stopping distance from 70 mph, and this Saturn was sure to swagger into victory circle, yes?

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Well, no. This “compact” ute weighs a shameful 4104 pounds, making it the second heaviest of our trucklets. So it must be bigger, right? Wrong again. Riding on a wheelbase identical to its forebear’s, the new Vue’s extra lard doesn’t result in more passenger or luggage space, and neither does it allow for a third-row seat. In fact, the Vue offers the least cargo volume behind the front seats. And then there’s its observed 17 mpg, the predictable outcome of a largish V-6 attached to two-plus tons of anything.

Customers who scrutinize econo-SUVs also scrutinize fuel prices. If gas reaches $4 per gallon, it may well be, “Adieu, Vue.”

THE VERDICT: A handsome lad who is 400 pounds overweight.

2008 Saturn Vue XE AWD
222-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4104 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,570/$24,800
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 56/29 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time with auto rear-axle engagement
Ground clearance: 7.9 in
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.6 @ 83 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 181 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg

Fifth Place: Suzuki Grand Vitara 4WD XSport

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Among our soft-roaders, only the Jeep and the Suzuki felt genuinely trucklike, partly because both employ extra buttressing in their unibody construction. The Grand Vitara’s short windshield, thin A-pillars, high seating position, 3000-pound towing capacity, and taut ride encouraged that perception. Truckish or not, it held its own on Drummond Island’s twisty paved roads, despite more body roll than we’d prefer. Its steering, in particular, was a boon, telegraphing road textures and available grip.

HIGHS: Strong in the muck, macho styling, as solid as a tank.
LOWS: Cramped interior, noisy at idle, somber and soulless cockpit.

Although the Suzuki resembles some sort of macho Freightliner, with a way-too-dark bad-boy interior to match, its cockpit dimensions aren’t vast. Among our nine sport-utes, the Grand Vitara offered the least front interior volume, the second-worst rear volume, and a back seat that was shoulder-to-shoulder misery for three.

Powered by a 185-hp twin-cam V-6, which was far louder at idle than any other engine here, our Suzuki was as slow to 60 mph as the Jeep. But the Grand Vitara is a big brute that feels as if it were pushing a lot of atmosphere. By the time it realized 100 mph, it had fallen 3.9 seconds behind the Liberty, and at interstate speeds, the Suzuki’s transmission often felt obliged to kick down a gear or two on barely perceptible upgrades.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Off-road, the Grand Vitara was pure Viagra, nearly as solid and capable as the Jeep, despite 1.6 fewer inches of ground clearance. Below the HVAC controls looms a big rotary dial that engages neutral, 4wd high, 4wd high lock, or 4wd low lock. In neutral, you can flat-tow the Suzuki behind your RV without racking up odo miles or spinning any gears. In low gear, with the center diff tied down, the Grand Vitara inched effortlessly over boulders and logs, placating those editors who are insecure about being seen driving anything that smacks of “mommy mobile.

THE VERDICT: A mini SUV with the heart of a Hummer.

2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara 4WD XSport
185-hp V-6, 5-speed automatic, 3728 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,399/$24,399
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 67/24 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time/2-speed
Ground clearance: 7.9 in
60 mph: 9.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.1 @ 80 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 178 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.68 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 17 mpg

Fourth Place: Mitsubishi Outlander SE AWD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

This second-gen Outlander now can be had with a 168-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four rather than the previously standard V-6. The four-banger is mated only to a CVT rather than a six-speed automatic. To placate traditionalists, Mitsubishi installed a pair of paddle shifters on the steering column. They work eagerly and instantly, but it still seems goofy to gin up fake gears for a gearless system. We mostly used the paddles in downshift mode to summon some engine braking.

HIGHS: Clever liftgate, carlike on pavement, hauls a lot o’ stuff.
Cheap-looking interior, gritty engine noise, vague steering.

Our Outlander was shod with the lowest-profile, highest-performance tires in this group, so it was no shock that it logged the fastest lane change and was almost as capable on the skidpad as the Honda and Nissan. On twisty roads, it was agile, willing, and took a confident set, although its steering wasn’t nearly as communicative as the Nissan’s, which did damage to its fun-to-drive rating. The Mitsu nonetheless felt extraordinarily carlike, in part because it was as serene as the Toyota at idle and also the quietest at full whack. Despite those encouraging sound-pressure levels, the engine evinced an omnipresent grittiness that drew attention. And because the CVT can allow the engine to hang at WOT for longish spells, unkind comments ensued.

The Outlander offered the most cargo storage behind its split rear seat, whose seatbacks, by the way, can be set to recline at any angle. It is available with a third-row seat. And it offers a two-piece liftgate, the lower section of which swings out flat, like a pickup truck’s tailgate. Two 220-pounders can sit on that flap.

The Mitsubishi’s chief flaw was its dour and dull cockpit, chockablock with plasticky, cheap-looking surfaces that we deemed unacceptable in a $25,000 vehicle.

You can manually lock the front and rear axles, and there’s plenty of ground clearance, but the Outlander tiptoed timidly off-road, partly because of its street-biased tires, partly because of its worst-in-test departure angle, but mostly because it felt fragile.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The Mitsu performed all tasks satisfactorily but none spectacularly, usually not a recipe for showroom stardom. Yet in the first 10 months of 2007, Outlander sales nearly tripled over the same period in 2006.

THE VERDICT: Crisp interior styling but dynamically bland.

2008 Mitsubishi Outlander SE 4WD
168-hp inline-4, CVT, 3654 lb
Base/as-tested price: $25,150/$25,150
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 73/39 cu ft
Transfer case: Part or full time with auto rear-axle engagement and manual lock
Ground clearance: 8.5 in
60 mph: 9.3 sec
1/4 mile: 17.3 @ 83 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Third Place: Nissan Rogue SL AWD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Truth is, there’s no econo-ute that reliably twists your lips into a smile whenever you happen upon a stretch of Nürburgring-like tarmac. But the Sentra-based Nissan Rogue at least comes closest.

The Rogue emerged as the sports car of the group, posting the quickest sprints to 60 and 100 mph and logging the briefest quarter-mile, backed by the highest trap speed. It was tied with the Toyota for best 50-to-70-mph passing potential. It was tied with the Mitsubishi for greatest top speed. It delivered the best brake feel. And no other test ute surpassed its skidpad grip.

HIGHS: Go-get-’em handling, steering, and acceleration.
LOWS: Grim rear visibility, nervous off-road, somber interior.

Everywhere we nosed it, the Rogue felt light, nimble, and better planted than anything in the group, and its steering was the most carlike, with terrific on-center feel, perfect heft, and a sense of straight-ahead matched only by the Toyota’s. That the Nissan topped our fun-to-drive category surprised no one—and all for the lowest base price.

So, uh, shouldn’t the performance-biased player win a C/D comparo? Well, not this time. The Rogue’s mandatory CVT powertrain is loud at WOT, where it drones for seconds at a time if your right foot is heavy. Strangely, it makes up for that failing by being the quietest at 70 mph, and its 170-horse four-banger was judged as vibrationless as the Honda’s and Toyota’s.

But the Rogue’s funereal gray and black interior was a Brian De Palma dream come true, and its thick D-pillar and tiny backlight darkened the cabin and restricted visibility. Off-road, moreover, the Nissan felt as out of place as the Mitsubishi, wanting to sprint ahead rather than crawl. Still, its front and rear axles can be locked in a 50/50 power split at launch, and the Rogue concluded our nature bash muddied but not bloodied.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The Nissan is as narrow as any of its colleagues here and lower than any of them. It weighs within 54 pounds of the lightest. And it eschews a big-horsepower V-6 in favor of an inline-four. Yet it gets the job done with speed and panache. Saturn, Jeep, Ford—are you listening?

THE VERDICT: A stunning example of extracting the most from the least.

2008 Nissan Rogue SL AWD
170-hp inline-4, CVT, 3508 lb
Base/as-tested price: $22,615/$24,925
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 58/29 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time 2-speed with auto rear-axle engagement and manual lock
Ground clearance: 8.3 in
60 mph: 8.2 sec
1/4 mile: 16.4 @ 86 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Second Place: Honda CR-V EX 4WD

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Our cynical editors rarely reach agreement on anything, including the depth of mud puddles, but every single voter simply gushed over this third-gen CR-V’s interior. Its cabin is airy, with 360-degree visibility. It feels tall, inviting, and vast, and the materials are expensively grained and stylishly matched—no jarring transitions from any one color or surface to another. The floor is as flat as a double-wide’s. And we’re pleased that the liftgate is finally hinged at the top, allowing loading from the left or right while shading you from the elements.

HIGHS: Amazing fit and finish, a cockpit as cheerful as an Easter hat.
LOWS: Odd-looking nose, could use a manual lock for the rear axle.

Moreover, the front seats are winners—firm cushions that are just the right length, captain’s-chair armrests that somehow never obstruct the movement of your elbows, and seatbacks that gently wrap around your upper torso, holding you in place without making you feel trapped. The gauges are clear, the center stack is friendly, the steering wheel telescopes, there are storage bins galore, and the shifter clicks with authority.

Although the CR-V is tied with the Escape for the shortest wheelbase, it is capacious behind the front seats, and it matches the Toyota for the most comfortable rear seat for two or three riders. The split rear seat reclines and offers fore-and-aft adjustment, and a center rider can stretch out, stashing his feet under the collapsible center console.

We loved the CR-V’s dead-accurate, telepathic steering, even though it was a titch heavier than the Toyota’s. The ride-and-handling trade-off proved perfect. On pavement, the CR-V responded instantly—but never nervously—to all inputs. It offered the agility of a Civic with the solidity and structure of something heavier and more expensive.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

In the end, the Honda lost to the Toyota—by the tiniest of margins—for two reasons. First, its new nose looks like Jimmy Durante’s hanging off the front of a golf cart. And second, this Honda—like the Saturn and Ford—decides on its own when to rotate the rear wheels. Off-road, the transfer case did, in fact, send power astern quickly, but there’s nothing like the confidence that accrues from manually locking the axles before you start climbing a mossy limestone ledge covered in what our guide said was “more than a little deer snot.”

THE VERDICT: Dynamically a TKO. A tsunami of quality, verve, and value.

2008 Honda CR-V EX 4WD
166-hp inline-4, 5-speed automatic, 3500 lb
Base/as-tested price: $24,785/$24,785
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 73/36 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time with auto rear-axle engagement
Ground clearance: 7.3 in
60 mph: 9.1 sec
1/4 mile: 17.1 @ 81 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 181 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

First Place: Toyota RAV4 4×4

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Last year, a RAV4 landed on our 5Best Trucks list, although it was the V-6 rocket-ship version that swayed our delinquent hearts. In this test, we rounded up the cheapest, down-and-dirtiest four-wheel-drive four-banger we could find, sporting the lowest as-tested price. It was fitted with stamped-steel wheels and plastic hubcaps, for God’s sake. Yet it still claimed the big trophy, which, at C/D, looks a lot like a six-pack of Heineken.

We once asked a senior Toyota engineer if he’d grown accustomed to winning so many annual awards. “Uh, no,” he said.

HIGHS: Spacious back seat, Toyota ergonomics, Toyota resale value.
LOWS: Noisy at WOT, needs a fifth gear, ought to come with alloy wheels.

Climb into the spacious RAV4 and the first thing you notice is the organic, two-tier dash—radio in the balcony, HVAC controls in the lobby—whose swollen protuberances at first look Jetson-ish but in fact break up what would otherwise be a dull sea of plastic. The seats look expensive and are comfortable for hours. Same with the back seat, where the Honda and the Toyota—the two lightest vehicles in this group—tied for two- and three-man comfort.

Ergonomics? Tied with the Honda. Fit and finish? Ditto. Observed fuel economy? Two mpg better than anything in the group. Want a third-row seat? Toyota offers one. The RAV4 became the limo of our group.

Off-road, the Toyota didn’t offer much ground clearance, but its approach angle was better than the Jeep’s, and a push of a button locked the front and rear axles, which then stayed locked up to 25 mph.

The Toyota’s ride was a titch firmer than the Honda’s, but both handled with effortless competence—like cars, you might say—and the RAV4’s linear steering evinced the sort of precision that no one would expect in this segment.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Still, the Toyota wasn’t perfect. Although its transmission was a gem—especially notable for its flawless downshifts—it would have been even better with a fifth gear. At full throttle, the engine was tied with the Nissan’s for emitting the most racket. The plastic-cladded A-pillars might better have been swathed in the cloth we so admired on the door inserts. And the liftgate’s glass should have flipped up.

Otherwise, this is a mellifluous medley of structure, drivetrain, road manners, and carry-all practicality—an SUV you could justify to Ralph Nader. Notice, though, that the RAV4 defeated the CR-V by only two points. Statistically speaking, you might call that a tie. We wouldn’t argue.

THE VERDICT: Chassis, drivetrain, and body all speaking the same language.

2008 Toyota RAV4 4×4
166-hp inline-4, 4-speed automatic, 3454 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,185/$23,743
Cargo volume, behind front/rear: 73/36 cu ft
Transfer case: Full time with auto rear-axle engagement and manual lock
Ground clearance: 7.5 in
60 mph: 8.8 sec
1/4 mile: 16.9 @ 82 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 179 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg

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