What a great time to be in the market for a mini SUV. In the past several years, offerings in the segment have improved dramatically, to the point that, for many consumers, a larger vehicle is pointless. We took six of the current crop (the Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra, Suzuki XL-7 and the Toyota RAV4) and put them through their paces for a week. We found each of them to be complete vehicles each with definite virtues and each with shortcomings. And each is different from the rest, like strangers.
To evaluate them, we drove them on city streets; pounded them down a sandy, rutted, rock-strewn and hilly off-road trail; and sped them along twisty blacktop through a meandering canyon. Just for good measure, we also took them to our test track and conducted instrumented testing on each one.
We then poked and prodded the interiors, jostled and knocked on the exterior panels and examined their design with the eyes of art critics. We were thorough. Heck, one of our editors was even seen kicking a tire until, derided by the rest of our staff, he slunk sheepishly away.
In case you were wondering, we define a mini or small SUV as any sport-utility vehicle with less than 75 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity, that is, with the backseats folded down or removed. However, for this test, we also decided to include the new Hyundai Santa Fe, with its 78 cubes of maximum space, on the basis of price competitiveness.
Two years ago, we ran this test and the Nissan Xterra won. The winner of the last comparison test is always invited back to defend its title. When selecting its opposition for this comparison, our criteria were that each vehicle had to be either new (Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, Suzuki XL-7, Hyundai Santa Fe) or have undergone a redesign or significant change since the last test (Toyota RAV4). Incidentally, the Nissan Xterra has had an exterior facelift and also is now available with a supercharged V6. Because we tested it in June, and it did not go on sale in this guise until August, we were loaned a pre-production model for our test. And what about the all-new Mazda Tribute? Well, because it's the twin of the Ford Escape (save some interior and exterior design elements), we considered it redundant to include it. And where's the popular Honda CR-V? Despite its popularity, it was in our last test and didn't finish first (it was second). And, although a redesigned 2002 model goes on sale this November, we couldn't get a sample from Honda in time for our comparison test. Since then, however, we have driven one. If you'd like to see how the CR-V compares to the competition, you'll have to wait until our next test.
So, which car won? It was close. So close that you'll want to read this whole test because you may decide that your list of vehicle pros and cons doesn't match ours. We guarantee this much: At the end of it, you'll be a mini SUV expert.
Sixth Place - 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7
The Grand Vitara XL-7 is the SUV Suzuki should have built years ago. It's good-looking and a good overall performer, but we wish the automaker would make it prettier inside. Also, ditch those running boards. And eighty-six the third-row seat, too.
The XL-7 is based on the Grand Vitara, but it has a 12.6-inch longer wheelbase, allowing Suzuki to offer it with a third-row split folding seat, which is nearly useless unless you have family members with spaghetti legs. The extra length does make for a more commodious cabin for front and second-row passengers, however, when the third-row seat is in use, the second-row seats are more cramped.
Another benefit of the XL-7's longer wheelbase is that it absorbs rough spots on pavement better. We also enjoy how well the Suzuki communicates road feel to the driver, though our driving experience was somewhat sullied by the XL-7's slow steering. If it were tightened just a hair, we'd have had a lot more fun with it.
Our test-track driver loves the XL-7's handling. He says: "The steering, chassis and suspension all work together in harmony for some killer times through the cones and an excellent and predictable handling vehicle."
The XL-7's 2.7-liter V6 engine generates 170 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, but it doesn't always feel like it there's plenty of initial grunt, but it gets wheezy at higher revs. The four-speed automatic tranny may be part of the problem, but a manual transmission that takes better advantage of the engine's power is available.
We were impressed with the XL-7's performance off-road. When the going got tough, we used the floor-mounted transfer case lever, switching from two-wheel drive to 4WD high on-the-fly. In 4WD, the XL-7 chewed through the loose gravel with sturdy confidence. We had a lot of kicks drifting it around sandy bends, always confident of where its limits lay.
In 4WD-low it felt like a little tank, but it was severely hampered by the bolt-on running boards that bottomed out continuously. And even worse, they were no help getting in and out of the vehicle. Take those bad boys off and the XL-7 would be about equal to the Nissan Xterra off-road.
The Suzuki's interior is durable and serviceable, but dominated by cheap-looking hard plastics. The push-button and slider climate controls are archaic and should have been replaced when the last Bush left office. Also, for a vehicle oriented toward families, the XL-7 is stingy with storage space. There is no center console, and the door bins are too narrow for anything more than a couple of CDs.
We also wonder about the Suzuki's integrity. Its substance became suspect when we closed a door. Instead of a satisfying and reassuring clunk, the XL-7 delivers more of a tinny clank. Although Suzuki claims it beefed up the body structure for safety, durability and noise control, the XL-7 still seems unsubstantial. And on rutted trails, the cabin and underpinnings buzz, rattle and shake more than a one-man band, emphasizing the flimsy feeling.
We're impressed, however, with the rear air-conditioning system, and the leather upholstery is as good as anything in this class.
Suzuki's insistence on including a third-row seat in the XL-7 results in serious packaging problems. There's plenty of luggage space with the rearmost seat folded, but it's severely limited when the third-row seat is in use. Also, the mechanism to drop the seats is fussy and awkward and the load floor is not flat, creating "canyons" into which cargo can fall. In addition, the tailgate swings toward the curb, which is good for driver access, but bad for curb-side access.
We actually got a flat during our testing, so we were able to test the accessibility and functionality of the spare tire. The full-size spare is mounted on the tailgate, which makes it much better than the Escape (under the cargo floor) and the extremely awkward systems used on the Xterra and the Santa Fe (mounted underneath the vehicle and accessed via infuriating wind-down mechanisms). The RAV4 and the Liberty also have the tailgate-mounted spares.
We had the one editor with no tire-changing experience do the switch, and she had no problem, but the vinyl dustcover was a bit awkward to remove and replace.
We like the looks of the XL-7, too. Its 16-inch alloys and 235/60R16 all-season radials fill its wheelwells, accented to dramatic effect by flared fenders. The short front and rear overhangs, combined with the XL-7's extra length, make it look elegant and athletic. The square headlamps, chrome grille and body-color bumpers also add class and distinction.
It's a good truck, but it doesn't do any one thing well enough to recommend it over any of the competition, and there are just too many bugaboos.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
With a dual-speed transfer case, the Suzuki was one of the real off-road machines on the test. Too bad its low-hanging side steps and tiny tires wouldn't allow it to tackle any terrain that might have required the aid of low-range gearing. Other than that minor annoyance, the Suzuki was surprisingly well mannered in the rough stuff. It has the most connected feel through the steering wheel. Power is a little lacking, but considering its somewhat more lengthy dimensions it isn't a complete dog.
Scooting around town, the Suzuki emits a little more noise than I would like, but the power delivery is reasonably smooth. Shifts are often a little too abrupt, but not overly annoying. Again, the steering is direct and nicely weighted for easy maneuvering, making the extra-long XL-7 seem smaller than it really is.
The Suzuki's age is apparent the minute you sit inside. The dash design is noticeably dated and the ergonomics are a step behind the rest of the competition. Interior material quality rivals the Escape for cheapness and the numerous squeaks and rattles don't forebode a promising future.
The extra room provided by the stretched chassis doesn't seem to translate into all that much extra space. Sure, it has a third-row seat, but trying to wedge myself in there proved that the XL-7 was really only a Grand Vitara with a bigger cargo bay. I would prefer that Suzuki had merely added the extra room to the unreasonably cramped second row and ditched the whole seven-passenger idea.
If the XL-7 offered a real bargain in the segment, it might make a little more sense, but our test car wasn't really all that cheap. It had great off-road manners that will likely go untested by the majority of owners and its interior is in sore need of an upgrade. If I really had to have seven passenger capacity and four-wheel drive, I think I would just forget about the whole sport-ute idea and buy an all-wheel-drive minivan instead.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
What a disappointment. Walking up to the XL-7, it has great looks. But once you get inside, it's like a bad dream come true. The interior had the cheapest materials and most aesthetically displeasing design I've seen in a while. The drab color of the cabin didn't help any. The steering wheel was thin and rubbery, and unpleasant to hold.
The drive wasn't much better. It was underpowered and annoyingly wheezy. I couldn't believe the amount of noise coming from the engine. The brakes were soft, and not progressive at all. The steering and suspension were soft, and combined with the thinness of the steering wheel, made me quite unwilling to push it even slightly in turns.
Yeah, it has four-wheel-drive low, but those ridiculously low-slung running boards made it completely useless for serious off-roading. It couldn't clear a soda can. It may be helpful in inclement weather and maybe on a stretch of dusty road, but not over rocks.
I don't think Suzuki has hit its mark, yet, though you can tell the XL-7 is marketed to those soccer moms who don't want a huge SUV.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
I really like the marketing campaign for the XL-7; the ads show unreasonable, silly women driving oversized SUVs and unconscionably damaging private and public property while doing it, while sensible women pass by in the "perfectly sized" XL-7, rolling their eyes at the foolishness of others. Or it could just as well be that they're expressing their exasperation at the icky, cheap interior of their own car, some of the design elements of which went out of vogue during the Carter administration.
All that would be fine and dandy were it to have substantial innards. It doesn't. It's slow, fat and clumsy. While you can glean its off-road aspirations in its low-range transfer case and plenty of suspension travel, they're dashed by the useless running boards. The only time I somewhat appreciated the XL-7 was when I had to ferry my four-year-old twin nephews, but even they complained that it was uncomfortable.
All is not lost. A trip back to the drawing board, a few tweaks here and there, and Suzuki may place higher.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Taken separately, it's easy to like the Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7, despite its ungainly name. But when stacked up against other vehicles in this segment, the 'Zuki fares rather poorly.
Though powered by a torquey 2.7-liter V6, the Suzuki still feels sluggish when driven back-to-back with every other vehicle in the test, including the four-cylinder Toyota. On-road handling is somewhat compromised by its ladder-frame construction and suspension tuning designed to make it more capable than so-called "cute-utes" off-road, yet the Limited model's useless running boards severely compromise its ability as a stump-jumper.
Compromise sums up the seating, as well. Suzuki has unwisely crammed three rows of seats into the XL-7. The result is advertised room for seven adults. Reality is that the 'Zuki could carry six in a pinch, and only if they were of average height. Fold the second and third rows, and you have anything but a flat load floor, with cavernous gaps ready to swallow smaller items.
The cabin is trimmed in plenty of plastic, but the leather on our test truck's seats was supple and of high quality. The Suzuki looks good, too, with tasteful chrome accents, nicely flared fenders and attractive spoked alloy wheels.
As this is written, Suzuki is offering a great lease deal on the XL-7: something like $1,500 down and $260 a month plus taxes and fees. At this payment, the XL-7's pros outweigh the cons. Otherwise, I'll take a pass.
Fourth Place (Tie) - 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe
The Hyundai Santa Fe surprised us. For a rookie effort, it's impressive. Though its aggressive looks are polarizing, at $22,797, the Santa Fe was the least expensive mini-ute in our comparison. It's also one of the most roomy, comfortable and pleasant on-road.
The Santa Fe debuted this year, hard on the heels of the outstanding 2001 Elantra sedan. Both vehicles illustrate how far Hyundai has come in the last decade. We're as amazed as anyone that the automaker's once punchline-quality cars have evolved into vehicles good enough for our recommended list.
Although the Santa Fe didn't sport the biggest engine in our mini SUV comparison test, its 2.7-liter V6 was strong and torquey. The 177-horsepower V6 is a little slow from the lights (as demonstrated by its 10.6-second 0-to-60 time), but as more air flows through the four-valve-per-cylinder engine, throttle response increases. This surge in the middle and late in the powerband translates into more passing power on the freeway, which is great for a perfect road-tripper like the Santa Fe. The powerplant is also refined and quiet with very little engine noise intrusion into the spacious cabin.
The Santa Fe is a fairly porky beast, though, which makes it awkward to toss around. The softly-sprung suspension can handle twists and turns, but the way its substantial weight transitioned from side to side took some getting used to.
The steering provides a solid feel, but can be a bit heavy during slow-speed maneuvers. As a result, we can't report much of a fun factor with this vehicle. Sure, it's comfortable and competent, but it's too sedan-like to really tickle our mojos. For the majority of shoppers in this vehicle class, driving fun likely isn't much of a requirement and our rather esoteric driving habits (hard, go, go, faster) should be considered in context. When we test vehicles, we try to be objective but we also test them at the extremes of the driving spectrum and, let's face it, most people don't want a mini SUV for canyon-blasting. By now, everyone knows the majority of SUVs, small or giant, never serve off-road duty.
If your travels call for traversing moderate off-road terrain, the Santa Fe will handle it comfortably and competently. It's no rockhopper, but its taut suspension and effective full-time AWD make short work of dirt roads. It can take more gnarly tracks at a crawl, but we wouldn't ask it to do extended duty off-road. The four-wheel independent suspension provides excellent ride comfort and handling on pavement, but with only 8.1 inches of ground clearance, the underpinnings aren't up to aggressive off-road driving.
But back to the road. The Santa Fe provides the most roomy interior of all the mini-utes we tested, and one of the most serene, with only whispers of wind and tire noise inside. Some of us were turned off by the interior's aggressive styling where sculpted plastics dominate. The switchgear is quite solid, though it looks a little cheap and plasticky. Hyundai should work at boosting this area of design, as knobs, dials, levers and other switchgear are hallmarks of overall quality.
We all liked the broad and well-bolstered seats, though. Even the back seats were comfortable, and there were plenty of cupholders and cubbies for storage.
The Hyundai provides a decent-sized cargo area, but we didn't like having to remove the headrests to lay the floor flat. We did like the large, stylish rear door handle and the first aid kit in the cargo area. On the downside, the spare tire is mounted under the vehicle and it's awkward, time-consuming and frustrating to access.
The Santa Fe's most divisive feature is its aggressive design. Some of us appreciated its extreme styling the grille that gapes like a carp, the hilly hood, the concave doors and its humped, red-eyed tail which is unlike any of its competition. Others of us just found it ugly.
But with one of the best warranties in the business (5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain; 5-year/60,000-mile corrosion; and 5-year/unlimited roadside assistance) the Santa Fe also provides significant peace of mind.
We don't expect anyone to buy the Santa Fe to pursue an active lifestyle, but we do see it as a good fit for running errands, daily commuting and weekend or vacation road-tripping with friends or family and perhaps a big dog. Given those criteria, it's the perfect picnic vehicle.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I have to give Hyundai credit, the Santa Fe certainly has a look all its own. It's a goofy, contorted, borderline-ugly one, but different. Thankfully, there's a lot more to the Santa Fe than its sculpted sheetmetal.
For one, it's big. Sitting in the backseat, there's plenty of room for six-footers. Open up the rear hatch, and you're greeted with a big chunk of space that will easily swallow an entire Saturday's worth of garage-sale knick-knacks. It doesn't feel huge from the driver seat or in parking lots, but compared to the RAV4, it's practically in a different class.
The V6 under the hood is another plus for the Santa Fe. With a nice wide power band and a smooth delivery, it's well suited to the task of motivating the sizable sport-ute. Even when dragged right up to the redline, it remains calm and pleasant-sounding. It doesn't have the off-the-line grunt of the Escape's six, but not much in this class does.
The suspension was a little bit of a disappointment. On the street, there's too much roll and not enough steering feel. In the dirt, wheel travel seemed limited, and the power delivery wasn't very direct. Like the Xterra, the softness of the tuning made for a somewhat smoother ride, but I would give up smoothness for a little more road feel any day.
Then there's the price. With a bottom line thousands less than the competition, it's hard not to consider the Santa Fe a bargain. Factor in the substantial warranty, and it really starts to look good. For a first-time effort, the Santa Fe should be considered a success for Hyundai. It addresses all the needs of the average compact-SUV shopper: room, power and versatility without adding to the price tag. Now if they could just get rid of the awkward styling, they would really be on to something.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The Santa Fe is funky. If you can get over the design, it's really not a bad vehicle. Korean cars have always been different in their design elements as compared to American or European marques, but I think it provides an option for people who want something out of the ordinary.
I see the Santa Fe not as an SUV, but rather something along the lines of a Subaru Forester or the Volvo Cross Country. It's not that high off the ground, and it has more of a station wagon-style layout.
The interior is simplistic and not laden with content. I'd say that it's simplistic because it is sparse. Its overall feel, including the ride and steering, is numb. This makes it comfortable, but rather boring. Along with the bland interior, the lackluster engine barely gets it moving along.
I'm not going to say it's bad, not the worst in the group, anyway, but its boring ride and drive, combined with looks that will scare some people away, hamper its overall rating. I think this is a good direction Hyundai has taken, but the automaker has fallen short of the mark. If it wants to please the American market, it will have to start packing in features and design elements that Americans want.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
The best way to think of this vehicle is as a tall, economy station wagon with a little extra off-road talent, should your quest take you on a light-duty fire road. On-road, it fools you into believing that you're driving a car, with its soft suspension and easygoing nature. And it actually allows the driver to pilot this truck off-road with a modicum of chutzpah more so than the Escape or the RAV4.
I'd have to disagree with some of my comrades who were more enamored of the interior than I was I thought it looked cheesy and disproportionate, with vast empty spaces crying out for more evenly spaced controls. Hyundai needs to make an improvement to the transmission and space out power distribution throughout the rev band, but for most day-to-day driving, you'll have few complaints.
Sure, most of your time in the car is going to be spent inside of it. But the thing's got character lines that only its mother could love. And I'd hate to meet its mother.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Automakers vying for slices of the low-priced car and truck pies had better watch their backs, because Hyundai is proving that it can build competitive product. The Santa Fe is the vehicle I'd first recommend to consumers, because of its excellent blend of space, comfort, power, initial quality and performance. Now if the company could just get the styling figured out.
If the Santa Fe looks good to you, you really needn't try any of the other vehicles we tested, unless you require serious rock-hopping capability. It's more refined over the road than the Ford Escape, handles light-duty off-roading with more aplomb than the Toyota RAV4, and is roomier than everything we tested. Plus, it's constructed of high-quality cabin materials and offers an impressive load of equipment for a relatively low price, including full-time four-wheel drive. Factor in the industry's best warranty, and you've got a great package.
If only it looked less like a creature from a '60s-era science fiction flick.
Fourth Place (Tie) - 2001 Toyota RAV4
Despite the fact that the Toyota RAV4 tied for fourth place in our mini SUV comparison, we think it offers the most car-like ride of all the mini-utes in the test. Some of us compared its road manners to our sporty long-term Toyota Celica test car, which is high praise indeed. The Celica has been lauded by our road test staff for its great go-cart style, handling and feel. As a result, the RAV4 was one of the most popular vehicles on the test to drive on-road and on the semi-smooth dirt tracks where its taut suspension enabled us to toss it around like a rally car. But when the going got tough off-road, the taut suspension began to talk back, bottoming out more often than a tech stock, and the RAV became much less desirable.
We were surprised by the spirit of the four-cylinder engine, especially in the city, where it zips around sluggish traffic with ease. Things aren't so fun out on the freeway or on steep grades, where the RAV4 buzzes and falters in its effort to produce more power. The Toyota was the only four-banger in our mini-SUV comparison test and though it made a valiant effort, with only 148 horsepower on tap, it was at a definite disadvantage against the V6 competition.
Part of the problem with its anemic performance was its automatic transmission. We had no complaints with the tranny's operation. In fact, we found it quite snappy and intuitive. However, we could have wrung more pep from the powertrain with a manual tranny.
The most annoying aspect of the Toyota's small powerplant is the noise it produces, from the engine bay and inside the cabin, where the raucous engine makes all the interior plastic bits buzz like a nest of hornets.
We like the RAV's interior. The cabin is assembled to typically tight and ergonomically sound Toyota standards, evidenced by the simplicity and solidity of all the interior switchgear, the thick steering wheel that is pleasing to hold, the easy-to-operate cruise control and the multitude of cubbies and storage nooks. Several of our test drivers raved about the adjustable cupholders up front that ratchet to hold anything from a colossal soda to a small coffee. The cloth-covered seats are roomy, though they could use more adjustment options. The auto up/down power windows in front are a nice touch, too.
The low liftover height of the cargo area is a plus, and we appreciated the convenience of being able to slide, fold or remove the rear seats to create maximum cargo space. Rear passengers will also enjoy the recline function of the rear seats. The rear footwell is tight and the center hump a bit intrusive, however.
We didn't like the surplus of shiny interior plastic, and though everything seemed durable, it was a little dull in its efficiency. Also, the interior was the tightest of all the vehicles in the test, and comfort for more than four adult passengers is paramount to us.
Outside, our criticisms were nearly unanimous. We found the bug-eyed too-cute-for-words design of the RAV4 a little much. Its short overhangs, gray cladding (including the swoosh-like side molding) and smiling grillework conspire to make it too toy-like. It certainly puts the cute in sport-cute.
With gas prices hovering around $2.00 a gallon (at the time of our test), the RAV4's miserly fuel consumption (during our testing, it averaged 19 mpg) might be enough to sway some buyers who don't care about engine power or a lack of interior room. For singles doing mostly city driving, the Toyota's a solid buy, but if you road-trip with friends or off-road much, you're going to want something more substantial.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Once again, the RAV4 blew me away with its on-road driving manners. With full-time all-wheel drive, sticky street tires and a near-perfectly tuned chassis, the RAV4 is almost sportscar-like in its ability to handle the turns. With a stick shift and a little more power, it could rival some compact sedans for canyon-carving fun. Surprisingly enough, the little RAV wasn't bad off-road either. The super-quick steering and rock-solid body inspire confidence to go a little faster than you might think. Of course, the tires that are so great on the street aren't quite up to the task in the dirt, but at least the suspension still maintained its near unflappable nature.
Inside, typical Toyota ergonomics and build quality make for a pleasing cabin that never fails to provide enough storage space or comfort. The adjustable cupholders are some of the best I've ever seen able to hold two large bottles as easily as two small coffees. The seats are firmly padded, and the steering wheel is thick with a good grip. Even the rear seats show thoughtful design. Not only do they recline for comfort and fold down for a quick dose of utility, they can be completely removed for that occasional shopping trip for a new T.V. or similarly bulky item that doesn't fit anywhere else.
Not all is perfect, of course. The buzzy engine was one of the loudest of the group and its lack of serious muscle was apparent after driving the V6-equipped competitors. Interior room is also noticeably tighter that most of the others.
But then again, these are "mini-utes" aren't they? Although it doesn't have the towing ability or true off-road capability of vehicles like the Escape or the Jeep, the RAV4 is more of a sport-ute alternative than the others. It drives, parks and feels like a small sedan, yet it provides the sure-footedness of all-wheel drive and the high driving position that SUV buyers crave. Heck, if it didn't look so darn dainty, I might drive one myself.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
Right off the bat, the RAV4's design elements are not to my liking. The exterior looks like a leering hornet. The interior, with its not-so-great materials, funky Allen-head fasteners and odd-looking design elements, isn't appealing either. But as with the Hyundai Santa Fe, once you get past the styling, it's actually not that bad of a little truck. In fact, I'd rank it near the top of this group.
The overall design is compact. It's a functional get-around-town car. Those two elements make it stand above many of the others in this test due to the target market. It comes with the Toyota reputation of reliability, which is an edge over the Ford Escape.
The RAV4's big advantage is that it drives like a car. It handles better around town and through minor twisties. Its steering is taut and gives a lot of feedback. But it lacks off-road capability. It might be OK in inclement weather, but you wouldn't want to push it very hard trying to go over a bunch of rocks, especially with its pizza-cutter tires.
The biggest disadvantage of the RAV4 is the fact that it is underpowered. For me, the Ford Escape beats the Toyota because it's more powerful. People want the power, and Toyota can't deliver.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Criticizing the RAV4 is like slamming that kid with glasses from Jerry Maguire. Sure, both have their shortcomings, but they're so darn cute that you tend to like them anyway. In the RAV4's case, the engine's just a sad, loud little thing, weighed down by a torpid transmission. Mated to a five-speed manual, it's much more sprightly. No, it's no rock-basher, but it can hold its own in slippery conditions, which is probably all most buyers need anyway. But, hey, it drives and rides just like a car, with excellent brakes and steering, only you've got a higher ride height and cargo space.
Interior fit and finish is almost flawless, and you appreciate little niceties like one-touch-up and -down front windows. Aww...this is probably the most livable vehicle for the vast majority of consumers out there who appreciate a little refinement.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Here's a popular little rig, and for good reason. With gas prices reaching $2.00 per gallon in some parts of the republic, the frugal RAV4 makes sound sense. Add in a deserved reputation for reliability and resale value, coupled with cute styling and room for four adults or lots of cargo, and the Toyota becomes even more attractive. Factor in the fact that it drives just like a tall station-wagon version of a Celica sport coupe, and you've got a nice little SUV that doesn't drive like one.
My primary complaint about the RAV4 pertains to noise, vibration and harshness. The VVT-i four-cylinder powerplant sends lots of shake into the structure, especially at idle. The cargo-area plastic trim vibrates at stoplights, creating an incessant buzzing that tires the driver. I also have trouble getting comfortable behind the wheel. The bottom of the driver seat raises and tilts simultaneously rather than independently, so you can sit low with good thigh support or sit high and splay-legged behind the wheel.
Otherwise, this is a solid and pleasing package, with excellent handling, surprising verve from the powertrain (even when mated to the automatic), sharp steering and responsive brakes. On the fire roads we drove, the RAV4 reminded me of a little rally car, easy to toss from curve to curve on the dirt. But the taut suspension seemed a bit fragile over deeper ruts and bigger bumps.
If it were a tad larger inside, a bit more powerful and a smidgen less toy-like in appearance, this would be the one I'd buy.
Second Place (Tie) - 2002 Jeep Liberty
The 2002 Jeep Liberty's exceptional off-road ability, palatable on-road demeanor and comfortable cabin won many of our editors' hearts. As a bloodline relative of the legendary Jeep Willys, the newest Jeep had to be a great off-roader. Sensational, even. Based on our extensive testing, it is. However, the heft (3,857 pounds) required to make it a sure-footed, stout, unshakeable billy-goat in the country also conspires to hobble it on the freeway and in the city.
The Jeep's 3.7-liter V6 produces an impressive 210 horsepower. Combined with 225 pound-feet of torque, it provides zippy city starts, but it weakens on grades. It placed second in the acceleration portion of our instrumented testing (behind the Ford Escape) despite its greater displacement. And it's thirsty; we recorded a greedy 13 mpg during city and highway use.
With a full 8 inches of suspension travel, bumps are a non-issue in the Liberty. City potholes and rippled pavement barely register in the roomy and stylish cabin. Some of us have issues with the Jeep's heavy steering on pavement, complaining of a lack of feeling. The beefy suspension and high ride height (ground clearance is 10.1 inches a RAV4 offers only 6.7 inches) are also blamed for a clunky street ride and excessive body roll. But others concede that there has to be a little compromise for the Liberty's incredible off-road ability.
The Liberty seemed indestructible on broken ground. When we snicked its floor-mounted transfer case lever into 4-Lo, it climbed, descended, traversed and forded like a tank. And all the while, we were ensconced in its spacious, supportive and comfortable chairs and enjoyed our view of the well-built and quality dash. The rear seats are also supportive one of our editors likened the experience to "sitting in a baseball glove."
We did register some complaints, however, mostly regarding the difficulty getting in and out of the Liberty. Especially hard were the back seats, due to the small rear doors and the intrusion of the rear wheelwell into the doorway.
The Liberty's cabin has a sculpted, modern look. Our test vehicle seemed very well assembled and emitted no rattles or squeaks even when the suspension was taking a pounding. We liked the brushed-chrome trim around the center stack, floor-mounted gear lever, door locks and the door handles. And the steering wheel-mounted audio controls are particularly handy, but a few of us don't agree with putting the window controls on the center console. However, if you drove the Liberty every day, the oddly-located controls would soon become second-nature.
Rear-seat comfort was exemplary, and we loved the fact that the rear windows go all the way down it's nice that the people at Jeep don't assume that because you're in the backseat you don't know any better than to stay in the vehicle when it's moving.
We all raved about one of the niftiest cargo gate innovations we've seen: When you pull on the rear latch, the glass flips up and the gate swings open all in one motion. But we didn't like that the rear headrests must be removed to lay the cargo floor flat.
The Liberty's exterior design evolved from the Dakar and Jeepster concept vehicles (1997 and 1998, respectively) and features design themes from each, such as a large greenhouse, short front and rear overhangs, high roofline, rear-mounted spare tire and 16-inch alloy wheels whirring beneath pronounced wheel flares. Some of us thought the Liberty's bug-eyed headlamps and overall styling were too cute and belied the Liberty's incredible off-road performance.
For a freshman vehicle, the Liberty shined. We expect it to have bust-out junior and sophomore years when Jeep whittles away at its few deficiencies. With a sticker close to $28,000, the Liberty was the second-most-expensive vehicle in our test, which swayed the balance against it on our score sheets. If it were about $3,000 less, a little less thirsty and its street handling were a tad more refined, it might have nudged the Escape from the top spot.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
It's really a shame that Jeep made the Liberty so darn cute-looking. If it weren't for that aspect, I would surely consider the Liberty, if I were actually shopping for a mini-ute. It's quite an upgrade from the ancient Cherokee, but I'm not sure if it will attract the same kind of buyers.
More remarkable than the exterior design are the interior details. The Liberty wins this category hands down. A beautiful gauge cluster, top-notch materials and even neat-looking, not to mention highly functional, door handles make the Jeep's cabin best in class. The seats were supportive on long drives; although, the extremely upright seating position took a little bit of getting used to.
The new V6 engine delivered plenty of smooth, quiet power much like the V8 in the larger Grand Cherokee. Transmission shifts were also executed crisply, but I would have preferred that they came a little sooner.
To no one's surprise, the Jeep excelled off-road. Even the biggest ruts and bumps barely phased the burly Jeep. It easily inspired the most confidence on rough terrain, although its fun factor was probably about the same as the Xterra. Unfortunately, the Jeep couldn't duplicate its star off-road performance once the pavement returned. Excessive body roll and a disconnected feel through the wheel make the Liberty less than thrilling on the street. It seems logical that a vehicle so competent off-road would suffer on-road, but even still, I was hoping for a little more.
There's no doubt that the Liberty will sell well. There's still a big enough chunk of the population that just wants to have that killer rock-crawling capability available should the mood strike them. The quirky design should snare another solid chunk of buyers, and the interior might be able to do the same, as well. It's hard not to like a vehicle with so much personality, but the reality is that most of these vehicles will rarely be taken off-road, leaving the Liberty all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The Jeep is the undisputed off-road king. It can take a pounding and conquer challenging obstacles with its great combination of toughness and technology. All this off-road prowess comes at the price of on-road sensibility, though.
The exterior smacks of Jeep heritage, going back to the famous WWII Jeep Willys. The headlight design is a love-it-or-leave-it feature. I loved it. The interior combined many elements commonly seen in other Jeep products and new design touches, like the great door handles, set this Jeep apart. Out of the group tested, this had the best interior design.
The 3.7-liter engine is peppy and can get this thing to move. The steering was pretty soft and so were the brakes, which really made it not so fun driving around town. If they were crisper, it would make a great all-around vehicle.
With its high price tag and questionable on-road feel, I don't think this is a winner in this group. For people who want something that is comfortable and capable off-road, this is it.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Pushing the Liberty through some of the more rutted and rocky sections of our driving loop, I realized that the Jeep must appeal to those who enjoy treading terrain on which their precious little feet can't carry them. I, of course, am not one of them.
Yes, the Jeep does have its charms, from the muted roar of the V6 to some of its blocky exterior design cues. For me, however, they can't overcome its deficiency in the day-to-day driving arena, with "heavy" applying to almost all aspects of the Liberty. Heavy curb weight, heavy and numb steering, heavy brake pedal modulation and a long stopping distance. Heavy doesn't necessarily translate into secure-feeling, especially when some of the interior panels can be pulled off by idle hands. Plus, it's the second-most-expensive vehicle in the test. Unless your commute calls for massive amounts of off-road duty, other vehicles will serve you better.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Image is everything in some circles, and it's what will sell the Liberty to thousands of people who don't need it. Jeep insists that every vehicle branded with the signature seven-slot vertical bar grille must be able to traverse the Rubicon Trail. To tackle such rigorous terrain, a truck must be just that, with serious underbody hardware to match the task at hand.
In the Liberty, this results in lots of weight, a clunky suspension, slow steering, a choppy ride and abysmal fuel economy. It also results in the best four-door off-roader this side of $25,000. Get this truck onto a serious trail, and you won't be sorry you bought a Jeep. The Liberty should be able to see you through just about any kind of weather assailing any kind of terrain.
Problem is that most folks just want something that can get them home from work in 6 inches of snow. For that purpose, the Liberty is overkill. And on dry pavement, where you'll be driving most of the time, you might be sorry you decided that the Jeep image was more important than ride quality, handling and fuel economy. In the final analysis, the Liberty is for serious rock-hoppers and cash-strapped conspicuous consumers only.
Second Place (Tie) - 2002 Nissan Xterra
Of all the vehicles in our mini-SUV comparison test, the Xterra is the most geared to the outdoor enthusiast. Though we've seen it driven by middle-aged folks in bingo parking lots, it's marketed toward twenty- and thirtysomethings on the way to their next outdoor adventure.
Its spartan interior, bucking bronco ride and utilitarian design are not focused on providing comfort for wide bottoms. It's for hardbodies with Zen attitudes toward discomfort. Also, even though our test vehicle sported a supercharged 3.3-liter V6 engine, its performance was hardly electrifying (our instrumented testing returned a 0-to-60-mph time of 9.9 seconds). The supercharger whine sounds exhilarating, but it doesn't do much. We think the Xterra is more of a way to get to the site of your next adrenaline rush than the tool to provide one.
The supercharged V6 produces plenty of thrust at low- to mid-range revs but peters out at freeway speeds. The quick starts help win the traffic light derby and are good fun in the dirt. The four-speed automatic tranny is crisp and set to get maximum performance from the 210-horsepower powerplant, but, ultimately, we were let down by the sloppy suspension.
The Xterra is extremely capable off-road; jam it into 4-Lo via the floor-mounted lever, and it bounds over rocks and gullies with abandon. But this bouncy ride translates into a sloppy, numb driving experience on pavement. The steering is overboosted, killing road feel, which made us feel too removed from the pavement and a bit worried that our input had little to do with the Xterra's direction. This was most evident on the twisty canyon road that was part of our test loop. After a few swings from side to side, the Xterra's momentum seemed more in control than the driver.
Young, active folks won't have any trouble hopping up or down from the Xterra's high seats, nor will they likely object to the thin cushions they find there, but several of our more, um, sedentary, staffers longed for broader and cushier chairs and easier ingress and egress. The dash is comprised of quality materials and the quasi-industrial look of the switchgear fits the vehicle-as-tool theme, but some of us weren't impressed with its "Tonka toy" feel.
Also, a lot of road, engine and wind noise intrudes into the cabin, but the easy-to-use six-CD in-dash changer should allow you to obliterate ambient noise by cranking the latest Dave Matthews disc on the way to the lake, mountain, forest or wherever.
Despite its lack of luxury features, the Xterra's cabin is a comfortable, airy place with lots of head-, leg- and hiproom. Backseat passengers are treated to stadium-style seating so they can watch the road unfurl from the Xterra's lofty ride height.
We all like the Xterra's rugged and athletic looks, and many of us felt it is the most masculine of the mini-utes and the one that the least secure of our male staff wouldn't mind driving. It received a facelift for 2002 that includes a new grille treatment of thick plastic uprights that Nissan calls the "Flying V" and enlarged headlamps. Though we still think this truck handsome, none of us thinks the revisions are an improvement on the old design.
Although we'll say the Xterra is probably the best choice for hikers, mountain bikers, campers, kayakers and the rest of the outdoor set, we do have issues with the utility of the Nissan's exterior cargo equipment. For one, the roof rack is too high for anyone under 6 feet to stow a bike or boat easily, and the gimmicky "wet gear" tray adds to the aforementioned wind noise. The liftover to the rear cargo area is high, and to get a flat load floor, the rear seat cushions need to be removed. Where do you put them? This is rather ridiculous, but perhaps Nissan is counting on selling the Xterra to first-time new car buyers whose previous rides were missing their rear seats altogether. Hardship is relative.
Inside, there are plenty of cubbies and storage space for the gear that comes with an outdoor lifestyle, and it's hard to miss the first-aid kit that is housed in the "blister" on the liftgate.
Active people aren't likely to be bothered by the floaty ride, the effort needed to get in and out of the Xterra, nor its labor-intensive cargo equipment. After all, as a means of taking your gear to your next big adventure, it's an ideal choice.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
From a mid-twenties, male perspective, this is the only vehicle in the group that I would ever consider driving on a full-time basis. Call me a slave to style or image or whatever, but the Xterra is the only mini-ute that doesn't have cute written all over it. I'm not even that thrilled with the new front end styling revisions, but from there on back, the Xterra at least looks like a seriously tough SUV.
The new supercharged engine certainly adds to the Xterra's rough-and-tumble image, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by its performance. Off-the-line pull was noticeably crisper, making around-town driving a little more enjoyable, but on the highway, the additional ponies fail to materialize. If there was one place that the new engine shined, it was off-road. On tight, twisty fire roads, the instant throttle response made for plenty of tail-swinging hijinks, and hill climbs that taxed the feeble motors of some competitors were scaled with relative ease by the force-fed Nissan.
The Xterra's soft and sloppy suspension was certainly no joy on the pavement, allowing so much body roll that I often wondered if it was ever going to be able to right itself again. In the dirt, however, that same softness translated into a comfortable isolation that made long runs on bad roads a decidedly less tooth-rattling experience. Unfortunately, the steering that is so positively numb on the pavement makes no such transformation in the dirt, requiring substantial input and giving little back during extended off-highway excursions.
So basically, the Xterra looks sort of cool and is a blast off-road. Other than that, it's only so-so when compared to the rest of the competition in the test. If image counted as much as overall performance and quality, the Xterra would make a strong case for itself, but we all know better than that ... right?
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The Xterra, like the Jeep, is very capable off-road. It appeals to active youth. Its features are geared for their lifestyle, or rather, geared to appeal to those who want that lifestyle. It's more like a piece of sports equipment than a car.
There's too much plastic on the exterior for me. Almost the entire front is made of plastic. Not attractive. The Xterra has some funky design elements like its hunched back, the bulge for the medical kit on the tailgate and the strange body panel lines, but they don't work for me.
The interior continues the theme of plastic everywhere, and nothing good to look at. It's cheap and ugly design. The webbed fabric used on the seats, similar to a football jersey, isn't all that great, either. I can see what the designers were going for, but it just doesn't work.
The supercharged engine, though, is a real plus. It produces a lot of power up until the middle of the powerband. The power comes at the price of engine noise, which is plentiful. The brakes are a bit on the touchy side, and it was a steep learning curve to get used to the feel. The steering is very soft and offers no feedback whatsoever.
I'm so-so on the Xterra. It has a market, but I'm not in it.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
What happened to the front fascia? The formerly handsome headlamp area has been replaced by what looks like one of those ancient Trojan warrior masks. Ugh. At least they made an improvement in the powerplant; I actually dig the whirr of the supercharger, and there's certainly more oomph than the previous V6. Yet for all its bells and whistles, it failed to generate the best numbers during performance testing, annoying considering its requirement for pricey premium juice. I'm sure its buyers can afford it, considering this Xterra's price.
Off-road, it really allowed you to blast through some unforgiving terrain; this is its forte. On-road, however, its high center of gravity quelled any craving to carry speed into corners. Inside, aluminum accents pretty-up the interior, and it's got a six-disc in-dash changer. Cold comfort, however, when you're cursing the seat for its lack of a height adjustor and its uncomfortable cushions. Ah, well, the Xterra will always have a fan base amongst the mud-splattered, greasy hair crowd.
Senior Editor Chris Wardlaw says:
For 2002, Nissan has improved the Xterra with revised styling inside and out and a supercharged V6 engine. The changes are welcome. In fact, with the exception of the wide-eyed headlamps, the new-and-improved Xterra, with its beautiful 17-inch wheels, is the best-looking rig in this bunch.
The boosted powerplant provides plenty of power at lower revs, but still feels winded at higher rpm. The three-pod gauge cluster and revised center stack, trimmed in faddish metallic silver accents, are far more functional and stylish than the slab-like Frontier pickup dashboard of old.
But the overall package no longer adds up to a winner in my book. The driver seat from the old truck remains, mounted close to the floor and lacking any semblance of support. The new hood is bulged in the middle, and combined with the low seating position, makes it hard to see anything when cresting hills on the trail. When blazing along off-road, the suspension and/or structure of the vehicle makes odd popping noises, failing to instill confidence in the driver.
On pavement, the Nissan is slow, sloppy and wholly unsatisfying. Add driver discomfort, cheap interior materials and a high price tag to the mix, and the Xterra adds up to a great-looking truck that is more stylish than substantial.
First Place - 2001 Ford Escape
It was pretty unanimous that the Ford Escape was the best-looking vehicle in our mini-SUV comparison. Like a scaled-down Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Escape's muscular, square shape appears most athletic. But, we wondered, did it have the rest of the goods to win first place?
At just under 25 large, it is the third-least-costly vehicle in our test. Considering its generous equipment list (including a six-disc CD changer; side airbags; leather upholstery; fog lamps; air conditioning; antilock brakes; alloy wheels; and power windows, locks and mirrors), it's definitely a price performer.
We all liked its 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine. We feel it has more than adequate power for all applications, including jaunts around the city, road trips to Grandma's farm and travels down dirt roads to our favorite fishing holes.
The engine does get a little noisy, though, when it's being taxed, like on a steep grade. However, no V6 mini-ute escapes that criticism. The four-speed automatic transmission performs well enough that it is imperceptible (trannies are usually only noticeable when they're clunky, short/long-geared or just plain bad), but perhaps the engine note would be less harsh under duress if it had five gears instead of four.
We all were partial to the car-like ride of the Escape and appreciate that, despite its civility, the Ford engineers still gave the suspension enough tension to make our drive enjoyable on the pavement. Our test track driver was thrilled with the Escape's quick steering response and the "cat-like" reflexes of the taut suspension when he raced it through the slalom course. He also felt the Ford was the best balanced of all the SUVs in the comparison.
For more pedestrian applications, such as the everyday driving most of us do around our neighborhoods, we'd like it more if the steering were heavier and transferred more feel to the driver. Also, the Escape is not well insulated and a lot of road, wind and engine noise (especially at high revs) makes its way into the cabin.
These complaints don't sully the Ford's driving experience much, though, as the high-backed, well-bolstered front bucket seats are comfortable (a few of us think that they are a tad short under the thigh). The rear seats are also ample with lots of room for two adults and three in a pinch. We especially liked the recline function in the rear, which allows second-row passengers to relax and makes traveling long distances less of a bolt-upright experience.
The cabin's earth-tone color scheme is attractive in a cheery, natural sort of way, but it's cheapened by the surplus of hard, shiny plastic. The Escape's somewhat chintzy dash treatment was the complaint most loudly registered by our test staff and one that Ford could easily remedy in future model years.
The gauges and switchgear were easy to use, but we found the stereo controls too fussy. And we weren't crazy about how the column shifter partially blocks the stereo controls. These peccadilloes are absolved by the wonderful functionality of the cockpit its huge console, myriad of cubbies and substantial front and rear cupholders are precisely what a vehicle intended for families and their errands and outings should possess.
The Escape also provides utility in the cargo area. The rear seats are split 60/40 so you can carry long loads and still have up to two rear passengers. The fold-down mechanism is a bit too fussy, requiring you to remove the headrests and flip the bottom cushion up for a truly flat load floor. But the flip-up tailgate and low lift-over make it an accessible and practical storage area.
When our test route entered its off-road phase, we found the 4WD system a snap to operate. Using a dash-mounted switch, you can select between an automatic mode and an "on" mode, which is comparable to 4-Hi. We liked the way the Escape handled itself on dirt roads and could happily cruise down sandy two-tracks for an afternoon. But when the going gets tough, the Ford gets beat up. When we took it over the gnarly portions of our off-road test track, we could feel the suspension bottom-out and bash off the bushings. And rough roads cause every piece in the dash to shake, buzz and rattle.
The Nissan Xterra, Suzuki XL-7 and Jeep Liberty have low-range transfer cases and are capable of serious crawling, but the 4WD systems on the RAV4, Santa Fe and Escape are more than adequate for light off-road use and beating snow and wet weather. For 95 percent of drivers, that's enough. (The other 5 percent are those guys and gals rolling down the highway in mud-caked Jeep Wranglers with 2 feet of road clearance they're not the least bit interested in factory-spec mini SUVs.)
We liked the Escape, from its attractive and athletic looks to its car-like ride, functional interior and eager-to-please powerplant. The only serious concern we have is in regard to quality. With the number of recalls that plagued the mini-ute (we counted five at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site) after its debut in 2000, we can't vouch for its reliability. Then again, all the feedback we've received from Escape owners suggests its beleaguered start is well behind it. And our own experience with a long-term test of a Mazda Tribute ES-V6 would tend to prove that theory.
With that misgiving salved, we pronounce the Ford Escape the ideal mini SUV.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
With its everyman styling, powerful V6 and crisp handling, it's no wonder the Escape has sold well since its introduction. After spending significant time behind the wheel, it's apparent that Ford created the Escape by simply downsizing the Explorer into a more compact, parkable package.
Unlike the lightweight RAV4, the Escape feels more substantial. The steering is heavy and although it handles quite well, its responses are noticeably slower than the Toyota's on the pavement. Body roll is kept well in check, but the added weight over the RAV's doesn't transfer as well in the turns. In the dirt, the Escape was a little disappointing. The suspension bottomed out numerous times over the smallest bumps and holes, and even with the center differential locked up, traction wasn't great.
The Escape also loses some points for its interior. The excessive amount of low-grade plastic makes the interior look dated. Although I'm all for basic design when it comes to climate and radio controls, the dash is so utterly featureless that it looks just plain cheap. The seats are decently comfortable and the steering wheel was at least thick and grippy, but it was hard to shake the feeling that all the design and engineering went into the drivetrain and not the interior.
That being said, I still liked the Escape as a solid all-around vehicle. The engine was easily the best of the bunch, and the styling is clean and inoffensive. There's a good amount of room in the rear seats and the visibility is good in all directions. It's not all that different from an Explorer in that it does everything about average making it the perfect vehicle for solid sales numbers. I'm not so sure I would buy one for myself, but for someone looking for basic, no frills transportation, it will do just fine.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
The Ford Escape will appeal to the most people, perhaps tied with the RAV4. It offers good looks, an attractive small size and a stout engine. This, combined with the middle-of-the-road price tag, makes it a winner.
The exterior fits right in with the great-looking line of Ford SUVs. It has a spunky look to it, like a little fireball (helped by the red paint on our tester). It doesn't look as off-road-capable as some of the others, but it carries the look that people who want SUVs desire.
The interior is simplistic, but very functional. I disagree with my colleagues on a number of points. The driver seat isn't very comfortable to me I found it to be flat, somewhat hard, with little or no bolstering. I also felt that the materials used in the cabin were of good quality. The plastic isn't cheap-looking, and the soft touch parts aren't rock-hard. The biggest problem I have with the Escape is its seemingly flimsy construction. When you close the doors, it sounds like you're putting down an empty can. Doesn't feel very rugged.
The best part of the Escape is its great power source. It has a really torquey V6 that provides punch through the entire powerband. The steering is a little light, and the brakes are good, so all in all, it made a great get-around-town vehicle. The Escape embodies what people want from a mini SUV.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
With plenty of power on tap, this mini-ute probably has the greatest semblance of driving fun of any of the piggies in our mini-ute comparo. Performance numbers substantiate these claims, with the best acceleration numbers going to the Escape. However, the cabin is filled with a raucous roar with every throttle nudge, and interior materials exude "clearance sale" quality.
Despite these shortcomings, the Escape was impressive in its ability to scoot along curvy roads, thanks to its stable chassis and unibody construction. My friends and I were also impressed with its rear seat comfort. Sure, it bottomed out on some of the deeply rutted roads that we were on, but that's forgivable in light of the easy-to-use 4WD system and its non-offensive appearance. And hey, cool, an in-dash six-disc changer.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Ford has pretty much nailed the small SUV package with the Escape. It does exactly what most buyers will demand of it most of the time.
First, it looks rugged, with chunky truck-like styling set off with lots of gray cladding, just like a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Second, it has automatic four-wheel drive, so for most needs, most owners won't ever have to flip a switch. Third, it's roomy inside with plenty of space for five adults and a good amount of gear. Fourth, it's got a stout 200-horsepower V6 that produces acceleration more like a powerful car than a clunky truck. Fifth, its unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension ensure a better ride and handling equation than the more traditional offerings in the class.
One downside to Escape ownership is cheap cabin construction, characterized by glossy hard plastics that rattle and hum constantly and alleged leather upholstery that feels more like dehydrated vinyl. Our test example had a dashboard that was warped at its attachment points near the base of the windshield, including one ripple directly beneath an apparently meaningless "Assembled with Pride" in Kansas City factory sticker that was peeling off the glass. Another detriment is plenty of ambient interior noise, with lots of engine, road and wind roar making their way to occupants' eardrums.
I could live with those things. The Escape is so good at performing the way 95 percent of the people will want it to 95 percent of the time that it gets my vote as the one I'd buy tomorrow if I were spending my own money.
Let us begin by saying that no single contestant ran away with the win, evidenced by two ties in the middle rankings. But, we can only award the title of "Test's Best" to one. Each of the six vehicles -- Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra, Suzuki XL-7 and Toyota RAV4 -- has positive attributes, and you should test drive each of them to find the one that will suit your needs the best.
The Ford Escape won our hearts with its determination to do everything well, instead of any one thing great. It delivers good acceleration, a firm sedan-like ride, a spacious, comfortable cabin with lots of storage space and the cargo area is ample enough to qualify it as a sport-utility vehicle, albeit a small one. And it's good looking without suffering the stigma of being cute.
The only area in which the Escape didn't do well was on rugged off-road trails. However, we realize few of these mini SUVs, even the stellar off-road performers like the Jeep and the Nissan, will ever see any challenging terrain.
The other vehicles in the test deserve kudos for what they do well. The Jeep Liberty seems indestructible on broken ground. The Nissan isn't far behind the Jeep off-road, and it is the only vehicle in the test blatantly aimed toward the young and trendy outdoorsy types. The too-cute Toyota delivers good handling and fun in a toy-like package. Hyundai's Santa Fe is an outstanding first offering by the Korean marque. And Suzuki aimed high with the long-wheelbase XL-7, which we all like, but it suffers too many shortcomings to make a serious challenge for the top spot.
We don't think you could go seriously wrong with any of these mini SUVs. Depending on your needs and desires, each may fit a niche in your driveway. But if it's all-around utility, performance and civility you want, we say choose the Ford Escape.
"3,000-mile review of the Escape: As a frustrated Chevy Blazer owner, I decided to purchase my first Ford. I have to say my wife and I are extremely impressed. We love our Escape XLT. Like everyone else, we were concerned about the recalls, but so far, ours shows no symptoms of any problems. I actually have people in parking lots comment on what a sharp looking vehicle the Escape is and [ask whether] I would recommend it. I highly recommend it. The vehicle handles great. The engine is quiet and responsive, and the interior is roomy and comfortable. The only suggestion I would make is to relocate the gearshift to the floor. The shift arm is too long and slightly interferes with the radio controls. Overall, great vehicle." -- goindy1, "Ford Escape," #624 of 906, May 18, 2001
"I had sold my Honda Accord due to its awkward clutch engagement and was shopping for a 4x4 stick-shift truck like a Ford Ranger, Mazda B-Series, Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier. My rental was a little SUV called the Ford Escape. After each and every test drive at the dealership, ...I drove home pleasantly surprised by how much better the Escape felt! I lived and worked with the rental Escape for a whole week, taking care of normal business as well as a full weekend of off-roading. The Escape proved to provide enough of the cargo space that I needed. I was impressed enough to decide on a SUV instead of a truck. So I proceeded to test-drive small SUVs. The Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sportage all had weak little engines. The RAV4 was also much more expensive, and we all know the maniacal hyenas that Toyota salesmen are. The Nissan Xterra was too massive and handled like a truck. It rolled nauseously around the same twisties where the Escape danced like a stout linebacker. My rental had better steering, tighter handling, better maneuverability, and was generally more 'tossable' at higher speeds. It had more power, rode more solidly, and was generally the superior road vehicle compared to those SUVs. All without the awkwardness of an external spare tire. Horror stories about Jeep reliability kept me away from the Grand Cherokee. Similar for the Isuzu Rodeo. So my compromises were: (1) Getting an automatic transmission -- there's an absence of good 5-speed SUVs. (2) The awkward Escape shifter -- it was the only blemish on the entire package. I figured that for such a perfect little SUV, I would gladly get used to its shifter. The bonus goodies were finding the perfect color/options I wanted (including leather) and discovering that a new vehicle is much tighter and more solid than a rental! Now I feel very safe and proud driving my Ford Escape -- not because it's a larger vehicle, but because it has better control and handling for me to avoid dangerous situations. And all while I enjoy driving it everywhere I go." -- firstname, "Ford Escape," #878 of 906, July 13, 2001
"...Car arrived around January 25. I took delivery on February 10th. Now have 2200 miles on it.... This is my first SUV, which I never thought I could afford, and I'm loving every damn minute. Love the mpg.... I'm getting 23.7 mpg -- combined -- on this car rated EPA 18/24.... I drive very conservatively (about 58 mph on our 55 speed limit highways, no sudden starts, and I coast to stoplights), and about 85 percent of my miles are highway.... I like the height of the driver's position. For a mini-SUV, I really feel like I'm well above everyone else. Not the feeling of driving a fire truck like the Explorer gives, but then, what else does? I really like the room in the backseat, which has been used only twice when driving, for taking my nephew and a friend skiing (with room for the skis, thanks to the 60/40 bench). But move the front seats forward, and there's tons of room to get comfortable with my girlfriend when parked. Almost as much room as in my apartment. Put the back seat down, and we can lie down somewhat comfortably.... It has a good ride, but I'm not an expert on handling and so on. I do not notice the infamous fuel smell nor extra road noise, unless I make use of the sunroof. Lots of nifty places to put maps, junk, and knick-knacks. The removable, covered ashtray that fits in a cupholder is ingenious. It's an amazingly simple but handy feature. I put my loose change in the ashtray.... I do wish the interior wasn't as plasticky as it is, but I got used to the plastic dash. But I can't help notice the cheapish looking interior door panel, because the little bit of fabric they stick there actually makes the rest of the plastic portions stand out.... I have adjusted to the seat, but originally, it was uncomfortable for my body. The bench part (the part you sit your butt on) seemed to be a little short. The Explorer bench seemed to be longer and fuller, and more comfortable. I really, really, wish the Escape had a nifty compass/temperature console option like the Explorer. Don't like the shift lever in the way of the radio, but that's not a reason not to buy a car. You'll deal with it. Hate the hidden location of the ignition keyhole. It's a silly thing to worry about, but it's bothersome." -- briany3, "Ford Escape," #504 of 906, April 18, 2001
Hyundai Santa Fe
"I buy a car about every 7-10 years, so I am certainly not an impulse buyer. Therefore, before buying the Sante Fe, we researched and researched and researched. Bottom line: If you want a car-based SUV that looks and feels great, is well equipped, looks compact on the road but midsize from the inside, and is moderately priced, the Santa Fe is a very good choice. But, you must be able to live without a hard charging engine (but one that is adequate enough). We came mighty close to buying the Tribute/Escape, but after just a little Internet research, the multitude of horror stories scared us off. On the other hand, both the professional and consumer reviews of the Santa Fe were universally strong. We were (and are) somewhat concerned about the 'first-year model factor, but Hyundai's bold warranty got over that hump. Price? We got a heck of a deal -- about $19,500 plus fees and tax for the GLS V6 two-wheel-drive model, with a few added accessories. (And like I said, it comes well equipped anyway -- cruise, CD player, split rear seats, etc). We are getting a lot of compliments, noticing a few turned heads -- and 3,000 miles later, the best part is: we are very happy with our decision!" -- kennyh2, "Hyundai Santa Fe Owners: Meet the Members," #8 of 117, Jan. 31, 2001
"I've had my GLS since last Oct. and still love it. My gas mileage wasn't the greatest at the beginning, but after 5,000 miles, it really improved. I still like the features, styling and ride better than any of the new SUVs that came out this spring. I think it handles snow better than the Explorer I used to have." -- papimom, "Hyundai Santa Fe," #2546 of 2546, July 20, 2001
"Just finished a 800-mile road trip and my Santa Fe was great. The kids had plenty of room and the dog, too. I loaded three big totes, case of wine, a small box of computer parts, a sleeping bag, a 29-inch round tabletop, dog bed and 60-pound dog all in the back. Wow!! More room than what I thought!! I thought that with so much weight it would be a problem, but it ran flawlessly. Also had two kids (and their toys), two birds, four blankets and a pillow all in the backseat. When I travel, I really travel." -- steckswife, "Hyundai Santa Fe," #2318 of 2546, June 7, 2001
"After owning a Liberty Limited for two weeks and putting 700 miles on it (including a Bay Area-to-Tahoe roundtrip on Friday), I thought I'd post my impressions so far. Ride and handling: Not car-like at all; the Liberty has a firm suspension that leaves you with a solid, truck-like impression. A bit bouncy without a load, the ride smoothes out considerably once you throw in a couple full-grown passengers and gear. Handles well on twisty mountain roads, fair amount of body lean but not bad overall keeping in mind this is a very capable off-road vehicle. Never had a problem keeping up with traffic, either uphill or down. City driving is great as it shrugs off potholes and other road imperfection. While not as nimble as the Escape/Trib, it's still fun to maneuver. Engine: Reasonably smooth, unobtrusive V6 that provides decent acceleration around town. You'll have no trouble beating someone off the line at the stoplight or merging into traffic on the freeway. Much less engine noise in cockpit compared to Escape/Tribute. 400-mile Tahoe trip produced 19.2 mpg; suspect it would have been better but mountains do take a toll on mileage. Interior: Mostly, I love it. Very good stereo with the Infinity speaker package. Still haven't gotten to like the center-located window switches, probably never will, but find it to be a minor annoyance. Seat comfort is quite good, but you should be aware that the Sport has different (cheaper, high-back) seats than the Limited. It was one of the main reasons I didn't get the Sport -- I found the seats very uncomfortable. My 5'-11" rear seat passenger reports the back seats are fine for two-hour sessions. At 70-75 mph on the highway, interior is quiet with just a little wind noise intruding. Lowering a rear window at highway speeds creates the worst buffeting noise I've ever heard in any auto. Can be reduced (almost eliminated) by cracking a front window. Doesn't occur until 40-45 mph, so doesn't happen in city driving.... Off-road: Managed a few miles on a poorly maintained dirt road through the Sierras on the way to our fishing spot, and I can report that the Liberty handles rocks, ruts, dips, mounds, etc., as well as I'd hoped. One of my passengers drives a LR Discovery and commented on how well the Lib's suspension handled everything (and on the rear windows going all the way down!). I'm hoping to find some more challenging terrain next time, as this little dirt road run was a blast. Cargo: On the trip to Tahoe the Lib handled: (1) three people from 5'8" to 6'2". (2) One small ice chest. (3) Three sets of fishing gear (waders, boots, vests). (4) Three float tubes. (5) One pontoon boat (frame on the roof). (6) Six fly rods in cases. No complaints about comfort or space from anyone. Overall, both passengers liked the vehicle. Tires: I was surprised to see the Lib came equipped with Eagle RS-A's rather than a light-duty truck tire like a Wrangler. I'm sure it's a contributing factor in the lack of tire noise and how well it handles, but might be a liability if I ever tackle rougher terrain. Overall, I'm completely happy with my purchase. I've found the Liberty fun to drive, both on-road and off, a capable hauler for my purposes (camping and fishing), comfortable, and so far trouble-free. Considering my previous ride was a Honda Prelude, I'm surprised at how happy I am with the ride, handling, and acceleration of the Lib...." -- eesweet, "Jeep Liberty," #1001 of 1102, July 9, 2001
"...I decided to spend a day test-driving [an] Xterra, a Grand Cherokee Limited and a Liberty Limited. After half a day spent going over an Xterra, I decided it just didn't have enough horsepower or amenities to suit my taste. I headed over to the Jeep dealership and test-drove a Grand Cherokee Limited. While I enjoyed the drive and feel, I wanted to give the Liberty a chance and test-drove one as well. From the start, I was impressed with the tight feel and excellent interior fit (I was in a Liberty Sport). After driving for well over an hour, going over the features and asking a million questions, I decided to purchase a Jeep Liberty Limited 4x4 with the G package. I ended up loading all other options available such as skid plates, GPS Navigation System, bike rack, tow package items, new BF Goodrich All Terrain tires, and tow hooks. I have already placed well over 2,500 miles to include a 14-hour round trip road foray to Memphis. My tall friends (6'4") have made comments as to the comfort for a seemingly small vehicle. If you want a midsize, [powerful] SUV with all the trimmings (or not) I would highly recommend a Jeep Liberty...." -- johndal21, "Jeep Liberty," #1082 of 1102, July 17, 2001
"I have had my Liberty for three weeks now and have 1,200 miles on it. So far, I am completely satisfied with it and have had no problems at all. I have had it camping and have taken it to the same places I took my Wrangler in the past. The only difference is the clearance since the Wrangler had a three-inch lift. It is a black Limited with Trac-Lok and the G package. The only complaint so far is the trouble I'm having getting accessories. I ordered skid plates from the dealer and was told there were only five sets anywhere in the U.S. Then they told me they can't get me a trailer hitch at all for a couple of weeks." -- jbrothersen, "Jeep Liberty," #904 of 1102, June 24, 2001
*Note: These comments are about the non-supercharged version of the Xterra. Our supercharged test vehicle was a 2002 pre-production model.
"The 170-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 seems to be plenty fine for my outdoor excursions. You're not going to win any races off the line, but the X has at least adequate power and it's not what I'd call 'slow' at all. I think a lot of people making the transition from a peppy little Honda or other sports car are not used to the slightly slower acceleration off the line. But it's a truck. Anyway, loaded down with two people and lots of gear, I think the X performs beautifully on the trail. It's very maneuverable; the four-wheel drive works great (low range could be a little better, but it's decent) and cargo room is pretty good. Torque is good at low rpm, too. Road noise is kept to a decent and quiet level. So far, I have been able to tackle some pretty tough hill climbs in my X with no problems. Twisty paved mountain roads may make you have to hit the accelerator a bit more than usual to maintain a decent speed, but it in no way feels bogged down or anything. So far, I am very happy with the X both on the highway and on the trail. My old 4.3-liter V6 Chevy was much quicker, but not a smooth and quiet. All depends on what you're habits are. Try getting a dealer to loan you one for a weekend and then take it up into the mountains and see if you really feel comfortable in it. Or hold out for '02 supercharged version." -- cygnusx1, "Nissan Xterra," #1328 of 1375, July 11, 2001
"Before buying the X, I did quite a bit of analysis. Considered most everything from the RAV4 thru the BMW X5, etc. For me, the conclusion was that when asked to fill the SUV role, the X offered the best value coupled with high overall satisfaction from users. With that said, here is where I'm at. Took delivery around Thanksgiving on a 2001 XE with all three packages. 3,000 miles later my only beefs are that the driver's seat is not compatible with me (Lacks comfort, adjustments, and just seems to be designed weird). But that is a personal issue that doesn't seem to bother a lot of people. Secondly, I think the fuel economy should be a lot better considering the weight of the vehicle and only about 165 horses. Just the same, the power is adequate and the manual transmission is very smooth. Would I do it again? Probably, 50/50 chance." -- haldude, "Nissan Xterra," #344 of 1375, Jan. 7, 2001
"I have had a '00 XE five-speed since May 2000. I am completely happy with it. It's not a rocket but it has more than enough power for cruising and passing. (I came from a four-cylinder '88 Isuzu Trooper, so the X seems plenty fast to me.) It's also very torquey for low-speed off-road driving. People have complained about gas mileage, but I'm getting an average of 21.5 mpg, which is more than I expected. As far as the interior goes, its perfectly functional and easy to keep neat and clean. If you're looking for wood trim and leather (and you have another $5,000-$10,000 to spend), you won't find it here, but that's a matter of taste. I think the X gives you the most bang for the buck." -- silverxglider, "Nissan Xterra," #346 of 1375, Jan. 7, 2001
Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7
"We just bought a new XL-7 and are very happy with our decision. We looked at all the minivans and SUVS out for a family of six. Once we drove the Suzuki, driving the minivans made us feel like we were driving in our own suburban prison. All of the other SUVs with three rows of seats were just too big for convenience around town and our conscience. The only negative [about the XL-7] is the small amount of luggage space behind the third seat, but we are going to purchase a hitch-mounted trunk carrier for when we take trips." -- patman22, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #110 of 138, June 2, 2001
"Have had Touring XL-7 since mid-February. No problems, although a few little quirks, so far. No sign of sunroof leakage whatsoever -- and Vancouver's climate certainly puts it to the test! Mileage is around 21-23 mpg in the city. Ride is comfortable. Quirks: The swinging tailgate makes oversize loads a problem (while not used as a truck, I kind of like loading interior doors when doing renovations at home -- no chance now); no door ajar warning light on the dash (have to use the interior light as a sign that a door is not properly closed); the rear vent only works with cold air (at least as far as I can tell so far); and the rear 12V socket only works when the ignition is on. Not major, but things I hope Suzuki consider for future models. Overall, am very happy. Compared several different SUVs prior to this and found it had the best overall ride and comfort for the price." -- clay11, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #112 of 138, June 5, 2001
"...I wasn't expecting to buy a real truck, but this was the only choice to haul six persons (two kids) with an affordable price. Everything is OK, except for the uncomfortable [driver's] seat and some clicking sound coming from the steering wheel.... It comes when I fully turn the steering wheel [at speeds] below 20 mph.... I don't like minivans, but sometimes I get a feeling that a minivan is more suitable for my lifestyle." -- john_austin, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #133 of 138, July 6, 2001
"I just bought my fourth Toyota and second RAV4 about three weeks ago. I love Toyota's dependability and have never had one in the shop (since 1990). I have a RAV L with everything available on it, including the limited slip differential option. I live in Colorado, and we just had quite a snowfall that built up on the roads. I'll have to say I did not have to adjust my driving (except speed, of course) and did not fish or slide. I was impressed. I don't know how necessary it is, but it worked. I do not care for the slow acceleration due the heavier weight, but it's great fun for the money. I toyed with Jimmy, Santa Fe and Montero Sport, but opted for what I know." -- surfsnow1, "Toyota RAV4," #18 of 244, Feb. 10, 2001
"I went ahead and bought one, and had my first real windy day recently (30+ mph gusts), so I took my rig out on the interstate to try it out at speed. I could feel the wind on the vehicle, but it didn't feel too bad. Just had to keep alert. As far as passing trucks pushing it around, no, not like the full-size vans that I've owned. And as far as acceleration and fuel economy with the automatic transmission, both are pretty decent. There is a bit of a hole in pickup going from mid-speed on up which you need to anticipate, but it does pull strong overall; off the line, the package is pretty good, with good sound, too. And my mpg were at 22.4 most recently, mixed driving, temps 20-40 degrees, just over 1,000 miles on the odo.... I, too, expect the Toyota to be bulletproof. So far I'm very happy with the RAV." -- suvshopper4, "Toyota RAV4," #20 of 244, Feb. 12, 2001
"I've been driving compact Japanese sedans for the past 12 years total. But, the RAV does get good mileage in any transmission/drive configuration, and it's the nicest mini-SUV out there that's also economical to operate, IMHO.... If you're short like my wife at 5'3"(or you can't drive a five-speed manual), you may want to stick with the auto, as the RAV's high seat height makes it difficult to depress the clutch pedal fully for shorter people. We purchased the new RAV to have something 'different' since we've owned so many sedans. We're very happy with our purchase so far, and it's tons better than a sedan when you need it for utilitarian purposes. The folding/removable rear seats really open the little RAV up for cargo uses that a sedan can't match.... The RAV won't allow you to take turns as speedily as a small car, but it does handle pretty good overall for a tall vehicle. Ordering: We were going to order a red exterior RAV because my wife wanted that color badly. Once we found out the red exterior color wasn't available in the L package and the wait would be three months to get one, we drove three hours west to get a white exterior RAV equipped close enough to our specs for us to buy it. We're pretty happy about the white exterior color after spending the past few months with it." -- savvy4, "Toyota RAV4," #149 of 244, May 14, 2001
Edited by Erin Riches