Third Place: Nissan Rogue SL AWD
Truth is, there's no econo-ute that reliably twists your lips into a smile whenever you happen upon a stretch of Nrburgring-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.
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.
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?
Second Place: Honda CR-V EX 4WD
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.
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.
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."
First Place: Toyota RAV4 4X4
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.
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.
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.