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 U.S., 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.

"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 4X4

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.

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.

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?"

Eighth Place: Hyundai Tucson Limited 4WD

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.

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.

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."

Seventh Place: Ford Escape XLT AWD

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?

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.

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.

Next Page: Saturn Vue XE AWD, Suzuki Grand Vitara 4WD & Mitsubishi Outlander ES 4WD



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