Mini-SUV Comparo: 2005 Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4

Kirk Seaman
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Passenger Side Front View

When mini-SUV's first hit the scene, they were aimed at entry-level buyers who liked the notion of active-lifestyle four-wheel-drive vehicles but couldn't pony up for a full-blown SUV. Since then, a lot of things have gotten bigger-NBA salaries, budget deficits, Kirstie Alley-and the prices of these little people carriers are no exception.

The originators of the trend-the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4-are moving upmarket and leaving the entry level to Hyundai and Kia. Along with relative newcomers the Ford Escape and the Chevrolet Equinox, the CR-V and RAV4 now sport prices between $25,000 and $30,000, rivaling some of their mid-size brethren.

The big question is what you get for your money. Are they worth it? We sought the answers in a diligent effort to help you make a wise choice. Here's what we learned.

Full Passenger Side View

Where It All Started

The RAV4 got the ball rolling back in 1996. But whereas the original RAV4 was a sporty runabout with no pretensions, the latest generation has other ideas about its lot in life. Comfort and convenience are emphasized, it's handsomely attired in crisply pressed sheetmetal, and its interior has some of the best design and materials in the class. High-quality plastics with tasteful textures abound, and the cloth material in our test model didn't make us feel cheated for lack of leather. The bottom line: $25,211, the least expensive in the quartet, despite $3645 of options, which included the L package ($1030), power moonroof ($900), front side and front and rear side curtain air bags ($680), 16-inch alloy wheels ($400), keyless entry ($230), and a roof rack ($220).

The center stack with the radio and climate controls is well-laid out and the dash instruments relay information in handsome gauges. The only chinks in the armor are hard-to-reach front-seat cup holders designed for no cup or bottle sold in this country-sloppy execution from a company known for smart engineering.

Steering Wheel View

The RAV4's 2.4-liter four-cylinder makes 161 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. Paired with a slick-shifting four-speed automatic, the RAV4's powertrain tied with the Honda's for smoothest and most refined of the group. Thanks to its carlike construction and low center of gravity, the RAV4 is nimble and has none of the top-heavy feeling that the Equinox suffered from. With full-time all-wheel drive and standard ABS and traction and stability control ensuring grip, the RAV4 inspires confidence in the messiest of conditions. It's fairly frugal with a gallon of gas, too, covering 22 miles in city driving and 27 miles on the highway.

As for cargo capacity, the RAV4 comes in third with 29.2 cubic feet of room with the rear seats in use and 68.3 cubic feet with them folded. The right-side-hinged cargo door-a vestige of the RAV4's right-hand-drive origins-impedes curbside loading. Towing capacity is a minimal 1500 pounds, the same as the CR-V but less than that of the Escape and Equinox.

Small Ute, Big Price

Full Front View

According to Ford's press material, the redesigned 2005 Escape is "geared to active, young at heart drivers and first-time SUV buyers who desire SUV qualities in a more compact package." To which they should add "and have almost $30,000 to spend." Our fully loaded Escape Limited 4WD had the highest base price of $26,365 and then added options such as the luxury comfort group, which includes a six-disc in-dash CD player, dual heated sideview mirrors, heated front seats, and rear sensing system ($1095); power moonroof ($585); and the trailer tow package ($350). Total including destination charges: $28,985.

Although the '05 Escape received a buff and a polish this year, it still looks much as it did when it arrived in 2001. With its wide wheel openings, beefy front end and body cladding, it has a chunky, Tonka-esque look which we find appealing. It is tall and has a higher step-in height than you might expect; on the inside, that tallness translates into ample headroom, even with the optional moonroof. Our example was outfitted with a leather interior, but the insides of the seat bottoms were cloth. Hardly noticeable, but one wonders where other corners are being cut.

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