Drive the Escape, and such concerns fade-slightly. With its 200-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic, the Escape was the most powerful in our test, and with a well-tuned suspension and lively steering, it was fun to drive. Ride motions are nicely controlled, and the passenger cabin is largely undisturbed by rough surfaces. Get too spirited in the turns, though, and the high center of gravity will cause unseemly body lean. On the minus side of the equation, the Duratec 30 is a loud, coarse engine that moans asthmatically at low speeds, wails distressingly under full throttle, and makes 18 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. The Escape's four-wheel-drive system seemed the most sophisticated of the bunch, coming on transparently when needed and otherwise keeping a low profile.
As a cargo carrier, the Escape has 33.1 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 69.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The top-hinged tailgate can be opened and closed without doing chin-ups, and a glass liftgate makes stowing smaller items quick and easy. With a 3500-pound tow rating, the Escape is a decent tow vehicle, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. Our magazine's executive editor, Mark Gillies, has towed his vintage Lotus racing car with both an Escape and a bigger SUV, and he says the Escape is the better tow vehicle. Where larger SUVs would try to muscle the trailer into submission, the Escape's more accommodating suspension worked in harmony with the trailer and made towing a breeze. Sometimes, size doesn't matter.
Bigger, but Better?
At $29,040, the Chevrolet Equinox AWD LT is the most expensive in this comparison-so is it the best? In a word, no. In three words, not even close. Some might argue that the Equinox is out of place here, since its size puts it closer to the mid-size end of the spectrum; others might argue that it's not so much out of place as outclassed. We'll take the glass-half-full view: hopefully, it's going to learn a lot in this company.
First impressions of the Equinox are promising. It's a good-looking SUV, with angular sheetmetal and an aggressive stance. It's big, too, with an overall length of 188.8 inches-21.3 inches longer than the RAV4, the shortest in this test. Climb inside, though, and you wonder where all the bigness went. Although the Equinox is first in headroom and legroom for rear-seat passengers and second for rear shoulder- and hip room, it has the least amount of front leg- and hip room and takes second place for front headroom. In a testament to efficient packaging, the tiny RAV4 takes first place for the most amount of front head- and legroom. On balance, the RAV4 is last in all rear-seat categories, but it is, after all, the shortest kid on the block.
The interior has a high-tech look, with the gear shift sprouting sportily out of the center console. The materials, however, are primarily hard plastic and, combined with the modern design, give the interior a cold, impersonal ambience. It is not lacking in amenities, thanks to the $3745 options package which includes heated leather seats, sunroof, OnStar satellite concierge, and an in-dash six-disc CD player. Head curtain air bags-a $400 option-were also included.
Chevy has rounded up one of its usual suspects to do engine duty: an outdated, pushrod 3.4-liter V-6 that makes 185 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque, teamed with a five-speed automatic. The second-most powerful engine on the test, it, too, makes a variety of unsophisticated sounds more often associated with a barnyard than an engine. All that power doesn't make it engaging, since the loosey-goosey suspension and easily distracted steering are unwilling partners when you put your foot in it. Even with all-wheel drive, the Equinox still seems too biased toward the front wheels, and spins them furiously for a half second before sending some power to the rear wheels. It is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
Packaging inefficiency shows up again in the amount of the Equinox's cargo capacity. With 29.2 cubic feet of room with the rear seats in use and 68.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, it has just 3.0 cubic feet and 0.3 cubic feet more, respectively, than the last-place Toyota. The Equinox's removable shelf system impinges greatly on the cargo area. The Equinox has a 3500-pound towing limit.