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

Kirk Seaman
Full Front Grill View

Not too Big, Not too Small-Just Right

Famous for its outside-the-box thinking, Honda put a lot of thinking into this boxy little SUV. The CR-V is arguably the most useful and utilitarian of the group, with plenty of room and storage for both passengers and the flotsam of life. At $25,565, the CR-V 4WD SE is the second-least expensive in the test but comes fully equipped with every amenity imaginable as standard: leather seats, a six-disc in-dash CD player with a cassette, cruise control, exterior temperature gauge, and a power moonroof being among the most noteworthy.

The CR-V received a comprehensive makeover for both interior and exterior styling in 2005, and a host of safety equipment-vehicle stability assist with traction control, anti-lock brakes, and emergency brake assistance-is now standard. For the interior, front-seat-mounted air bags and side curtain air bags are also standard, as are pretensioners for the front seatbelts.

Full Passenger Side Rear View

The interior materials, while not quite as rich in appearance as the Toyota's, are still handsome and speak to good quality. Ergonomically, the controls are laid out well, with large, easy-to-use dials for the climate functions and the radio. The driving position is comfortable and visibility all around is excellent, thanks to the wide expanses of glass.

Out on the road, the CR-V's 160-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and five-speed automatic are ready to aid and abet when you feel like hustling it. Shifts are almost imperceptible and the transmission is willing to kick down without second guessing you. Steering is communicative and alert, and responds crisply to inputs without feeling overly sensitive. Despite changing to a new, cam-driven all-wheel-drive system, the CR-V still exhibits a sort of pulsing sensation as the power shuttles from the front to the rear wheels. EPA mileage is 22/27 mpg, and towing capacity is 1500 pounds.

Front Interior View

Cargo room is tops in this class, boasting 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in use and 72.0 cubic feet when folded. There's room for small things, too, with plenty of oddment space throughout the cabin. A small table between the front seats has two cupholders built in as well as one that pops out from below the climate controls, and little compartments make for useful storage areas. And to spread out, there's a picnic table in the cargo floor that can be used for dining out of doors or impromptu Euchre tournaments. From items like grocery bag hooks throughout the cargo area as well as on the edges of the center console table, thoughtful touches abound and, like a proper butler, make you feel that all your needs have been anticipated and addressed.

Who's On Top?

Full Passenger Side View

Entry-level vehicles no longer leave buyers wanting more; all of these mini-SUVs attend to the needs of the driver and passengers. However, a lot still sets them apart. With just $350 separating the RAV4 and the CR-V, both offer comfort, convenience and luxury that make either a compelling buy in this segment, almost a decade after they invented it. Of the two, the CR-V is the better people carrier by virtue of its roomier rear seats and ample cargo space, while the RAV4 is longer on style and sportiness. Only when comparing towing ability do they fall short of the bigger-and more expensive-SUVs in this comparison. The Equinox and the Escape, on the other hand, can probably be found with enough dealer incentives to level the purchase-price playing field. It would have to be a pretty good deal, though, to make either more attractive than the RAV4 or the CR-V.

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