December 2007
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Small SUVs
Four contenders in this test group can't challenge the category's top performers

Small SUVs on test track: Kia Sportage, Saturn Vue, Ford Escape & Jeep Patriot
 
Not one vehicle stands out in this month's group of four small SUVs. The offerings from Ford, Jeep, Kia, and Saturn don't come close to dethroning the best vehicles in the category: the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4.

Offerings in the small SUV segment have expanded greatly in the past several years as those vehicles have become an alternative to station wagons and family sedans. They typically come with all-wheel drive, have roomy interiors, and offer cargo versatility. Most now have standard stability control and many have three rows of seats. Small SUVs can also handle some light off-road duties and light towing, and they get significantly better fuel economy than larger SUVs.

The best two vehicles in this small SUV comparison test group fall only midpack in our Ratings (available to subscribers). One of them offers a lot for its price, and features a V6 engine at the cost of some four-cylinder models. It is well rounded, but unexciting. The other, redesigned for 2008, highlights General Motors' global resources: It is of Korean design, fine-tuned by GM's European Opel division, features an American powertrain, and is built in Mexico. It also is pleasant to drive and has standard stability control but still has several strikes against it. Those two vehicles also got the lowest fuel economy in the group.

For this small SUV comparison, we also tested the freshened Ford Escape and the new Jeep Patriot (both available to subscribers.) Big news for the Escape is the welcomed addition of standard electronic stability control on all non-hybrid models. The Escape's test also applies to the nearly identical Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute.

We were also disappointed by the Patriot, which looks like the old Jeep Cherokee but proved to be slow, noisy, and crude during our small SUV comparison . Our "Trail Rated" Patriot made it up our rock hill and through our off-road course, but not without a struggle.

Prices for the vehicles in this group range from $22,290 for the Kia Sportage to $27,970 for the Saturn Vue. Of the four vehicles, only one is recommended, another is too new for us to have reliability data, and two scored too low in our small SUV comparison testing to be recommended.

Some new small SUVs are hitting the market and we will be testing them soon:

Jeep has introduced a redesigned Liberty for 2008. It shares a platform with the unimpressive Dodge Nitro.

The Sentra-based Rogue is Nissan's first U.S. offering in this class with a starting price of under $20,000.

Volkswagen is close to joining the small-SUV fray in summer 2008. The Tiguan will be based on the Golf/Rabbit platform and its engines will include a four-cylinder gasoline and a contemporary turbodiesel, which will be made available in all 50 States.


SMALL SUV ALTERNATIVES
We also tested two tall vehicles that you might want to consider as an alternative to a small SUV.

The Suzuki SX4 is a small, low-priced vehicle that offers SUV-like versatility in a compact package. All-wheel drive makes it useful in snowy climates, but it is slow and noisy.

With the optional third row, the seven-seat Kia Rondo is a microvan like the Mazda5. It packs a lot of features and versatility into a compact package, but AWD is not available.

The Rondo LX retailed for $20,655, while our SX4 Sport cost $17,994. We lack reliability data for both vehicles, although the Kia Optima, upon which the Rondo is based, has been above average.