Sixth Place: Saturn Vue XE AWD
The new Vue, developed in Germany by Opel, is so much better than its predecessor that GM might well have considered changing its name. For one thing, the suspension tuning is now Teutonic -- supple, yet with fine path control and no untamed wheel motions. For another, the '08 Vue looks luxurious inside. Its faux-chrome and carbon-fiber trim bits feel rich to the touch, the amber IP backlighting looks Euro classy, and there's been no attempt -- inside or out -- at styling gimmickry.
You sit tall in the saddle, with vast headroom and an unobstructed view of the world -- a room with a Vue. We did, however, bitch about the seats' super-aggressive lumbar supports, and we also complained about the big steering wheel, whose squared-off inner lip resists your grip. But the platform proved solid and rattle-free, and everyone agreed the Vue was as comfy as the Escape on long interstate hauls.
Nor was this Saturn humiliated off-road, although its poor approach angle resulted in the dismemberment of its chin spoiler. Otherwise, GM's all-wheel-drive system was quick to transfer up to half of the pushrod V-6's 222 horses -- the most in this group -- to the rear wheels. That power, by the way, pulled the Vue to 30 mph sooner than any of its competitors and placed it only 0.2 second behind the Nissan on the journey to 60 mph -- all of it accomplished with minimal engine or road thrash. Combine that with the only six-speed in the group, not to mention the 181-foot stopping distance from 70 mph, and this Saturn was sure to swagger into victory circle, yes?
Well, no. This "compact" ute weighs a shameful 4104 pounds, making it the second heaviest of our trucklets. So it must be bigger, right? Wrong again. Riding on a wheelbase identical to its forebear's, the new Vue's extra lard doesn't result in more passenger or luggage space, and neither does it allow for a third-row seat. In fact, the Vue offers the least cargo volume behind the front seats. And then there's its observed 17 mpg, the predictable outcome of a largish V-6 attached to two-plus tons of anything.
Customers who scrutinize econo-SUVs also scrutinize fuel prices. If gas reaches $4 per gallon, it may well be, "Adieu, Vue."
Fifth Place: Suzuki Grand Vitara 4WD
Among our soft-roaders, only the Jeep and the Suzuki felt genuinely trucklike, partly because both employ extra buttressing in their unibody construction. The Grand Vitara's short windshield, thin A-pillars, high seating position, 3000-pound towing capacity, and taut ride encouraged that perception. Truckish or not, it held its own on Drummond Island's twisty paved roads, despite more body roll than we'd prefer. Its steering, in particular, was a boon, telegraphing road textures and available grip.
Although the Suzuki resembles some sort of macho Freightliner, with a way-too-dark bad-boy interior to match, its cockpit dimensions aren't vast. Among our nine sport-utes, the Grand Vitara offered the least front interior volume, the second-worst rear volume, and a back seat that was shoulder-to-shoulder misery for three.
Powered by a 185-hp twin-cam V-6, which was far louder at idle than any other engine here, our Suzuki was as slow to 60 mph as the Jeep. But the Grand Vitara is a big brute that feels as if it were pushing a lot of atmosphere. By the time it realized 100 mph, it had fallen 3.9 seconds behind the Liberty, and at interstate speeds, the Suzuki's transmission often felt obliged to kick down a gear or two on barely perceptible upgrades.
Off-road, the Grand Vitara was pure Viagra, nearly as solid and capable as the Jeep, despite 1.6 fewer inches of ground clearance. Below the HVAC controls looms a big rotary dial that engages neutral, 4wd high, 4wd high lock, or 4wd low lock. In neutral, you can flat-tow the Suzuki behind your RV without racking up odo miles or spinning any gears. In low gear, with the center diff tied down, the Grand Vitara inched effortlessly over boulders and logs, placating those editors who are insecure about being seen driving anything that smacks of "mommy mobile."
Fourth Place: Mitsubishi Outlander ES 4WD
This second-gen Outlander now can be had with a 168-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four rather than the previously standard V-6. The four-banger is mated only to a CVT rather than a six-speed automatic. To placate traditionalists, Mitsubishi installed a pair of paddle shifters on the steering column. They work eagerly and instantly, but it still seems goofy to gin up fake gears for a gearless system. We mostly used the paddles in downshift mode to summon some engine braking.
Our Outlander was shod with the lowest-profile, highest-performance tires in this group, so it was no shock that it logged the fastest lane change and was almost as capable on the skidpad as the Honda and Nissan. On twisty roads, it was agile, willing, and took a confident set, although its steering wasn't nearly as communicative as the Nissan's, which did damage to its fun-to-drive rating. The Mitsu nonetheless felt extraordinarily carlike, in part because it was as serene as the Toyota at idle and also the quietest at full whack. Despite those encouraging sound-pressure levels, the engine evinced an omnipresent grittiness that drew attention. And because the CVT can allow the engine to hang at WOT for longish spells, unkind comments ensued.
The Outlander offered the most cargo storage behind its split rear seat, whose seatbacks, by the way, can be set to recline at any angle. It is available with a third-row seat. And it offers a two-piece liftgate, the lower section of which swings out flat, like a pickup truck's tailgate. Two 220-pounders can sit on that flap.
The Mitsubishi's chief flaw was its dour and dull cockpit, chockablock with plasticky, cheap-looking surfaces that we deemed unacceptable in a $25,000 vehicle.
You can manually lock the front and rear axles, and there's plenty of ground clearance, but the Outlander tiptoed timidly off-road, partly because of its street-biased tires, partly because of its worst-in-test departure angle, but mostly because it felt fragile.
The Mitsu performed all tasks satisfactorily but none spectacularly, usually not a recipe for showroom stardom. Yet in the first 10 months of 2007, Outlander sales nearly tripled over the same period in 2006.