The CR-V and the RAV4, totally redesigned for 2002, are both roomier and more refined than their predecessors-just what the doctor ordered in this more competitive segment. Inside, Toyota keeps the controls simple and instinctive, which our testers liked. The gearshift on the Honda, by contrast, juts out of the instrument panel near the speedometer, and there's a huge coin box in the middle of the dash where you expect to find radio and climate controls. Saturn also keeps things simple, though we didn't like its cavernous forward dash, which seems to disappear into the windshield 3 feet in front of you. You'd think this largesse would mean more interior cargo room, but the CR-V can actually hold 6 more cubic feet than the Vue. With all the sheetmetal around you, though, the Saturn does make you feel secure.
The 160-horsepower four-cylinder CR-V is the powerhouse of the group; it also offers the most precise steering and suspension. The RAV4 feels a bit softer, providing a better ride. But with 12 fewer horses in its four-cylinder corral, it's a step or two behind the Honda. The big Saturn, powered by a 143-hp four, drives more like a small minivan than an SUV-after it gets up to speed, that is.
Which brings us back to the CVT, which admittedly was invented not to improve performance but rather fuel economy. It works like a 10-speed bicycle, with tapered cone-shaped pulleys instead of sprockets and a metal belt instead of a chain. The belt moves along the pulleys continuously, creating an infinite range of gears instead of the usual four. As a result, it's more efficient-in the Vue's case, 7 percent more so than a conventional automatic.
A nice advantage? Sure. But the truth is, the Saturn's mediocre performance is the only good reason not to buy it. Luckily, unlike the CR-V and RAV4, the Vue's available with an optional six-cylinder coupled with a regular automatic. Our advice: Consider it.
Technology Quotient: 20 points per category, 100 possible in total
|Honda CR-V||Saturn Vue||Toyota RAV4|
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.