The sport/utility vehicle is quintessentially American, if only because no other country has had enough highways, wide-open spaces and cheap fuel to sustain them. All this began to change a few years ago, however, when the Asians and Europeans started building mini-me versions of the SUV. It wasn’t long before streets and trails began clotting with the likes of Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V, Hyundai’s Santa Fe, the Mazda Tribute and Land Rover’s Freelander.
Where modern mini-SUVs are concerned, the Big Three were nowhere to be found until about two years ago. (OK, Jeep’s Wrangler has been with us for years, but its bare-bones, survivalist design veers sharply from the aforementioned comfy-trucks.) Lately, though, the Big Three have gotten back in the fray with the Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, an updated Chevy Tracker and Saturn’s Vue.
For 2003, the mini-SUV category is about as close to a free-for-all as you can get. Here’s how it all stacks up.
2003 Chevrolet Tracker An affordable, basic design, featuring either 2.0-liter inline-4 (127 hp) or a 2.5-liter V6 (155 hp). Based on a Suzuki (Vitara) platform, with a ladder frame, Tracker was one of the first minis on the market and is now somewhat dated as a result.
2003 Ford Escape Refined and modern, with either a 2.0-liter inline-4 (127 hp) or a 3.0-liter V6 (201 hp). Based on the Ford Contour sedan platform, Escape is an enjoyable highway cruiser that’s competent in mild off-road situations. Range of models and prices is extensive, as are clever “lifestyle” accessories.
2003 Honda CR-V Although not the first of Japan’s “cute utes,” it’s arguably the best. There’s only one engine choice with the CR-Van efficient 2.4-liter inline-4 (162 hp). Ride is excellent, handling superb, but off-road prowess is limited. Cargo space and management are particularly versatile.
2003 Hyundai Santa Fe One of the newer import mini-SUV, featuring either a 2.7-liter V6 (173 hp) or a 2.4-liter inline-4 (138 hp). Eye-catching exterior styling pleases some, leaves others cold. Pricing is mid-range, but standard features abound and warranty protection is one of the best.
2003 Jeep Liberty Worthy replacement for Jeep Cherokee, with 2.4-liter inline-4 (150 hp) or 3.7-liter V6 (210 hp) engine options. Larger than typical mini-SUVs, and plenty powerful in V6 trim. A genuinely serious off-roader, although highway manners suffer a bit as a result.
2003 Jeep Wrangler A bare-bones original, boasting either a 4.0-liter straigh (190 hp) or a 2.4-liter inline-4 (147 hp). Wrangler is rude, crude and a barrel of fun. Real, roll-up windows are now an available option. Cargo space is limited and sofop removal can be infuriating, but the Wrangler mystique is unique in the world.
2003 Land Rover Freelander At the upper end of the mini-SUV segment, in both size and price. A 2.5-liter V6 (175 hp) is the only engine choice. Superior off-road manners owe much to standard Hill Descent Control technology. Handling and ride are stable and pleasant. Luxury touches appear throughout, although cargo space is only just adequate.
2003 Mazda Tribute This sibling of the Ford Escape shares the same 2.0-liter inline-4 (127 hp) and 3.0-liter V6 (201 hp) engines. Somewhat fewer model choices are compensated by excellent standard equipment lists for DS, EX and LX styles. Pricing is mid-range, and styling is contemporary and crisp.
2003 Saturn Vue General Motors’ dedicated import fighter, featuring either a 2.2-liter inline-4 (143 hp) or 3.0-liter V6 (181 hp). A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is a novel option for the 2.2-liter powertrain. Vue is affordably priced and boasts roomy versatility. Interior styling and components, however, are plain and plasticky.
2003 Toyota RAV4 The original Japanese “cute ute,” based on the Toyota Corolla and available only with a 2.0-liter inline-4 (148 hp). Priced affordably, RAV4 is recently updated but somewhat outclassed by newer and more powerful rivals. Quality is top-notch throughout, and the ride is especially car-like.
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