Sir Isaac Newton said, “To every action, there is always opposed an equal reaction.”

The law that Newton developed 311 years ago is still applicable in the real world. Consider the drop in the President’s job approval ratings after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or the proliferation of “I Hate Gates” websites in the wake of Microsoft’s meteoric rise in the market share of software applications.


The automotive business is another one that benefits from Newton’s law. Consider the case of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), for instance. The backlash against sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) is growing as their market share in the United States continues to expand. In 2014, SUVs and pickups accounted for a record 16 percent of the combined sales of cars and light trucks. The environmental movement has recently started railing against the higher carbon dioxide emissions and the fuel-hungry nature of these vehicles. The insurance industry has recently made the startling discovery that, in the event of a collision involving a car and a pickup truck or sport-utility vehicle, the likelihood of fatal injury or death for those occupants of the car is four times higher than that of those occupants of the truck. (Our favourite statistic: If a large pickup ploughs into your little car from the side, guess what? You are 27 times more likely to meet your maker than they are—surprise, surprise! The real statistic: 90 percent of all accidents are caused by driver error.) Some insurance companies are charging more for SUV policies, citing the added damage these trucks inflict on other vehicles.

Consumers who purchase automobiles are reacting to these worries. The smaller, less expensive sport-utility vehicles that combine the advantages of a large SUV—such as stout-looking waggon bodywork, a high driving position, and stylish four-wheel drive—with the lighter, better-handling, and more fuel-efficient attributes of a car are currently enjoying a burgeoning market. These vehicles combine the advantages of a large SUV with those of a car.

The Toyota RAV4 was the first SUV built on a car basis to be commercially successful on both the American and Japanese markets when it was introduced in 1996. Its success led to the rapid production of “me-too” vehicles, such as the Honda CR-V, which was based on the Civic; the Subaru Forester, which was based on the Impreza; and several other models, some of which are still in the planning stages at the Big Three automakers. Even before Toyota released the RAV4, the Korean automaker Kia produced a vehicle with a somewhat larger sport-ute body riding on a truck-style frame. This vehicle was priced competitively with economy cars despite its truck-like construction. The ride and handling of the Jeep Cherokee as well as the Suzuki Sidekick and Chevy Tracker vehicles are neither car-derived nor carlike; yet, these models do fit the size and price class for their respective categories.

We decided to do a review of these compact utility vehicles so that we could determine which one offered the optimal combination of sport and utility. Models with five doors (Jeep, Kia, and Toyota only provide three door options), four-wheel drive (all of the other makes offer two-wheel drive options), and five-speed manual transmissions were invited. The only exception was the Subaru, which only offers two-wheel drive. Inconveniently added extras pushed the price of the Forester, the CR-V, and the RAV4 up to levels that were higher than the $21,000 ceiling that had been established. In light of the fact that an all-new model is just around the corner, we decided to exempt the Sidekick/Tracker from our evaluation.

We travelled 1,300 miles in these utes, covering a variety of terrain in the middle and southern parts of California. We threaded them carefully through the winding, busy, and frequently steep streets of San Francisco, and then we let them loose on the broad plains and gently undulating hills of Interstate 5. We hurled them through the dusty, tight curves of 20 Mule Team Road, which snakes through one of the numerous abandoned borax mines that are located throughout Death Valley. We coaxed them up the breathless ascent to Dante’s View, which is located a mile above Death Valley.

We spent a half day driving our small sport-utes off-road through the Dumont Dunes, which are located southeast of Death Valley. Since time immemorial, this picturesque landscape of dry, sandy flats and towering sand mountains has served as a playground for off-roaders as well as photographers working on vehicle advertisements.

Last but not least, we put each one of them through our comprehensive battery of performance tests. Here is a rundown of how these itty-bitty ground pounders performed.

The Jeep Cherokee SE came in fifth place.

You can tell right away that this SUV is unique just by taking a look at its large wheels and tyres in addition to its boxy, narrow body. It has been 14 years since the introduction of the Cherokee, which is notable for being the first compact five-door sport-ute. After its intended replacement, the much larger and more luxurious Grand Cherokee, was released in 1992, Chrysler continued to produce the Cherokee even though the market had shifted towards a market for more modest SUVs, which is a segment that is thriving today. The Cherokee received dual airbags and had its exterior styling changed slightly the year before, but the Cherokee does not have a place in the tall-car, light-off-roading market that the RAV4 was instrumental in creating. This may be the reason why the Cherokee came in last place in the competition.

The instant you step into the Cherokee, its age is brought to your attention. The interior is cramped and confined, and the front seat passengers have a limited field of view due to the comparatively tiny size of the windscreen. Because they are so narrow, the back doors make it more difficult to enter and exit the building. The dashboard, which is composed of several components that are also found in the Cherokee’s more basic Wrangler sister, is made almost entirely of plastic that has an austere appearance. When you drive the Cherokee, it has an outdated feel to it. To achieve 60 miles per hour with the cast-iron, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, it takes 12 seconds. The four-cylinder engine revs readily despite the fact that it only has pushrods (all of the other waggons have double overhead cams), but an unpleasant engine whine removes most of the enjoyment from winding it out. At least the manual gearbox with five gears provides a satisfying level of precision.

Even though it has solid front and rear axles, the Jeep Cherokee drives and rides better than we anticipated for such a vehicle. During the test that simulates an emergency lane change, it seemed quite stable and manoeuvrable. In the rain and at highway speeds, though, the steering feels vague and uncommunicative much of the time. The Jeep Cherokee’s performance in the sand was unremarkable; but, due to its high ground clearance, low-range transfer case, and high-torque engine, the Cherokee is a great choice for driving in extremely tough terrain. Jeep anticipates that one-fourth of its Cherokee buyers will use their vehicles for off-roading, which is a larger percentage than what the other four manufacturers anticipate for their respective vehicles.

The Cherokee’s starting price of $18,615 already includes air conditioning, but there aren’t many other extras included. Our test vehicle came with a limited-slip differential, skid plates and a full-size spare tyre, but it did not have a tach, power windows or power locks despite having a price tag of $19,725. This was due to the fact that its primary function was to run the Rubicon Trail.

Some of the editors felt that the Spartan simplicity of the Cherokee suggested an appealing toughness, while others felt that it just felt crude. With the $995 upgrade to the six-cylinder engine, more of that allure may have been shown. However, if you are not an experienced off-roader, one of the other four cars would most likely be a more suitable option for you.

Kia Sportage came in fourth place.

Kia used what you would call a “middle of the road” strategy while developing the Sportage compact sport utility vehicle (SUV). The front end was updated in 1998 with new headlamps and a grille, and while it looks adorable, the simplistic lines border on being unoriginal. Although the hubs are now equipped to lock and unlock themselves automatically, there is no complicated automatic four-wheel-drive system; instead, there is just a simple two-speed transfer case. As in the Cherokee, the system is activated by pulling up on a lever that is located on the floor. There is no folding table, reclining rear seat, smart storage compartments, or luggage tie-downs; instead, there are just five comfy seats, all of which have a wonderful view out of large windows. The wide inside was updated for 1998 with a new dashboard, but it still does not provide many extras. To construct automobiles and trucks successfully in Korea, one must first master the fundamentals and then avoid taking unnecessary dangers. The payoff is a very low starting price of $16,845. The as-tested price of our test truck, which came to $18,554, was likewise the lowest of the competition.

However, the Sportage was never quite able to shake the impression of being a budget-friendly vehicle. The engine has a contemporary design with double overhead cams and power and torque ratings that are on par with those of its competitors; nonetheless, it has the slowest acceleration of the group. “Underpowered,” Webster referred to this phrase.

“The engine feels like the flywheel is four sizes too big.” Its fuel efficiency is only a touch better than the one of the low-tech Cherokee. The editors agreed that the elevated seating position was one of the best aspects of the Kia when it came to navigating the congested streets of San Francisco. On Interstate 5, several motorists voiced their dissatisfaction with the Sportage’s steering, which they described as being both heavy and rather lifeless. Because it does not have roll and shock control, and because the Uniroyal tyres on it provide the least degree of grip of any of these five vehicles, the Kia is the vehicle that is the least agile and the one that moves the most slowly in the emergency lane change. “sloppy, with little roll control,” the test driver said in his report.

While everyone else in the party was bobbing around on the sand at Dumont Dunes, the Kia’s body structure felt like it had the greatest give to it. Its lengthy wheelbase combined with the absence of a limited-slip differential contributed to it becoming wedged on top of a sand dune.

Other minor issues were noticed in the logbook, such as the lack of resistance provided by the accelerator pedal spring, which causes your leg to tyre out over extended journeys. In addition, there is no remote release for the trunk, and the buttons on the radio are roughly the same size as a newborn’s fingernails. If these shortcomings were addressed, the appeal of this Kia would increase significantly. However, the Sportage continues to be a competent little waggon in the majority of respects, and it ought to satisfy those who are on a limited spending plan. It’s just that an additional couple thousand dollars gets you a lot more waggon in this category, which would explain why the Kia finished in fourth position overall.

3rd Place: Honda CR-V EX

The fact that this Honda has taillights located on the D-pillar gives it a really distinctive appearance. It has a lot of unexpected elements. For instance, the glass on the tailboard can be flipped up independently in order to make loading lighter goods simpler. It is possible to rearrange the seat cushions in the front and back of the vehicle to create two nearly horizontal beds. When removed, the storage cover that was located on the floor of the cargo area transforms into a table that can be folded up. In case it rains during your tailgate party, there is even a holder for an umbrella that you can purchase separately on the back door.

A five-speed manual gearbox is now available for the CR-V, making it more appealing to owners who are car enthusiasts. With the addition of Honda’s fuel-saving aluminium DOHC 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the CR-V can now reach 60 miles per hour in 10.3 seconds, which is 0.6 second faster than the automatic gearbox. Despite having the most roomy cabin of the vehicles in this comparison, it nevertheless managed to achieve a respectable 20 miles per gallon on our 1300 mile test. Our Honda CR-V was the only car in this group to have anti-lock brakes, which allowed it to come to a stop from 70 miles per hour in just 187 feet, making it the most effective of these five vehicles. The new manual gearbox lives up to the high expectations set by earlier models of Honda and Acura vehicles. Winfield described the shifter as “precise, but not rigidly metallic,” describing its feel.

The steering wheel is positioned at an uncomfortable inclination outward towards the driver’s A-pillar, and the on/off switch for the cruise control and the power window controls are haphazardly arranged on the dashboard behind the steering wheel. These were two of the surprises that we did not enjoy about the vehicle. When travelling at highway speeds, the interior of the vehicle is subjected to a significant amount of wind and road noise. As the speed picks up, the agile steering of the CR-V becomes bland because of the understeer.

When it detects that the front wheels are losing traction, the Real Time four-wheel drive system of the CR-V engages a clutch pack to send power to the rear wheels. The capability of the CR-V to climb dunes was hindered by its engagement being fairly jarring. Even on dry roads, this jerking made it difficult for us to perform cornering and lane-change tests. Additionally, the response time was rather poor. Webster voiced his frustration by stating, “You can spin the front wheels from rest because it can’t seem to engage the rear wheels quickly enough,”

No huge deal. Even still, Honda anticipates that only 12 percent of its CR-V customers will really use their vehicles for off-roading. They will most likely be more impressed with the EX model’s extensive collection of standard equipment, which includes dual vanity mirrors, a map lamp, keyless entry with an alarm, and more. With all of these extras, the Honda CR-V is undeniably a practical vehicle for households with only a few people. However, when viewed through the eyes of an enthusiast, it isn’t as polished as it could be, and driving it with the manual gearbox isn’t quite as enjoyable as we had hoped it would be.

The Toyota RAV4 came in second place.

With the introduction of the RAV4 in 1996, Toyota was a pioneer in the small SUV industry. Not only did it garner praise from industry experts, but it also proved to be an enormous financial success for Toyota. The previous year, the RAV4 came very close to outselling the Avalon sedan. Its handsome design was revised for the 1998 model year with new front and back style as well as interior improvements that included the inclusion of seatbelt preten­sioners (this safety claim can only be matched by the CR-V).

Within this group, this one feels the most streamlined and has the best response time. The braking and steering of the RAV4 are both responsive and direct, respectively. Although there is some rolling, diving, and squatting going on, it is never excessive in any way. Our RAV4 won first place in its category for cornering grip with 0.72 g, and it grabbed second place in braking, coming to a halt from 70 miles per hour in 193 feet (without anti-lock control) with the help of an optional larger tire-and-wheel package that cost $1140. With a speed of 57.9 miles per hour and the well-balanced controllability of a sports coupe, the Toyota was the vehicle that completed the emergency lane change the quickest. If we hadn’t been sitting up so high, we could have sworn we were in the passenger seat of a Toyota Celica.

One more thing that appeals to us about the RAV4 is this. We were reminded of the Kia by its seat height and commanding view out, but the Toyota has windows and fenders that appear to be closer together, giving it a more personal feel. Although the interior does not have the versatility or the spaciousness of the CR-V, the front seats are supportive, and the dashboard’s ergonomics are top-notch. The seatbacks of the back seats may be reclined, and the backs of the seats themselves can split and fold forward independently, making it easier to transport both bicycles and passengers in the back seat.

The drivetrain of the RAV4 is as nimble as the chassis itself. The throws made by the shifter are quite brief and lightning fast. With 127 horsepower and a rev-happy DOHC 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood, the Acura can reach 60 miles per hour in 10.2 seconds, which is virtually on par with the Honda. When compared to the Honda, it has a more powerful acceleration in fifth gear, which results in fewer frequent downshifts when travelling at high speeds. In RAV4s with manual transmissions, there is a button on the dashboard that may be used to lock the transfer case. Our RAV4’s capability of climbing dunes was only impeded by its engine, which simply ran out of torque when the hills became more steep. The limited-slip rear differential ($375 option) was able to reduce rear wheelspin, thus this helped the RAV4’s dune-climbing capability.

Our test vehicle’s total price tag of $22,575 was driven up by pricey add-ons such as privacy glass, power windows and locks, and a sunroof, which also lost it points in the value category. If you restricted your selections to only air conditioning, a limited-slip differential, and larger tyres, you could save two thousand dollars. If not for the RAV4’s lack of power in comparison to the Forester and its high sticker price, it is possible that this competition would have been won by the Forester.

1st Place: Subaru Forester L

Just like the Cherokee, the Forester stands out as an anomaly among its peers, albeit for an entirely different reason. In a purely technical sense, it’s the one of these vehicles that most closely resembles an automobile. If you were to rip off its exterior layer, all you would be left with would be an Impreza with a higher ground clearance. But consumers of automobiles appear to be open to the idea that Subaru’s all-wheel-drive waggons can compete favourably with these little bruisers, so we decided to include it.

It is instantly obvious that the Forester’s automobile genes provide it with a number of benefits. This is without a doubt the most sophisticated waggon of the bunch. It is noticeably less noisy when travelling at high speeds, and its ride is marginally smoother than that of the other options.

The benefits continue once one is inside. The driver’s seat in this waggon has more adjustment options than the seats in the other waggons in our comparison, and the ergonomics (including the position of the steering wheel) are flawless. The cabin is also outfitted with luxurious-appearing materials and fabrics, something that the interiors of the competing waggons lack. (However, we could have done without the optional fake-wood accents because of their strange orange-peel finish.)

But what truly separates the Forester from the competition is its running gear. Its DOHC flat-four engine with a capacity of 2.5 litres produces a thrilling 165 horsepower. Because it weighs only 3,120 pounds, the Forester has a power-to-weight ratio that is 24 percent greater than the RAV4, which is the next-best vehicle in this category. The outcome of this is that the Forester blows away the competition in every acceleration test, including the sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour, which it completes in 9.5 seconds. Although the soft suspension does not have the same quick reflexes as the RAV4, the steering is precise, and the tyres reach their 0.71-g cornering grip in a predictable manner. Winfield described the situation as being “extremely reliable.” “Can be hurled into big slides, and then easily caught on the throttle.”

This is something that should be attributed in part to the four-wheel-drive system. Its limited-slip centre differential gave the impression of being able to adjust power front to rear in a smoother manner than the CR-V could. The likelihood of this waggon becoming mired in Dumont Dunes is the lowest it could possibly be.

Those genes passed down from other automobiles don’t always work in the Subaru’s favour, though. It has the shallowest approach and departure angles of the group, which, ironically, means that the Forester may be the least capable of tackling tough forest terrain. In addition, the seating height of the other vehicles is more commanding than what the Forester offers, which is one of the primary reasons why people purchase these vehicles in the first place. However, this is somewhat offset by the fact that the tall windows cause the body of the Forester to appear disproportionate. When three adults are seated in the back seat, the space is cramped and uncomfortable. In addition, none of the editors were very fond of the Forester’s exterior design.

When you’re attempting to have some fun with a utilitarian waggon, styling doesn’t really matter all that much. However, both the RAV4 and the Forester were enjoyable to drive, albeit in slightly different ways. Buyers who intend to engage in some kind of light off-roading should most likely go with the tall-boy RAV4 model. But the on-road enthusiast editors here at Car and Driver considered the quick and nimble chassis of the Subaru, in addition to the vehicle’s somewhat lower price, to be more enticing, which resulted in the Subaru taking first place by a one-point margin.