CHECK OUT THE CUTE-UTE SMACKDOWN:
We get it already — fuel prices suck. And while we pity the poor sod who bought a new full-size SUV a few years ago and is now stuck with a fuel bill that has doubled and a vehicle whose residual value makes manure futures look appealing, everyone wants solutions. Sympathy won't heal a hemorrhaging wallet.
So what's a utility-lovin' small family to do? Downsize. Full-size SUVs provide unmatched capability but their thirst may make you reassess your needs. Think compact utility vehicle. Think crossover.
This doesn't mean you have to downsize your expectations, though. The three compact SUVs we've assembled here — the brand-new 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan and the 2008 Honda CR-V and 2008 Toyota RAV4 — are based on car platforms, a strategy that helps create an efficient utilization of interior space in a relatively lightweight, fuel-efficient package. Simply put, you can pack more stuff inside these compact SUVs than you might think.
And being car-based, these compact crossovers offer easier entry and exit and better driving maneuverability than truck-based ones, something you really appreciate when you're running errands around town. Of course, car-based SUVs lack the rough-road capability of their bigger brethren, and you can forget about serious towing. For everyday use, though, a compact ute just makes more sense.
We tested a 2008 Honda CR-V AWD EX-L with navigation, a 2008 Toyota RAV4 4x4 Limited and a 2009 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL 4Motion. Each one represents a different take on the cute-ute concept and carry distinct strengths and weaknesses but the three turned out to be surprisingly well-matched. Indeed, when the dust settled, we had a tie for 2nd place, and just 4.2 points separate them from the winner.
These are no penalty boxes either, as all three tested — the top trim level available — are equipped with all-wheel drive, stability control, leather and heated seats. Two of them have navigation systems with back-up cameras and satellite radio.