2007 Honda CR-VClick to enlarge picture

The Honda CR-V is all new for 2007, with more refined styling and ride as well as a more powerful 4-cylinder engine. The spare tire no longer hangs on the rear liftgate but is stowed under the cargo floor.

Don't underestimate small sport utility-vehicles because of their size. They may be compact—with seating, generally, for only four or five people. But all have a high seating position that today's drivers seem to crave, distinctly uncar-like looks and available all- or four-wheel drive, and many are suitable for off-road terrain.

There are more than two dozen compact-sized SUVs on the market, with base retail prices ranging from just over $15,000 for a two-wheel-drive Jeep Compass with a 4-cylinder engine and a manual transmission to more than $36,000 for an all-wheel-drive BMW X3 with 6-cylinder engine.

This segment includes three gasoline-electric vehicles, and two of them had price reductions for 2007. A 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid had a new starting base retail price of less than $26,000 at the start of the model year, while its twin vehicle, the 2007 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, started around $28,000. But they're both higher in price than Saturn's new hybrid SUV, the Saturn Vue Green Line. It starts at just over $23,000, uses a less complex hybrid system and doesn't get the same high mileage ratings of the Escape and Mariner hybrids.

Photo Gallery: Small Sport-Utility Vehicles

Small Sport-Utility News
New compact SUVs debut for 2007. Toyota added the FJ Cruiser, which wears the name of the earliest SUVs that Toyota sold in the U.S. The new FJ Cruiser is designed for rugged off-roading, and, in a unique touch, all roofs atop the boxy FJ Cruiser are white. For easy cleaning, the standard seat fabric is water resistant. Power comes from a 239-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. The FJ is offered with choice of manual or automatic transmission.

Jeep adds the Compass to its lineup for 2007 and goes in a new direction. The new five-passenger vehicle rides on a modified platform of the Dodge Caliber small car and is the first front-wheel-drive Jeep with fully independent suspension. The ride here is more car-like than might be expected in a small Jeep. There's one engine—a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter 4 cylinder, and manual and continuously variable transmissions are offered.

Acura adds its second SUV for 2007. The compact RDX is smaller than the Acura MDX, seats five and is one of the few SUVs with a turbocharged engine. The 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine in the RDX produces a surprising 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. A 5-speed automatic with Sequential SportShift is standard, and the RDX comes with Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive that not only provides power to front and rear axles, it can distribute torque between left and right rear wheels.

Mitsubishi's Outlander is a new second-generation model for 2007 with a new platform, modern styling and a V6 for the first time. The previous Outlander's 4 cylinder is gone, and the new 3.0-liter V6 develops 220 horsepower. Also available for the first time in the Outlander: third-row seating.

Jeep has a new-generation Wrangler for 2007. The new Wrangler is 5.5 inches wider than its predecessor, has new styling inside and out, a new frame and a new 202-horsepower 3.8-liter V6. There's also a new hardtop that has three removable pieces to offer various types of open-air driving, and a new Wrangler Unlimited model with four doors is the first Wrangler ever with seating for five. It also has more cargo room than any previous Wrangler—a maximum 83 cubic feet.

Honda has a new, third-generation CR-V for 2007 with richer styling, a quieter, refined interior, more horsepower and standard automatic transmission. One of the top-selling compact SUVs in America, the CR-V comes with a 166-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and no longer carries its spare tire on its rear liftgate. The tire now stays tucked under the rear cargo floor.

Elsewhere at Honda, the Element is restyled a bit inside and out for 2007 and gets 10 additional horsepower—to 166—from its 2.4-liter 4 cylinder and new 5-speed automatic transmission. A new Element SC trim includes sport suspension, carpeted floor, 18-inch alloy wheels and styling touches.

Mazda's first crossover SUV, the CX-7, arrives as a 2007 model. The five-seat, five-door CX-7 looks like a tallish wagon and is powered by a 244-horsepower version of the same 2.3-liter turbocharged four cylinder that's in the MAZDASPEED3.

The 2007 Edge is Ford's entry in the busy crossover SUV segment that seeks to mix car and SUV attributes. In this case, the Edge rides on a platform also used in the Ford Fusion sedan. The five-passenger Edge sits up higher from the pavement and has a new 265-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine.

Meanwhile, the diesel engine is gone from the Jeep Liberty for 2007. The Liberty was the only compact SUV on the market with a diesel powerplant.

Reasons to Consider Small SUVs
Many consumers find the pricing of compact SUVs attractive. For the most part, these vehicles are priced affordably compared with larger SUVs. For example, the top-selling compact SUV, the Ford Escape, has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of just over $21,000 for a 4-cylinder version with two-wheel drive.

Another reason consumers like compact SUVs is their fuel-thrifty nature when compared to larger SUVs. Shoppers can find many models in this segment with 4-cylinder engines, which generally provide higher gasoline mileage per gallon of fuel than do bigger SUVs with larger engines.

Indeed, the Ford Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid top all SUVs in fuel economy with a federal government rating of 36 miles a gallon in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway for a two-wheel-drive model. (Yes, in these hybrid sport utilities, the supplemental electric power helps boost city mileage more than highway mileage.) Meanwhile, the Saturn Vue Green Line is rated at 27/32 mpg by the federal government.

Many buyers also prefer small SUVs because these vehicles tend to position drivers higher off the road than they are in regular cars but typically not so high that they have to struggle to climb aboard. Drivers like the better visibility—over and around traffic—that comes with this higher ride height. Yet, in vehicles such as the Subaru Forester, which has 7.5 inches of ground clearance beneath the vehicle, even shorter-stature drivers can get inside and situate themselves on the seats with ease.

Smaller SUVs often have more nimble handling than do bigger SUVs. For instance, the turning circle of a Jeep Wrangler is 34.9 feet, which is less than that for a Toyota Camry sedan. Compare that to the 43-foot turning circle for a full-size Chevrolet Suburban SUV, which can make U-turns and some parking maneuvers a bit problematic.

Some Disadvantages
However, compact SUVs have limitations. Generally consumers can't expect to tow as much behind small SUVs as they might with larger sport utilities that have larger engines. For instance, the towing limit for a V8-powered Chevrolet Tahoe is 8,200 pounds—enough for a sizable trailer—while the much smaller Honda CR-V, which comes only with a four-cylinder engine, has a towing capacity of just 1,500 pounds.

Smaller SUVs also can't carry as much cargo. Generally, room behind the front seats for cargo ranges up to 72 cubic feet or so in compact SUVs, while large sport utilities offer more storage space such as the Hummer H2, which has 86.6 cubic feet. Maximum payload also is greater in the bigger SUVs.

Even though compact SUVs can be more fuel-efficient than their larger cousins, these SUVs typically are not as fuel-thrifty as some other vehicles, such as five-passenger, compact sedans. For example, the best fuel economy rating for Kia's compact Sportage sport utility is 22/27 mpg for a 4-cylinder, two-wheel-drive model. But a Toyota Corolla sedan, also with a four-cylinder engine, has a government rating as high as 32/41 mpg.

6-Cylinder Power Also Here
While the lowest-priced compact SUVs tend to have 4-cylinder engines, there are many models with 6-cylinder powerplants.

The Saturn Vue and Mazda Tribute are examples of compact SUVs that offer both 4- and 6-cylinder engines. In fact, the Vue's 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 is actually made by Honda in a factory in Ohio and is provided for the Vue via a contract between Saturn's parent company, General Motors Corp., and Honda. The Vue is the only compact SUV with this Honda engine, since Honda's compact SUVs—the Element and CR-V—come only with 4-cylinder powerplants.

Toyota added a V6 to the RAV4 in the 2006 model year. The up-level 3.5-liter V6 in the third-generation RAV4 puts out 269 horsepower. Starting price for a RAV4 with the V6 is near $23,000, while the Kia Sportage with V6 retains the lowest starting retail price for a compact SUV with V6: just under $20,000.

Some compact SUVs are offered only with 6-cylinder engines. Nissan dropped the 4-cylinder engine from its Xterra SUV starting in the 2005 model year. Now, the sole Xterra engine is a 265-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 with a considerable 284 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.

Nifty Features
A few years back, the small SUV segment was the place to find several convertible models. But today the number of small SUVs with tops that can be removed, in one way or another for open-air driving, is down to one vehicle: the Jeep Wrangler, which has a foldable soft-top.

There are several clever features. Saturn's Vue wears dent-resistant plastic body panels, and the Honda Element can be easy to load because it has side cargo doors with no fixed pillar. The tailgate on the Element is a clamshell design for easy loading, too, while the RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander are now offered with three rows of seats, if needed.

The Nissan Xterra debuted with stylish, tubular-looking roof rails that can accommodate a range of storage baskets and kits. The Xterra now also includes a step integrated into the side of the rear bumper. The step gives owners a leg up, if you will, so they can more easily reach items stored in the overhead roof racks. Nissan officials said they added this step after watching Xterra owners at ski facilities slip their feet into the tops of the rear tires in order to reach their ski equipment atop the Xterra.

Safety Counts
Compact sport utilities may bring memories of early, small, rollover-prone, four-wheel-drive vehicles. But in recent years the vehicles in this segment have grown larger and have increased their track, meaning the distance between the two front or two rear wheels, which contributes to better stability.

Further, electronic stability control is available on several models. It's standard, for example, on Toyota's RAV4.

And even low-priced, small SUVs are adding more standard safety features. The Kia Sportage, with starting manufacturer's suggested retail price around $16,000, and its sibling, the Hyundai Tucson, which has a starting MSRP of less than $18,000, rank as the lowest-priced SUVs that come with standard anti-lock brakes, stability control, traction control and six standard airbags, including front seat-mounted side airbags and curtain airbags for both front and rear seats.

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