Hot on the heels of our 2002 Truck of the Year shootout last month, we are now pleased to present our 2002 Sport Utility of the Year competition.

In keeping with our agenda of testing only vehicles that are new or significantly different from previous models, we have focused on seven contenders for the prestigious title of 2002 Sport Utility of the Year. They are, in no particular order: Buick Rendezvous, Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra, Isuzu Axiom, GMC Envoy, Ford Explorer, and Cadillac Escalade. The Buick, Jeep, and Isuzu are all-new vehicles, while the Cadillac, Ford, GMC, and Nissan are new for 2002.

The Truckin' staff, along with help from the staffers of Truckin's SUV, Mini Truckin', 4 Wheel Drive & Sport Utility and OFF-ROAD put all seven through their paces to determine which sport utility vehicle offered the most performance, comfort, convenience, and value for the money. All were tested simultaneously with our 2002 Truck of the Year entrants and subjected to the same mix of both on- and off-road conditions as well as performance tests performed at the San Bernardino County Sheriff's EVOC facility and the Los Angeles County Raceway dragstrip in Palmdale, California.

As with the truck testing, we put the sport utility vehicles through a mix of performance evaluations and test-drives. We studied interior and exterior styling, comparisons of cargo capacity, mpg figures, acceleration and braking tests, and quarter-mile elapsed times. Points were awarded in the following categories: ' Interior: Overall fit and finish, overall interior styling/appearance, instrumentation, accessory operation, stereo sound and operation, storage areas, front seat, legroom, rear seat, headroom, vibrations, wind noise, cargo access.

' Drivetrain: Overall engine operation & acceleration, engine/transmission compatibility, shifting, power.

' Suspension: Ride quality, low-speed cornering, high-speed cornering, body roll, braking.

' Styling: Overall appearance, front fascia, rear, wheel design and tire size, overall stance.

The first thing we noticed about this latest crop of SUVs was how comfortable and car-like they were. After driving pickups almost exclusively, our test crew instantly adjusted to these new sport utes.

The next characteristic to jump out at us was the fact that many of the SUVs seemed to have a bit more body roll than your average truck because of their higher center of gravity. This is not a hard and fast rule, because we have driven quite a few trucks with a fair amount of body roll too. Perhaps we noticed body roll because we were expecting the SUVs to exhibit that trait. Before we get to the business of scoring these new vehicles, let's take a closer look at the contenders.

We were surprised to find the distinct Buick automobile grille on the front end of a sport utility vehicle this year. The Rendezvous is the first SUV to be offered by Buick. Sharing a common platform with the Pontiac Aztek, the Rendezvous is certainly better looking than its GM cousin. Nicely styled and very plush inside, our test Buick was an all-wheel-drive model. It's not exactly the hot ticket for doing burnouts at the dragstrip but very competent both on- and off-road.

The capable and proven Nissan Xterra made it into this year's test by virtue of new front-end styling and more importantly, a supercharger under the hood. Although the Xterra was not as plush or full-featured as some of the vehicles in the test, the addition of an extra 40 horses under the hood certainly makes a good thing better.

Jeep's new Liberty replaces the aging Cherokee with a dash of class. The Liberty is deceptively roomy inside, and the vehicle looks smaller than it really is when you compare the numbers to the old standard Cherokee. We tested a 4WD model with a 210hp 3.7L engine that needed all of its might to push the 4,000-pound vehicle down the road.

Perhaps the most car-like vehicle in the test was the Isuzu Axiom. It also had plenty of new-age gadgetry with Isuzu's Torque On Demand 4WD system and the very complicated-looking Integrated Monitor System controlling both audio and climate operation. The Axiom even has a clock that is set to the U.S. Atomic clock. When the Axiom says you're late for an appointment, you can rely on it. Surprising power and smooth shifting characterized the GMC Envoy. New GMC-only styling and the new 270hp straight-six engine made the '02 Envoy a favorite with many test drivers.

Of course, we had to include the Explorer since it was significantly restyled for 2002 and made 2 inches wider and 2 inches longer. We tested an Explorer fitted with Ford's 4.6L 240hp V-8. The Explorer scored well in all performance testing.

Last on the list, but not least by any means, the plush and powerful Cadillac Escalade had an unfair advantage in that its $50,000 price tag was almost double the price of some of the vehicles tested. The new Vortec 6000 V-8 under the hood puts out 345 horsepower and enabled the Escalade to post performance numbers the other SUVs simply could not match.

The pages that follow will reveal the winner of the competition. Prior to the final determination, you'll find a separate page on each vehicle tested. Included for each vehicle is a specifications chart outlining vital statistics along with our combined staff observations. Follow along as we present our conclusions and see if you agree with our choice of the Sport Utility Vehicle of the Year for 2002.