Once a year, in the spring, Truckin's SUV publishes its annual SUV of the Year feature, choosing the most noteworthy new or redesigned sport utilities for the current model year. This year, the redesigned '02 Cadillac Escalade took top honors and was pitted against nine competitors, including the GMC Envoy, the Jeep Liberty, the newly redesigned Ford Explorer, and others.

In the spirit of SUV of the Year, we'll be adding a regular feature to the pages of the magazine: A shootout where two or more competitive SUVs are tested, judged, and ranked.

First up is a comparison of the Ford Escape and the Saturn Vue. Both vehicles fit into the compact sport utility automotive niche and are very similar in design, features, price, and performance. The Escape is the older of the two, introduced in late 2000 as an '01 model. The Vue is a fairly recent SUV contender, introduced earlier this year as an '02 model.

We thought a matchup between the two would make for an intriguing shootout, since both are compact SUVs and are similar in price, horsepower, and fuel mileage. Plus, it's always interesting to rate Ford and GM products against one another.

Our testing involved a comprehensive mix of evaluations: test drives, subjective scrutiny of interior and exterior styling, and objective tallying of cargo capacity, towing prowess, creature amenities, mpg figures, and more. Points were scored and tallied in categories such as interior, drivetrain, suspension, and styling. The editors spent at least one week of seat time in each vehicle in order to make an informed decision.

The results of our testing come at the end of this article. Prior to announcing our winner, however, we have provided a page of information on each vehicle tested. Included is a list of specs outlining each vehicle's vital statistics: engine size, estimated EPA figures, seating capacity, dimensions, price as tested, and more.

Ford Escape XLT

The Ford Escape is the smallest sport utility that Ford currently manufactures. It was introduced in 2001 and returns to the automotive arena for 2002 with few changes. The Escape marks the company's successful entry into the most competitive segment of the SUV market. New options for '02 models include a new rack system and new exterior color options.

For 2002, the small SUV still comes with a choice of a four-cylinder engine or the 200hp V-6 and a choice of two- or four-wheel drive. Escape buyers also have a choice of transmissions: The four-cylinder comes with either a manual or an automatic transmission, and the V-6 comes with the automatic as standard equipment. A fully independent suspension is standard equipment on all models. The Escape has room for five people and has more than 33 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row. Fuel economy can be as good as 27 mpg on the highway.

We tested the Escape XLT, the top-of-the-line model. The XLT has new standard features, such as privacy glass and a power six-way driver's seat. These join the numerous other standard features on the XLT trim level: the 3.0L V-6; 16-inch aluminum wheels; foglamps; a power moonroof; power windows, locks, and mirrors; leather seats; air conditioning; Control Trac four-wheel drive; and the Class II trailer towing package, which enables the Escape to tow as much as 3,500 pounds. Additional options on the test vehicle included a six-disc in-dash CD changer and side airbags.

Engine: 3.0L Duratec DOHC V-6

Transmission: Four-speed automatic Overdrive

Horsepower/torque (lb-ft): 201 @ 5,900 rpm/196 @ 4,700 rpm

F our-wheel-drive system/suspension: Control Trac four-wheel drive/four-wheel independent with coil springs, MacPherson strut-style front and double lateral link rear

Estimated EPA (city/highway): 18/23

Seating Capacity/cargo area (cu ft): Five/33.0

Dimensions (length/width/height (in): 173.0/70.1/69.1

Ground clearance (in): 7.8

Curb weight (lb): 3,364

Towing capacity (lb): 3,500 (Class II towing package)

Base price: $24,450

Price as tested: $25,840

Saturn Vue AWD

The Vue is Saturn's first SUV, and it shares its DNA with some of the sedans in Saturn's car lineup. This compact SUV has two engine options, either a 2.2L four-cylinder engine or a 3.0L V-6 with a five-speed automatic. Similar to the Escape, the Vue's four-cylinder is backed by either a manual or an automatic transmission, but the automatic in this case is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a first for General Motors.

The CVT offers the responsiveness and the fuel economy of a manual transmission with the smooth ease of operation of an automatic. The Vue comes standard with all-wheel drive when equipped with the V-6, and four-cylinder Vues have the option of front-wheel drive AWD. All Vues have a fully independent suspension.

Saturn went to great pains to make this vehicle innovative, comfortable, and built with the best safety technology. Safety is an extremely high priority with Saturn, which this vehicle reflects. The Vue is built with dent-resistant polymer body-side panels, car-height bumpers, space frame construction, and head-curtain airbags. The vehicle is also built with a low step-in height and a wider cargo door, making entry and use of the interior easier.

The Vue can seat as many as five, with more than 30 cubic feet of space for cargo with the rear seats up. We tested the all-wheel-drive V-6, which is the top-of-the-line Vue. On this vehicle, standard equipment includes air conditioning with filtration, cruise control, 16-inch all-season tires, dual front airbags, and power front disc brakes. This Vue also comes with optional head-curtain airbags, floor mats, ABS, OnStar, a single-disc AM/FM/CD player, and a power sunroof.

Engine: 3.0L DOHC V-6

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Horsepower/torque (lb-ft):181 @ 6,000 rpm/195 @ 4,000 rpm

Four-wheel-drive system/suspension: All-wheel drive/independent strut-type front with coil springs, independent multi- link rear with trailing arm, antiroll bar, and coil springs

Estimated EPA (city/highway): 19/25

Seating Capacity/cargo area (cu ft): Five/30.3

Dimensions (length/width/height (in): 181.3/71.5/66.5

Ground clearance (in):8.0

Curb weight (lb): 3,491

Towing capacity (lb): 2,500 (with trailer brakes)

Base price: $22,575

Price as tested: $25,765

Best of the Compacts? And the Winner Is...

When we decided to test these two vehicles together in a shootout situation, we knew the competition would be close. However, we did not realize just how close it would be. These two vehicles -- although one is definitely of the Ford lineage and the other has unique General Motors appeal -- are very similar in nature, performance, and overall driveability. As part of the testing process, each editor graded the vehicles on a points basis in a variety of categories. When the points were totaled, these two SUVs were not far apart in overall score. This grading process was so close, the editors were actually split as to the overall winner.

However, when all the subjective and objective data was tallied, scrutinized, and contemplated, one vehicle squeaked ahead: the Ford Escape.

Although the subjective point total was very close in overall scoring, the Escape won by 18 points (439 for the Escape, 421 for the Vue). The editors rated both vehicles subjectively in the following areas: interior, drivetrain, suspension, and styling. This -- added to the fact that the Escape has a bit more cargo room, can tow 1,000 pounds more than the Vue, and has 20 more horsepower -- helped the Ford compact win by a narrow margin.

However, the Escape victory takes nothing away from the Vue. Both of these vehicles are capable on the street or in the dirt, have very pleasing styling cues, gutsy performance, fully outfitted interiors, and offer great bang for the buck. During two weeks of test-driving these two vehicles, we learned to appreciate the nuances of each.

Both of these compact sport utilities are fairly quick and peppy, with a decent power-to-weight ratio. The Escape gets the edge with its 201 hp from the 3.0L Duratec V-6 engine. However, the Vue's performance is also very respectable with 181 hp pumping out of its 3.0L V-6 powerplant. As-tested mpg for both these vehicles is excellent, with the Saturn Vue achieving the best fuel mileage at 19 city/25 highway, and the 4x4 Escape checking in at 18/23. Driving these compact sport utilities was a real joy, since both are quick and agile, the suspension on each enhances on-road driving, and their small size afford excellent maneuvering ability.

Points for exterior styling cues ran neck and neck, with the Escape taking a small edge for its overall design. The Vue is a bit more low-slung than the Escape, which certainly does not detract from its overall appeal. The Escape's lines are somewhat smoother flowing than the Vue. Saturn, however, is to be commended for overall appearance in this, their first SUV.

Both vehicles are fairly Spartan on the inside. Although most of the necessary creature amenities are found in both interiors, the inside styling of both the Escape and the Vue are more functional than fancy. Our test Escape has leather seating (standard on the XLT), which is a plus, and we like the Ford's white-faced gauges, which are very easy to read.

Amazingly, there was only a $75 difference in the as-tested price for these vehicles. Total MSRP for the Ford Escape checked in at $25,840, while the price for the Vue totaled $25,765. For less than $26,000, you get a lot of vehicle in both these packages. Although you don't get the myriad of creature amenities in fullsize luxury SUVs, both the Ford Escape and the Saturn Vue offer a lot in a smaller, more energetic package at nearly half the price of many top-of-the-line SUVs.

The Ford Escape may have come out on top in this compact SUV shootout (by a slight margin), but both vehicles are definitely winners.