2007 Toyota RAV4 Sport
2007 Toyota RAV4 Sport; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

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The Compact SUV segment is one of the most popular vehicle classes in Canada. Along with compact cars, our affinity for vehicles in this segment is one of the key differences between the Canadian and U.S. automotive markets.

Not surprisingly, there are numerous choices for consumers when they’re scouting a compact/midsize SUV purchase, ranging in price from a low of $20,595 for a Hyundai Tucson, to well over $40,000 for a BMW X3 or Acura RDX, and to over $50,000 for a Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

Typically, all of these vehicles pack a full arsenal of safety equipment, feature all-wheel drive (although some can be purchased with front-wheel drive), and are built around a “two-box” design, with one “box” for the engine, and the other “box” a large compartment for passengers and cargo.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS
2007 Suzuki XL7
Hyundai Santa Fe GLS (top), Suzuki XL7 (bottom); photos by Paul Williams and Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge

Over the years, this class of vehicles has become more and more refined – less truck-like, in other words — with many offering a vast array of creature comforts and smooth, powerful engines. But although they may generally look the same, you can buy vehicles of quite different character, style and functionality for pretty much the same money.

www.Autos.ca has assembled three examples for a long-term test that highlight the differences and similarities between SUVs in the mid-$30,000 price range. We’ll be driving them over a four-month period to compare vehicle dynamics, fuel economy, comfort, passenger and cargo room, ease of use and versatility. This last parameter is important, because many people are looking to this kind of vehicle for transportation that “does it all.” They want it to be practical, sporty, safe, fun, rugged, refined, powerful, economical, stylish and reliable.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS
2007 Suzuki XL7
2007 Toyota RAV4 Sport
Hyundai Santa Fe (top), Suzuki XL7 (middle) and Toyota RAV4 Sport; photos by Paul Williams, Chris Chase and Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

And they want low monthly payments!

Our test fleet includes three vehicles that represent larger examples of the compact category, although we recognize there’s some debate as to where “compact” ends and “midsize” begins. We’ll get to that when the test is underway.

We’ve selected the $34,295 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS, the $34,980 Toyota RAV4 Sport and the $37,995 Suzuki XL7 as our test vehicles (in case you detect a bias against domestic makers, note that Ford’s Edge is only just beginning production, and GM was unable to supply a vehicle for a long-term test, although the Suzuki XL7 is based on a GM platform. The Chrysler Group’ Dodge Nitro is also just becoming available at the time of this writing).

In a nod to off-road driving demands, only the Santa Fe and RAV4 have a lockable all-wheel drive system (50/50), but none has a low range transfer case.

Each of these vehicles uses a V6 engine and all are fully equipped with safety features, including side and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes and vehicle stability control. They all have a rear hatch that lifts up or, in the case of the RAV4, opens sideways to reveal the cargo area. And they can all – not our RAV4 Sport specifically, but another version of the RAV4 – be purchased with a third row of seating, enabling seven passengers to occupy the vehicle. A handy storage area below the rear floor replaces the third row seat in the Santa Fe and RAV4. Finally, each model is all new for 2007.

2007 Suzuki XL7
2007 Hyundai Santa Fe
Suzuki XL7 (top) and Hyundai Santa Fe; photos by Chris Chase and Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

While the similarities are fairly obvious, the differences between these three SUVs are perhaps more subtle. Nonetheless, for the test drivers, they already exhibit different characters.

Senior editor, Paul Williams’ first impression upon entering the Santa Fe GLS is that it costs much more than it does. The GLS is the top-of-the-line model. It is packed with luxury-type features, including perforated leather seating, faux aluminum and wood trim, tasteful blue instrument lighting, reclining rear seats and a stylish, modern exterior. It is appealing to the eye, both inside and out: very urban and chic.

At first glance, Managing Editor Grant Yoxon thought the RAV4 V6 Sport didn’t look significantly different than a base four-cylinder model, but a closer look revealed the key differences – larger 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels and P235/55R18 tires, colour-keyed door handles and fender flares, standard fog lamps and black headlight trim. The seats have higher grade cloth as well, but other than that the interior is the same as the base model. While it seemed a bit dressed down to Grant, he believes the RAV4 V6 Sport will appeal to buyers who put performance ahead of creature comforts; with 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque, this is one quick SUV, and standard downhill assist control and locking differential allude to some off-road potential.

2007 Hyundai Santa Fe
Suzuki XL7 cargo area (top) and under-floor cargo storage in Hyundai Santa Fe; photos by Chris Chase and Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

According to Senior Writer Chris Chase, the thing that stands out about the Chevrolet Equinox-based Suzuki XL7 is that it both looks, and is, significantly bigger than the truck it replaces (it’s also considerably longer than the Santa Fe and RAV4). The engine is potent, much more so than the outgoing model’s. The cargo area appears large, the ride is calm and smooth, and the seats are comfortably upholstered. He thinks it would do well on the long drive, comfortably hauling cargo and passengers.

Watch for our long-term test articles each month, as the Ottawa winter sets in, and the differences and similarities, strengths and weaknesses, become more evident between the vehicles. We’ll also report on the general experience of living with an SUV, and presumably determine what makes them so appealing for Canadian consumers.

Hyundai Santa Fe Toyota RAV4 Sport Suzuki XL7
Price $34,295 $34,980 $37,995
Engine 3.3L V6 3.5L V6 3.6L V6
Horsepower 242 @6,000 rpm 269 @ 6,200 rpm 252 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 226 @4,500 rpm 243 @ 2,300 rpm 243 @ 2,300 rpm
Transmission Five-speed automatic Five-speed automatic Five-speed automatic
Drivetrain Permanent all-wheel drive Permanent all-wheel drive Permanent all-wheel drive
Towing (kg) 907 1,587 1,587
Fuel Regular Regular Regular
Fuel tank (L) 75 60 70
Fuel consumption (city/highway) 12.6/9.0 11.1/7.7 13.5/9.5
Length (mm) 4,675 4,600 5,008
Width (mm) 1,890 1,855 1,834
Height (mm) 1,725 1,745 1,750
Wheelbase (mm) 2,700 2,660 2,855
Wheels 17-inch alloy 18-inch alloy 17-inch alloy
Curb weight (kg) 1,724 1,668 1,837
Cargo capacity (L) 969 1,031 1,399
Vehicle stability control Standard Standard Standard
Anti-lock brakes Standard Standard Standard
Side, and side curtain airbags Standard Standard Standard

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