An In-Depth Look at Three Bona Fide Compact SUVs

Saturn Vue, Honda Element, Jeep Wrangler

By Ray Prince, NorCalCars Writer

From the conventional (Vue) to the "not-so-elemental", the Saturn Vue, Honda Element, and Jeep Wrangler are three of some of the most intriguing prospects in the Compact SUV lineup over the past few years. Each has captivated the SUV landscape with its own array of fine line features and technological touches. From the concept vehicle to an old style World War II influence, Compact SUVs have been forever changed by these three.

Saturn Vue

Saturn Vue

The Saturn Vue blazed its way into the national spotlight in 2002 with its Red Line series two years later that focused its crosshairs on sportiness for the younger crowds. It refused a more upscale appearance for technological upgrades at the time, including a gearless variable transmission system that evolved into a 3.5 liter engine from a 3.0 liter V6 after realizing Honda was better able to make engine decisions rather than in-house. The 2007 Vue is a taste in elegance, offering more upgrades in both the exterior and interior with the works in terms of satellite radio (XM powered) along with a rear seat DVD system (not included in base price.)

Recessed fog lamps and rounder headlamps replace the boring rectangular design so popular with past vehicles. In homage of Power SUVs like the Escalade, its silver grille is now in the shape of a trapezoid. Sunroofs are optional and 17 inch Bridgestone tires pound the pavement on all wheel drivers, whereas 16 inch wheels belong with front wheel drive Vues. Like the more upscale Lincoln Aviator (by far the most luxurious SUV I've driven along with the Mercury Mariner, though not in this category!) its interior is sharp with chrome speedometers and dials for a trendy look. The Vue makes use of space perfectly with back seats falling flat. And roomy storage bins. Music is well cared for (a must for me!). When I plugged in my IPod into the jack the other day, I wondered why there were some vehicles on the market still lacking this critical feature. Steering wheel radio controls to keep wandering eyes and fumbling fingers off the radio board? Check.

The Jeep Wrangler

Jeep Wrangler

This military style jeep with the familiar open air style and legendary engine has muscled its place into SUV lure as one of the most innovative and intriguing concepts ever. Like Harley Davidson enthusiasts, Jeep Wrangler buffs are the last of a dying breed of consumers loyal to off road cars with few perks added year after year. For starters, its vertical, tall grille has been on every model for centuries along with the soft top and "half doors". Unlike the Saturn Vue which has upgraded in interior and exterior finish over the years, the Wrangler is a nut and bolt vehicle that makes plastic side windows optional. Unfortunately, the Jeep Wrangler is still resigned to those uncomfortable bucket seats and limited upgrades. Regardless of optional steel doors (when have we heard of that!) and Wrangler's inability to add leather seats as an option (cloth and vinyl), the Wrangler operates well with a six speed manual and four speed automatic. However, like the Saturn Blue, the company (which normally strays from using innovative technologies - just ask its die hard fan base and its traditional mainstream values) has turned from rectangular headlights to round ones. Forget IPod jacks - give me rounder headlights now.

In Badajoz, Spain a year ago - a few miles off the Portuguese border, I took a drive in a Jeep Wrangler and left away with mixed impressions. Its noisiness is offset by its drivability, although this is no cause for concern. It's not as noisy as its previous generations engine hounds. Regardless, it is important to remember that this is an off road vehicle best suited for the hazards. Tip: If you're always on the offroad, don’t even think of getting a manual!

The Honda Element

Honda Element

The Honda Element is clearly out of the element of conventional design with its boxy design that has attracted both legions of youthful fans and scorn by New York Times best selling authors. It's supposed to be a hybrid of both a pickup truck and a compact SUV, but with back hinged back doors and front hinged front doors that open at the center for cargo and innovative purposes. Despite the risque style, the Honda Element has been a hit with the older crowds with smooth handling and tough suspension. Its seating arrangement is pretty comfortable, miles above the backseats of GMC Jimmies, which were amongst the worst I've sat on.

Although you might criticize me for placing the Element in the compact SUV category (a large percentage of you would vote crossover), it does hit the catalogues as a compact SUV and has been a solid seller with up to 60,000 sold each year since 2003. Now, the 2007 model has even more to show, with an SC prototype that will mix it up with its body panel colors instead of retaining the less sophisticated black rockers from years past. With bare bones features like rubber floor mats and vinyl seating, the Element has suffered plenty of backlash from older audiences. Now, there will be a serious upgrade to consider. If the Element could replace those amateur looking rubber mats for carpet, I just might buy it!