A constant climb up the quality rankings, even as other U.S. carmakers fall behind, and a renewed focus on efficiency in the face of high fuel costs has put Ford in the position to call out Toyota and Honda on efficiency and safety grounds - no mean feat, considering the Japanese carmakers' reputations. Nevertheless, the Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner have earned 5-star crash ratings and yield superior efficiency to the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV-4, according to the Blue Oval.

The hybrid variants of the Escape and Mariner also scored five stars in crash testing, though their fuel efficiency can't be fairly compared to the standard-powertrain CR-V or RAV-4 models. Ford's own standard-powertrain models yield 171hp (128kW) and 20mpg city/28mpg highway from their 2.5L four-cylinder powerplants when equipped with the new six-speed automatic available in 2009 models.

That puts the Ford and Mercury SUVs ahead of the Honda CR-V by only 1mpg on the highway and in a dead heat in the city. Toyota's RAV-4 matches the CR-V's highway performance at 27mpg but edges out the Escape and Mariner at 21mpg in the city. Both the Honda and Toyota models are 2008 models, however, as the 2009 data for those vehicles has not been officially released.

Safety features that give the Escape and Mariner top marks include a 'Safety Canopy' airbag system that protects at the curtain-level, and is designed with an eye toward rollovers, Ford's AdvanceTrac stability system with roll control, and the 'Personal Safety System' - a suite of seven technologies, including airbags, passenger sensing system and other features that decrease the likelihood of serious injury for the occupants in the event of a crash. A tire pressure monitoring system helps prevent under-inflated tires from causing an accident and the LATCH system ensures children that must ride in safety seats are safely and securely anchored to the vehicle.