We put four of the top family SUVS through their paces.

THE FIELD OF MIDSIZE family SUVs grows ever more crowded — and competitive. The old gold standard, Ford Explorer, lost some of its luster during the Firestone rollover scandal, giving Chevrolet a chance to win hearts with the vastly improved TrailBlazer. But Ford countered with an overhauled Explorer, including an optional third-row seat, a smoother suspension and safety enhancements. And many experts anointed the Toyota Highlander, based on a Camry platform, as the new benchmark in this class. The Highlander offers a more car-like ride and handling, though it seats only five. Now the new Honda Pilot elbows its way into the contest, generating real excitement.

To see how they all stacked up, I put the Pilot and company to the test.

For starters, the Honda was the most fun of the four to drive. (The Ford was a close second.) The Pilot's 3.5-liter V-6 engine produces 240 horsepower and enough low-end torque to be peppy accelerating from a stop. Paired with the vehicle's crisp steering, that engine tempted me to zip in and out of traffic as if I were driving a much smaller car. The four-wheel-drive system automatically delivers torque to the rear wheels when you accelerate or when the wheels slip, but it operates as front-wheel drive when you're cruising.

Driving characteristics aside, perhaps the main reason the Pilot is getting so much buzz is because Honda's designers have paid almost as much attention to the kids as to their parents. The rear seats offer "theater seating" — each row slightly higher than the one in front of it — for better visibility, a big plus if you're a carsick-prone kid. The center console that faces second-row passengers lets them control the rear-seat A/C and DVD player themselves. There are cupholders galore and an "activity tray" that can house fast-food containers or coloring books. The extra-wide wheel track lets Honda fit three seats in that third row, versus the two seats in the TrailBlazer and Explorer, and there's still more hip and shoulder room. And every single seat has a three-point seat belt, which retracts into the ceiling for the center positions.

Luckily, Honda hasn't neglected the front-seat occupants, either. Leather seating is available (for $1,250) on the EX version. And the optional DVD entertainment system features separate front and rear audio systems, letting you listen to a CD while the kids watch The Powerpuff Girls (with wireless headphones) in the back. (A navigation system is also available in place of the entertainment system.) Large windshields and windows give excellent visibility.

But if you actually take your off-road vehicle off-road more than occasionally, the Explorer is a better choice. Its four-wheel drive offers a low gear, for serious off-roading, and the optional 4.6-liter V-8 gives it the power that dirt paths demand. While it wasn't quite as nimble as the Pilot, the Explorer was sure-footed in steering and braking. By contrast, the TrailBlazer's six-cylinder seemed sluggish from a standing start (this is the biggest and heaviest of the four contenders); this fall Chevrolet will offer an optional V-8 for the extended version that should improve matters considerably. The Highlander that I drove was equipped with the optional V-6 (a four-cylinder is standard), but even that was a bit underwhelming.

Unlike Ford and Honda, which sacrificed some cargo space in order to cram a third row of seats into a midsize SUV, Chevy opted to stretch the TrailBlazer into its extended (EXT) version. The EXT is nearly 20 inches longer than the Pilot or Explorer. With a mushy suspension and loose steering, even the regular TrailBlazer feels much bigger than it is, and the extra length of the EXT makes it all the more difficult to handle.

But it gets the job done as far as space goes: Adults can fit comfortably in that third row, and there's still 22.3 cubic feet of space for gear. With the rear seat up, the Pilot offers only 16.1 cubic feet of luggage room, while the Explorer has a measly 13.8 cubic feet. Want to go on a long trip and use that third-row seat? Better install a luggage rack. There is enough space, though, for groceries or some sports equipment. With all these SUVs, you can fold down the second- and/or third-row seats for a cavernous amount of space. However, the Pilot's and TrailBlazer's third-row seats offer a bit more flexibility than the Explorer's. They both split and fold, as does the second row, allowing you, for example, to load in a few sets of skis with one kid each in the second and third rows.

Overall, the Pilot is a contender for top dog in this category, and in theory — based on the sticker — competitively priced. The base LX version of the Pilot runs $27,360 (all prices include destination charges), $10 less than the similarly equipped Highlander. But only the fancier EX, which starts at $29,730, can be equipped with leather or an entertainment system. The EX that I drove, outfitted with both, bore a $32,480 sticker. The top-of-the-line Highlander runs $31,305, though side airbags (standard on the Pilot) and leather cost extra, and no factory-installed entertainment system is available. But a TrailBlazer EXT with four-wheel drive, a "leather plus" options package and DVD entertainment system tops $37,000. And the Explorer's most comparable trim level — the Limited with four-wheel drive — with a third-row seat, V-8 and DVD system exceeds $39,000.

Keep in mind, though, that the sticker doesn't tell the whole story. Some dealers have been charging more than sticker for the Pilot, while Ford and Chevy have been offering incentives. So if you must have a Pilot, shop around — or restrain yourself until the buzz quiets and the price glides back to earth.