Meet the Shootout Family

Joey Lawrence, his wife, Chandie, and 4-year-old daughter Charli take a break from testing crossovers.

As a busy Hollywood actor, Joey Lawrence knows all about delivering someone else's lines. When he's speaking for himself, he doesn't mince words — especially when it comes to evaluating nine small crossovers and SUVs.

More often than not, Lawrence seems to either love what he sees
or hate it. There's not much in between. Take the Kia Sportage. With its projector-beam-style headlights and performance-oriented design, Lawrence lauded it as "a great-looking vehicle." Conversely, Toyota's RAV4 struck him as poorly executed. "This is like a rental," he said dismissively.

with advice from his wife, Chandie, and 4-year-old daughter Charli was charged with serving up a family opinion for the Today/"MotorWeek" $29,000 SUV Shootout. For hours, the trio pored over SUVs in a parking lot in Pasadena, Calif., with Joey taking each one for a test drive.

Lawrence knows a lot about kiddie transportation needs these days. Besides Charli, the Lawrences also have a baby daughter, Libby, who is 8 months old. To haul around his brood and still appear respectable in Hollywood, Lawrence has the four-door Porsche Panamera as his own car, and he duels with Chandie over keys to their main family vehicle, a Ford Flex, which the pair say they adore for its practicality.

It is a side of Lawrence that his fans rarely see. They know him for a life on the small screen, TV roles that included "Blossom" through the early 1990s, a recurring guest stint on CBS' "CSI" and currently a successful starring role on ABC Family's "Melissa & Joey." When he's not working or hanging out with the family, he volunteers with the March of Dimes campaign in California.

Since his family Flex is neither small nor cheap enough for the $29,000 challenge, Joey and Chandie carefully picked through the choices put before them. Young Charli bounced from one crossover to the next, offering her own opinions.

Joey, 33, focused mostly on the look of vehicles and the perspective from the driver's seat. Chandie, 31, usually headed back to look over the second row and the cargo bay.

"It's very important when you have to take the stroller out and put the groceries in," Chandie explained as she checked out the rear of the Kia.

She paid careful attention to rear-seat DVD players. She said she has discovered
much to her dismay that DVDs are superb at keeping kids occupied on long trips.

"We were one of those parents who said they would not use DVDs" for backseat entertainment, she said. As it turns out, "the DVD is just essential to me."

Up front, Joey didn't think much of the look of the Nissan Rogue ("It isn't mean enough. An SUV has to look like it will command the road."), the Subaru Forester ("It's quirky.") or the Honda CR-V ("The styling is just bad.").

Joey reserved a special place in hell for the RAV4, stalking around and pointing out details like the outside mirrors, which he called "gross," and the seats, which he described as "terrible." He compared it to Chrysler's unadorned K cars from the 1980s
remember the Plymouth Reliant? and said, in summary, "I hate this thing. It's just ugly."

Joey Lawrence tends to not mince words when it comes to assessing a car's strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, Joey knows sublime when he sees it. Besides kind words for the Kia, both he and Chandie were impressed by the Chevy Equinox. He liked the quality feel, such as the upscale interior with stitching on a door panel. "The steering wheel is nice and thick. It has a great feeling to it," he said.

Chandie marveled at the flip-down video screens in the rear seat of the Equinox. "I like this a lot. It feels like an expensive car," she said. "It's yummy."

Joey also cast an interested eye on the Dodge Journey, which drove well. Still, it's a mixed bag. He and Chandie were drawn to the backseat doors that open at 90-degree angles — handy in moving child-safety seats and babies in and out. But Joey was careful to note a few ragged details on the Journey, like taillight lenses that extrude with a sharp edge that could catch and tear clothing when the tailgate is open. "It's just inexcusable," he said.

Joey's attention to detail is understandable. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he got to know cars, starting with his dad's Cadillacs. His first car was a humble hand-me-down Pontiac, but he soon bought a ride of his own, a Lexus SC 400. He's owned others along the way, including the Saleen-customized Ford Mustang that he sounds a little embarrassed to admit he owned back in the day.

A Ford Escape was among the choices in the Shootout, but it didn't register much interest from Joey. He noted that it has about the most dated design in the group. But Chandie, who grew up with Fords, had a soft spot for it. "I see a Ford and I feel safe," she said.

Likewise, the Forester, Hyundai Tucson and Rogue pretty much drew shrugs from the Lawrences. The Honda CR-V was OK, but "there is nothing emotional in it," he said.

In the end, Joey narrowed the field to what he considered the three best: the Sportage, the Equinox and the Journey.

Declaring them to be "very close" in overall quality, Lawrence settled on the Equinox as the best choice for a young family because of its great looks, nice features and impressive engine power. "It feels so much more substantial," he said while driving it.

In the end, the Chevy was the emotional choice for Joey — looks great, rides fine and, most importantly, controls the road.

"I'll take this over the Rogue and the Subaru," he said while driving the Equinox. "There's not one creak in this car."

© 01/31/2011