A single person finds someone, and that partnership flourishes. "Me" becomes "we," and then "We need some new wheels."

That's when the spawn of the traditional SUV will likely appear in the new family's driveway. Buyers can keep the sport/utility segment's good features -- such as cargo space, a comfortable second row, and the high riding position -- and dump the rough ride, bad gas mileage, and a body so big the garage needs bay doors for it to fit. These little crossovers affirm automotive evolution through intelligent design.

They also serve as the missing link for young families, filling the gap between a single life and a life of Little League games, ballet recitals, and PTA meetings. They provide extra space for pets, kids, and gear, as well as affordable commuting and hints of luxury. And there's no denying the popularity of these unibody utilities, with their carlike performance and rear hatches for easy loading. In 2012, our four test vehicles -- the Toyota RAV4, the Ford Escape, the Mazda CX-5, and the Subaru Forester -- combined for 550,993 units sold. That beats the entire minivan segment by 10,000 vehicles.

Last year, the Escape was selected as Motor Trend's king of the compact crossovers, beating the best-selling Honda CR-V, for one. This year, the reigning champ tests its metal in a survival of the fittest.


Ride and Handling

Smaller does not always translate into smoother. A high riding position will make the body roll during aggressive cornering, and a short wheelbase can make it feel twitchy. While all four vehicles share similar suspension setups with multilink rear and coil-sprung strut fronts, they varied greatly in their overall ride. The Escape and Subaru were shod with 17-inch all-season tires, while the RAV4 had 18-inch wheels and the CX-5 had 19-inch wheels.

The two easiest vehicles to determine during our Santa Barbara, California, test runs were the best- and worst-handling ones. The Toyota RAV4 attracted the most ire from editors because of its overly stiff suspension and rougher ride. "Very choppy ride over just about every size of road acne," said associate online editor Nate Martinez.

Others agreed that listening to all that road input was annoying, but they also appreciated the solid 2.5-liter engine, six-speed transmission, and nicely weighted steering. The improvements on the new-generation RAV4 are noticeable, but Toyota still has work to do to make it a driver's crossover.

"It feels like it's aiming for the CX-5, but it's not getting there," said associate editor Rory Jurnecka.

The reason the Toyota should set its sights on the CX-5 is that Mazda has nailed the right combination of give and take. Every editor picked it as his top choice, with comments like executive editor Ron Kiino's: "Stellar automatic, so intuitive. Come out of a corner, roll on the throttle, and it drops a gear nearly instantly and seamlessly."

The Forester and Escape provided a mix of welcome and unwelcome characteristics on the road, which left some editors praising the vehicles and others griping. The Escape has a nice overall ride, but I found the six-speed automatic transmission unsure, hunting and pecking for the right gear too often. And, despite boasting 184 lb-ft of torque, the Escape never felt fast.

"You can feel the steering tighten up on moderate to hard acceleration as it fights the torque steer," logged associate editor Scott Evans, adding, "It keeps it straight, but it's a strange feeling."

The Forester, with the weakest four-cylinder engine of the bunch, seemed to do more with its torque and continuously variable transmission. The only model in our test with standard all-wheel drive, the Forester would lean into corners nicely and come out of them surefooted, causing many of us to refer to its power and weight specs again and again. That quick feeling was noted by several editors. "This engine gets Scooby scooting pretty well, better than it would appear on paper," said Jurnecka.


Performance

By the numbers, the Mazda CX-5 outperformed all comers. Its new 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine provided more horsepower, more torque, and much better acceleration than did any of the other contenders. It went from 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds (the next best time was 8.9 seconds for the Toyota RAV4). Some of this can be attributed to the CX-5's lean body weight of 3355 pounds -- 89 pounds less than the next lightest crossover, the Subaru Forester.

More to the point, the CX-5 was the most fun to drive. Performance is more than numbers on a spreadsheet -- it's that laugh in your belly when you come out of a corner. "It's not necessarily the best-handling or highest-limit car here, but it's possibly the most engaging," noted technical director Frank Markus.

The Forester was the slowest out of the blocks on the track, but was the quickest when it came to stopping, going from 60 mph to 0 in 120 feet. Its engaging qualities make up for its 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine, which makes 170 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. "I was surprised by the midrange torque," Martinez said. "But get it near the red, and it drops off considerably." While I do not typically care for CVTs, Subaru has done a nice job with this powertrain by making the CVT quiet and less obtrusive. It still whines from time to time, especially on the highway, but it does provide ranges and simulated hesitations that almost feel like shifts.

The RAV4 managed the second-best stopping distance at 122 feet, while the portly Ford Escape, weighing 3528 pounds, needed 126 feet to come to a full stop. The RAV4 and Escape both had more utilitarian performance, with the Toyota offering plenty of power and solid acceleration. "I'm happy with the power available," said Evans of the Toyota. "It gets up to speed and passes fine. It doesn't feel slow." But the editors also noted its noisy ride.

As for the Escape, Markus wrote, "It feels lighter and nimbler than the Toyota, despite weighing 65 pounds more. Quick steering and better grip win the day."

All the test vehicles provided somewhat noisy highway rides, with the Subaru and Toyota being the loudest.

While none of the crossovers will ever star in an autocross, the CX-5 provided the most fun per liter of the bunch.