One of the reasons compact crossovers exist is to provide better fuel economy than traditional SUVs, something that's important to many consumers.
All four of our test vehicles promise good mileage, though each attempts to sip fuel through different methods such as lightweight construction, more efficient four-cylinder engines, turbochargers, six-speed transmissions, or even a CVT. It's the results that are important.
Ultimately, the Forester seemed to have the right combination of features to produce the highest observed mileage of 24.9 mpg, somewhat of a surprise to editors because of its AWD platform. The EPA rates the Forester at 24/32 mpg city/highway. The CX-5 had the second-best number at 24.4 mpg, testing 2.6 mpg lower than the sticker's noted 27 mpg combined. The RAV4 hit 24.3 mpg, close to its EPA combined mileage of 26 mpg, and the Escape produced 21.1 mpg.
The Escape had the smallest engine, a 1.6-liter turbocharged I-4, and was the biggest disappointment, missing its EPA combined fuel economy by 5 mpg. The small engine and heavy body kept the vehicle's heart rate up too high. It used too much energy to keep up with the others, all of which had bigger engines. The Escape's 0-90-mph acceleration started out fast, but then it faded, hitting 90 mph 1.4 seconds later than the lighter and more powerful Mazda.
While the turbocharging theory -- replacing a big engine with a smaller one and letting the turbo make up the difference -- works for some vehicles, the 1.6-liter in the Escape appears to prove the exception to the rule: Smaller is not always better.
Judging interiors is certainly subjective, as one man's comfortable seat is another man's backache. So this was the area where we seemed most divided. I like Ford's MyFord Touch and Sync, as it's easy to operate and I find it extremely useful. Other editors can't stand it.
But here's what we did find. All four vehicles provided comparable cargo space behind the second row, with the RAV4 having the most. And that space can easily handle long trips or daily chores. Kiino liked the new RAV4 interior, calling it "neoclassic" with "big knobs, round vents, stitched dash, and an overall design refreshing for this group, which is either too futuristic (Ford) or too bland/monotone (Subaru, Mazda)."
I disagree with my colleague, as the RAV4 reminded me of a 1970s hotel lounge with too much stitching and hard plastic. And who at Toyota approved that ugly piece of foam stitched to the bottom of the dash?
The Subaru offers a huge second row and a nicely organized cargo area complete with a rubber mat, but it had the worst stereo face of the group, requiring you to push the screen to change stations.
"Good stereo quality, maybe even a little better than Mazda's," wrote Evans. "Too bad the user interface is a mess."
Some found the Escape center stack too complicated and the second row too confining, but everyone noted the 110-volt outlet in the second row, a much appreciated feature. However, none of us cared for a $30,000 Escape with manual-adjusting front seats and an ignition that requires a key, when all the other similarly priced vehicles included electric seats and push-button starts. Furthermore, there were chunks of plastic thrown around the cabin that cheapened the experience.
"I like the Escape's looks a lot; its connectivity is tops, and its driving dynamics are solid," said Markus. "But there are corners cut, low-cost evidence in some places, and wasted investment in others."
The CX-5 has one of the more understated interiors, with comfortable seats and innovative features such as the 40/20/40 folding second row and an optional ($200) tonneau cover over the cargo area attached to the liftgate and seat, so it pulls away when you lift the hatch.
"I love the interior," said Jurnecka. "It's simple, clean, classy."
Because compact crossovers are smaller than many vehicles on the road today, their owners need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst when it comes to safety features.
Fortunately, these vehicles fare pretty well in crash testing and come loaded with safety features that can keep a driver's bacon from getting fried.
Only the Forester earned a Top Safety Pick+ ranking from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That includes a Good rating in the new small-overlap crash test. The CX-5 and Escape both earned Top Safety Pick ratings, but did not pass the overlap test. The RAV4 has not been tested yet, but previous models have earned high marks.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranked the vehicles differently, giving four out of five stars to the Escape and five stars to the CX-5. The new RAV4 and Forester have not been tested yet by NHTSA, though previous models scored four stars.
Safety is more than crash testing, and all our vehicles feature technology that attempts to prevent a driver from ever testing a crumple zone. The CX-5 and RAV4 both featured a blind-spot detection system that will warn the driver if a car is in his blind spot. The Forester included Subaru's EyeSight, part of a $2400 package that provides adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, precollision braking, and precollision throttle management. The suite of features is typically found on much more expensive vehicles. The Escape included blind-spot mirrors, which let you see a vehicle you might not otherwise notice.
All four come with more airbags than a Moonbounce playhouse, including front, side, and side curtain airbags. Ford and Toyota included driver knee airbags.
My take: Get blind spot detection, skip EyeSight, buckle up, and never text while driving. You are any vehicle's most important safety feature.