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.

Efficiency

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.


Cockpit/Cabin

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."


Safety

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.

Value

Dollar for dollar, these compact crossovers were remarkably close in price as tested, with only $2740 separating the most expensive (Subaru Forester, $32,220) and the least expensive (Ford Escape, $29,750).

All came with premier infotainment systems, navigation and satellite radio systems, and a slew of other high-tech and luxury features. For 30 grand, an owner should expect some of the more luxurious features such as electric adjustable seats, push-button start, and power liftgates. The Escape didn't have push-button start or electric adjustable seats, but it did have a power liftgate and was the only crossover with a 110-volt outlet in the second row, which is included with the nav. Sync is standard. It also had a $1395 panoramic sunroof that reached well into the second row. But it lacked a backup camera.

The Toyota RAV4 had the second-lowest price and included the $500 option for blind-spot monitoring and cross traffic alert. Its $1030 navigation system included 90 days of SiriusXM, a backup camera, and a voice recognition system, making it a solid value.

The Subaru Forester's starting price of $29,995 was more than the optioned-up Escape and RAV4, but it also came loaded with standard features such as a panoramic sunroof, 10-way power adjustable seats, dual climate control, and heated seats. All-wheel drive is standard. The aforementioned $2400 EyeSight system included keyless access and starting and HID headlamps.

The Mazda CX-5 was the topline Grand Touring model, so it arrived with a slew of standard features but a starting price of $28,415. Add to that the $1625 technology package which includes HID headlamps, adaptive front lighting and navigation system, plus a $100 rear bumper guard and $200 for a retractable cargo cover and the price jumps to $30,340. Of course, additional options were available on all of the vehicles and none were base models.

For roughly the same amount of money, all of these compact crossovers offer a great mix of luxury features, practical safety devices, and infotainment items that will make all of them comfortable for any occasion.


Cost of Ownership

Even crossovers that cost the same don't really cost the same. We've asked Intelli-Choice, our partner in the Motor Trend Automotive Group, to provide five-year cost of ownership data for our contenders. IntelliChoice is a recognized leader in providing information on average depreciation, fuel cost, fees, insurance financing, maintenance, and repairs on every vehicle in the market.

While the four test vehicles were similar in price, their ownership costs over five years vary significantly more. The Toyota RAV4 stands out as costing the least over five years, more than $4000 less than the most expensive crossover, the Mazda CX-5. The big reason for this is that RAV4 holds its value better than any of the other crossovers. But it also had the least expensive insurance, lowest maintenance costs, and fewest dollars spent on repairs. For a young family, those extra savings could make a big difference.

The Ford Escape also did well on many of its costs, having the second-lowest maintenance, repairs, and insurance costs. The Subaru Forester had the second-best residual value, though it was the vehicle with the highest purchase price. It was also the most expensive to insure and had high costs for repairs and maintenance.

The CX-5 took the biggest hit on depreciation out of any of the vehicles, and that helped give it the highest cost of ownership. It had the second-highest insurance costs and maintenance costs, and the highest repair costs.


Conclusion

Really, the choice was easy: For all-around driving awesomeness, utility, comfort, and performance, the editors unanimously picked the Mazda CX-5.

"Dynamically, the CX-5 is nothing but fun in the twisties," said Martinez.

"The Mazda continues to be the driver's choice," Evans added. "You can really fling it, and it'll just smile and keep on going."

It's spirited, stylish, and connects youthful owners to their past, but makes room for the future. The front of the cabin uses quality materials, but nothing feels overstated. The exterior has strong lines, but it doesn't look jagged or cut with a meat cleaver. There's little flash, but lots of substance.

The CX-5 provides solid fuel economy and lots of power. It's also a good value, something important for the evolving American family.

Perhaps Jurnecka put it best: "Though I can't help but feel I might be getting more for my money with the Subaru, [the CX-5] is the one I'd buy at the end of the day. The driving dynamics and style are that superior to everything else."

In a crossover-eat-crossover world, the CX-5 is the natural selection.


4th Place: Ford Escape SE
Complicated interior and disappointing performance seal its fate.

3rd Place: Toyota RAV4
A safe bet is not an exciting one, and others outperform this perennial top-seller.

2nd Place: Subaru Forester 2.5 Touring
Fun, nimble, and all-wheel drive on the plus side; poor interior choices keep it from the winner's circle.

1st Place: Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
New engine powers this crossover to the top. Well-planned inside and out.


  2013 Ford Escape SE 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front engine, FWD Front engine, FWD
ENGINE TYPE Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head I-4, aluminum block/head
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 97.6 cu in/1599 cc 151.8 cu in/2488 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.0:1 13.0:1
POWER (SAE NET) 173 hp @ 5700 rpm 184 hp @ 5700 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm 185 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
REDLINE 6500 rpm 6500 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 20.4 lb/hp 18.2 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.21:1/2.39:1 4.62:1/2.77:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 15.2:1 15.5:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.5 2.7
BRAKES, F;R 11.8-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS 11.7-in vented; 11.9-in disc, ABS
WHEELS, F;R 7.5 x 17-in, cast aluminum 7.0 x 19-in, cast aluminum
TIRES, F;R 235/55R17 99H
Continental ContiProContact E
225/55R19 99V
Toyo A23 M+S
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 105.9 in 106.3 in
TRACK, F/R 61.5/61.6 in 62.4/62.5 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 178.1 x 72.4 x 66.3 in 179.3 x 72.4 x 65.7 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 7.9 in 8.5 in
APPROACH/DEPART ANGLE 21.0/27.7 deg 18.6/24.4 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 38.8 ft 36.7 ft
CURB WEIGHT 3528 lb 3355 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 58/42% 58/42%
TOWING CAPACITY 2000 lb 2000 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 39.9/39.0 in 39.0/39.0 in
LEGROOM, F/R 40.4/36.8 in 41.0/39.3 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 56.0/55.3 in 57.5/55.5 in
CARGO VOLUME 68.1/34.3 cu ft 65.4/34.1 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.7 sec 2.7 sec
0-40 4.3 4.2
0-50 6.4 5.9
0-60 9.0 8.1
0-70 11.9 10.8
0-80 15.6 14.2
0-90 20.2 18.8
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 5.3 4.4
QUARTER MILE 16.7 sec @ 82.5 mph 16.3 sec @ 84.5 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft 125 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg) 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.3 sec @ 0.55 g (avg) 28.3 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1800 rpm 2000 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $25,895 $28,415
PRICE AS TESTED $29,750 $30,340
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/yes Yes/yes
AIRBAGS Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 mi 3 yrs/36,000 mi
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 mi 5 yrs/60,000 mi
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 5 yrs/60,000 mi 5 yrs/unlimited mi
FUEL CAPACITY 15.1 gal 14.8 gal
EPA CITY/HWY ECON 23/33 mpg 25/32 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 147/102 kW-hrs/100 mi 135/105 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.73 lb/mi 0.70 lb/mi
MT FUEL ECONOMY 21.1 mpg 24.4 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular Unleaded regular

  2014 Subaru Forester 2.5 Touring 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front engine, AWD Front engine, FWD
ENGINE TYPE Flat-4, aluminum block/heads I-4, aluminum block/head
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 152.4 cu in/2498 cc 152.2 cu in/2494 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.0:1 10.4:1
POWER (SAE NET) 170 hp @ 5800 rpm 176 hp @ 6000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 174 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm 172 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
REDLINE 6000 rpm 6200 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 20.3 lb/hp 19.7 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto 6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.70:1/2.11:1 3.82:1/2.32:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 15.5:1 14.7:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 3.1 2.7
BRAKES, F;R 11.6-in vented disc; 10.8-in disc, ABS 11.7-in vented disc; 11.2-in disc, ABS
WHEELS, F;R 7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum 7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum
TIRES, F;R 225/60R17 98H M+S
Yokohama Geolander G91
235/55R18
Bridgestone Dueler H/T 687 M+S
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 103.9 in 104.7 in
TRACK, F/R 60.9/61.1 in 61.4/61.4 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.9 x 70.7 x 66.4 in 179.9 x 72.6 x 65.4 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.7 in 6.3 in
APPROACH/DEPART ANGLE 23.0/25.0 deg 29.0/22.0 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 34.8 ft 36.7 ft
CURB WEIGHT 3444 lb 3463 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 57/43% 59/41%
TOWING CAPACITY 1500 lb 1500 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 40.0/37.5 in 38.9/38.9 in
LEGROOM, F/R 43.0/41.7 in 42.6/37.2 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 57.0/56.5 in 57.3/55.4 in
CARGO VOLUME 68.5/31.5 cu ft 73.4/38.4 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 3.3 sec 3.1 sec
0-40 4.8 4.5
0-50 6.7 6.6
0-60 9.0 8.9
0-70 11.7 11.7
0-80 15.3 15.3
0-90 19.6 19.3
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 4.5 4.6
QUARTER MILE 16.9 sec @ 83.9 mph 16.8 sec @ 84.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 120 ft 122 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg) 0.77 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.6 sec @ 0.55 g (avg) 28.6 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1700 rpm 1800 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $30,820 $27,855
PRICE AS TESTED $32,220 $29,969
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/yes Yes/yes
AIRBAGS Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee, passenger thigh
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 mi 3 yrs/36,000 mi
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 mi 5 yrs/60,000 mi
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 3 yrs/36,000 mi 2 yrs/25,000 mi
FUEL CAPACITY 15.9 gal 15.9 gal
EPA CITY/HWY ECON 24/32 mpg 24/31 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 140/105 kW-hrs/100 mi 140/109 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.72 lb/mi 0.73 lb/mi
MT FUEL ECONOMY 24.9 mpg 24.3 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular Unleaded regular
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