Third Place: Honda CR-V
Versatility Isn't Everything

With the 2012 CR-V, Honda took an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach. Given that the previous CR-V won our last such comparison, beating the GMC Terrain, Hyundai Tucson, and Subaru Forester, that's not necessarily bad -- but that previous comparison was back in 2010 and things have changed considerably since then, far more than the CR-V.

Packaging is the Honda's strong point. Not only does it have the most cargo space of the group -- 37.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 70.9 with them folded--it's the only one to offer a true flat-load floor by virtue of rear-seat cushions that fold forward into the footwell behind the front seats. Associate Editor Mike Febbo opined, "Either the packaging is utterly brilliant, or Honda has sacrificed someplace. After seeing it next to the other cars, I am having a tough time seeing any sacrifice, so maybe it is packaged that well." The description "minivan-esque" even came up at some point during the post-test discussion.

Unfortunately for the Honda, "minivan-esque" would also be an appropriate way to describe its driving dynamics. Despite having the second-most powerful engine in the group in the form of its 185-hp and 163-lb-ft 2.4-liter I-4 and posting the second-quickest acceleration times, the CR-V didn't offer anything to excite the driver and, strangely enough, is rated to tow just 1500 lbs. To its credit, the Honda achieved those performance figures and tied for second place in the fuel-economy race with an observed figure of 21.4 mpg despite being saddled with an aging five-speed automatic transmission.

The culprits behind the lacking drive? The soft suspension and smallest wheel/tire combination that provide the smooth freeway cruise along with the steering. Says Evans, "I don't remember the full-electric steering being this subpar. It's very light and artificial. At lower speeds, it's fine for the target audience, but it loses confidence as speeds increase."

There wasn't much to complain about price or equipment-wise. Though the second most expensive of the five, at $29,575 it was only slightly pricier than the Mazda while being considerably cheaper and better equipped than the Tiguan. It could have stood to gain a power tailgate or pushbutton start, but every other feature expected -- nav, rear-view camera, moonroof, etc.-- was present, though the nav was decidedly obsolete both visually and functionally.

In the words of Lieberman, the Honda is "the winner from the B-pillar back." Were it not for the Mazda and Ford, neither of which were around in their current shape back in 2010, that would have been enough. But the game has changed and the entire Honda is only good enough for third.

Second Place: Mazda CX-5
Slow but Steady

Try as I might, there simply is no way to dance around it: the CX-5 is slow. That's what happens when you have a fuel-economy-oriented 2.0-liter I-4 making a mere 155 hp and 150 lb-ft pulling 3312 pounds of crossover. It took the Mazda 9.4 seconds to reach 60 mph and 17.1 to make it through the quarter mile -- and it did so without even reaching 80 mph. With that kind of performance, towing the rated 2000 pounds will be an interesting proposition, one that will likely involve eschewing freeways. As for the transmission, opinions somehow managed to end up on both sides of the quick/slow divide, though it did come with a proper manual mode. Yet, the CX-5 still endeared itself to us to the point that we gave it the silver medal in this here five-way.

How did it do that? Well, for starters, there's the fuel economy. At 22.3 mpg, it was the best of the five, besting the second-best Ford and Honda by 0.9 mpg. Second is the chassis, which is typical fun-to-drive Mazda fare. Wrote Kiino, "Sweet, sporty chassis. Great steering feel, good balance, loads of grip. Really does feel like the Mazda3 of CUVs." What Kiino didn't mention is that the CX-5 also exhibited limited body roll.

The CX-5 also got points for design, both inside and out. In the cabin, the all-black interior and leather seats provided a sporty environment that you wouldn't normally expect in such a vehicle, though some thought that it could use some more color. Material quality was up to snuff as well, though the TomTom nav was a disappointment. Extra praise was reserved for the seats, which initially feel hard but turn out to be merely firm, supportive, and simply quite good. The CX-5 also had a low load floor and ample cargo space -- just slightly less than the Ford. On the outside, everyone thought that the CX-5 was either the best- or second-best looking of the five -- the CX-5 is the first production Mazda to ditch the smiley Nagare design language in favor of the new Kodo one shown on the Takeri concept.

At $29,165, the Mazda was right in the middle of the pack and a mere $415 more than the Ford, which came with cloth instead of leather -- but did come with a power tailgate and the brilliant Sync connectivity system as well as a proper high-resolution nav. Despite that, if the Mazda had an extra 20 or so horsepower to work with, it may have convinced us to place it above the Ford. As it stands, all of its positive attributes aren't enough to overcome the slowness factor -- or the Ford's overall brilliance.

First Place: Ford Escape
Approaching Greatness

Is it possible to be a great jack-of-all trades? Fundamentally, the answer seems to be no, but Ford's new Escape makes a convincing argument otherwise, even if it doesn't quite get all the way there.

The goodness starts with the stylish sheetmetal, which is similar to that of the Focus as well as the Ford Kuga that's been running around Europe for a couple of years now. Though less masculine, it's a huge step forward aesthetically over that of the outgoing model, which looked like a shrunken Explorer of the same or earlier vintage. The Focus resemblance carries over into the Escape's on-road behavior, which is almost as satisfying and enjoyable as the Mazda's, though there's a bit more body roll and understeer to contend with.

Inside, the Escape also resembles the Focus, though the funky futuristic elements have been considerably toned down given the crossover's more conservative target audience. Everyone involved enjoyed the Sync system as well as the crisp navigation screen, though MyFordTouch continues to need a bit of time to get used to. Cargo space-wise, the Escape only gave up a little ground to the expertly packaged Honda while concerns about rear-seat legroom were alleviated by the fact that the rear seat can recline, which also improves the seating position as a whole. Material quality didn't elicit any complaints as high-quality materials are found throughout the cabin, though the Escape was the only one to come with cloth instead of leather -- and like the Tiguan, it lacked a rear-view camera.

More importantly, unlike Mazda, Ford got the underhood part right. The turbocharged EcoBoost 2.0-liter I-4 puts down 178 hp and 184 lb-ft, which returned performance that was solidly mid-pack. Observed fuel economy of 21.4 mpg was equal to the Honda and second only to the Mazda. Like the Mazda and Kia, the Ford can also pull 2000 pounds (but the Ford can tow up to 3500 pounds when properly equipped), which it wouldn't have any problems doing thanks to the torquey engine. The attached six-speed automatic didn't provide particularly quick shifts, but it was smooth and has enough of a manual mode to be useful on snowy hills or when towing up or down an incline.

In the end, the Ford came out ahead not because it had everything, but because it lacked nothing. It didn't leave us wanting for more power, a better chassis, more interior features or better materials, an improved nav, higher fuel economy, more stylish sheetmetal, or a lower pricetag. Though not a perfect vehicle, the Escape is proof that style and functionality can be had in this segment with some degree of fun without breaking the bank while setting the bar even higher and proving that when it wants to, Detroit can challenge the competition in any segment.