Whether we like it or not, crossovers are here to stay, while the body-on-frame SUVs that we know and love are never going to enjoy the same mass-market appeal they once had. In fact, the entire compact body-on-frame SUV market now consists of Jeep's Liberty and Wrangler, Nissan's Xterra, Toyota's FJ Cruiser, and Suzuki's oft-forgotten Grand Vitara -- and all four of these combined are outsold by Honda's CR-V alone.
Aside from limited choices, body-on-frame SUVs don't offer buyers the type of fuel economy they're looking for in this age of expensive gas, nor do they offer the same ride quality on the pavement that they'll spend most of their lives on -- after all, even the most hard-core off-roaders will spend thousands of miles more on the freeway than they will on the trail. Die-hard truck people may not be interested in one, but you're likely to know someone that is and they're likely to ask you which one is the best. We're going to make sure you give them the right advice.
Thus, we've gathered five of the newest offerings in the compact crossover segment. Though all are offered with AWD, we've gathered well-equipped FWD models that are going to be of more interest to that advice-seeking friend or family member.
Fifth Place: Volkswagen Tiguan
A Container for an Engine
The Tiguan is one of those vehicles that attempts to get by on one strength and one strength alone. In its case, that strength is its powertrain, which consists of Volkswagen's ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. With an output of 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, that engine enabled the Tiguan to post the best test times of this group -- its 7.6-second 0-60 mph performance was beat by the second-best CR-V by 0.6 second, though its margin of victory in the quarter mile, where it posted a 16.2-second time at 86.4 mph was just 0.1 second -- and has granted it has the best towing capacity of the test at 2200 pounds. Drivers commended the engine for its smoothness and ample torque while the automatic transmission was praised for its smoothness and quickness. "Powertrain is great. This is what you're really paying for," said Executive editor Ron Kiino. Unfortunately, that seems to be all you're paying for, as the positives largely run out for Wolfsburg's offering once you get past what's under the hood.
Though the Tiguan is the fastest, it also proved to be the second thirstiest of the group and is the only one that needs to drink slightly pricier premium octane. It's also the most expensive by a margin of $1770. Now, that price premium would be acceptable if the equipment level matched up, but our Tiguan came absent a rear-view camera, power liftgate, climate control, or leather upholstery. The Tiguan also had the smallest cargo space with the rear seats up -- a mere 23.8 cubic feet--by a considerable margin, a significant downside considering how important that space is when family getaways are involved.
Worse still, the somewhat-portly 3489-pound Volkswagen didn't impress anyone with its on-road behavior either. Senior feature editor Jonny Lieberman found it "really poor, especially compared with the Ford and the Mazda. Worse than the Honda, for sure, and maybe a tick better than the Kia -- maybe." The Tiguan also had a propensity to transmit bumps and irregularities through the suspension and into the cabin. That curb weight also affected braking performance -- the crossover needed 123 feet to come to a full stop from 60 mph, six more than next-worst CR-V and Sportage.
Complaints were also directed at the flat and unsupportive front seats, the heavy and hard-to-fold rear seats, subpar navigation system, mesh sunroof cover, and the overall bland and down-market design of the interior. As associate editor Rory Jurnecka put it, "Where's the value? You're paying for an engine here and nothing else." That lack of value is why the Tiguan, capable though its powertrain may be, finished last.
Fourth Place: Kia Sportage
The Value Proposition
If the Tiguan tried to get by on its engine, the Sportage tried to win us over as the lead value proposition with a side dose of stylish exterior design. While it succeeded with the latter thanks to its modern lines and good proportions, it didn't quite measure up with the former, despite having the lowest as-tested price of $28,600 and a lengthy feature list that included pushbutton start, rear-view camera, navigation, 18-inch wheels, heated mirrors, LED daytime running lamps, and even a cooled driver's seat. Why not? Because there are three main areas where the Kia simply fell flat.
First was fuel economy. Despite mid-pack power coming from its 176-hp and 168-lb-ft 2.4-liter I-4, the Sportage's observed fuel economy of 15.8 mpg was the worst by a whopping 4.9-mpg margin. When you're trying to claim value, having full-size SUV-esque fuel economy is a big black mark. Making matters worse is that at 14.5 gallons, the Kia's fuel tank was the smallest of the five. At least it only drinks regular, for what that's worth.
Third, though feature-rich, the interior just didn't get job done when it came to material quality. Lieberman took aim at the main control, "My nephew has toy dinosaurs made of nicer stuff than this steering wheel. Why would you make the part of the car the owner (and potential owner) touches the most the single worst-feeling part?" Complaints were also lodged about the stiff and unsupportive seats, hollow-feeling dash plastic, and overall feeling of cost-cutting within the cabin. The Sportage also had the smallest amount of available cargo space with the rear seats folded, a mere 54.6 cubic feet.
Another problem was the Sportage's ride. Criticism was harsh and blunt -- I wondered, "Who tuned this suspension? Did anyone?" while associate editor Scott Evans opined, "Worst ride quality. Very hard, unnecessarily so. Lots of head toss, especially on the freeway." Jurnecka was a bit more diplomatic, "Wow, this thing is all over the place on Mulholland. Feels like in every corner it's trying to head in a different direction. Tons of body roll."
Not helping matters was the fact that the Kia was the second slowest of the five, outrunning just the underpowered Mazda. It needed 9.1 seconds to hit 60 mph and a full 17 seconds to get past the quarter mile -- not encouraging figures should you be considering strapping a 2000-pound trailer to the back.
With this many flaws to overcome, the low asking price and rich level of equipment wasn't enough to get the Kia to outvalue anything other than the decidedly value-challenged Tiguan. As such, it finishes right where it belongs -- in fourth place. Or second to last, if you want to be mean about it.