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.
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
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.
| ||2013 Ford Escape SE ||2012 Honda CR-V EX-L ||2012 Kia Sportage EX |
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT ||Front engine, FWD ||Front engine, FWD ||Front engine, FWD |
|ENGINE TYPE ||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head ||I-4, aluminum block/head ||I-4, aluminum block/head |
|VALVETRAIN ||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl ||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl ||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl |
|DISPLACEMENT ||97.6 cu in/1599 cc ||143.6 cu in/2354 cc ||144.0 cu in/2359 cc |
|COMPRESSION RATIO ||10.0:1 ||10.0:1 ||10.5:1 |
|POWER (SAE NET) ||173 hp @ 5700 rpm ||185 hp @ 7000 rpm ||176 hp @ 6000 rpm |
|TORQUE (SAE NET) ||184 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm ||163 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm ||168 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm |
|REDLINE ||6500 rpm ||7000 rpm ||6000 rpm |
|WEIGHT TO POWER ||19.6 lb/hp ||18.1 lb/hp ||18.7 lb/hp |
|TRANSMISSION ||6-speed automatic ||5-speed automatic ||6-speed automatic |
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO ||3.21:1/2.39:1 ||4.44:1/2.38:1 ||3.20:1/2.47:1 |
|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 ||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar |
|STEERING RATIO ||15.2:1 ||16.7:1 ||15.7:1 |
|TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK ||2.6 ||3.2 ||3 |
|BRAKES, F;R ||11.8-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS ||11.8-in vented disc; 12.0-in disc, ABS ||11.0-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS |
|WHEELS ||7.5 x 17-in, cast aluminum ||6.5 x 17-in, cast aluminum ||7.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum |
|TIRES ||235/55R17 99H M+S|
|225/65R17 102T M+S|
Continental CrossContact LX
Hankook Optimo H426
|WHEELBASE ||105.9 in ||103.1 in ||103.9 |
|TRACK, F/R ||61.5/61.6 in ||61.6/61.6 in ||63.5/63.6 in |
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT ||178.1 x 72.4 x 66.3 in ||178.3 x 71.6 x 64.7 in ||174.8 x 73.0 x 64.4 in |
|GROUND CLEARANCE ||7.9 in ||6.3 in ||6.8 in |
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE ||21.9/27.6 deg ||28.0/21.0 deg ||28.1/28.2 deg |
|TURNING CIRCLE ||38.7 ft ||37.3 ft ||34.7 ft |
|CURB WEIGHT ||3490 lb ||3342 lb ||3284 lb |
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R ||58/42% ||58/42% ||58/42% |
|TOWING CAPACITY ||2000 lb ||1500 lb ||2000 lb |
|SEATING CAPACITY ||5 ||5 ||5 |
|HEADROOM, F/R ||39.9/39.0 in ||38.0/38.6 in ||39.1/38.5 in |
|LEGROOM, F/R ||40.4/36.8 in ||41.3/38.3 in ||41.4/37.9 in |
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R ||56.0/55.3 in ||58.6/56.4 in ||56.7/55.1 in |
|CARGO VOL BEHIND F/R ||68.1/34.3 cu ft ||70.9/37.2 cu ft ||54.6/26.1 cu ft |
|TEST DATA |
|ACCELERATION TO MPH |
|0-30 ||2.6 sec ||3.0 sec ||3.0 sec |
|0-40 ||4.3 ||4.3 ||4.6 |
|0-50 ||6.4 ||6.0 ||6.6 |
|0-60 ||8.9 ||8.4 ||9.1 |
|0-70 ||11.8 ||11 ||12.5 |
|0-80 ||15.5 ||13.9 ||16.4 |
|0-90 ||20.4 ||18.4 ||— |
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH ||5.2 ||4.6 ||5.1 |
|QUARTER MILE ||16.7 sec @ 82.4 mph ||16.3 sec @ 85.6 mph ||17.0 sec @ 81.2 mph |
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH ||116 ft ||117 ft ||117 ft |
|LATERAL ACCELERATION ||0.84 g (avg) ||0.78 g (avg) ||0.79 g (avg) |
|MT FIGURE EIGHT ||28.0 sec @ 0.61 g (avg) ||28.8 sec @ 0.57 g (avg) ||28.6 sec @ 0.58 g (avg) |
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH ||1600 rpm ||1700 rpm ||1900 rpm |
|CONSUMER INFO |
|BASE PRICE ||$25,895 ||$23,325 ||$24,700 |
|PRICE AS TESTED ||$28,750 ||$29,575 ||$28,600 |
|STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL ||Yes/yes ||Yes/yes ||Yes/yes |
|AIRBAGS ||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee ||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain ||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain |
|BASIC WARRANTY ||3 yrs/36,000 mi ||3 yrs/36,000 mi ||5 yrs/60,000 mi |
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY ||5 yrs/60,000 mi ||5 yrs/60,000 mi ||10 yrs/100,000 mi |
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE ||5 yrs/60,000 mi || — ||5 yrs/60,000 mi |
|FUEL CAPACITY ||15.1 gal ||15.3 gal ||14.5 gal |
|MT FUEL ECON ||21.4 mpg ||21.4 mpg ||15.8 mpg |
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON ||23/33 mpg ||23/31 mpg ||22/32 mpg |
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY ||147/102 kW-hrs/100 mi ||147/109 kW-hrs/100 mi ||153/105 kW-hrs/100 mi |
|CO2 EMISSIONS ||0.73 lb/mi ||0.75 lb/mi ||0.76 lb/mi |
|RECOMMENDED FUEL ||Unleaded regular ||Unleaded regular ||Unleaded regular |
| ||2013 Mazda CX-5 (Grand Touring) ||2012 Volkswagen Tiguan (SE) |
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT ||Front engine, FWD ||Front engine, FWD |
|ENGINE TYPE ||I-4, aluminum block/head ||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/aluminum head |
|VALVETRAIN ||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl ||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl |
|DISPLACEMENT ||121.9 cu in/1997 cc ||121.0 cu in/1984 cc |
|COMPRESSION RATIO ||13.0:1 ||9.6:1 |
|POWER (SAE NET) ||155 hp @ 6000 rpm ||200 hp @ 5100 rpm |
|TORQUE (SAE NET) ||150 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm ||207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm |
|REDLINE ||6500 rpm ||6000 rpm |
|WEIGHT TO POWER ||21.4 lb/hp ||17.4 lb/hp |
|TRANSMISSION ||6-speed automatic ||6-speed automatic |
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO ||4.62:1/2.77:1 ||3.45:1/2.38:1 |
|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 ||16.3:1 |
|TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK ||2.7 ||2.7 |
|BRAKES, F;R ||11.7-in vented disc; 11.9-in disc, ABS ||12.3-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS |
|WHEELS ||7.0 x 19-in, cast aluminum ||7.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum |
|TIRES ||225/55R19 99V|
M+S Toyo A23
|235/50R18 97H M+S|
|WHEELBASE ||106.3 in ||102.5 in |
|TRACK, F/R ||62.4/62.5 in ||61.8/61.9 in |
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT ||178.7 x 72.4 x 65.7 in ||174.5 x 71.2 x 65.6 in |
|GROUND CLEARANCE ||8.5 in ||6.9 in |
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE ||18.6/24.4 deg ||28.0/25.0 deg |
|TURNING CIRCLE ||36.7 ft ||39.0 ft |
|CURB WEIGHT ||3312 lb ||3489 lb |
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R ||58/42% ||58/42% |
|TOWING CAPACITY ||2000 lb ||2200 lb |
|SEATING CAPACITY ||5 ||5 |
|HEADROOM, F/R ||40.1/39.0 in ||39.1/39.0 in |
|LEGROOM, F/R ||41.0/39.3 in ||40.1/35.8 in |
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R ||57.5/55.5 in ||56.2/55.0 in |
|CARGO VOL BEHIND F/R ||65.4/34.1 cu ft ||56.1/23.8 cu ft |
|TEST DATA |
|ACCELERATION TO MPH |
|0-30 ||3.0 sec ||2.6 sec |
|0-40 ||4.8 ||4.1 |
|0-50 ||6.8 ||5.9 |
|0-60 ||9.4 ||7.8 |
|0-70 ||12.6 ||10.7 |
|0-80 ||17.2 ||13.9 |
|0-90 ||— ||17.5 |
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH ||5.2 ||4.2 |
|QUARTER MILE ||17.1 sec @ 79.9 mph ||16.2 sec @ 86.4 mph |
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH ||113 ft ||123 ft |
|LATERAL ACCELERATION ||0.84 g (avg) ||0.80 g (avg) |
|MT FIGURE EIGHT ||28.4 sec @ 0.59 g (avg) ||27.9 sec @ 0.62 g (avg) |
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH ||2000 rpm ||1800 rpm |
|CONSUMER INFO |
|BASE PRICE ||$21,490 ||$23,660 |
|PRICE AS TESTED ||$29,165 ||$31,345 |
|STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL ||Yes/yes ||Yes/yes |
|AIRBAGS ||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain ||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 ||3 yrs/36,000 mi ||3 yrs/36,000 mi |
|FUEL CAPACITY ||14.8 gal ||16.8 gal |
|MT FUEL ECON ||22.3 mpg ||20.7 mpg |
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON ||26/32 mpg ||22/27 mpg |
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY ||130/105 kW-hrs/100 mi ||153/125 kW-hrs/100 mi |
|CO2 EMISSIONS ||0.68 lb/mi ||0.81 lb/mi |
|RECOMMENDED FUEL ||Unleaded regular ||Unleaded premium |