In earlier times, if a typical SUV rode and handled like a truck it’s because it was a truck underneath. Now, manufacturers are chasing a market that wants SUV looks and room in a smaller, user-friendlier package, while also chasing stricter fuel economy requirements. The small SUVs in this group embody the answer: begin with a car chassis then cross it with SUV design cues and all-wheel drive capability. Thus, a "crossover": SUV-like room, comfort and capability with car-like fuel economy, handling and livability. With that résumé, it’s no wonder this is such a popular segment, and one so hard-fought by the manufacturers.
The 2013 CR-V is the country’s best-selling compact SUV and is a textbook case of typical Honda virtues. Of course, the CR-V has an enviable reliability history. More than that, the cabin has the hushed quality of a fine drawing room, the all-around fit-and-finish is up to snuff and thoughtful details abound. Engine choices begin and end with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed automatic transmission. Options are limited mostly to dealer-installed items like cargo nets and body moldings; shoppers interested in upmarket features such as navigation will have to look at the more expensive trim levels.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 23 city/31 highway/26 combined mpg (LX FWD).
The redesigned 2013 Escape is one of Ford’s “world cars,” essentially the same as the European Kuga model. For US buyers, that connection brings world-class benefits. For example, among the base engines in this group, Escape’s 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine is the smallest, yet its standard turbocharger helps it deliver the most torque. Likewise, the available 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder is smaller than competitors’ uprated engines except for the CX-5, yet the Escape still wears the torque crown. Add to that Escape’s solid Euro-tested chassis and Ford’s SYNC infortainment systems, and it adds up to the best value in this group.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 22 city/31 highway/25 combined mpg (S FWD).
As you might expect, the 2013 Sportage has the lowest base MSRP in this group. The question is: can it run with the big dogs? Powertrain choices are solid, with a standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and an available 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged unit, both connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission. At the other end, Sportage has a higher standard tow rating than either CR-V or the base RAV4. Rounding out the package, Kia has the best basic and powertrain warranties of the bunch. While the specs seems good, refinement and handling are not Kia strengths. Still, for shoppers wanting something economical yet edgy, the Sportage is worth a look.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 21 city/30 highway/25 combined mpg (LX FWD).
Mazda’s 2013 CX-5 has a lot going for it. For one thing, it’s a looker— arguably the most attractive SUV of the bunch. Showing that beauty can be more than skin deep, the CX-5 boasts a well-sorted suspension that offers a sporty-yet-comfortable ride. Power comes from a 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission. While the power output is a bit lower than its competitors, the upside is the best fuel economy of the bunch. Overall, the CX-5 has the best overall package of fun, economy and driveway appeal.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 26 city/35 highway/29 combined mpg (Sport FWD manual transmission).
2012 is the end of the road for this generation of RAV4: an all-new, much improved 2013 model is on its way. Still, the 2012 edition has its charms if you can get past all the hard plastic surfaces inside. The available V6 engine is the only V6 in this entire group (it does not continue into 2013) and it delivers silken power. Plus, RAV4 has a well-thought interior, including a set of one-touch levers in the back that fold the rear seats flat. Toyota includes complimentary scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance you’ll likely never need because of RAV4’s reputation for reliability.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 22 city/28 highway/24 combined mpg (Base FWD).