Try to pick a few favorites in the crossover and SUV categories, and you quickly realize the extent to which those vehicles have taken over. With such a frightful number of possibilities, narrowing the roster down to five is an especially formidable undertaking. Ranging in size from mini to massive, we have carlike crossovers, full-fledged SUVs (some still truck-based), and vehicles that fall somewhere in the middle.
Complicating the procedure, nearly all vehicles in this category have made great progress in recent years, in terms of refinement, diminished truckiness, safety features, fuel economy, and availability of creature comforts. To take one example, the Dodge Journey wouldn’t have come close to consideration a few years back. Today, it almost made the cut, due to near-startling improvements in ride quality, smoothness, quietness, and even handling.
When one vehicle in an automaker’s lineup proves to be disappointing, there’s invariably a tendency to be skeptical about a new model from that company. That’s what happened when I first got behind the wheel of Mazda’s compact CX-5 crossover, launched as a 2013 model.
For years, Mazda had touted what was called its “zoom-zoom” tradition, suggesting that even the company’s relatively ordinary models had a sportier inner nature than the competition. That had been true for nearly every Mazda I’d road-tested, except one: a larger forerunner to this CX-5.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the CX-5 proved to be a winner, exuding excellence and, yes, that temporarily diminished sporty character. Exceptionally easy to drive and control, this compact is a frisky performer that feels stable and corners smartly, even riding better than usual in this class. The CX-5 looks more distinctive than most, too. Mazda’s new CX-3 exhibits many of the same attributes, in a trimmer size.
Originally, the bigger Honda Pilot was a prime candidate for this space, representing the familiar mainstream among crossover/SUVs. Instead, I decided to go with the compact CR-V, which has given Honda a staunch contender in the crossover-vehicle derby ever since 1997.
Honda’s main competitor has long been the Toyota RAV4, which had emerged a year earlier. As the years rolled by, a seemingly interminable stream of contenders entered the fray. Yet, Honda’s compact managed to stay just a bit ahead of the pack, including its Toyota archrival.
Does a CR-V really beat the RAV4? How does it stand against rivals from Hyundai, Kia, Chevrolet, Ford, and others? Most challengers are well-made and admirably-behaved on pavement; and with all-wheel drive, capable of modest rural-wilderness achievements. So, is Honda truly Number One in its class? Is Pilot definitively the top midsize? The only possible answer is a definite “maybe.”
Honda’s latest competition comes not from another manufacturer, but from its excellent new HR-V subcompact.
Let’s be clear: the Cherokee, launched for 2014, is a striking modernization of old Jeep ideas, which instills controversy. Maybe it’s not quite a love/hate quandary, more of a like versus dislike. Or, appreciation opposed to disdain. Whatever it’s termed, some rigorous Jeepsters insist that the Cherokee practically obliterates the long-standing Jeep image.
Well, the Cherokee is different. No getting around that. So is the recently-introduced Renegade, which strays from Jeep tradition in a similar way.
Because I’m not an off-road devotee, I tend to lean away from the more intense SUVs, Jeep or otherwise, in favor of models that stand apart in non-traditional ways. Cherokee is a Jeep for people who never imagined they’d crave a Jeep, or even look at one with interest. Yet, it’s also a true Trail Rated Jeep, not an ill-equipped poseur.
Because a Cherokee Trailhawk rides so smoothly and quietly, handling so effortlessly on-pavement, it’s hard to believe that a truly purposeful Jeep lurks beneath the unfamiliar surface.
Sometimes, a vehicle deserves “favorite” status because of its role, even if you’re not personally attracted to it. When it comes to full-size SUVs, General Motors continues to hold the edge in numbers and diversity. Chevrolet’s Tahoe and its GMC Yukon counterpart are old-timers, for sure, but they’re still going strong in the big-SUV realm.
Ford still offers its gargantuan Expedition, kin to Lincoln’s Navigator. But the GM trio -- including the bright and blingy Cadillac Escalade -- aren’t ready to be toppled from their lofty leadership position.
All are dimensionally excessive, of course, beyond the needs of most families (though some insist on nothing smaller). At least, the Tahoe is shorter and thus more manageable than its massive Chevrolet Suburban sibling, which aims at those for whom biggest is invariably best.
Naturally, big-SUV buyers can’t expect moderation at the gas pump, but these biggies don’t guzzle as much as they used to. Typical owners don’t seem to fret much about fuel economy, either, but relish that voluminous interior space.
Most SUVs, and crossovers too, suffer from a case of sameness. Sure, some are more bolt-upright than others. Some display a greater number of curves. Still, telling them apart isn’t so easy, even for folks who pay attention to new models and redesigns.
Not so Nissan’s Juke. Few crossover models are anywhere near as distinctive, so one-of-a-kind, as the Juke, which deserves its eccentric name. Better yet, the Juke performs in accord with its appearance: bold and scrappy, gleeful and upbeat.
Nissan has been a prominent proponent of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), and uses one for the Juke. Enthusiasts often scoff at CVTs, insisting that they simply keep engine rpm excessively high, and bemoaning the feel of physical gears changing. Since I am not part of that naysaying group, the Juke’s CVT is a bonus, not a detriment. Besides, Nissan includes a D-Step Logic manual-shifting mode that simulates the action of real gears.