2013 Ford Escape SEL 4WD vs. 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD, 2012 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD, 2012 Kia Sportage EX AWD, 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD, 2012 Toyota RAV4 Limited 4×4
The Minors: Small utes are major-league business. Picking a champ is going to take a playoff.
Nearly one out of every three vehicles sold from January through May 2012 was some sort of SUV. Just look at any parking lot—the one in this photo, for instance. The damn things are everywhere.
And if you find yourself in the market for a compact SUV, good luck picking out one. As the most affordable form of the species—generally starting below $20,000—these small two-boxers are by far the most popular and numerous. Lucky for us, two earlier comparos helped pare down a list of contenders. In those tests, we had eight and nine examples to sort through; both times a V-6–powered Toyota RAV4 emerged victorious.
With the industry on a downsizing kick, at least when it comes to engines, we felt it best to look at the strongest-selling configurations this time around. In other words: four-cylinder engines and four-wheel drive. A targeted as-tested price of $30,000 gave us most of the bells and whistles.
Despite its popularity, a RAV4 meeting those specifications was nearly impossible to find. Toyota was forced to borrow a Limited model from a dealer so it could defend its title as king of the small SUVs.
The Ford Escape and the Mazda CX-5 are all-new this year, so their inclusion was a no-brainer. While the CX-5 comes with just one engine, its four-wheel drive and Grand Touring trim bring its cost in line. The Escape offers a trio of engine choices: A naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter inline-four is standard in front-drivers; a turbocharged 1.6-liter four is standard in four-wheel-drive models; and a 2.0-liter turbo four is optional in both
Not quite as new but still warm from the oven, the latest Honda CR-V, like the CX-5, comes only with a naturally aspirated four-pot. A $30,000 CR-V comes in EX-L trim (“L” for leather), with enough left over for a rear-seat DVD player/babysitter.
Rounding out this six-pack are two Korean siblings, the Hyundai Tucson and the Kia Sportage. They share a platform and powertrains but wear distinctly different sheetmetal.
With horsepower ranging from 155 to 185 and curb weights starting at about 3400 pounds, we didn’t expect these utes to break any speed records or redefine handling. That isn’t their mission. Comfort and versatility are high on the list of things we want out of a little SUV but not so much that we would ignore dynamics and refinement. Plus, the ideal compact companion had better be able to haul some friends and, just as important, some refreshments to a ball game.
2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD
First place: The Minors.
Mazda’s new CX-5 replaces both the old Tribute and the CX-7 and is slightly smaller than the latter. Its cabin feels cozy and intimate, yet it’ll hold nearly as much cargo as the Escape.
Equipped with Mazda’s Skyactiv technology suite, the $30,515 CX-5 Grand Touring returned the best fuel economy—24 percent better than that of the Escape or Sportage—at 26 mpg. (Skyactiv is a range of engines and transmissions, as well as the platform that underpins the CX-5, aimed at pairing exceptional fuel economy with driving enjoyment.)
The heart of Skyactiv is a high-compression 2.0-liter inline-four that makes just 155 horsepower, the lowest in the test. Thus, the 3486-pound CX-5 takes the longest to reach 60 mph and ties the Kia for the slowest quarter-mile time: 17.3 seconds. But the engine is quick to respond, and the six-speed automatic shifts crisply and swiftly into the most efficient gear.
Yes, the CX-5 is slow, but so are all of these trucklets. They’re not all fun to drive or fuel efficient. The CX-5 is both.
Obviously, the Mazda didn’t win this test at the stopwatch. It won it with its compelling dynamics. All of our test drivers agreed that the CX-5 is a cut or two above the others in this regard. It’s not just carlike, it’s like a good car. Supportive leather seats keep you in place when directing the precise and well-weighted steering on a winding road. The brakes respond like a sports car’s, with an initial bite that’s always easy to modulate.
Fantastic dynamics come at the cost of a firm ride, though not so much that we considered it abusive, even versus the CR-V.
We said we weren’t looking for the quickest, and we weren’t kidding. But it turns out a really good car wearing a ute body makes for a great little SUV.
The payoff for the CR-V’s minivan-interior ambience is that it seems particularly roomy. The Honda remains a sensible choice.
The CR-V was also praised for noise isolation and powertrain refinement, a Honda hallmark. This was the only engine we liked hearing spin above 5000 rpm. And it produced the second-best observed fuel economy, at 24 mpg, despite having only a five-speed in a world where six is the norm. Driver comfort was tops in the test, with roomy easy chairs providing a Tempurpedic-like combination of suppleness and support.
Over rough roads that caused the Hyundai and Kia to shudder and the Toyota to squirm, the Honda remained planted and amply damped. Hustling the CR-V exposes its chassis weaknesses, though, with disconnected steering that doesn’t inspire confidence. It was no surprise that it finished last in our slalom.
The CR-V scores high for its comfort, space, and speed. While two of those are key elements, we’d gladly trade some speed for better handling.
2013 Ford Escape SEL 4WD
Third place: The Minors.
Spec’d out in SEL trim, with an additional $3185 in navigation, keyless start, white tricoat paint, and other less crucial stuff, this $33,630 Escape is the priciest vehicle in the test by a wide margin.
It also has the most features and gadgets—for example, with the keyless-entry fob in hand (or pocket), you can open the hatch by waving your foot under the rear bumper. Ford’s Sync infotainment integration handles most of the driver’s inputs, but there are a few redundant switches for some HVAC settings and basic radio controls. Sync’s interface logic takes some getting used to. We’re still acclimating.
Ford no longer bothers even trying to make the Escape look like an SUV. This worries us not at all. Its highest-in-test price does, though.
This new Escape rides on a modified Focus platform. The chassis’ abilities exceed the sense of confidence they give the driver; the Escape posted the best roadholding and stopping performance even while getting knocked for its steering and brake feel on the road. It was also the only ute other than the CX-5 to crack 40 mph in our slalom exercise.
Ford selected the Escape as the first North American recipient of a 1.6-liter turbo with EcoBoost. In this application, the inline-four makes 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. While these outputs are competitive, the Escape’s 3716-pound curb weight is more than 100 pounds higher than anything else here. Thus, acceleration to 60 mph is just behind the group’s average, and its quarter-mile time of 16.9 seconds is 0.4 behind the CR-V’s.
Weight also factored in to the 21 mpg we recorded on our trip. This was the only vehicle in the test that dipped below its EPA city rating (22 mpg).
If the Escape were a little lighter, a little less expensive, and offered a little more feedback, it would challenge the winner for the title. Many littles add up to a lot.
2012 Toyota RAV4 Limited 4×4
Fourth place: The Minors.
Despite some cosmetic surgery just last year, the RAV4 has a full redesign looming, though this 2012 model will remain in dealerships for the time being. The new edition will have a tough act to follow.
This 179-hp four-cylinder lacks the zest of its V-6 stablemate. Power flows through a four-speed automatic, short at least two cogs by today’s standards. But the 2.5-liter is torquey, with a peak 172 pound-feet at 4000 rpm. The result is respectable, midpack acceleration (0 to 60 mph in 9.0 seconds). Fuel economy doesn’t take a huge hit, either, as the RAV4 returned 22 mpg in our hands, 1 mpg better than the Escape and Sportage.
A low cowl and a high seating position provide the best forward sightlines in this group. The front seats are comfortable but not exemplary, and the aging interior took some hits for its relatively hard materials and general lack of panache.
On the eve of its redesign, the Toyota RAV4 finally relinquishes the segment’s top spot. Yes, it still has the silly side-hinged cargo door.
The RAV4’s ride is another strong suit. It can’t compare with the CR-V in this regard, though it is clearly smoother than the bounding Koreans; also, suspension movements happen with far less noise.
That cushy ride exacts a toll in handling as the RAV4 rolls over in corners like a tacking yacht. The steering feels overboosted, inaccurate, and sometimes out of control.
As the only vehicle in this group that offers a third row (an $850 option not on our test car) and stores its full-use spare tire (another “only” in the group) on its cargo door, we expected the RAV4’s luggage hold to swallow the most beer cases, and it just edged out the CR-V. But this is also the only ute that has a side-hinged cargo door, which can frustrate curbside loading.
Since the RAV4’s previous comparo wins, the competition has improved its game significantly. Without its V-6, the RAV4 seems stalled in the middle of the pack.
2012 Kia Sportage EX AWD
Fifth place: The Minors.
Hyundai and Kia have built quite a few cars from the same parts bins before, and the latest Tucson and Sportage certainly will not be the last. That noted, these little utes are proof that the companies develop their products separately.
Aside from the styling, chassis-tuning differences were most obvious to us. The Sportage rides more firmly and sometimes veers into areas of jiggliness, but it is somehow better at absorbing larger potholes with less head toss. Neither Korean communicates sufficient info to the steering wheel, though the Tucson is ever so slightly better. Despite the lack of feel, the Sportage held on to the skidpad for a second-best 0.79 g.
The Sportage’s clean, original styling can’t make up for its rude engine, limited cargo space, and worst-in-test steering feel.
With a powertrain identical to the Tucson’s, the Sportage takes half a second longer to reach 60 mph. That gap shrinks to 0.3 second at the quarter-mile line—a 17.3-second event for the Kia. The difference could be attributable to the Sportage’s extra 88 pounds (3509 total), most of which is found in its giant sunroof.
Both SUVs’ cargo holds are by far the smallest in this test, and like the Tucson’s, the Sportage’s back seat is best limited to two occupants.
Styling is, quite possibly, the most subjective element of our scoring, but we all agree that the Kia is the better-looking sibling, inside and out, though a few find the rear end “dumpy.” If the interior and exterior styling categories were removed from the tally, the Koreans would tie for last. Maybe these two are more similar than we thought.
2012 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD
Sixth place: The Minors.
“Meh.” Those three lonely letters were scribbled on the last page of notes in the Tucson’s logbook, foreshadowing its last-place fate.
Little about the Tucson stood out. This, the least-expensive ute in the test, might have fared better if it had been loaded up with options like the Kia was.
We were split right down the middle when it came to comfort. Half of us found the seats supportive, while the remainder felt the front buckets were flat and unbearable on long hauls. But the Tucson’s back seat easily swallows two adults (three’s a stretch) with plenty of kneeroom, and feet slide comfortably under the front buckets. The HVAC and radio controls also are commendable, with legible buttons and a logical layout. Many test drivers noticed large blind spots—especially in the D-pillar areas—a trait the Hyundai shares with its Kia platform-mate despite the styling differences.
Thanks in part to its lowest-in-test curb weight, the Tucson posted the second-best 0-to-60-mph acceleration. So that’s good.
A 176-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four scoots the Tucson to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, second to the CR-V, the only other contender to break into the eights. Transmission kickdowns occur on command, without delay.
Be wary if you live on a dirt road, though: Rough surfaces expose Tucson riders to a barrage of suspension and tire thwaps as the steering wheel bounces around in the driver’s hands.
The old saying “You get what you pay for” applies here.
By K.C. Colwell | Photos A.J. Mueller
September 2012 | Car and Driver