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Comparison review: Nine compact crossover SUVs -- the best and the worst

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Roomy and comfortable, versatile yet affordable, maneuverable and increasingly fuel-efficient, compact crossover SUVs sell to hundreds of thousands of customers annually, filling needs as diverse as workaday family cars to useful premium vehicles to an amateur handyman's everyday commuter. They're not heavy-duty, but they offer the all-wheel-drive and elevated ground clearance that separate them from station wagons, and the usefully expansive interiors that help them stand apart from sedans.

Standards are high. Buyers increasingly resist tradeoffs – in addition to being tall and roomy, these crossovers are asked to ride and handle like cars. Oh, and by the way, please give them enough capability to plow through some mud or snow. And they should get 30 miles per gallon on the highway. And they should have luxury-grade interiors with all the latest gadgets. But still not too expensive.

Difficult as that seems to achieve, this comparison's nine crossovers offer great promise. Loaded up with all-wheel-drive, heated leather seats and big sunroofs, they still come in under $30,000 and are rated for between 27 and 32 miles per gallon on the highway.

Many of the vehicles in this class look like winners. That said, the different models were each designed with particular tradeoffs that will fit some buyers better than others – style versus utility, ride versus handling, luxury versus value, and others. Some of these cars, too, have flaws that keep them clearly short of that high bar.

This comparison relies on test drives and analyses of price, safety and fuel economy of nine compact crossover SUVs at the heart of the market to pick winners and losers for different types of customers, and to rank them from top to bottom overall.

The tested cars come nicely equipped but are powered by their base four-cylinder engines rather than a pricier and less fuel-efficient V6 or a turbo. Most have sticker prices around $30,000 and are projected to sell in the upper $20,000s after haggling and discounts.

See rankings and mini-reviews of the nine crossovers in this comparison in today's slideshow, and click on the cars' model names linked in the following paragraphs to reach the full reviews.

The nine:

All-new models

The compact crossover class was recently shaken up by the introduction of the Mazda CX-5, which went on sale as a 2013 and then received a larger engine for the 2014 model year. Well, at least it rocked car reviewers' worlds, thanks to sportier handling than the class norm, the sales pace isn't threatening the established competition – in part due to pricing that's on the high side of the class.

Three mainstays were recently redesigned for the 2013 and 2014 model years: the Ford Escape, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4. The Escape has polished driving dynamics and the fanciest tech features, but it's not cheap and the gizmos don't always work properly. The Forester continues to be unexciting but is roomy and a crash-test and fuel-economy ace. The RAV4 has class-leading cargo space and fancy interior trim but lacks the ride quality and safety scores of most competitors.

Also new for 2013 is the Buick Encore, which is smaller and more luxurious than the class norm – an anomaly that could fit some buyers' needs.

Hanging in there

The Honda CR-V, always in the race for the No. 1 sales position in the class, was redesigned and improved a couple of years ago as a 2012 model. It's roomy and comfortable, but less eye-catching than the newer competition.

Meanwhile, the Kia Sportage is a year older than the CR-V, but its more adventurous styling means it doesn't look it. (The Sportage is mechanically identical to the Hyundai Tucson.) Older still is the Nissan Rogue, which is expected to be redesigned later this year as a 2014 model; it dates to the 2008 model year with only the slightest tweaks. The two least expensive of these nine crossovers, the Rogue and Sportage let their value compensate for their age.

Another aging value-priced model is the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, introduced for 2011 and updated for 2013. Like the Buick Encore, it's smaller than most competitors, but it's on the opposite end of the luxury spectrum from the premium-trimmed Buick.

Not in this comparison

Not every possible compact crossover could be squeezed into this comparison. Several popular models that straddle the compact and midsize classes are excluded here – the Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain, Dodge Journey, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander. Also left out is the Volkswagen Tiguan, which is significantly pricier than these nine; the Jeep Compass and Patriot, which are due to soon be replaced; and the Chevrolet Captiva Sport, which is sold only to fleet customers. And the promising 2014 Jeep Cherokee, a new crossover that is replacing the discontinued truck-based Liberty, is not yet on sale.

See the ranking order for all nine crossovers in this comparison in today's slideshow, and visit the other pages in this comparison for more information.

More from this comparison:
- Rating the nine compact crossovers: How do they compare in different ways, such as comfort, safety and fuel economy?
- Ranking the nine compact crossovers: How do they stack up for different types of buyers?
- Quick summaries of the nine compact crossovers: Pros, cons, conclusions.
- Full reviews of the: 2013 Buick Encore; 2013 Ford Escape SEL; 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L; 2013 Kia Sportage EX; 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring; 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport; 2013 Nissan Rogue SL; 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited; 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited.

See also:
All Cars Examiner car reviews
Comparison review: Midsize sedans
Comparison review: Subcompact hatchbacks
Comparison review: Compact sedans
Comparison review: Minivans
Comparison review: 2010-model compact crossovers
Review: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
2014 Jeep Cherokee unveiled at New York Auto Show

1st Place: 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L
1st Place: 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L Brady Holt

1st Place: 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L

First place: 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L

The 2013 Honda CR-V is a roomy, pleasant-to-drive crossover that does most things well and several things very well. An EX-L with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,625 and an estimated out-the-door price of $27,417, and is rated for 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving. 

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Key strengths
- Spacious cabin, with outstanding passenger and cargo room, and an easy-folding rear seat.
- Pleasant driving dynamics, with good steering feel, peppy acceleration, and a decently smooth and quiet ride. 
- User-friendly ergonomics and visibility. 

Key weaknesses
- Not as glitzy as some competitors. 
- Not as zippy as some competitors. 
- Not as cheap or fuel-efficient as some competitors. 

Overall:
Always useful, always user-friendly, always comfortable, always polished, and even fun to drive by crossover standards, the CR-V has something for everyone and a lot for many.

Overall grade: A
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2nd Place: 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited
2nd Place: 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited Brady Holt

2nd Place: 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited

Second place: 2014 Subaru Forester

The 2014 Subaru Forester is a comfortable, safe, user-friendly and fuel-efficient crossover that puts little emphasis on luxury. A 2.5i Limited with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,069 and an estimated out-the-door price of $27,508, and is rated for 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Pleasant driving dynamics with good ride, acceleration and handling. 
- Top-notch crash-test scores. 
- Class-leading fuel economy. 

Key weaknesses: 
- Drab interior decor doesn't befit the price. 
- Cargo space trails some competitors. 
- Not as inexpensive as some competitors. 

Overall
The Forester is a solidly engineered crossover without the plushness of most competitors. 

Overall grade: A
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3rd Place: 2013 Nissan Rogue SL
3rd Place: 2013 Nissan Rogue SL Brady Holt

3rd Place: 2013 Nissan Rogue SL

Third place: 2013 Nissan Rogue SL

The 2013 Nissan Rogue is competent but thoroughly unexceptional crossover that sells at unbeatable prices. An SL with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $28,795 and an estimated out-the-door price of $24,098, and is rated for 24 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths
- Priced thousands of dollars below comparably equipped competitors. 
- Decently smooth ride. 
- Decently comfortable cabin. 

Key weaknesses: 
- Drab interior decor.
- Mediocre crash-test scores. 
- Mediocre cargo room. 

Overall: 
The heavily discounted Rogue offers unbeatable value on paper, and the car itself isn't half bad either. But if you want the best small crossover, you'll find something spiffier and roomier than this aging Nissan.

Overall grade: B
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4th Place: 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
4th Place: 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring Brady Holt

4th Place: 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

Fourth place: 2014 Mazda CX-5

The 2014 Mazda CX-5 is a sporty crossover with zesty acceleration, agile handling, and general competence otherwise. A CX-5 Grand Touring with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,665 and an estimated out-the-door price of $28,865, and is rated for 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Relatively sporty demeanor with lots of pep and agile handling.
- Above-average fuel economy.
- Solid interior quality.

Key weaknesses:
- Sport-seekers will want even sharper steering.
- Relatively high price.
- Not as roomy or smooth as some competitors.

Overall:
A punchy engine and agile handling make the CX-5 the driver's car among small crossovers, and it doesn't fall short elsewhere – though excellent fuel economy is its only other notable area for standing out from the crowd, except for a higher-than-most price.

Overall grade: B
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5th Place: 2013 Ford Escape SEL
5th Place: 2013 Ford Escape SEL Brady Holt

5th Place: 2013 Ford Escape SEL

Fifth place: 2013 Ford Escape SEL

The 2013 Ford Escape has sophisticated driving dynamics and a roomy interior, but many elements are overcomplicated and its premium feel isn't consistent. An Escape SEL with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $32,210 and an estimated out-the-door price of $28,162, and is rated for 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Alert steering and tight suspension control.
- Boxy cargo hold with flat-folding rear seat.
- Lots of available features.

Key weaknesses:
- Mediocre crash-test scores.
- Fussy in-dash infotainment system.
- Fancy turbo engine yields little acceleration or fuel economy benefit.

Overall:
Generally competitive, the Escape has a solid feel to its driving dynamics that lends it a somewhat upscale aura. But it's rarely outstanding, and it's held back further by additional flaws. 

Overall grade: B
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6th Place: 2013 Buick Encore
6th Place: 2013 Buick Encore Brady Holt

6th Place: 2013 Buick Encore

Sixth place: 2013 Buick Encore 

The 2013 Buick Encore is smaller and fancier than nearly every competitor. While it fills a unique niche, its size crimps utility, and its luxury cred isn't perfect. An Encore with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,760 and an estimated out-the-door price of $28,994, and is rated for 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Polished ride, handling and noise levels.
- Tidy exterior dimensions and easy maneuverability.
- Very good gas mileage.

Key weaknesses:
- Tight cargo hold with fussy-to-fold rear seat.
- More expensive out the door than most competitors.
- Restricted rear visibility.

Overall:
Almost in a class by itself, the petite Encore promises a more premium feel than the class norm at the expense of a spacious cabin. It largely succeeds in that niche, but many buyers will turn it down over its downsized interior room.

Overall grade: B-
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7th Place: 2013 Kia Sportage EX
7th Place: 2013 Kia Sportage EX Brady Holt

7th Place: 2013 Kia Sportage EX

Seventh place: 2013 Kia Sportage EX

The 2013 Kia Sportage looks expensive yet has a low price tag – a fine start. But this aging model trails the competition in too many other ways. A Sportage EX with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,650 and an estimated out-the-door price of $25,150, and is rated for 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Budget pricing that undercuts nearly every competitor.
- Premium-grade interior trim and features.
- User-friendly dashboard despite plenty of tech.

Key weaknesses:
- Modest cargo space.
- Mediocre ride, acceleration and handling.
- Lowest fuel economy in this comparison.

Overall:
The Sportage is one of the least expensive small crossovers yet avoids looking and feeling cheap. Its driving dynamics, fuel economy, and lack of interior space let it down.

Overall grade: B-
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8th Place: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited
8th Place: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited Brady Holt

8th Place: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited

Eighth place: 2013 Toyota RAV4

The 2013 Toyota RAV4 is generally competitive and particularly roomy, but a a stiff ride and vague steering are major flaws in a competitive class. A RAV4 Limited with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $29,480 and an estimated out-the-door price of $27,680, and is rated for 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Class-leading cargo volume.
- Plenty of power.
- Snazzy interior décor.

Key weaknesses:
- Stiff suspension slams over bumps.
- Vague, slow steering robs driver confidence.
- Mediocre crash-test scores.

Overall:
A spacious and smartly finished cabin makes a strong first impression, but a bouncy ride and unresponsive, unnatural steering make the RAV4 less pleasant to drive than most of its competitors.

Overall grade: C
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9th Place: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
9th Place: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport Brady Holt

9th Place: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Ninth place: 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

The 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is simply not competitive with today's crossovers. It is not without merit, but it has far too many flaws. An Outlander Sport LE with all-wheel-drive, leather seats and a sunroof has a sticker price of $28,620 and an estimated out-the-door price of $25,449, and is rated for 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

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Key strengths:
- Competitive pricing.
- Tidy exterior dimensions.
- Very good city fuel economy.

Key weaknesses:
- Lethargic, noisy, droning engine.
- Modest cargo room.
- Drab interior décor.

Overall:
A low price – not even the lowest in the class – can't offset the Outlander Sport's thorough mediocrity-at-best. A zestier engine instead of a worst-in-class powertrain would have helped it overcome its just-okay points.

Overall grade: F
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