It wasn't too long ago that compact sport/utility vehicles were referred to in an offhand way as "sport cutes," a moniker derived from their diminutive packages and styling that mimicked larger and more off-road-worthy siblings. Things change. Now compact SUVs have evolved. They're larger, more sophisticated in both styling and technology and priced at a level that enables families to consider these vehicles a viable substitute for a 4-door sedan.
As compact SUVs have grown both in size and amenities, they have morphed from just being off-roader wannabes into a class all their own, influenced by the emergence of crossover SUVs that put a premium on carlike design, comfort, handling and performance. These are predominantly on-road vehicles that are more like tall cars than off-roading 4x4s.
To gauge the state of the current art, we assembled a group of six leading compact SUVs and took them through their paces on a two-day road trip from Irvine, California, to the baseball Cactus League hub of Mesa, Arizona, and in the process managed to take in a Cubs vs. Padres spring training game. The result of that contest? Don't ask. But we will tell you how the vehicles, which included 2014 models of the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Jeep Cherokee, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4, fared.
The diversity of these vehicles is a testament to how much the segment has changed. The exteriors ranged from cutting-edge crossover, like the Escape, to looks that are designed to appeal to a more SUV-oriented crowd, like the Cherokee. Even though the Jeep's design is polarizing among traditionalists, the cues are strong reminders of the brand's off-road pedigree.
Since these vehicles now appeal to a wide bandwidth of buyers, each vehicle's strengths and weaknesses demonstrate how they are targeted to various subsets that exist within this growing category. The two-day road trip provided a great opportunity for ample back-to-back seat time with these vehicles. The route, which took us primarily on interstates between Southern California and Phoenix, also had stretches of city driving in both Palm Springs and Mesa, meet-up points that allowed us to test the functionality of the nav systems (or complain about the lack thereof in the Cherokee) and use the various hands-free pairing of phones to compare ease of use.
There was also plenty of time along the way to sit in the front and back of the vehicles, check out the cargo areas, slam doors and hatches as well as generally assess the quality of materials and workmanship. Despite being characterized as compact, there is surprising room in most of these vehicles -- in several of them, primarily the Subaru, RAV4, CR-V and Rogue, five full-size adults could be accommodated without pain. Luggage space is ample, though the height of the liftover varied from vehicle to vehicle, with the CR-V offering the easiest access along with a handy lever to drop the rear seats.
While these vehicles are categorized in the same segment and delivered about the same fuel economy (we saw 26 mpg overall, which is right in line with virtually all the vehicle's combined EPA scores), they all went about it in different ways, with engines ranging in size from a 3.2-liter V6 in the Jeep to a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder Ecoboost engine in the Escape. Transmissions varied from CVTs in the Forester and Rogue, to a 9-speed (no typo) automatic in the Cherokee. Generally, all the vehicles were easy to drive, could hold their own in freeway traffic and offered terrific visibility from their raised seating positions.
The biggest differences, however, were in the execution of details, from the way their infotainment systems worked (the Subaru provided the biggest challenge to user-friendliness) to the quality of the interior appointments.
Here's a brief summary of our test, with links to fuller reviews of each vehicle:
It may have the smallest interior, but the Escape has fresh styling and was the sportiest drive of the bunch. This front-drive SUV is the perfect fit for an urban environment. Read more
Its roomy interior, large storage bins and efficient packaging make the CR-V a great all-around performer perfect for family duty. Though it's the oldest model in the test, not only holds its own against the competition, but excels. Read more
Impressive for its fuel economy and performance from its V6 engine and 9-speed automatic transmission, the Cherokee's appeal lies with those who not only want a daily driver, but an off-road companion on the weekend. Read more
The most expensive model in our test and it looked it. A classy interior, innovative rear shelving system and a user-friendly infotainment system makes the Rogue come across as far more polished than its name would imply. Read more
Its hard-to-use touch screen drew universal pans, but the Forester offers a strong, torquey powertrain, plenty of space, and standard all-wheel-drive. It's a solid player in a crowded category. Read more
One of the original sport cutes has grown up. Plenty of space, a solid powertrain, nice use of soft touch materials and an affordable sticker make the RAV4 a formidable competitor. Read more
If you don't find the compact SUV of your dreams among these six options, you'll be happy to know you have at least seven more to explore.
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