Comparison Test: Five compact CUVs

Review by Michael Schlee and Jonathan Yarkony; photos by Brigitte, Esmond Yau, and Jonathan Yarkony
Photo Gallery:Compact CUV comparo
Crossovers are pretty much old hat by now. Almost every manufacturer has abandoned the truck-based body-on-frame sport utility vehicle (SUV) for more advanced unibody construction, which is enough in most books to warrant slapping on the crossover utility vehicle (CUV) label. While the differences are marginal, CUVs offer the high seating position and roomy cargo area of SUVs with a more refined, car-like ride. Some even make all-wheel drive an option rather than a key standard feature. While every segment has seen the introduction of CUVs (from subcompact all the way up to full-size), compact CUVs are the second largest segment by sales (after compact cars), eclipsing even sales of large pickup trucks.
Most manufacturers are in on the segment now, but Toyota and Honda have defined it since they introduced the RAV4 and CR-V, respectively, in the mid-90s. With each generation they have gone head-to-head, leading the segment to prominence as an economical and conscientious option to large SUVs without giving up the creature comforts and utility of those practical transports.
The Honda CR-V was the eighth-bestselling light truck nameplate in Canada last year at just over 25,000, and that was in its final model year, before the introduction of this brand-new 2012 model. With this redesign, Honda again aims to raise the bar and we wanted to see if it still has the Honda mojo that sees the Civic dominate Canadian sales year after year, and the engineering that makes the subcompact Fit the darling of media, though perhaps too pricey for popular tastes.
The Toyota RAV4 is due for its own redesign very shortly, having been on the market in its current form since 2006 with only minor revisions in 2008 and a face-lift in 2011. Despite its age, Toyota sold over 21,000 RAV4s in Canada last year, thanks to variety not offered on many other CUVs, with its optional seating for seven and an optional V6 engine.
Of course, the Ford Escape is the Canadian sales champ (by almost 20K units over the CR-V), but the brand new redesigned 2013 Escape is not yet available, so we went looking elsewhere in the talent pool to see who might challenge two of the most recognized household names in the industry. We started with the Nissan Rogue, Nissan’s bestselling model after the Versa line and bestselling utility vehicle by a huge margin, accounting for 14,191 sales for Nissan in 2011. Hyundai sold a similar number of Tucsons in 2011 at 14,309, but no matter how many were sold, we would have included the Tucson, because pretty much everything Hyundai touches is gold these days; we believed the fairly fresh Tucson would be one of the strongest contenders, coming off a significant redesign only a couple years ago.
And last but not least, a brand new model from Mazda, the CX-5, using the firm’s engineering magic that gives us the brilliant MX-5, Mazda3, and Mazda5. Significantly, the CX-5 is the first Mazda to wholly incorporate its new SkyActiv technologies in every facet of vehicle design – from powertrain and chassis right down to suspension and steering – aimed at improving fuel efficiency without compromising driving fun. We had high expectations for the CX-5, because it is a new design that Mazda has had years to contemplate (while selling a rebadged Ford Escape as the Tribute), and because of Mazda’s track record for making fun, functional, and well-packaged vehicles. However, the reason we do these comparison tests is to see who comes out ahead on the road, and not simply in our preconceptions.

Fifth Place – 2012 Nissan Rogue SL AWD

Something had to finish last, and in the case of this comparison test it was the Nissan Rogue. While it finished at the back of the pack in this company, that doesn’t mean that it is not a good car in its own right, as all five CUVs were strong entrants. That being said, it simply wasn’t quite as good as the others in this group. The more we drove these compact crossovers, the more we realized each had its endearing qualities and its sore spots. Unfortunately for the Rogue, its negatives exceeded the other CUVs’ flaws. So what hurt the Rogue the most? In short, it was let down most by its interior and drivetrain.
The interior of the Rogue is a bit of a conundrum. Our fully loaded SL was awash with rich-looking soft-touch materials that were only matched in the CX-5. The overall design of the interior was conservative, to a fault. Despite the great materials, the design looks dated, which makes sense considering this is the second oldest model design in the comparison test. For every great feature like around view monitor parking cameras and standard navigation, there were basic options missing, like a telescopic steering wheel and fold-down rear-seat armrest.
The front seats received much praise for their comfort, but the low placement of the tiny radio/navigation/backup camera screen made viewing it a chore. Another chore was installing a child safety seat: with solid fixed head restraints, the over-the-seat strap had to be finagled to go around the restraint and the cargo-bay LATCH anchor was covered by an unfriendly piece of plastic. Rear cargo space was useful, but at 818 litres was the second smallest, beating only the diminutive Hyundai Tucson.
Off the line, the Rogue is a solid performer thanks to its 170-hp, 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine. The problem is, to extract the full potential out of the Rogue’s engine you must dip heavily into the throttle and allow the continuously variable transmission (CVT) to hold the engine in a high-rpm thrashing cacophony. The CVT in the Rogue is nowhere close to being the worst on the market (that “honour” goes to the Compass), but it is still a CVT and many did not like it. As the only vehicle in the test with a supposedly fuel-saving CVT, it was a bit surprising that it returned the second-worst fuel consumption at an average of 11.8 L/100 km.
It is really too bad that the drivetrain and interior nuances of the Rogue weighed it down so much, since its chassis, exterior styling and rear seat comfort all scored well with the judges and placed it respectably mid-pack in those categories.

Fourth Place – 2012 Toyota RAV4 4WD V6 Limited

Many of us were expecting bigger things from the RAV4. It was the only crossover powered by a six-cylinder engine (making in excess of 100 extra horsepower over the CX-5) and, with the highest as-tested price, was one of the most generously equipped. However, when the dust settled, the RAV4 finished at the back of the pack just ahead the Nissan Rogue. It is easy to automatically point at high price and poor fuel economy as the culprits that brought this rig down in the rankings, but in reality, it was a mediocre interior, bland exterior and poor chassis that were the RAV4’s ultimate undoing.
Most of us love the RAV4’s V6 power, grunt and character. The smoothness of the engine was matched by the smoothness of the ride. Even with an extra litre over the next largest engine, the 269-hp 3.5-litre V6 returned a decent 13.0 L/100 km fuel consumption average. That’s nowhere near the frugal CX-5′s average, but it is within 1.3 L/100 km achieved by the smaller, less powerful engines found in the Tucson and Rogue.
Transmission kick-downs are lazy, steering feel is numb, and cornering ability was deemed worst of the bunch. Understandably, these crossovers are not sports cars, but the RAV4 is so disengaging to drive that the task almost becomes a chore. It is an unfortunate case of the chassis being overmatched by the engine.
The interior feels dated, yet it is useful and well laid out. Materials are predominantly a variety of hard and harder plastics and the front seats were deemed the least comfortable. Rear seat space is generous and offers great legroom, but the seat cushions were too short and placed too low in the vehicle for our expert seat-testing team. The RAV4 ties the CR-V for the largest cargo area (just over 1,000 L) but has a trump card up its sleeve: a pair of storage areas beneath the trunk’s carpeted floor panels, thanks to the missing optional third-row seat and tailgate-mounted spare tire.
When the RAV4 first appeared as a 2006 model it was at the top of its game and a phenomenal compact crossover. However, time marches on and the seven-year-old RAV4 has not. As one of our testers commented, “(The RAV4) looks, feels and handles like the senior citizen of the group.” That said, if hauling a lot of stuff or a lot of people a lot of the time sounds like you, the RAV4’s seven-seat capacity and V6 options might be its trump cards.

Third Place – 2012 Hyundai Tucson GLS AWD

“This is the sports car of the bunch,” boldly declared one tester after a turn behind the wheel of the Tucson. Fact is, it’s not that far from the truth. Phrases like ‘fun to drive’, ‘nimble handler’ and ‘makes the RAV4 feel like an old Buick’ were heard as different evaluators stepped out after their turn with the Tucson. Being the only vehicle in this test, aside from the CR-V, on all-season tires, helped amplify the Tucson’s handling prowess. As can be expected though, this ability to carve a corner has a payoff in the form of a stiff ride. Some were okay with it, while others found it too harsh. Hyundai has yet to find that magic handling with supple ride formula in this segment that makes the Honda CR-V such a joy to drive.
The Tucson tied the RAV4 for the least comfortable front seats and a few of us found excessive wind noise intruding into the cabin. Steering was stiff and crisp if not a bit artificially heavy. The gauge cluster and HVAC drew the most criticism out of the test group but were simple to operate. Despite being the smallest vehicle in the test group, rear seat room was average and impressed us with some of the most comfortable seatbacks even if the cushions felt too low to the floor.
Cargo space, at 728 L, is the smallest in the bunch, which is to be expected considering the Tucson was the smallest in the group. Strangely enough, the smaller Tucson is heavier than both the Rogue and the CX-5, which may explain its unimpressive 11.7 L/100 km fuel consumption observed during the test.
The Tucson did arrive with the lowest as-tested price. At this price point, some options were lacking, notably a sunroof and back-up camera, but all the important convenience features were present and accounted for and some nice touches, like big side mirrors, were much appreciated. Many also appreciated the Tucson’s smooth six-speed automatic and 176-hp, 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine.
When the scores were added up and people were asked their opinion on each vehicle, “good value” kept coming up when the Tucson was discussed. That is a phrase that often comes up when any Hyundai product is discussed, and it is well-deserved. The Tucson, like most Hyundai products, delivers solid value, though it still has a ways to go to catch up with our winner.

2nd Place – 2013 Mazda CX-5 GS AWD

Mazda finally has a small crossover to call its own. The all-new 2013 CX-5 replaces the long-in-the-tooth Ford Escape-based Tribute. It is the first vehicle sold in North America to fully incorporate Mazda’s SkyActiv technology, and it also reflects its new Kodo design language with attractive, thoroughly modern sheet metal. The CX-5 was the looker of the bunch and achieved the highest average rating in any category, with a 9.8 for exterior styling. One of us even went as far as to say, “It has a ‘very BMW’ look and feel inside and out.” Inside, it is much the same story with rich, soft touch materials molded into a sophisticated design packed with features not expected on a mid-level trim.
But styling is not Mazda’s primary focus with this new crossover. Fuel economy is the name of the game. Mazda introduced certain components of its SkyActiv technology in the Mazda3 earlier this year, to lukewarm reception. With the CX-5, it was applied from the ground up. The CX-5 was the third-largest vehicle in this test and featured mid-pack cargo capacity at 966 litres behind the rear seats. Despite its size, it was still the lightest of the bunch, undercutting the smaller Rogue and Tucson. It also had the smallest engine making the least output: a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder producing 155 hp with a six-speed automatic transmission programmed with fuel economy in mind.
So did it work? Yes. SkyActiv is not marketing hype (well it is that, too, so not JUST marketing hype). The CX-5 achieved an impressive 9.6 L/100 km on a test loop that featured hilly terrain and a lot of flogging from our test crew, especially by the stragglers at the back. To put it in context, the next-closest vehicle was the Honda CR-V at 10.9 L/100 km. Beyond this test route, the CX-5 achieved a day-to-day average of 8.9 L/100 km. Not bad for a 1,555-kg all-wheel-drive crossover; to further impress you, the 1,350-kg 2012 Subaru Impreza with a CVT that we drove a few weeks ago achieved 10.0 L/100 km
With the light weight and sporty disposition, we expected the CX-5 to be a great handler. Here, we were sorely disappointed. Some blamed it on the GS trim’s 17-inch wheels and soft winter tires, but the CX-5 did not have the composed feel of the Tucson or CR-V. The vehicle would push into corners and the lazy transmission and weak engine combination made exiting turns with any haste impossible. We would love to get our hands on a GT version with the 19-inch rims and all-season tires later this spring to see if this would help remedy the problem. That said, the chassis was solid and provided a smooth, compliant ride.
Coming into this comparison test, everyone had high expectations for the brand new Mazda CX-5. With its benchmark fuel economy numbers and handsome styling, many thought we had a winner on our hands. So, what happened? Well, the CR-V happened. The CX-5 is a terrific crossover, and when the five evaluators were asked which vehicle they would put their own money on, three said the CX-5, with two of the main reasons being its gorgeous looks and tremendous fuel economy.

First Place – 2012 Honda CR-V Touring AWD

Anyone who thinks Honda can no longer build class-leading vehicles needs to get behind the wheel of the 2012 CR-V. All new for 2012, Honda has stepped up its game with the redesigned CR-V and has let some Acura qualities bleed through. Nearly every tester commented on how comfortable the front seats were. The gauge cluster would look at home in a luxury Q-ship and the dash design was elegant and well laid out. Despite the hard plastics, the CR-V’s fit and finish made them look far more expensive than they really were.
Welcome interior features on a vehicle in this class included a massive centre-armrest storage bin that looks big enough to fit a CR-Z in. The rear seats were deemed the most comfortable for three people and tied for first in comfort with two people. The multiple menu screens on the dashboard were customizable and allowed the driver to tailor what information they want readily available, though some complained of the quality of the screens.
Once behind the wheel, the CR-V was voted the easiest to drive. Every reviewer commented that this Honda was the vehicle they felt most comfortable driving, and when driving quickly to boot. The vehicle responds predictably in corners and despite some body roll, is easy to control. The nearly perfect ride balance between comfort and sport is unexpected in this class of vehicle and the steering wheel sends a surprising amount of feedback to the driver.
With 1,054 litres of cargo space behind the rear seats and a curb weight of 1,608 kg, the CR-V was one of the larger vehicles in this class. However, it still achieved the second-best observed fuel economy at 10.9 L/100 km. Impressive, considering the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine makes the second-most power in this group, at 185 hp. Step on the gas from a dead stop and the Honda pulls away with surprising vigour, though power begins to taper off at highway speeds.
The CR-V is not perfect, though. Many found the new redesign to be a bit ungainly, garnering particular derision for the pinched rear side window. In what could be considered the most unfavourable comparison, more than one tester referred to this window as “Pontiac Aztek-like.” Our shortest reviewer also discovered that the front seats were a bit higher off the ground than the others, making entry into the CR-V a bit more of a challenge.
Still, the CR-V winning overall was a unanimous decision, as all five of us had it scored the highest. With a slight design refresh around the rear C-pillar, and maybe a bit more torque, the compact crossover CR-V would be darn near perfect.