The dynamic of the family car landscape is shifting. For decades, sedans such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were among their respective automakers’ top sellers. These four-doors were the vehicle of choice for taking little Joey to school, driving mommy to work, and hauling the family to the beach for summer vacation.
The beachhead these sedans had has slowly been eroding over the past decade as small crossovers started eating into their market share. With the pendulum now in full swing, automakers are predicting that compact crossovers will overtake sedans in sales and as the vehicle of choice for families by the end of the decade. And these six are the crossovers that’ll do it.
Although the majority of these family crossovers are nearing the end of their production lives, their successors will soon be among the hottest-selling vehicles on the market and a staple of families for decades to come. The vehicles represent the best of the best in the segment, offering up the best balance of safety, comfort, practicality, and style. All are similarly equipped, come armed with all-wheel drive, and cost about $35,000, reflecting the United States’ current average vehicle transaction price of about $33,500.
The winner of this Big Test not only will be the best family-sized crossover you can buy today, but it’ll also earn subjective favor in ride and handling on our road loops and sport the best cockpit and cabin. Our winner will also have to ace a battery of objective tests, including instrumented performance testing, Real MPG fuel economy tests, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash scores, and Intellichoice value and cost-of-ownership data.
Only six of our nine invitees had what it took to make the finalist cut. Let’s meet them.
A perennial underdog, the Hyundai Tucson Limited 1.6T AWD was all-new last year. Long a value play in the segment, the Tucson package now includes a luxurious interior and an optional turbocharged engine with a dual-clutch transmission for $35,000 and change.
Another crossover often overlooked by consumers is the winner of our last compact crossover comparison test, the 2016.5 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD. Mazda updated the fun-to-drive crossover in the middle of this year (hence the .5) with more standard equipment while retaining the loveable disposition we’ve come to know and love over the past couple years.
Ford’s updated 2017 Escape SE AWD also waves the fun-to-drive flag. It’s now fitted with a new 1.5-liter, turbocharged I-4, a more ergonomic interior, and revised sheetmetal. The Toyota RAV4 SE, best-selling in its segment, is similarly revised for the new model year. Although our gas-powered version is unchanged under the hood (a hybrid is the big news for this model year), the sheetmetal sports crisper lines and a more off-road-ready look. The field was rounded out by a two former SUV of the Year winners, both of which are unchanged as they near the end of their production cycle: the 2015-winning Honda CR-V Touring AWD and the 2014-winning Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited.
We also invited the 2016 Jeep Cherokee Latitude, 2016 Nissan Rogue SL, and 2017 Kia Sportage EX along, but we cut them from our finalist list because they didn’t live up to our exacting Big Test criteria for a variety of reasons. You can find out why at the end of this comparison, but before you do, find out how the best of this incredibly competitive segment stacked up.
Ride & Handling
The balance behind ride and handling is a delicate one, especially when taking into account the conflicting usage cycles of the family vehicle. To us, a family crossover has to handle well enough to be engaging to the driver and fleet-footed enough to be confidence-inspiring in accident-avoidance measures while also being comfortable enough to keep the family happy on long trips.
For us, the vehicle that did that best was the Mazda CX-5. Out on our road loops, the Mazda offered up engaging, sporty handling with little body roll and little in the way of harshness from poor-quality roads. “This one is the sports car of the bunch; it has the best steering by a longshot,” noted technical director Frank Markus. “Terrific body motion control, minimal roll, good brake feel—a properly sorted chassis.”
The Honda CR-V also scored high marks from judges for how well it rode and handled our road loops. Steering feel is light but communicative, and body roll is controlled well. The crossover’s ride was generally soft and supple, though some, like associate editor Scott Evans, thought the CR-V left a bit to be desired when it comes to high-frequency road imperfections. “The ride is stiff on small, sharp bumps,” he said. “You hear and feel every one of them.”
The Ford Escape split the difference between the Mazda’s sportiness, and the CR-V’s ride quality. True to its Focus roots, the Ford featured sporty, quick, and linear steering but little in the way of actual feel. The Escape’s suspension straddled the line between busy and sporty, but when pushed it revealed itself to not live up the check its steering rack was cashing. “I went to an emergency lane-change maneuver top asses body roll and got instant stability control intervention,” Markus said. “Not confidence-inspiring.”
One finalist that made no pretense of sportiness was the Subaru Forester. Leaving the twisty bits to its more capable WRX-inspired XT trim allowed Subaru to tune the tall, boxy Forester to be incredibly compliant on the road. “The ride is nice,” Evans said. “Definitely among the best here.”
As soft as the Subaru was, the Hyundai Tucson was harsh. Although Hyundai has quickly come a long way in its suspension- and steering-tuning prowess, there’s still a bit of work to be done. Although it was generally unobjectionable, a handful of editors found the Tucson’s ride to be busy, especially on small, sharp bumps. “They’re loud, and you feel every single one, as if you’re driving over Legos,” Evans said. The Tucson’s steering, on the other hand, showed further improvement than the suspension did. Not overtly sporty, the Tucson offered up nice steering feel with good feedback from the front tires and only light-effort required.
Bringing up the rear in ride and handling was the Toyota RAV4. Our RAV4 SE’s exterior trimmings and Electric Storm Blue paint may promise sportiness, but the Toyota is anything but. Steering is gooey and lifeless, and the suspension crashed over bumps, sending rattles throughout the cabin as it did.
Straight-line performance may not seem all that important for a family crossover, but it certainly can be. Little can be more frustrating than not having the power to safely merge onto a freeway or pass slower traffic. Although we didn’t test any of these crossovers fully loaded with passengers and gear, data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that almost 40 percent of all trips consists of the driver being the sole occupant in the vehicle. With that in mind, our instrumented testing provides a good glimpse at how drivers can expect these vehicles to fair in a daily use cycle that consists of running errands or commuting to the office.
The slowest vehicle here also happens to be among the most surprising, given that most judges thought it felt far faster than our tests show. Powered by a little turbocharged, 1.5-liter I-4 producing 179 hp, the Ford Escape was the slowest crossover here to 60 mph, yet from behind the wheel you probably wouldn’t know it. The little turbocharger spools up quickly and works together with the well-sorted six-speed automatic to give the driver plenty of punchy midrange torque. Or in traditional consumer speak, it feels as if it’s got plenty of get up and go.
The Subaru Forester was another vehicle that felt quicker than it was, though in this case it probably has more to do with overly aggressive throttle tuning than anything else. Powered by a naturally aspirated, 2.0-liter flat-four, the Subaru routes its 170 hp—the lowest in this group—through a CVT. “Jerky acceleration,” noted Detroit editor Alissa Priddle. Senior production editor Zach Gale called the throttle tip-in jumpy. “I could get used to this,” he said, “but why should I have to?” It appears that in an effort to make the Forester feel faster than it actually is, Subaru’s engineers tuned the electronic throttle to respond incredibly aggressively in the first inch or so of its travel. The end result is a crossover that can be difficult to drive smoothly, as even the most minor throttle inputs could snap an occupant’s head back into a headrest.
The RAV4 was ever so slightly quicker than the Subaru. The Toyota’s 176-hp, 2.5-liter I-4 sounds like its working hard for that tenth-of-a-second advantage it has over the Forester, though, with the naturally aspirated engine getting loud and thrashy higher up in its rev band as it accelerates. Its six-speed automatic transmission doesn’t help matters much, as it spends much of its time hunting for the proper gear ratio. A word of advice for Toyota: Give the regular RAV4 the RAV4 Hybrid’s CVT, and just be done with it.
Not much separates the third-quickest Honda CR-V from the faster two CUVs here, but what makes the Honda so notable to judges is how smooth it is. Not only is it smooth, but it also offers up plenty of usable power. The CR-V, powered by a 2.4-liter I-4 making 185 hp and paired with a CVT, feels quick, and it makes highway merging and passing a breeze. “Boot the throttle wide open for freeway merging acceleration, and you’re treated to a lovely soundtrack that reminds you that these people make race engines, as well,” Markus said. Priddle agreed, noting that “Honda engines always come through.”
The Hyundai Tucson’s powertrain is a bit untraditional compared to the rest of its competitive set. Most here use either CVTs or six-speed automatics, but the Tucson gets a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox, which Hyundai says is good for quicker acceleration and better fuel economy than a traditional automatic. The dual-clutch paired with a turbocharged, 1.6-liter I-4 that produces 175 hp mostly delivers on those promises, netting it the second-quickest acceleration here. Around town or in light traffic on the highway, the powertrain is quite lovely; the engine is punchy and quick to rev, and the transmission rattles off quick shifts without the lazy creeping that afflicts many dual-clutch transmissions in heavy stop-and-go traffic. Wide-open throttle is where the Tucson’s powertrain refinement is lacking. “Wide-open throttle performance is awful,” Gale said. “There’s quite a delay if you’re pulling away from a stop.” The transmission stutters on the freeway, too, where full-throttle maneuvers—like passing a big rig on a two-lane road—are met with massive engine revs before the transmission decides to downshift and engage, by which point the gap you were probably shooting for is all but gone.
The raciest of the bunch, not surprisingly, belongs to the manufacturer whose current tagline is “Driving Matters.” The Mazda CX-5 with its 2.5-liter, 184-hp I-4 and six-speed automatic transmission impressed our drivers. “Oh, Mazda, you’ve got my number,” Evans said. “This is the best engine here—linear power with plenty to give at both the bottom and top end.” The CX-5’s transmission earned praise for its quick, decisive shifts in its normal mode and for its willingness to let the four-banger sing to its redline in Sport mode.
For all this talk about Sport modes, fuel-efficient Eco modes are more important to the average consumer. EPA fuel economy figures are a nice jumping off point for comparing and contrasting how efficiently these vehicles burn gasoline, but they’re not accurate enough for our purposes. So we handed the keys off to our in-house Emission’s Analytics Real MPG team to see how they score.
The MPG champ by more than 1mpg on the Real MPG combined cycle was the Toyota RAV4. Despite its outdated engine and slow six-speed automatic, the RAV4 managed 24.5/30.3/26.8 Real MPG city/highway/combined, outperforming its EPA rating of 22/29/25 mpg by a fair margin.
The next three finalists’ fuel economy numbers were all right on top of each other, with the Subaru Forester leading by a nose. The Forester, which is EPA-rated at 24/32/27 mpg, netted 23.7/28.3/25.6 mpg on the Real MPG cycle, underperforming compared to its EPA rating. Right behind the Subaru was our 1.5-liter-powered Ford Escape. The Escape got 21.6/32.6/25.5 Real MPG in our testing, improving overall on its 22/28/24 EPA score. Right on the Ford’s tail was the Mazda CX-5. Rated by the Feds at 24/30/26 mpg, the CX-5 actually got 23.4/27.7/25.1 Real MPG.
The largest underperformer was surprisingly the Honda CR-V. EPA-rated at 25/31/27 mpg, the Honda scored a disappointing 21.8/28.2/24.3 on the Real MPG cycle.
Due to some technical problems interfacing the Emissions Analytics equipment with the Tucson’s onboard computers, we unfortunately were unable to obtain Real MPG numbers on the Hyundai. The Tucson is EPA-rated at 24/28/26 mpg.
Cockpit & Cabin
There a couple ways to go about rating a family crossover’s cockpit and cabin. One can focus on the quality, design, and features such as the number of USB ports or the quality of its infotainment display. The other way to go about it is to look at available space and the utilitarian function of a CUV’s cabin. In ranking our finalists’ cabins, we opted to keep both in mind while also taking comfort, quietness, and ease of use into consideration.
No matter how you slice it, the Honda CR-V’s cabin was the roomiest. A packaging marvel if there ever were one, the CR-V’s big back seat offered up enough room for 6-foot-tall adults, and it folded nearly flat with the flick of a lever in the cargo area. The cavernous cargo hold also earned points for its low lift-over height. “The cargo floor is so low compared to some others!” Gale said, later adding that the CR-V “offers one of the most functional cargo areas available in the segment.” Behind the wheel, the Honda offers up a mature design that’s aged well as this generation CR-V nears the end of its production cycle. “The seat offers up reasonable lateral support, the armrests are perfectly positioned, and everything falls neatly to hand,” Markus said. “Except the volume knob that is missing.” Speaking of the knob, it’s the CR-V’s infotainment system that most betrays its age. The system functions as if its software were ripped from a Palm Pilot; it’s inexcusable in a modern automobile—especially in one that sports such advanced semi-autonomous driving technology.
The Toyota RAV4 was another finalist with a cavernous cabin, but it, too, left something to be desired. First, the good. Like the Honda, the Toyota has a large cargo area with a low lift-over height; it even has underfloor storage, though the compartment is rather small and hard to reach, as it’s located by the rear seat backs. The rest of the cabin is also relatively spacious, even if sightlines out the windows are on the claustrophobic side. Although the functionality of the RAV4 is strong, once you start looking past them, the interior starts to fall flat compared to the competition. Fit and finish is only so-so, and overall quality is lacking. “I can’t seem to figure out what these trim panels on the door are supposed to look like,” Markus said. “Varnished driftwood with glitter? Straight-grain carbon fiber? They’re just weird.”
While the Toyota lost points for its disjointed interior, judges praised the Mazda CX-5’s cohesive cabin. The driver-focused interior featured nice leather, pleasing-to-the-touch plastics, and comfortable seats. The layout is also intuitive with plenty of places to stash necessities such as water bottles and cellphones. Our nits to pick with the CX-5’s interior revolve around its design and use of space. It’s not the smallest CUV here by a long shot, and the rising window line makes the interior feel even smaller than it is. The all-black cabin doesn’t help things, either, making the interior feel claustrophobic. “The interior is nice but understated to the point of boring,” Evans said. “Get some color in here.”
Whereas all the finalists in this Big Test seek to pull off a luxurious interior to some extent, the Hyundai Tucson is probably the only one that succeeds. “The most mature and upscale interior pleasant,” Evans said. “Nice materials and color palette; everything looks a class above.” Loaded with tech, the Tucson’s dash is intuitively laid out with lots of clearly marked buttons backed up by Hyundai’s Bluelink infotainment system, which wouldn’t look out of place in a vehicle that stickered for three times as much as the Tucson. With all the Tucson’s positives, it’s too bad that it had one of the smallest back seats and trunks of the group.
Gale started his notes on the Subaru with praise. “Whenever someone says all modern cars feel like visibility-limited caves inside,” he said, “point them to the Forester.” He’s absolutely right; whereas CUVs like the Tucson and RAV4 could at times feel claustrophobic inside, the Forester with its huge greenhouse was a revelation. Its big windows and low beltlines give drivers and passengers alike a commanding view out of the Forester. The big windows are a huge plus because there’s not much happening inside the cabin. The seats are wide, flat, and rather benchlike; multiple editors complained of sore backs and numb butts after an hour in the saddle. The Subaru’s interior seems to have aged a lot since it won SUV of the Year two years ago, Markus said. “The interior looks quite antique, although it’s ergonomics are fairly sound overall.”
Despite a mid-cycle update this year, the Ford Escape is another finalist whose interior has begun to feel old, though it turned out to be far more polarizing than the Subaru. “The design is showing its age,” Evans said. Markus agreed, adding that he wasn’t a fan of the positioning of the Sync3 infotainment screen or the vanlike windshield. Others were quite fond of the Escape’s redesign “This is a slick car inside and out,” Gale said. “I love the partial leather, partial cloth seat design, from the way they fit to the horizontal ribbing.” The Escape’s quiet cabin also had no shortage of clever storage cubbies, including a cellphone holder on the left side of the front passenger seat and a floor-mounted cubby near the driver’s doorsill. Despite all the good, there’s no escaping the Ford’s tight back-seat package, which realistically is too tight for adults on anything more than a short trip.
When it comes to family transportation, there’s nothing higher on many priority lists than solid safety scores. In the United States, we’re fortunate enough to have two agencies responsible for crash testing vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The NHTSA tests a vehicle’s crashworthiness in front, side, and rollover tests, providing an overall score on a scale of one to five stars, five stars being the best possible score.
The IIHS’ tests are far more challenging. It puts vehicles through brutal small and moderate overlap (think hitting a telephone pole with your headlight at 40 mph), roof strength, and side-impact tests, among other things. In those tests, it ranks vehicles Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, and Good.
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