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Discussion Starter #1
2012 Honda CR-V Spy Photos
Honda continues its trend of gentle evolution with the next-gen CR-V.

A fearless Car and Driver reader in Washington, D.C., snapped this picture of the next-generation Honda CR-V crossover, which will debut this fall. The vehicle looks ready for production, wearing its own sheetmetal (rather than the modified body of an existing Honda model) with the badge buried in tape on the tailgate.

Like other Japanese auto companies, Honda is as tight-lipped as can be about its future products. We’re left to use recent history and this photo to determine that the next CR-V will represent a gentle update to the current car, rather than a radical redo.

Figure on a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder being the only engine available. It should displace 2.4 liters like today’s CR-V engine, and we expect it to make between 180 and 200 hp—although the number may be closer to the bottom end of that range. Fuel economy also should improve slightly; in front-drive spec, the current model is rated for 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. (All-wheel-drivers are rated for 21/27.)

If there are any major changes to the upcoming CR-V, it could be in the seating layout. Until now, every CR-V has been a strictly 5-seat affair. Given the long rear overhang of the car in this photo, however, it looks like there just might be room for a small 3rd row of seats for short-legged passengers. Toyota sells a 3-row RAV4, but most others in the segment serve a maximum of 5.

Few would call the CR-V in its present form a pulse-raising vehicle, but it’s a staple for Honda, offers good driving dynamics, and is a sensible choice for more than 200,000 Americans per year. Even without concrete details on the next-generation CR-V, we feel confident saying it will maintain the current car’s sales success. We expect the 2012 CR-V to debut at the Los Angeles auto show this November.
 

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nuuuuu not the crv too! last gen was perfectly fine
 

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Discussion Starter #6
Pic


Though it isn’t set to go on sale until the end of the year, the new 2012 Honda CR-V crossover has been previewed in concept form and it’s safe to say the upcoming production version will closely resemble the lines seen here today.

It looks as though we’ll get a fairly conventional crossover design for the new CR-V, though there’s a chance a 3rd-row seating option will be offered this time ‘round to give it more ammunition against its closest rival, the Toyota RAV4, which currently offers the option.

Despite its age, the current CR-V remains a top seller in the small to mid-size crossover segment, selling in numbers as high 200,000 units per year in the recent past, so with the new generation Honda was never going to rock the boat when it came to its design.

Expect front-wheel drive as standard, as well as a naturally-aspirated 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine with output ranging somewhere between 180 and 200 horsepower. Fuel economy should also better the 21/28 mpg city/highway of the front-wheel drive model found in the current lineup. All-wheel drive versions should return slightly worse figures.

Finally, a new 6-speed automatic is expected to replace the 5-speeder of the current model.

As mentioned, the production 2012 Honda CR-V should go on sale at the end of the year, most likely with a debut at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show this November. You can bet the blacked-out headlights, oversized wheels and aggressive front skid plate seen on this concept will all be gone once production ramps up.

While you wait for its arrival, click here for our previous spy shots report for more details.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Msnbc


Cleverness. Value. Above all else: simplicity. These are the enduring virtues that have endeared Honda cars to drivers since the 1970s.

There are other cars that got good gas mileage; others with impressive durability. But none of them captured Honda’s spirit. Their commercials said it all: “Honda: we make it simple.”

Perhaps simplicity is less valued today. Perhaps it is just more challenging to deliver in a tech-centric world. Whatever the obstacles, while Honda’s new 2012 CR-V compact crossover SUV (even the description is inelegant) is a very good family car, it isn’t a special one. There is nothing about this that puts Honda’s clever stamp on it and says, “No other company could, or would, have done this.”

Instead, the CR-V is increasingly undistinguished in an increasingly competitive segment. That doesn’t make it a bad car, just a dull one.

1 feature that comes the closest is the folding mechanism for the rear seats. The back seat is split 60/40 and there are release handles for each side in the rear cargo area. Pull the handle and that side’s seat folds down automatically. That includes flipping the seat bottom forward and folding down the head restraint so it doesn’t foul the back of the front seat while folding forward.

It is pretty cool to watch, and few competitors have much that compares. But a remote seat release is still just a remote seat release.

From the driver’s seat we are greeted by Honda’s current un-simple dashboard design. It’s a cataclysm of plastic materials, colors and grains, made busier by the large number of assembled pieces and the disjointed cut lines between them. Throw in swoopy, lumpy styling of the busy sort that once evoked derision of Japanese automotive exterior design and it just seems like too much.

You want to tell them to relax. Be yourselves. The problem with the dashboard, like the problem with so many Honda products in general, seems to be a desire to be all things to all people, rather than concentrating on being the absolute best at something and sticking to that.

The exterior is similarly busy and lumpy. The rear end is especially osteoporotic, with the forward hunch of a white-haired old lady. With slick styling on the brand new Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5, and with the designers are Hyundai and Kia turning out new winners at every turn, Honda can’t afford to phone in the styling. I’m reminded of a teacher’s admonition of an unmotivated student: “Is this really your best work?”

A hiccup in the climate control of our pre-production test car saw the air conditioning periodically blast us with cold air for brief intervals on cool days with bright sun.

The company promises this was an artifact of pre-production programming of the climate control system in our prototype that has been fixed in production models.

Honda inexplicably continues to eschew the automatic 3-blink turn signal at a time when seemingly every other manufacturer has adopted this feature.

Another area where it looks like Honda is coasting: the CR-V has a 5-speed automatic transmission. At a time when 6-speeds are the norm because of the emphasis on fuel economy, Honda continues its long-standing tradition of being a gear or 2 short in the transmission. Even in the good old days, part of Honda’s simplicity was to leave extraneous gears out of the automatic transmission (they had 2-speed automatics in the 1970s!).

Until Honda upgrades to a 6-speed, the EPA city gas mileage of 22 mpg is pretty representative of what to expect. In a week of light suburban, mostly highway use, the CR-V returned a shade under 24 mpg. The (admittedly less powerful) Mazda CX-5 with all-wheel drive scores 25 mpg on the EPA’s city driving cycle.

There is plenty good to say about the CR-V. Its 4-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful. The electric power steering is well calibrated, with none of the low-speed numbness that plagues most such systems.

The back seat and cargo area are capacious, which is important in a category of vehicle that serves as a minivan for many families with only a couple kids. On the road the CR-V is smooth, comfortable and its all-wheel-drive is confidence inspiring on rain-slicked roads.

In addition to the test car’s navigation screen, all CR-Vs feature another full-color LCD screen that displays information about the entertainment system and trip computer data. Here Honda has one of the 1st systems that supports Pandora running on smartphones, with full integrated control of the app and the display mirroring that of the phone to keep the driver’s eyes up and forward when giving a “thumbs down” to one of Pandora’s stupider song selections.

That screen also supplements the optional nav display by showing upcoming turn information when navigating a route plotted by the computer.

These attributes contribute to a solidly favorable impression of the CR-V. Consumers who take one home aren't likely to regret it. But in today’s compact crossover segment, they would be selling themselves short to automatically return to their Honda dealer without looking at the latest entries from Ford, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia, among others.

Vital statistics: 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L 4WD Navi

Base price: $25,445 (2011 EX 4WD)

As tested (including $810 shipping): $29,795

EPA gas mileage: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined.

Pros: Quick-folding rear seats, Pandora integration, comfortable ride

Cons: Clunky looks, grunge music-era 5-speed trans, no 3-blink turn signal

Verdict: The solidly competent CR-V lacks the inspiration that established Honda’s reputation.

Standard equipment: 185-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, Real Time All-Wheel-Drive, power moonroof, keyless entry, power windows, door locks, air conditioning, tilt and telescope steering column, Bluetooth hands-free

Major options: leather upholstery, GPS navigation, roof rails, dual-zone climate control, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, 328-watt 7-speaker audio

Safety equipment: front, side, curtain airbags, electronic stability control, brake assist, tire pressure monitor, daytime running lights, traction control, anti-lock brakes​
 

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Discussion Starter #9
ConsumerReports


Pricey Mercedes-Benz ML 350 and BMW X5 midsize SUVs improve, but fall short of class leaders

Yonkers, NY (PRWEB) April 26, 2012

With its large back seat, easy access and ample cargo space, the family-friendly Honda CR-V narrowly topped the Mazda CX-V in Consumer Reports' latest head-to-head small SUVs tests.

On paper, the redesigned CR-V and new CX-5 appear very similar. Both can accommodate 5 passengers, have comparable dimensions, are available with front- or all-wheel drive, and are priced about the same. They also finished very close in CR's overall road-test scores-with a 77 and a 75, respectively-just under the segment-leading Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester.

"While their overall scores were close, these 2 small SUVs have very distinct characteristics that will probably appeal to different types of drivers" said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Consumer Reports found that the CR-V EX (tested price $26,455) is a more family-friendly SUV, with a large backseat, easy access, lots of cargo space, and a comfortable ride. It is also notably quicker and more responsive than the CX-5, with a refined drivetrain. On the downside, the CR-V suffers from pronounced road noise, sizable rear blind spots, and subpar at-the-limit handling. Overall, CR's testers found the CR-V is functional and easy to live with, if not particularly exciting to drive.

The CX-5 Touring (tested price $27,125) is more athletic and engaging to drive, thanks to its agile handling, taut cornering, and responsive steering. It's more at home on a twisty road and is more likely to satisfy enthusiast drivers. The CX-5 also delivers the best fuel economy in its class-25 mpg overall-thanks to Mazda's new Skyactiv technology. The mid-level Touring version came well equipped with a full-power seat, keyless ignition and a blind-spot monitoring system. But the CX-5's trade-offs include a smaller, noisier cabin; a choppy ride on the highway; and slower acceleration.

The Mercedes-Benz ML350 and BMW X5 luxury SUVs were also tested against each other, as well as 2 small hatchbacks, the Subaru Impreza and Kia Soul.

Only the CR-V is Recommended by Consumer Reports. Although the CX-5 scored well enough, it's still too new for CR to have reliability information. To be Recommended, a vehicle must perform well in CR's battery of tests, have average or better reliability in CR's Annual Auto Survey and perform well in government and industry crash tests.

Helped by an impressively quiet and luxurious cabin, the redesigned Mercedes-Benz ML350 beat the sportier, updated BMW X5 in a match between the 2 German luxury SUVs. The new ML jumped 7 points in Consumer Reports' Ratings over the previous generation, with a Very Good overall road-test score. It's more fuel efficient, quicker, and quieter than the previous model. The transmission and controls are also improved.

With a turbocharged 6-cylinder base engine that's quicker and more fuel-efficient than the previous one, the X5 also achieved a Very Good score. But its choppy ride and overly heavy steering did not improve. The X5's tested price of $62,675 is almost $6,000 more than the comparably equipped $56,960 ML.

In everyday driving, both the ML and X5 exhibited good handling, with little body lean. The ML's steering is responsive but a touch vague. The more agile X5 holds the edge in handling and steering, but its steering feels heavy in low-speed situations such as when parking. At its handling limits, the X5 was capable and controlled; the ML350 was considerably less capable, with lower limits.

Both vehicles rank mid-pack in this category, below the less expensive Acura MDX ($46,715) and Lexus RX 350 ($47,381). Although the SUVs scored well enough in CR's tests, neither model is Recommended because the ML350 is too new for Consumer Reports to have reliability data and the turbo X5 has had below-average reliability.

Consumer Reports also recently tested the Subaru Impreza Hatchback and Kia Soul. The all-wheel-drive Impreza ($22,345), which was redesigned for 2012, has a smooth, comfortable ride, while the Soul ($19,270) can be unpleasantly stiff. Although the Soul is notably quicker thanks to recent engine tweaks and a new 6-speed automatic transmission, performance is marred by much longer braking distances.

In some ways, the two cars are very alike, providing easy access, simple controls, similar cargo room and turning circles, and the same commendable fuel economy of 26 mpg overall. Each also suffers from a noisy cabin. The Impreza's overall road-test score places it 2nd in Consumer Reports' small-hatchback Ratings, behind the Volkswagen Golf. The less-refined Soul scored lower, but Consumer Reports found it to be a good value.

Consumer Reports is the world's largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

 

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Discussion Starter #10
AutoMobile


Goldilocks wants a new compact crossover. As circumstances would have it, she's in luck. She's interested in a segment chock full of nice vehicles from just about every carmaker you can think of -- from Kia to Range Rover and every manufacturer in between.

In the high-volume part of the compact SUV group, there are 2 numbers winners, the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape, which tend to duke it out for the top sales spot. Goldilocks wants a mainstream, well-equipped vehicle that comes standard without sticker shock, so she'll be looking at both of these vehicles. As a bonus, they're both new: a redesigned CR-V debuted a few months ago, and a brand new Ford Escape will be hitting showrooms shortly.

There's a 3rd new player on the field, too: the Mazda CX-5. Not only is it new this year, it replaces the Tribute, which used to be a rebadged Escape. We gathered all 3 vehicles for a day of driving and realized that while their recipes are almost identical, the end result is three very distinct flavors. Which one will Goldilocks like best? Well, it depends on what kind of porridge she prefers.


2012 Honda CR-V AWD EX-L NAV ($30,605)

Honda has a long reputation for getting stuff right, and while some of the company's other products have missed the mark lately, the CR-V is chugging along nicely. This is the vehicle that virtually defines its class -- and, indeed, the 2 competitors we rounded up are near clones of the Honda: all three measure within 0.6 inch in length, 0.6 inch in width, and 0.8 inch in height. They come exclusively with 4-cylinder engines and all offer the choice between front or all-wheel drive. The "Cute Ute" has been boiled down to a formula (we'll call it Goldilocks Porridge Reduction) and you could certainly argue that Honda's CR-V has, historically, had the winning recipe.

There's nothing particularly high-style about the CR-V -- on the outside, it's anything but sexy, with a bizarre front end, a minivan profile, and small (in this company) 17" wheels with tall sidewalls. Inside, it's a similar story, with gathered leather seats that look like they're from a 1990s Acura. Even our fully loaded tester doesn't come with keyless-go, so you'll have to put a metal key into the ignition switch. It does have a navigation system, although its monochrome graphics seem to have been inspired by an Atari 2600. There's another LCD screen, too, which is slightly better -- think original Nintendo -- but it's too small, too far away, and displays occasionally redundant information in a font and color scheme that doesn't match the nav screen's.


Sounds like a bitter bowl of porridge, doesn't it? Well, it's not. The CR-V might not win on presentation, but if you have an appetite for utility, the Honda wins the taste test by a mile. The minivan looks mean minivan usability: there are enormous storage bins everywhere, for example. The high console-mounted shifter feels just right in your hand, and the seats are comfortable. Best of all, the rear seats fold flat in the most breathtakingly simple mechanical origami this side of an Alton Brown cooking contraption -- no motors are involved, just a gentle tug on 1 of the 2 handles mounted cleverly (and accessibly) by the rear hatch. In one motion, the seat bottoms flip up and forward, then the seatbacks flop down. The CR-V might be the same size as these other 2 vehicles, but no one told its interior -- cargo room dwarfs the other two vehicles with the seats up or down. And the liftover height is impossibly low.

Should Goldilocks fancy herself a racecar driver, she'll be excited by the highest redline here. Honda's 2.4-liter straight-4 is torquey and chock full of personality, and it makes its 185-hp power peak right at its lofty 7000-rpm redline. Unfortunately, it's mated to a 5-speed automatic that's geared for fuel economy, not performance. Red light! Green Light! ...No! No wheelspin (thanks to an electronic AWD system that preemptively sends power rearward), but also not so much in the way of acceleration. The wait to get through 1st gear is a long 1 -- you'll be nearing freeway speeds before you feel the 1st shift. And 2nd gear is virtually identical to the Mazda's 3rd: it's good for a rather shocking 83 mph. Acceleration isn't painful, but it's never exhilarating, either.


The CR-V's electric power steering is far too overboosted to let road feel through to the wheel, and its ratio (16.7:1) is, by a wide margin, the slowest of the group. Its ride is slightly busy over broken pavement and the suspension can get a bit loose over big bumps. The Honda's ground clearance trails the other 2 vehicles by a wide margin (6.7 inches for AWD models versus 7.9 for the Ford and 8.5 for the Mazda), which might make it less capable in deep snow.

Not much about the CR-V will excite Goldilocks' inner Danica Patrick, but when it comes to an extremely usable, dependable, and very well put-together compact crossover, this porridge's lack of spice means it'll appeal to many and offend very few.


2013 Ford Escape Titanium 4WD
A Ford-loving Goldilocks is in trouble if she's indecisive, because unlike the other cars here, which are available with 1 single engine offering, the Escape comes with your choice of 3. Base models are equipped with a 2.5-liter, 168-hp 4. Next up is an EcoBoost (turbocharged, direct-injection) 1.6-liter that makes 178 hp. And leadfooteded Goldilocks can have an EcoBoost 2.0-liter that makes 240 hp.

Call us GoldiLeadfoots, because we tested the top-of-the-line Escape with every bell, whistle, and Bear Detection System. Well, not the last bit, but the Escape is, in this group, a rolling techno showcase. It came equipped with keyless-go, blind-spot monitoring with cross traffic alert (meaning it'll let you know if you're about to get sideswiped while backing out of a parking spot), automatic HID projector headlights, LED daytime running lights, active park assist (meaning it'll park itself), a power rear liftgate with Hokey-Pokey control (meaning it'll open or close electrically if you wave your foot under the rear bumper), a full-length panorama glass roof, and, of course, the MyFordTouch infotainment system -- which includes SYNC voice-activated commands, navigation system, a killer Sony sound system, and a touchscreen to control it all. It has four auto-up and -down power windows -- the other cars have it only on the driver's porthole.

There's no reason for Goldilocks to even sample the other cars' seats -- Ford's Sport Seats are "wow!" comfortable, and they're trimmed in leather and, like the others, heated. The Escape's cabin is full of angles and edges, including the rim of the steering wheel, which is uncomfortable to hold as a result. But the turquoise needles on the gauges are a cool touch -- and the high-resolution, colorful, and customizable LCD screen between the gauges trumps all.


Although MyFordTouch has been substantially revised (the previous one was, to use a word, dreadful), its clear, colorful, and very high-resolution touchscreen interface highlights exactly what's wrong with using a touchscreen: the virtual buttons appear on a flat, featureless screen, so Goldilocks will be taking her eyes off the road for a very long time to use them. Good luck if she hits a bump while trying to press a button -- the little graphical boxes that make up the buttons are so small that she could easily hit the wrong function three buttons over.

We didn't spend enough time in the Escape to test all of MyFordTouch's features (though unlike in older versions, we experienced no sudden reboots or failures), but some features didn't work properly. For example, if Ms. Goldilocks uses her iPhone for music, she's best off plugging it in via the USB adapter. This not only charges the phone, but allows her to use the touchscreen (or SYNC voice-activated controls) to find the music that's not too hard rock or too classical, but Top 40 Just Right. Except that if her phone is also paired to the system via Bluetooth, she can't listen to its music via the USB adapter -- she then needs to switch to Bluetooth streaming (which eliminates the possibility of browsing the music collection by voice or touchscreen). Sound confusing? It's more than confusing, it'd infuriate even Papa Bear from a relaxed hibernation.

Once the music does come on, though, the sound quality is superb and well beyond what you'd expect at this price point. Clearly, with all the gadgets and gizmos (and the powerful subwoofer), Ford is playing to a younger Goldilocks than Honda is.

And then you hit the gas. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost is a rocket compared with the other crossovers here. Its turbocharged torque curve is as flat as the surface of overcooked porridge, and instantaneous thrust is available whenever you want it. Turbo lag is, of course, present, but a loose torque converter masks it almost completely in normal driving. The 6-speed automatic shifts smoothly and quickly, and if you sprain your wrist just right, you can call up a pseudo-manual mode with an ill-placed rocker switch on the side of the shifter. Still, the ability to call up individual gears might help when towing -- and when equipped properly, the Escape can tow up to 3500 lb (far in excess of the Honda CR-V's 1500 lb and the Mazda CX-5's 2000 lb).


The weight of the big 19" wheels seems to stress the Ford's chassis rigidity (no doubt weakened by the enormous panoramic roof), inducing some cabin rattles over broken pavement. The suspension tuning seems oversprung and underdamped, leading to a bouncy ride on back roads, but the bump stops were left fully unmolested over the biggest of impacts. Ford's stability control programming is excellent, never intruding unless necessary, and then slowing the vehicle only as much as required. Like the Honda, the Escape's AWD system uses a computer-controlled clutch that predicts wheel spin before it happens, so even with all its prodigious power, the Escape won't squeal a tire on dry pavement.

The Escape's electric power steering is quick and responsive, though rubber-bandy in its effort. It has the widest turning circle of the group -- and the narrowest interior. Not only does the Ford trail its other rivals in shoulder room front and rear, but the sloped center stack intrudes noticeably into the driver's footwell. As a result, Goldilocks' right leg will remain in constant contact with hard plastic, fighting to get her leg far enough to the right to reach the offset and partially obscured gas pedal.

The Escape is the only car here that can't fold its rear seats using a lever at the back of the car, but at least the process is supremely easy to do from the rear doors: 1 lever flips each of the seats over almost completely flat. Despite the smallest overall interior of the group, the Escape's cargo-carrying ability is smack in the middle. The rear seats can be reclined (like the Honda's), making the back of the Escape a very comfortable place to be.

In fact, overall, the Escape is a very nice vehicle to spend time in. We think Goldilocks will like it -- if she's young and in love with high-tech toys. But if all the fairy tales are right, she'll likely love the crossover that's not too minivan-like and not too high-tech toyish. There's a third bowl of porridge that is, to borrow a phrase, just right.


2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring FWD ($29,165)
At $29,165, our Mazda CX-5 was the least expensive vehicle in our trio -- but it lacked four-wheel drive and produced the least horsepower. While we're on the subject of frugality, it also boasts the best EPA fuel economy ratings, and in our rigorous testing (we drove like animals) used by far the least fuel. In fact, it beat the Ford by 30% and the Honda by 15.

If the defining feature of the CR-V is usability and the Ford's is high-tech, the Mazda CX-5's calling card is gimmick-free elegance. There's a richness to the vehicle that goes beyond the others -- in its exterior styling as well as its cabin. The red-stitched black leather looks and smells more expensive than the hides in the other cars; the no-frills dashboard trades overwrought styling features for simple functionality, and the Mazda's driving dynamics are, simply put, a whole class ahead of its rivals.


The CX-5's steering feels like its rack came straight off the shelf of the Porsche engineering center. It's accurate, well-weighted, and highly communicative. Will Goldilocks care about steering? Does a bear cook in the woods? Absolutely! The typical crossover buyer may not speak in terms of on-center steering feel and load buildup, but all drivers know good steering when they feel it: Goldilocks will get in this car and instantly feel like she's connected with the wheels and in control of her vehicle.

And when the bears come running after her, the CX-5 will make the quickest getaway. It may be down 85 hp from the Ford and 30 hp on the Honda, but the Mazda's body weighs some 300 lb less than the Ford and about 100 lb less than the Honda when comparably equipped. With short, closely spaced gearing and a transmission that loves to play ball, the Mazda doesn't suffer much from its lack of power -- and the well-weighted leather shift knob can be thrown into a fully manual gate that uses the racing layout (forward for downshifts, rearward for upshifts).

The CX-5 leisurely rounds bends at speeds that would have the CR-V's tires screaming loud enough to scare off any attacking furry mammal, and it demonstrates class-leading body control over potholes, frost heaves, and speed humps. The front suspension will bottom out over big bumps that the Ford takes in stride, but the rest of the Mazda's driving experience is flawless. And its ride is quieter and more supple than the others'.

In terms of usability and technology, the CX-5 again falls right in the sweet spot. Its cargo room is the smallest of the bunch, but its cabin is biggest overall, meaning it has the most space for people. The rear seat is split 40/20/40, and it can be folded forward in any combination by way of very clever handles near the rear hatch. The resulting load floor isn't, however, perfectly flat.


The CX-5 features some of the Ford's high-tech goodies without feeling overly gimmicky. Like the Escape, our Mazda was equipped with blind-spot monitoring -- which isn't available on the Honda, which needs it the most thanks to thick D-pillars that obscure rearward visibility. All three cars had reverse cameras, though the Mazda's screen is quite small. The CX-5's optional swiveling HID headlamps make for great visibility on curvy roads at night, and we suspect its Bose stereo is good enough to keep passengers entertained on long journeys over the hills and through the woods -- whether to Grandmother's house or to a rave.

Getting lost shouldn't be a problem since Mazda's navigation system was designed by TomTom, and while the screen is by far the smallest of the three, its graphical buttons are the largest and easiest to operate. The steering wheel controls and gauges are simple, straightforward, and highly legible -- and like the other cars, the CX-5's dual-zone climate control is easy to use, and it spit out the coldest air-conditioned air of the group.

The interesting thing about children's stories is how well they apply to our adult lives. Sure, you can have your porridge any way you like it. The Honda CR-V is like oatmeal -- not very flavorful, but packed with benefits. The Ford Escape is a warm bowl of peppered grits packed with lots of spice and flavor -- though perhaps too much for some. And then the Mazda CX-5 is a delicate polenta -- it's the same basic idea, but somehow this porridge comes across as more substantial, more expensive, and more elegant. Or as Goldilocks might say, it's just right.

 

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Discussion Starter #11
Comparo


Compact SUVs are increasingly popular with U.S. families, from couples starting out to empty-nesters. The good news for families on a budget is that these haulers are getting more affordable even as they offer more standard features and get better gas mileage. To see which offers the most value for a family, experts from USA TODAY, car-shopping site Cars.com and PBS' MotorWeek— plus a real Chicago family — compared 6 models that met a mainstream price limit and were EPA-rated at least 30 miles per gallon for our $25,000 Compact SUV Shootout.

To see just how much a family on a moderate budget can get in a compact SUV, we set the price cap for entries at $25,000 before shipping.

And with fuel efficiency increasingly important for the family budget, we required at least a 30-miles-per-gallon EPA highway rating. That left out a couple of well-known crossovers — Toyota's RAV4 and Nissan's Rogue — each at 28. But expect their coming redesigns to post higher mpgs.

The contenders

The 2012 Chevrolet Equinox; the 2013 Ford Escape (new); the 2012 Honda CR-V (new); the 2012 Hyundai Tucson; the 2012 Kia Sportage; and the 2013 Mazda CX-5 (new).

A note about the price cap: For a couple, including the Escape, the next-higher model, with an engine upgrade or extra features, exceeded the cap by less than $100. But the top-rated SUVs in our test weren't the ones pushing the price cap, so the price difference with fancier versions of others that just missed the cut is significant.

The testing and scoring

The 6 SUVs were tested over 3 days in and around Chicago, including:

•A 200-mile gas-mileage test from urban driving to interstates.

•A day of back-to-back testing by our 5 experts over the same course to score the features, cargo and storage space, technology and the driving dynamics, including ride, noise, handling, acceleration and braking.

•A day of testing by a family of four in the market for a compact SUV to replace their 2001 Chevy Tracker.

The winner got the most points out of 1,000, with the real-world gas mileage rank weighted to count for 10% of the total score, the five experts' scores for 75%, and the family's scores for 15%.

The expert and family testers

Our experts: David Thomas, Cars.com managing editor; Jennifer Geiger, an editor at Cars.com; Bill Jackson, a Cars.com senior editor; Fred Meier, automotive editor for USA TODAY; and Brian Robinson, auto journalist and a producer for PBS' MotorWeek program.

The family: Erin and Nicholas Ravelingeen of Chicago, and their children, Trudy, 4, and Mason, 2. In addition to the Tracker, they own a 2001 Oldsmobile Alero. They use the vehicles for errands and road trips, says Erin, a stay-at-home mom. Nicholas, who works in risk management downtown, doesn't use a car to commute. They put about 8,000 miles a year on each auto.

And the winner is …

No. 1: 2012 Honda CR-V EX


Points: 809 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $25,425

Observed gas mileage: 30.3 mpg, No. 2 in test (city/highway EPA rating 23/31)

Key features: Sunroof (only one in test). Backup camera. Pandora Internet radio (only 1 in test). Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick.

What they liked: Features. All in our tester were standard for the model, and the blend pleased the judges. "Even just with the standard tech features, it shined. The Bluetooth and USB integration work well with a vibrant color display that's easy to read. The stereo was one of my favorites," Thomas says. "Loaded with convenience features standard," says Geiger. "3 of my favorites: the always-helpful backup camera; the cavernous center console box; and the easy fold-flat seats with cargo-area release handles." A bonus: "The only vehicle with a sunroof at this price." Thoughtful design. "Great ergonomics and the best interior layout," says Robinson. Family friendly. "Parents will love the roomy rear for child seats, low door sill and rear doors that open a full 90 degrees. Come to think of it, aging Boomers may like those even more," Meier says. Family testers Erin and Nick Ravelingeen were "totally amazed" by the flip-down mirror (most often seen in minivans) that lets parents check on kids in back.

What they didn't: It was 1 of 3 redesigns in the test, but not all thought Honda improved its looks. Jackson says. "It's got the biggest butt … here," says Jackson. "Actually, the front styling ain't so hot, either." Handling. It's "where the CR-V showed some chinks in the armor," Thomas says. "When taking corners, driver and passengers leaned more than in the others." "Comfy ride, but vague steering and loads of body lean make it not the driver's choice," says Meier. Aggressive Eco mode. "I appreciate the potential fuel savings, but (Eco) alters the throttle response and delays shift points to where the CR-V seems lazy," says Geiger. Missed tech expectations. "Still trails many others in tech and convenience features such as blind-spot monitoring systems, push-button start, etc," says Robinson.

Bottom line: "1 of the most well-rounded in this segment. It's a comfortable cruiser with a solid powertrain, a compliant ride and plenty of features," says Geiger. "The brand's history of strong reliability helps tip the scale."

No. 2: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Touring

Points: 784 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $24,690

Observed gas mileage: 32.8 mpg, No. 1 in test (city/highway EPA rating 26/32)

Key features: Power driver seat. 5.8-inch color touch-screen. Backup camera. HD and satellite radio. Blind spot alert system (only one). IIHS Top Safety Pick.

What they liked: Top fuel economy. More than 2 mpg above next best. Interior "The richest look of any in our test," Jackson says. "I kept thinking that we had to be in a model that didn't meet our price." Value. "Low base prices and high fuel economy mean this car should appeal to penny pinchers, and lots of features for the price (blind spot alert, backup camera, power driver seat) mean they're getting good value," says Geiger. Front visibility. "High windshield, pulled-back front pillars and door-mounted mirrors give great road view and safety, particularly in the city," says Meier. Rear seat. "Folds in a 40/20/40 split, which is useful for hauling different combinations of people and cargo," says Geiger. "Also folds flat with ease, thanks to cargo-area handles."

What they didn't: Power. Low scores here likely kept it from winning. "The 2-liter engine has adequate pep from a stop, but is on the loud side and takes a while to gather steam," Geiger says. Handling. "The Escape, Tucson and Sportage out-cornered it," says Thomas.

Bottom line: Mazda needs the CX-5 to be a winner, says Geiger, "and it's poised to be … with eye-catching styling, a quality interior, plenty of features and excellent-for-the-class fuel economy."

No. 3: 2012 Kia Sportage LX

Points: 774 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $24,575

Observed gas mileage: 28.5 mpg (city/highway EPA rating 22/32)

Key features: Navigation system (only one). Heated mirrors. Cooling glove box (only one). Backup camera. 5-year/60,000-mile new vehicle warranty, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain (tie for longest). Satellite radio. IIHS Top Safety Pick.

What they liked: Navi and audio. "A full navigation system with an upgraded stereo at a price in the middle of our range was a huge win," says Thomas. Styling. "Definitely has attitude," says Geiger. "The edgiest-looking of the bunch." Storage. "A deep center console, coupled with underfloor bins in the cargo area, means plenty of places to stash stuff," says Geiger. Handling, ride. "Has the crisp handling of mechanically similar Hyundai Tucson," Meier says, "but its good ride and quiet interior are amazingly better."

What they didn't: Rear visibility. The rakish roof "means you'll need its backup camera and wish for a blind spot alert," says Meier. Interior quality. "Doesn't seem on par with most recent Kias," says Robinson. Cargo area. "Too small with a high load floor," Thomas says. Navi screen angle. "You've got a great nav system and install it leaning backward toward the windshield? That leads to a lot of glare," Thomas says.

Bottom line: "The sticker price and features wowed me, the family and likely other shoppers," says Thomas. "If cargo space isn't a concern, the Sportage will be hard to ignore."

No. 4: 2012 Chevrolet Equinox LS

Points: 740 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $24,355

Observed gas mileage: 27.1 mpg (city/highway EPA rating 22/32)

Key features: Sliding (8 inches) 2nd-row. Power height control for driver's seat. IIHS Top Safety Pick.

What they liked: Storage, cargo space. "Being the biggest 1 in the group, there's lots of cargo space, but even more important, there's lots of small-item storage up front, as well," Robinson says. "The interior has an 'almost-premium' feel." Sliding 2nd row. It "was the only SUV where I felt I could take a road trip in the 2nd row, thanks to the sliding rear seats," says Jackson. "There's a huge 2nd row and a large cargo area, too; most SUVs in this class make you choose." The child seat latch anchors. "Among the best I've ever used. Completely exposed and lots of clearance. Hooking up a child-safety seat is a breeze," says Geiger.

What they didn't: The drivetrain. "This powertrain needs to go to finishing school," Geiger says. "It's slow, loud, and the transmission's shifts are clunky and oddly timed." Road noise. "The loudest of the 6" on the highway, Thomas says. No USB. "Unexpectedly good audio with subwoofer at this price, and then no USB for your iPod!" says Meier. The "cost-cutting will turn off younger buyers you could have wooed with good sound."

Bottom line: "It's very roomy inside, and has 1 of the best rides of the group," says Robinson. "It's a great overall package that could just use a little more powertrain refinement."

No. 5: 2012 Hyundai Tucson Limited

Points: 721.5 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $25,820 (highest)

Observed gas mileage: 27.6 mpg (city/highway EPA rating 22/32)

Key features: Top trim with heated leather seats (only one in test). Roof rack. 5-year/60,000-mile new vehicle warranty, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain. Hill descent control. Power driver seat. Satellite radio. IIHS Top Safety Pick.

What they liked: Value. "The price starts under 20 grand, and by the time you get to 25, you've got a ton of features for not a lot of price," says Robinson. "Amazingly well-dressed for the price. Delivers on Hyundai reputation for value for your bucks," says Meier. Easy-to-use technology. "Give me the Tucson's straightforward tech over the Mazda's touch-screen any day. Scrolling through iPod playlists, synching your phone and making calls was intuitive and natural," says Thomas. Power and handling. "The Tucson springs away from stoplights and has decent passing power," says Jackson. "Handling was top-notch," says Thomas. "1 of the few crossovers that I could take at full speed through tight turns."

What they didn't: Noise. "Road noise and tire roar are hard to ignore … one of the loudest SUVs in the class," says Geiger. Cargo space. Says Thomas: The cargo area is "too small for my family dog, let alone what we pack for a road trip, and has a high load-in height."

Bottom line: "The Tucson remains an excellent option in the class," says Thomas, "but the class has gotten much tougher very quickly."

No. 6: 2013 Ford Escape S

Points: 693.5 (out of 1,000)

Price with shipping: $23,295 (lowest)

Test gas mileage: 27.4 mpg (city/highway EPA rating 22/31)

Key features: Reclining 2nd row. Under-floor storage in 2nd row. No IIHS crash test data yet.

What they liked: Driving dynamics. It "excels in … ride, handling and acceleration by managing to feel both composed and relaxed," says Jackson. The new look. The 2013 is sleek, no longer boxy. The rear seat. "The thin-looking rear seat has a reclining back, and is surprisingly comfy and roomy for 2," says Meier. Cargo room. "Quite large with a low load floor," says Thomas.

What they didn't: Lack of features. The base Escape had the lowest price, and fewest features. It was the only 1 with wheel covers and without Bluetooth connectivity. But just 1 step up to more features and a new engine topped $25,000. The base "2.5-liter engine [is] not nearly as nice as the available EcoBoost engines," says Robinson. Storage, for a family SUV. "Clever underfoot rear storage can't make up for a tiny console bin and lack of cubbies," says Meier. Air conditioning vents. "They don't shoot air in the direction you think when adjusting them," says Thomas, "and there are 2 above the controls that shoot air only toward your lap. I had a hard time getting comfortable."

Bottom line: "The base model is a black-plastic austerity plan," says Meier. "You have to pay more to get the real redesign, including a nicer interior and new state-of-the-art engines."
 

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Concerns about fuel prices may have tempered America's love affair with sport-utility vehicles, but it has by no means brought it to an end. Think of it as a refocusing, a renewal based on a reassessment of contemporary realities. As a consequence of these re-prioritized priorities, compact SUVs have become 1 of the hottest categories in a slowly reviving U.S. auto market.

We've rounded up 5 of the top contenders in the compact-crossover SUV class for this comparison. All are at the affordable end of the spectrum. 3 are new -- the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and Mazda CX-5. Chevy's Equinox has been with us since the 2010 model year, while the Toyota RAV4 is the group's veteran, its current design dating to 2006. That's well beyond middle age in car years, but as 1 of the segment's strongest sellers the RAV4 can't be ignored.

We put the vehicles through their paces, poked, prodded, slammed doors, checked connectivity, cargo holds, front seats, back seats, fit, finish, and window stickers, debated details, argued merits, and ultimately came to a consensus.


5th Place: 2012 Toyota RAV4 LTD

The Toyota RAV4 has been with us since 1996, and has maintained a strong presence in the compact SUV class ever since. Although its novel semi-convertible and 3-door variants have long since disappeared, it continues to hold at least 1 trump card versus its many competitors -- an optional third-row seat.

The side-hinged rear door and external spare tire mount are unique to the RAV4 as well, but these distinctions are no longer perceived as positive, at least by our test crew. They're likely to disappear when this generation of the RAV4, number 3, gives way to number 4 late this fall.

The redesign probably can't come too soon for Toyota dealers, because even after some cosmetic freshening last year, the current RAV4 is definitely showing its age. This is most apparent within, where lots of hard plastic lends a cheapish note to the interior materials, the instrumentation looks dated compared to some of the eye-pleasing displays in the new vehicles, and the nav screen isn't well shrouded, suffering from washout in bright sun as a consequence.

The seats provide reasonable comfort, though there's not much lateral support. Leather trim -- part of a $4,040 navigation option group -- enhances the interior experience, and the package also adds heating to the front seats (power adjustabile on the driver's side), plus power lumbar support. Besides the nav and seating highlights, the package also includes a power tilt/slide moonroof and a 120-volt AC power outlet.

The rear seats offer fore-aft adjustability, and the seatbacks also recline. The Toyota also boasts the top cargo capacity in this group. This generous cargo hold is a function of a design conceived to accommodate an optional 3rd row of seating ($850), as noted earlier. It's a bragging point, but the reality of the RAV4's 3rd row is extremely snug, making the fore-aft adjustability of the middle row a necessity, rather than a nicety.

While the RAV4 may be superannuated in some ways, its chassis rigidity still measures up well versus its newer competitors. However, Toyota has chosen to exploit this virtue in favor of smooth ride quality, rather than crisp responses. There's substantial body roll in hard cornering, and the electric power steering system confuses effort with road feel. The suspension tuning adds up to a vehicle that's reasonably comfortable, but not very engaging for the driver, despite excellent forward sightlines.

The RAV4's biggest dynamic demerit, however, lies with its powertrain -- specifically, its 4-speed automatic transmission. Toyota offers a very robust V6 engine option for this vehicle (269 horsepower, 246 lb-ft of torque) and a 5-speed automatic to go with it. But allied with the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder (179 horsepower, 172 lb-ft of torque) the gearing gaps make the engine work hard and loud when the driver kicks down for passing or a freeway merge.

With the exception of the Honda CR-V, most vehicles in this class offer 6-speed automatics, a plus for smooth performance and fuel economy. The 4-speed automatic underlines the fuel economy aspect. Even without 4-wheel drive, at 22 mpg city/28 highway, the RAV4's EPA fuel economy ratings are the lowest among the 4-cylinder vehicles in this group.

As noted, this RAV4 is essentially a lame duck. There's a major redesign en route, which will undoubtedly address some if not all of our reservations. However, a case can be made for acquiring the current model. Our well-equipped test vehicle -- leather, navi, power moonroof -- was competitively priced in this group at $29,090, and when the new 2013 Toyota RAV4s begin rolling into showrooms there are bound to be bargains among the remaining 2012 models.


4th Place: 2012 Chevrolet Equinox FWD LTZ​

The Chevrolet Equinox competes in the compact category, but it's by far the biggest kid on this playground, as well as the heaviest. It's also the only vehicle in our test group to come to the starting line with a V6 engine -- 3.0 liters, 264 horsepower, 222 lb-ft of torque -- adding $1,500 to the bottom line.

As equipped, our front-drive test vehicle was EPA rated for 17 mpg city/24 highway, lowest in the test group -- it's intriguing to note that in 2013 models the V6 option is GM's even-more-powerful direct-injection 3.6-liter: 301 horsepower, 272 lb-ft of torque, with the same fuel economy ratings.

This is a strong testimonial for the efficiency of direct fuel injection, but if MPG is a top priority the best bet with the Equinox is the standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Although its output -- 182 horsepower, 172 lb-ft of torque -- manages just ho-hum acceleration in a vehicle this size (curb weights can run up to 2 tons), its 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway ratings (20/29 with all-wheel drive) compare well with the rest of the class.

Fuel economy notwithstanding, test staff gripes with the 3.0-liter V6 had to do with performance. Considering its big edge in power, we expected a little more verve when the foot feed went floorward, but we were disappointed.

On the other hand, the standard 6-speed automatic was a typical GM Hydra-Matic unit -- smooth, responsive and equipped with a manual mode that operates via a little switch atop the shift lever. While this device is far from ideal, it does help to make the most of the engine's powerband.

Other categories on the Equinox's dynamic scorecard drew indifferent responses. The steering was criticized for heavy low-speed effort, and limited tactile information about what was going on with the front wheels. The substantial weight slowed responses in abrupt maneuvers, and the 40-foot turning circle (42 feet with 19-inch wheels) used up a lot of parking lot.

Still, ride quality was reasonably smooth, and the Equinox driver gets a better-than-average view of what's going on around the vehicle, particularly straight ahead.

While size may be a limiting factor in terms of dynamics, it does provide benefits inside. Rear-seat passengers in particular will appreciate the roomy interior, augmented by the rear seat's fore-aft adjustability. Even the center seating position is habitable for more than 3 blocks, something that can't be said for many 5-passenger vehicles.

However, rear seat roominess does come at the expense of some cargo space -- the Equinox is only mid-pack in this respect -- and the rear seats don't fold completely flat.

Although interior fit and finish didn't quite measure up to the Honda -- 1 or 2 trim panels that didn't quite match up, a few uneven panel gaps, some hard plastic saved from looking tacky by attractive graining -- the Equinox comes very well equipped in the LTZ trim level. The list of standard features includes power front seats, leather upholstery, heated front seats, heated power mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, premium audio, a luggage rack, foglights, halogen projector beam headlights, and a power rear liftgate.

The V6 engine added $1,500, 18-inch chrome wheels another $1,000, red metallic paint $325, Chevy's MyLink hands-free smartphone integration $100, and GM's lane departure warning/forward collision alert system, $295 -- $3,220 in options.

The grand total: $33,250, the highest price tag in this group.


3rd Place: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring

Launched earlier this year, the CX-5 represents a bold departure for Mazda, wrapped in 1 of the more obscure slogans in automotive marketing history: Skyactiv Technology. So what does that mean?

Basically, Mazda's new system is a total vehicle approach -- in a word, holistic -- to engineering and design, integrating all elements: engine, transmission, chassis, bodyshell, suspension, brakes, steering, everything.

The process begins with the vehicle concept and continues through design to final production signoff, and it emphasizes two basic goals: minimizing mass, maximizing mpg. This isn't exactly new -- spurred by increasingly stringent fuel economy requirements, most carmakers are headed in the same direction.

But Mazda has taken the approach another step, and the CX-5 showcases the effort. Weighing in at less than 3,200 pounds with front-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission, the CX-5 is 1 of the lightest vehicles in this class.

Low mass and a fuel-thrifty 2.0-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine add up to high EPA mpg ratings: 25 city/31 highway, best in class for an all-wheel-drive compact crossover.

Unfortunately, the new engine's thriftiness comes at the expense of power. At 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, the CX-5's engine trails the other 4 in this fleet, and that was a prime factor in keeping the Mazda from a top spot on the scorecards: 0-to-60 mph in about 9.5 seconds is about as deliberate as it gets in this class.

On the other hand, fun-to-drive isn't limited to acceleration. There are other elements -- feline responses, laser-precise steering, limited body roll. The CX-5's developmental priority may have been fuel economy, but Zoom-Zoom -- it's how you say fun-to-drive at Mazda -- is very much part of the mix. Think SUV usefulness with Miata soul.

Our CX-5 tester was a Grand Touring model, which includes a lot of upscale features as standard equipment: heated leather-trimmed seats (picked out with attractive red stitching), power moonroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary control switches (cruise, audio, Bluetooth), dual zone auto climate control, premium audio, power front seat adjustment, and 19-inch alloy wheels.

Safety features are consistent with contemporary standards: stability control, traction control, antilock braking, blind spot monitor, and air bags galore, though a rear cross-traffic detection system is conspicuous by its absence.

Although the interior color palette ran heavily to black, the Mazda drew high marks for the quality of its interior appointments, for a high level of fit and finish, and for its sporty front seats, which provided best-in-test lateral support. There were minor demerits for the instruments -- their gray on charcoal markings are hard to read in the daylight -- as well as for a rather conservative dashboard design and one of the smaller cargo holds in the group.

On the other hand, the CX-5 emerged as 1 of the value leaders in this pack. Its $27,840 base price folds in a lot of standard equipment, and its $29,455 as-tested total added basically one major option -- the Grand Touring Tech Package. It includes a nav system, adaptive HID headlights with auto leveling, car alarm, and advanced keyless entry system for $1,325, certainly 1 of the least expensive factory nav system packages on the market.

The stylish CX-5 figures is a dark horse in the compact crossover derby, handicapped by its rather tepid acceleration, the trade for high mpg. Even so, the Mazda provides a level of dynamic response and driver engagement that's tops. And that languid 0-to-60 progress can be improved by a tenth or three by opting for a slick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission, the only manual transmission option in this group.

The manual gearbox is offered only with the basic CX-5 Sport, but it enhances driver involvement and boosts highway fuel economy to 35 mpg. If fun-to-drive is important, the CX-5 is like your childhood pal who was always ready to play.


2nd Place: 2013 Ford Escape SE

Like the CX-5, the Escape is brand new for 2013, and represents a dramatic change of direction. New foundations, adapted from the front-wheel drive Ford Focus. And a decidedly new look, slick and contemporary, replacing the blocky, truckish look of the previous generation.

Also like the CX-5, the Escape's new chassis was the starting point for a very agile dynamic profile -- prompt responses in quick maneuvers, good control of body motions. The electric power steering system isn't quite as informative and precise as the Mazda's, but the driver involvement and gratification is nevertheless a plus.

However, though it's similar in size -- toward the smaller end of the compact crossover scale -- and in its contemporary good looks, the Escape has a bigger menu of choices for prospective buyers than its Mazda contemporary. For example, it offers 3 4-cylinder engine options, 2 of them turbocharged (EcoBoost): a 2.5-liter (168 horsepower, 170 lb-ft of torque, naturally aspirated), an EcoBoost 2.0-liter (240 horsepower, 270 lb-ft), and an EcoBoost 1.6-liter (178 horsepower, 184 lb-ft).

The 1.6-liter is new to the U.S. market, and powered our Escape tester. All 3 engines are paired with the same 6-speed automatic transmission, but 4-wheel drive is offered only with the turbocharged versions. Like most of our test fleet, this Escape was a front-driver. And like the Equinox, an Escape equipped with the most powerful engine option is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds.

The 1.6 didn't get rave reviews from everyone involved -- there were comments about hints of turbo lag before the engine got into the sweet spot of its powerband, and a little too much noise when it was working hard. However, the 1.6 gets good EPA fuel economy numbers -- 23 mpg city/33 highway -- and delivered generally respectable performance measured against the other contestants in this derby.

And there's always the option of the EcoBoost 2.0-liter for power mongers.

Though the Escape ranks next-to-last in this group for interior volume -- only the CX-5 has less -- that volume embraces a very attractive interior, with sporty front seats that are a match for the Mazda's and snazzy instrument and control graphics that lend splashes of electronic color to the dashboard.

There's also a surprising amount of cargo capacity -- over 34 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and over 68 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. However, that rearmost cargo hold compromises rear-seat legroom a bit, and the swoopy roofline limits rear headroom, especially when the Escape is equipped with the optional Panorama double power sunroof ($1,395), present on our test vehicle.

Like all new Fords coming along these days, the Escape's secondary controls included Sync infotainment and the updated version of the MyFord Touch system, augmented by voice command. Though improved, the latter still provoked some test crew grumbling about having to jab the electronic buttons more than once to achieve the desired result, as well as a little wistful wishing for a good old-fashioned rotary knob or 2.

The Escape's passive safety features are on par with the times, including plenty of airbags (front, driver's knee, side and side-curtain), and Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which flashes a light on the side mirror when another vehicle is nearby in a parallel lane.

Base pricing for a new Escape is competitive, but injudicious option-shopping can run the tally up quite rapidly. Our SE tester, second of four trim levels (S, SE, SEL, Titanium) carried a base price of $25,895. The moonroof added $1,395, navigation system another $1,570, and a perimeter alarm system tacked on $440, for an as-tested total of $29,345, a competitive price for an attractive vehicle.

The Escape is good to look at, entertaining to drive, and attractive within. There are caveats. Though braking performance seemed strong, there were reports of slightly mushy pedal feel. Curb weights are mystifyingly high for a relatively small crossover SUV -- over 3,500 pounds for this tester, according to Ford, more than 200 pounds heftier than the CX-5 -- and ride quality can be a little too stiff on patchy pavement.

But if the Escape gives something away to the Honda CR-V in terms of refinement, it's clearly a stronger rival than ever before.


Winner: 2012 Honda CR-V EX-L Navi

With the exception of 2011, when Japan's catastrophic earthquake and Thailand flooding choked production down to a trickle, the CR-V has been the bestseller in this class for years, and often the bestseller of all SUVs, great and small. Which raises the tricky question of what's next?

Honda essentially invented the segment in 1995 with the 1st-generation CR-V, and subsequent generations have kept the Civic-based crossover at the front of the pack.

Introduced last fall, Honda's response to the "what's next" challenge was conservative, even cautious. The wheelbase is unchanged at 103.1 inches -- shortest in this group -- while length and height shrink an inch, to 178.1 and 65.1, respectively.

This puts the CR-V at the small end of our test-SUV spectrum, but in typical Honda fashion its interior volume seems to belie the exterior dimensions. Basic cargo capacity -- the space behind the rear seats -- is substantial at 37 cubic feet, as is the space with the rear seats folded: 71 cubic feet. There's also plenty of passenger room, front and rear, and numerous nooks and cubbies for small-object storage, another typical Honda strong suit.

Passive safety features are top drawer -- 5 stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the interior element that immediately grabs eyeballs is the quality of the materials, the straightforward logic of the various controls, the supportive front bucket seats, and the excellent forward sightlines. Honda's old advertising tagline -- "we make it simple" -- is in evidence here. Acclimating oneself to this vehicle is as easy as getting in, starting the engine, and driving off.

Pricing makes the CR-V's many strengths even more appealing. The window sticker bottom line on our EX-L Navi tester (Honda counts navigation-equipped vehicles as separate trim levels) was $29,575. This includes pretty much everything in the CR-V inventory -- (inhale) leather upholstery and trim, navigation system with voice recognition and rear view camera, power moonroof, DVD entertainment system, heated front seats with driver-side power adjustability, Bluetooth connectivity with streaming audio, USB audio interface and Pandora connectivity, SMS text messaging, 328-watt 7-speaker premium audio, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels (exhale).

A power rear liftgate would be a useful addition to the foregoing, as would a blind-spot warning system, a la Ford. And, of course, in real 4-season climates all-wheel drive is always welcome -- and available, for a price. But beyond that, it's hard to think of anything to add.

1 of the reasons Honda is able to offer the new CR-V with attractive pricing can be found in the powertrain. The engineers have squeezed a little more thrust out of the 2.4-liter engine -- now with 185 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque -- but while other carmakers are embracing the efficiency of direct fuel injection, Honda has been resisting the cost.

Honda also resisted the trend to 6-speed automatic transmissions -- the CR-V retains the 5-speed automatic of the previous generation. However, this doesn't seem to extract much of a fuel economy penalty -- at 23 mpg city/31 highway the CR-V's EPA ratings are competitive.

Similarly, the Honda's straight-line performance stacks up well versus its 6-speed rivals: 0-to-60 mph takes about 8.5 seconds.

The Honda CR-V isn't as entertaining an SUV to drive as the Ford Escape or the Mazda CX-5. The suspension tuning is softer, the new electric power steering system is novocaine numb, conveying essentially no information to the driver, and the evolutionary styling update, with its bigger rear roof pillar, creates a good-sized rear quarter blind spot.

But the CR-V's blend of smooth ride, smooth power, competitive fuel economy, outstanding assembly quality, first rate materials, quiet operation, exceptional comfort, and excellent value story trump its few soft points. Just as it trumps the rest of this field.
 
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