Massive 2016 Compact SUV Comparison – Rogue Tucson RAV4 CR-V Equinox CX-5 and Escape

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The compact SUV segment has been growing significantly as of late. The resulting competition, as capitalism would predicate, has forced manufacturers to produce better products. Who benefits from this? We all do. Yay us!

If you’re keeping track at home, I’ve gotten behind the wheel, kicked the tires and written reviews for 7 different compact SUVs that cost around $26,000 (including destination/handling): The CR-V EX, Rogue SV, Rav4 LE, Tucson Eco, Equinox LS, CX-5 Touring and Escape SE. (Click each model to see their individual reviews.) Now, I’m going to write a comprehensive compact SUV comparison, and I’ll actually purchase the “winner”! Here we go…

THE WINNER

We’re buying a 2016 Honda CR-V EX. Show’s over. You can leave if you want to. Or, you can stick around, because I’m gonna Tarantino this shit! Now that you’ve seen the ending, let’s flash back and see how the various SUVs stacked up against each other and what factored in to the ultimate decision. Depending on what’s important to you, you might land at a different conclusion than I did.

*Edit 4/15/16: Since writing this, the “2016.5” CX-5 has come out. A weird nomenclature, but a terrific update worth noting. Scroll down to the results to see how it changes the comparison’s outcome!

EXTERIOR

Exterior design is probably the most subjective category. But, we can at least objectively scrutinize the contenders’ exterior features. The Ford Escape is the only one of these vehicles that hasn’t been recently redesigned or at least “refreshed.” Although LED accents are cliche at this point, the fact is modern lighting helps cars look newer and more upscale, and the Escape is starting to fall behind in that sense. At the opposite end of that spectrum, the Rogue, CR-V and Tucson have modern lighting and attractive wheels to boot.

If I were passing out grades, all 7 exterior designs would get at least a B-minus. There are no losers here.

Positive cosmetic updates to the Equinox are offset by its relative lack of exterior bells and whistles which makes it appear cheaper than it is – no fog lights, side mirror signals, or LEDs. The RAV4 gets kudos for its aggressive new design, but the LE is the lowest trim level available from Toyota – it was included in this comparison based on its MSRP. Hence, the LE is missing several exterior features as well, but at least has sleek headlights with projector lamps and cool tail lights too. Meanwhile, despite being the least expensive entry, the Tucson checks all the boxes for exterior features and, in my opinion, Hyundai hit a home run with the new Tucson design. Speaking of home runs, the recently revealed 2017 Escape takes an already refined (albeit dated) exterior and gives it a welcomed shot of adrenaline. (I’ll revisit the Escape when the 2017 model is officially released in the spring.)

None of these 7 compact SUVs are real show-stoppers, but they are all quite attractive. The CR-V has a very nice exterior design with upscale features. It’s more quirky than sporty, but still classy enough for an honorable mention. The CX-5 is attractive with an athletic stance, but it looks homely next to the slick – more expensive – Grand Touring trim with advanced LED lighting. If I were passing out grades, all 7 exterior designs would get at least a B-minus. There are no losers here.

  • Best Exterior: Hyundai Tucson Eco
  • Honorable Mentions: Honda CR-V EX

UTILITY

The “compact” classification is a bit misnomer, especially as of late. Just like Americans themselves, each generation of automobiles grows a little. For example, when the CR-V was first introduced in 1997, it was 177.6″ long x 68.9″ wide. 18 years later, the current CR-V is 2″ longer and 3″ wider. These SUVs have abundant functional interior space!

Speaking of physical dimensions, it’s interesting to note that the Equinox is an outlier in overall length and weight. Yet, that extra size doesn’t translate to more usable volume (and the weight certainly doesn’t help road performance).

**There are several tables in this comparison that will not display on narrow screens. Try rotating your mobile device to landscape.

 Nissan Rouge SVHyundai Tucson EcoToyota RAV4 LEHonda CR-V EXChevrolet Equinox LSMazda CX-5 TouringFord Escape SE
LENGTH182.3"176.2"179.9"179.4"187.8"179.3"178.1"
WIDTH72.4"72.8"72.6"71.6"72.5"72.4"72.4"
CURB WEIGHT3420 lbs.3580 lbs.3465 lbs.3437 lbs.3777 lbs.3433 lbs.3598 lbs.

A major component of this compact SUV comparison is cargo volume. As you can see in the table below, the Rogue and the RAV4 get the best numbers from the EPA whether the seats are up or down. The Tucson on the other hand, has the least amount of cargo volume in the group, but still much more than your average midsize sedan. The differences in volume are more noticeable on paper than in person.

In addition to its volume crown, the Rogue gets further acclaim for its flexibility. A sliding rear seat is the ultimate feature for fitting a variety of needs. You can choose maximum leg room for a night out with adults, or maximize cargo room for family road trips. Then, the Rogue combines that with a 40/20/40 rear seatback (more flexible than the typical 60/40) and an exclusive subdividing shelf system. The Equinox also offers the sliding rear seat, but otherwise doesn’t reach the high bar set by the Rogue. Of note, the CX-5 also has the flexible 40/20/40 split and a uniquely convenient seat release handle located just inside the cargo area (The CR-V has a similar quick release handle). If you increase your budget closer to $30k, several models will have a remote power liftgate, but you won’t find any in this comparison. If you haven’t already noticed, the Rogue is the clear winner of this category.

  • Best Utility: Nissan Rogue SV
  • Honorable Mentions: Chevrolet Equinox LS, Toyota RAV4 LE
 Nissan Rouge SVHyundai Tucson EcoToyota RAV4 LEHonda CR-V EXChevrolet Equinox LSMazda CX-5 TouringFord Escape SE
LEG ROOM: FRONT43.0"41.5"42.6"41.3"41.2"41.0"43.1"
LEG ROOM: REAR37.9"38.2"37.2"38.6"39.9"39.3"37.3"
EPA TOTAL VOLUME135.9
cu.ft.
133.2
cu.ft.
139.1
cu.ft.
135.9
cu.ft.
130.5
cu.ft.
137.9
cu.ft.
132.4
cu.ft.
EPA CARGO (SEAT UP/DN)39.3/70.0 cu.ft.31.0/61.9 cu.ft.38.4/73.4 cu.ft.35.3/70.9 cu.ft.31.5/63.7 cu.ft.34.1/65.4 cu.ft.34.3/67.8 cu.ft.

INTERIOR

A big pet peeve of mine is when manufacturers and publishers alike spout off a list of wonderful “available” features in the same breath as the rock bottom entry price. Then they fail to mention that the goodies cost an extra $6,000. It makes them seem so out of touch with budget-conscious Americans. Well folks, as you’ve probably realized I’m going the opposite direction. I don’t give a rat’s ass what features are “available.” I only care about what features are included for a reasonable sticker price. Otherwise, in my eyes the comparison would just be disingenuous.

Every model includes steering wheel controls, a backup camera, bluetooth connectivity and all your other ubiquitous conveniences.

With that said, let’s talk about standard features! I’ll start with the common features. Every model includes steering wheel controls, a backup camera, bluetooth connectivity and all your other ubiquitous conveniences. Most of the contenders – except the RAV4 and Equinox – provide a power driver’s seat. The same two contenders curiously only give you one-touch down on the driver’s window, not up and down. The RAV4 LE doesn’t have variable wipers either! Taking a step in the premium direction, the CR-V is the only one with heated seats and/or a moonroof, the CX-5 has the lone leather-wrapped steering wheel and the Rogue has the comparison’s only dual climate control. The CR-V, CX-5 and Rogue are also the only participants with “leave it in your pocket” proximity keys.

While, I didn’t include them due to their higher cost (over $27k), the Tucson Sport and RAV4 XLE are both loaded with premium standard features (heated seats, power liftgate, climate control, safety sensors, etc.). If you’re willing to stretch your budget, take the time to check them out.

As far as infotainment systems go, most of the entries include capable systems with a large touchscreen but there are a few exceptions to note. Mazda’s system features a BMW-esque control knob to help navigate menus. Chevy’s system is adequate but the 7″ touchscreen has a poor viewing angle and a slew of peripheral buttons. The Tucson has a good user interface, but only a 5″ touchscreen. Ford’s SYNC 2 is outdated and inferior, and stepping up to the slick new SYNC 3 will cost you over $1,000. Meanwhile, the Rogue has cheap little buttons and the only non-touch screen. Honda’s 7″ system is very good but has a few awkward buttons. The RAV4 has a competitive 6.1″ system. Overall, I like Mazda’s system the best, followed closely by Honda and Toyota.

compact SUV comparison

If you’re looking for a navigation system, prepare to spend some extra dough. They only come standard on fully-loaded compact SUVs. Speaking of tech, most of the backup cameras are very similar. The CR-V has the best one, including a variety of viewing options. Meanwhile, the Escape, Rogue and Tucson are slightly harder to see due to their smaller screens.

Most of the interiors in this compact SUV comparison are comfortable and well-appointed with nice materials. I’ll just mention a few outliers (positive and negative). The Ford Escape gets a demerit for its rear seat in terms of seat comfort and leg room. Also, the Escape’s dash materials are pleasing but the seating material is too canvas-like for my taste. The CR-V seats are somewhat plush whereas more firm support would be welcomed. As far as dash materials, the Rogue and RAV4 LE stick out as the least desirable. The Tucson’s interior is fine, but neither particularly good nor bad. The Equinox is kind of a mixed bag with some great seats and nice materials in some places, and questionable material choices in other places.

All of the competitors, except the CX-5, have rear seats with a reclining function. Some are easier to operate (CR-V, Escape and Tucson) and some recline farther (RAV4 and Equinox). Car seats shouldn’t be a problem in any of these SUVs, although I didn’t go to the extent of installing a car seat in each one of them.

I’m going to throw a curve ball by not awarding a “best interior.” None of these compact SUVs offer superior interiors without flaws. But, the CX-5 and CR-V get closest to the mark. The CX-5 has the best infotainment system, supportive seats (front and rear) and above-average materials (I like the faux carbon fiber). The CR-V has a clean upscale dash and premium interior features (moonroof, heated seats and rear air vents). The RAV4 XLE (not the LE) has an exceptionally comfortable interior, but, even if it was included in this test I still wouldn’t have declared it “the best” because it lacks a power driver’s seat and heated seats.

  • Best Interior: None
  • Honorable Mention: Mazda CX-5 Touring, Honda CR-V EX

SAFETY

All of these compact SUVs will do a great job of protecting your family from dangerous accidents. The Ford Escape is the only one of these vehicles not to be awarded as an IIHS “Top Safety Pick” due to its “poor” rating in the relatively new small-overlap crash test. Every other SUV received a “good” rating for this specific test, which is designed to simulate impact with a tree or a light pole. It will be interesting to see if Ford addressed this shortfall with the upcoming 2017 Escape. The Escape, and all the other contenders, were as good as it gets for IIHS standard front, side, and roof crash tests. The only vehicles to get 5/5 stars from the NHTSA were the CR-V, Tucson and the RAV4 (The rest received 4/5 stars).

Crash technology like airbags, traction control, and anti-lock brakes is fairly ubiquitous in today’s automobiles.

Crash technology like airbags, traction control, and anti-lock brakes are fairly ubiquitous in today’s automobiles. As I’ve said before, the next evolution in safety comes in the form of crash avoidance technology. Most of the SUVs in this comparison only come with crash avoidance technology if you step up to a top-of-the-line model or buy expensive technology packages. There are a couple notable exceptions though; some models go above and beyond. The CR-V EX comes standard with Honda’s “Lane Watch” – A camera system that is fancy but not very intuitive to look at. Meanwhile, the CX-5 Touring takes home the blue ribbon by including simple-yet-effective blind spot monitoring and a rear cross-traffic alert.

  • Best Safety: Mazda CX-5 Touring
  • Honorable Mention: Honda CR-V EX


Tire Rack Gift Guide

PERFORMANCE

It is somewhat surprising (but it shouldn’t be) that, in this segment, the best engines get the most power and the best gas mileage. No trade-off necessary. Manufacturers that use modern technology, such as direct injection, rise to the top in both categories while others lag behind.

The CR-V, Tucson and CX-5 are tied for first place in terms of fuel economy. Coincidentally, they also have more power on tap compared to the rest of the group. (The Tucson trades some HP for torque, but it still feels very powerful.) Their fuel efficiency comes partially from transmissions that can be set to “Eco” mode at the expense of some exhilaration. I wish we could have our cake and eat it too, but thus is life. The Escape has adequate power and drives well, but it is slightly lacking in gas mileage. (The 2017 refresh will try to improve that shortcoming.)  Meanwhile, the RAV4, Equinox and Rogue get decent gas mileage (especially when compared to mid-size SUVs) but they have powertrains devoid of fun or confident acceleration.

If I gave an award for “best transmission” it would go to the Tucson, which features the only 7-speed transmission and the only dual-clutch automatic in this comparison. Its gear shifts are crisp and allow the driver to take full advantage of the class-leading torque output. Then, you have several competitors which feature capable 6-speed automatics. Finally, the CR-V and Rogue have CVTs. Continuously Variable Transmissions are fuel efficient but not engaging to drive. I’m not fond of the Rogue’s CVT but the CR-V’s is about as good as they come. Still, I prefer a traditional automatic or, even better, a dual-clutch automatic.

 Nissan Rouge SVHyundai Tucson EcoToyota RAV4 LEHonda CR-V EXChevrolet Equinox LSMazda CX-5 TouringFord Escape SE
ENGINE2.5L 4-cyl1.6L Turbo2.5L 4-cyl2.4L 4-cyl2.4L 4-cyl2.5L 4-cyl1.6L Turbo
TRANS.CVT7-speed
DC Auto
6-speed AutoCVT6-speed Auto6-speed Auto6-speed Auto
POWER170
@ 6000
175
@ 5500
176
@ 6000
185
@ 6400
182
@ 6700
184
@ 5700
178
@ 5700
TORQUE175
@ 4400
195
@ 4500
172
@ 4100
181
@ 3900
172
@ 4900
185
@ 3250
184
@ 2500
MPG CITY/
HWY/COMB
26/33/2826/33/2924/31/2626/33/2922/32/2626/33/2923/32/26

As you’ll find from reading other reviews covering the compact SUV segment, the CX-5’s handling is the benchmark. The CR-V, Escape and Tucson all have adequate handling, while the Rogue and Equinox seemingly prioritize comfort over road feel (read: they’re a bit numb). The RAV4’s suspension is fairly mediocre.

While none of the compact SUVs will knock your socks off, a few of them are fun to drive. The CX-5 takes home the gold medal for offering great fuel efficiency, confident handling, good road manners and above-average power. The Tucson is a close second with a fantastic fuel-efficient turbo powertrain but with a slightly less polished suspension. Meanwhile, the CR-V is a competent performer and it looks really good on paper, but it just isn’t quite as fun to drive.

  • Best Performance: Mazda CX-5 Touring
  • Honorable Mention: Hyundai Tucson Eco

VALUE

The term “value” has varying connotations. In this comparison, the most expensive and the least expensive entries are both very good values. It depends a lot on what you value.

I’m tempted to list about half of the contenders! Honda and Toyota both jacked up their prices for 2016. Honda raised their already higher-than-average price by $300. Not to be outdone, Toyota saw a minor face-lift as an opportunity to add a whopping $1,000 to their price tag, despite zero improvements to the RAV4’s powertrain. Unlike the RAV4, the CR-V’s cutting edge powertrain and slew of features make it a very good value even at its slightly elevated price.

Domestic offerings from Ford and Chevy are both good vehicles, but I wouldn’t consider them to be great values based on their lack of standard features compared to the field. In terms of price, the Rogue and CX-5 land somewhere in the middle. However, they both provide very good value for different reasons. The Nissan Rogue gives you comfort and style with fantastic utility for a very reasonable price, while the Mazda CX-5 gives you class-leading “fun” and safety features that competitors hide in expensive packages.

Finally, the best value award easily goes to Hyundai. For hundreds less than the competition, you get a sharp exterior with modern lighting, a crisp and fun powertrain under the hood and all the standard features one could expect.

 Nissan Rouge SVHyundai Tucson EcoToyota RAV4 LEHonda CR-V EXChevrolet Equinox LSMazda CX-5 TouringFord Escape SE
TOTAL MSRP$25,575$25,045$25,250$26,725$26,105$26,095$26,055
  • Best Value: Hyundai Tucson Eco & Sport
  • Honorable Mentions: Nissan Rogue SV, Mazda CX-5 Touring, Honda CR-V EX

THE LOSER’S BRACKET

Let’s start from the bottom. The Equinox LS is adequate but leaves a lot to be desired. I’m surprised that the domestic offerings are not more competitive. They are relatively expensive and you don’t get what you pay for. In terms of standard features, the Equinox LS is woefully under-equipped and has a subpar powertrain. The 2016 “refresh” helps the Equinox aesthetically, but I would still rank it near the bottom of the barrel.

The Escape SE is a pretty good vehicle, with acceptable standard features and a responsive turbocharged powertrain, but when you look around, its competitors offer more features for an equal or lower price. On the negative side, it has the worst standard infotainment system and a chink in it’s crash-tested armor. The 2017 redesign will go a long way to curing what ails the Escape, but I fear that just like Toyota, a dramatic price increase will come along with the refreshed design and will make Ford even less competitive in this segment. If I’m wrong, and Ford keeps the Escape’s price intact, the 2017 Escape will surely move up into the winner’s bracket.

*Edit 6/7/16: My hunch was wrong and the 2017 Escape SE actually had its price go down to $25,995 while getting an improved exterior and dual climate control added. Unfortunately, the crappy SYNC 2 is still standard, leaving the SE way under the bar for infotainment systems (unless you pay $1,400 for SYNC 3). Modern lighting is optional too. Also, the power and gas mileage isn’t what was rumored/promised. Instead of getting improved power and fuel economy, it got less torque and identical mpg numbers. That said, I love turbo powertrains and I bet the new Escape is still engaging to drive. All in all, the improvements are great but not enough for me to recommend the Escape over a CX-5 or CR-V.

The Toyota Rav4 LE is the epitome of a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” It is good or at least adequate in every way, but not exceptional at anything. It has a good amount of interior volume and an attractive new exterior design, but power, handling, fuel efficiency and interior finishes are merely OK. It’s also lacking several common features. To make matters worse, the 2016 RAV4 is about $1,000 more than the outgoing 2015 model making it even harder to choose it over its field of peers. I’ll Pass.


THE WINNER’S BRACKET

Finally, some compact SUVs that I would actually recommend! The Nissan Rogue SV is the sherpa of the bunch (a sexy looking sherpa at that). If you are focused on getting maximum utility and fuel efficiency in an attractive low-cost package, the Rogue might be for you. However, if you want an engaging driving experience and a top-notch interior, I recommend you move along to one of our other “winners.”

The Hyundai Tucson Eco is impressive in it’s own right. For about $25k, you get a perfect pairing of a torquey turbocharged engine with a smooth 7-speed transmission, wrapped with slick new sheetmetal and modern lighting. The interior is of average quality and cargo volume is smaller than most, but if you’re willing to overlook those flaws you’ll get an outstanding value!

I gave the CX-5 Touring a blue ribbon or honorable mention in almost every category. It has a great interior with a cutting-edge infotainment system, benchmark performance and rare active safety features. It’s hard to find something bad to say about the CX-5. It has a sporty exterior, but it’s not as attractive as some of its competitors or the more-expensive CX-5 Grand Touring. Other than that, it’s a fantastic fun-to-drive compact SUV that is hard to beat.

Which leads me to the Honda CR-V EX, the total package. As I said in my initial review, the CR-V has “classy looks, a well-appointed comfortable interior, a smooth competent powertrain, and all the safety and utility you could want in a compact SUV.” Sure, I wish it was a little more exhilarating, but for many people (like my wife, who will be driving it) that’s not high on their list of priorities. If this comparison had taken place a couple short years ago, I would have bought a CX-5. But, Honda’s recent overhaul, including exterior, interior and mechanical improvements, put the CR-V back on top.

Choosing between the CR-V and CX-5 was very difficult. Neither of them have any glaring weaknesses. I love them both. In the end it came down to who’s going to drive it. If I was going to be the primary driver, I would be buying the CX-5 hands down. But, my wife gets the CR-V because she prefers a comfortable ride and the extra amenities. Which one would you prefer?

*Edit 4/15/16: As I mentioned earlier, the “2016.5” CX-5 Touring is even better than the 2016. Two additional standard features, heated front seats and navigation, with only a minuscule increase in price ($80) changes the dynamic of this comparison. It’s gone from a dead tie for first, to a narrow victory for the Mazda. Those features are enough to give the Mazda “Best Interior” and push it over the top overall.

You may choose to prioritize the Rogue’s supreme utility or save some coin with the Tucson Eco. Or, if price is less important, I’d recommend a feature-packed Tucson Sport or waiting for the new 2017 Escape. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading along as much as I’ve enjoyed comparing these great vehicles!

SHARING IS CARING:

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4 thoughts on “Massive 2016 Compact SUV Comparison – Rogue Tucson RAV4 CR-V Equinox CX-5 and Escape”

  1. I have not driven any of these vehicles as we are a couple more years from buying. However after all i have read and i soak up anything about vehicles, here is my thoughts. None of these vehicles has a fold flat front passenger seat as far as i know which for me is a serious omission- afterall these are SUV’s. If i were to buy one of these it would have to come down to the cx5 and crv. I believe the cx5 wins for me as i dont care for the lag the cvt in our scooter has though it works well but most of all my tranny mechanic states it takes $8000. to overhaul the cvt in the crv while the cx5 is $2500.

    Reply
    • Good points! I didn’t test the front-folding limitations of the front seats and I didn’t factor in the extreme cost of replacing a CVT transmission. Like you, I’m not a fan of CVTs in general, but in this comparison Honda’s CVT is much better than most.

      The CX-5 is terrific. But, if you’re really a couple years off from buying, I wouldn’t make up your mind just yet. This market segment is so competitive, there seems to be at least one refresh or all-new model every year.

      Reply

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