Compact SUVs: The Yays, Okays, and Nays

Following up on my last blog post, where I gave all small SUVs my yay, okay, or nay vote, by popular demand, I’m now doing the same for all SUVs in the next size class – compact SUVs! Some of the most popular vehicles on the road live in this segment, like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Rogue.

As before, earning my nay vote means that, for one reason or another, I recommend skipping over this SUV in favor of one of the better rated choices. A vehicle with an okay vote means that there’s no major flaw that should remove the vehicle from contention. It’s a fine crossover, but just isn’t one of the best in class. And finally, the compact crossovers that get a yay vote are unequivocally Tom the Car Pro approved. All around, these are the best choices in the segment.

Note that my opinions are based on the 2020 models of each SUV. At this point in the model year, there are 2021 models trickling into dealerships. Except where otherwise noted, you can expect my thoughts on these 2020 compact SUVs to apply to the 2021s, as well.

Of the 13 available non-luxury compact SUVs, three get a yay, four get an okay, and six get a nay vote in my expert opinion. Read on!

Compact SUVs: the Nays

Ford Escape

The Ford Escape has a lot going for it. It has sleek, fresh styling, and thanks to its nimble and car-like handling, it’s one of the more fun-to-drive compact SUVs. The standard turbocharged three-cylinder engine returns respectable fuel economy. Inside, it has simple controls. And the eco-conscious among us will appreciate the availability of hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants. But, most of those plusses have a flip side. The tradeoff for the Escape’s nimble handling is a firm ride. That economical three-cylinder engine buzzes and vibrates much like the three-cylinder engine used in the old Geo Metro of the 1990s. There’s a smoother four-cylinder available, but fuel economy with that engine is average for the class at best. And those simple controls are housed in a cheap-looking interior, thanks to the plastics used by Ford. Add in below-average predicted reliability, and I have to give the Escape a nay vote.

GMC Terrain

The GMC Terrain boasts above-average predicted reliability, a well thought out touchscreen interface for its infotainment system, and a spacious interior. It delivers energetic acceleration from the optional 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, especially compared to the standard 1.5-liter, which feels underpowered. But, it’s dull to drive. The ride is stiff, and it’s noisy inside. That powerful 2.0L engine delivers the worst fuel economy in the class. The interior looks cheap and basic, and the pushbutton gear selector for the transmission is a pain to use. It’s a poor value proposition, getting very expensive after adding basic comfort and convenience features. The thin, high rear quarter windows look like they came out of my creepy basement, and I can’t warm up to the Terrain’s styling. To my eyes, the c-shaped head and taillights still look wrong somehow. There are much better choices in this über competitive segment.

Jeep Cherokee

Jeep’s Cherokee has a substance and heft to it that make it feel like it’s a half-class larger than most of these other SUVs. It’s the only entry on this list available with a V6 engine, which is smooth and powerful, and still returns fuel economy similar to the Cherokee’s smaller 4-cylinder engines. While the interior isn’t exactly beautifully-styled, it does have a quality feel and the controls are simple and the touchscreen is intuitive. And like most Jeeps, the Cherokee actually has decent off-road chops – especially in Trailhawk trim.

However, the Cherokee’s ride is noisy and stiff. Regardless of the engine choice, fuel economy is low for this class. Fiat Chrysler’s nine-speed automatic transmission has never been the smoothest or most well-tuned. In a segment like this where designs start feeling dated after a few model years, 2021 will mark the Cherokee’s eighth year without a full redesign. Even though Jeep has been building it for nearly a decade, apparently they’re still having trouble working out all the kinks because predicted reliability is worse than average. And perhaps buyers who remember the beloved, boxy Cherokee of the 1980s and 90s are finding that today’s Cherokee doesn’t have the same appeal. Owner satisfaction scores are low, too. There are better compact SUVs than the Cherokee.

Mitsubishi Outlander

Image courtesy of Mitsubishi

The Mitsubishi Outlander is on the large size for the compact class. But, it’s really too small to be considered among midsizers. Like most Mitsubishis, the Outlander has very little going for it. There’s a great warranty, and good passenger space. The Outlander comes standard with a third row seat, which sets it apart, but it’s so small that no one will be comfortable back there. But don’t worry! As the driver, you’ll be unhappy too. The Outlander’s handling is sloppy, and it wallows and leans in turns. There’s a lot of engine noise inside the dated and boring interior. Indeed, without a full redesign since 2014, the Outlander ties the Jeep Cherokee for the Methuselah of the compact SUV class. Plus, at sticker price, the Outlander is a terrible value – but Mitsubishi dealers will probably offer steep discounts. But at any price, the Outlander is a poor choice.

It brings me no joy to cyberbully Mitsubishi, as I’ve had similarly harsh words for their other SUVs here, and the subcompact Mirage here. But I strongly believe that Mitsubishi’s apathy toward developing competitive vehicles should not be rewarded with sales. If they’re not going to try, you shouldn’t buy.

Nissan Rogue

There’s an all-new Rogue coming soon for 2021, but as of this writing, the existing model is still in Nissan’s showrooms. And even if this version of the Rogue dates back to 2014, buyers will still find a lot to like here. It’s easy to slide in and out of the roomy interior through the Rogue’s large door openings. The interior design is clean, with easy-to-use controls. The Rogue’s large-for-the-class size pays off in the large and usable cargo hold behind the rear seats. Plus, the ride is comfortable and quiet. But compared to the class leaders, the Rogue isn’t as fun to drive, or as fuel efficient.

But the reason that I give the Rogue a nay vote, as I’ve mentioned before with other Nissan models, is the questionable reliability history of Nissan’s continuously variable transmissions. I need to see concrete data that these quality issues have been addressed once and for all. Until then, I’m wary of long-term ownership prospects of Nissan vehicles with their CVT. As I said for Nissan’s smaller SUVs, if you want a Rogue, stick to a three-year lease.

Upcoming 2021 Nissan Rogue. Image courtesy of Nissan.

Volkswagen Tiguan

Like the Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan Rogue, Volkswagen’s Tiguan is one of the larger entries in this class. As a result, it has great space in the first and second row, and a (very tight) third row seat is widely available. Cargo space is good, the ride is comfortable, and it’s fairly quiet inside. Like most Volkswagens, the controls are simply laid out, and the interior materials feel high quality.

However, I’m getting a little bored with VW’s interior design. It’s certainly functional, but look at a photo of a Volkswagen dashboard and you might not be sure if it’s from a 2005 Jetta or a 2020 Tiguan. The exterior styling is bland too. Ask a five year-old to draw a picture of an SUV, and it will probably look like a Tiguan. Also, compared to class leaders, the Tiguan’s performance figures are nothing special. Power, handling, and fuel economy are all okay for the class. The real nail in the Tiguan’s coffin is poor predicted reliability. As a result, VW’s smallest SUV earns my nay vote.

Compact SUVs: the Okays

Chevrolet Equinox

Image of the 2020 Chevrolet Equinox, an okay choice among compact SUVs

The Chevrolet Equinox earns an okay from me because it’s a good all-arounder, with a spacious interior. The Equinox is on the large size for the compact class, and this pays off inside the cabin. There’s a lot of room in the back seat, and the cargo area is generously sized as well. There are convenient storage cubbies around the cabin, and the controls are simple to use. The touchscreen infotainment interface is easy to navigate. Fuel economy is better than average for the class, too.

However, the Equinox isn’t the right choice for you if you prefer a stylish and plush cabin. Especially on basic trims, the interior feels rental-grade. The standard 1.5-liter 4-cylinder will get the job done but may feel underpowered, but you can move up to a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder for more power if you don’t mind the hit to fuel economy numbers. Driving dynamics are fine, but the Equinox is not a standout for its handling. And in styling, the proportions of the Equinox are a little odd. There’s a refresh coming for 2022 that improves the look of the front end, but the lines of the rear side windows and C-pillar remain awkward.

Upcoming 2022 Chevrolet Equinox. Image courtesy of Chevrolet.

Hyundai Tucson

Image of the 2020 Hyundai Tucson, an okay choice among compact SUVs

The Tucson secures its place as an okay vote by its ability to do all things respectfully well, even if it’s not a true class leader in any one category. There are two available engines, a 2.0-liter and 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Both feel smooth and refined, but pick the 2.4L if you like some pep in your compact crossover. The Tucson is pleasant and easy to drive, with its competent and balanced handling, secure-feeling steering, and comfortable ride. It’s quieter than most competitors inside, too. There’s good interior space front and rear, and like most Hyundais, the dashboard is well laid out and the touchscreen is user-friendly. And as a nice perk, Hyundai now offers complimentary oil changes and tire rotations for the first 3 years or 36,000 miles.

But the Tucson isn’t perfect. Fuel economy isn’t impressive with either engine. With the 2.0L it’s average for the class, and with the 2.4L, it’s poor. Also, like many affordable Hyundais, while the interior is clean in its design, the materials used are more utilitarian and durable than plush. In addition, this generation of the Tucson dates back to 2016. As evidence of how quickly things move in this class, it’s starting to look and feel a little dated.

But Hyundai just revealed an all-new Tucson coming for the 2022 model year. It will probably address these shortcomings, and then some. There will be hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions, and the styling inside and out has the potential to make the new Tucson a real standout in this class.

UPDATE: Check out this blog post to see why I’m super excited for the 2022 Tucson!

Upcoming 2022 Hyundai Tucson. Image courtesy of Hyundai.

Kia Sportage

Image of the 2020 Kia Sportage, one of the best compact SUVs

I’m a fan of the likable little Kia Sportage. The engine and transmission deliver smooth and adequate power for this class. It has a quiet and comfortable ride, and it handles well with a nimble and energetic feel. Inside, the design is simple but controls are intuitive, and there’s impressive space and comfort inside – especially considering that the Sportage is among the smallest of the compact SUV segment.

However, the Kia’s, uh, unique styling may not be to everyone’s liking. And its fuel economy numbers are unimpressive, on the lower end of average for this group. But aside from that, the Sportage is a good value. Standard equipment levels are good, and click the option boxes for a few comfort and convenience features, and the Sportage will still be priced competitively. Plus, I bet a good deal could be negotiated at your Kia dealer, if only because the Sportage isn’t mentioned in the same breath as segment superstars like the CR-V, RAV4, and Forester. Don’t sleep on this little Kia!

Toyota RAV4

Image of the 2020 Toyota RAV4, an okay choice among compact SUVs

The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V typically get credit for creating the compact crossover market back in the mid-1990s. Previous versions of the RAV4 would get an easy yay vote, but this latest version has fallen behind the best in the class. Today’s RAV4 has one of the stiffest rides in the segment. To be best in class, the ride needs to be far more composed. But worst of all is the engine noise. It’s loud and buzzy under acceleration in ways that Toyota should have figured out how to control decades ago. And go crazy with the options, and the RAV4 becomes expensive quickly.

But there’s a lot to like here, too. There’s a RAV4 for everyone, whether you need a family-friendly commuter, or a weekend outdoor adventure companion. For the eco-conscious, there’s a hybrid and new plug-in hybrid Prime model. And for those with Land Cruiser tastes on a RAV4 budget, there’s a new TRD Off-Road trim level, too. While the engine is making all that racket, it’s also generating good power numbers, and fuel economy figures that are close to the top of the class. Handling and steering is good, the interior is roomy, and the controls are simple to use. Toyota covers your oil changes and tire rotations for the first 2 years or 25,000 miles, too. Just make sure you can tolerate the noisy and bumpy ride before you sign on the dotted line for a new RAV4.

Compact SUVs: the Yays

Honda CR-V

Image of the 2020 Honda CR-V, one of the best compact SUVs

I’m bet you’re not surprised to see the Honda CR-V placing here on my list. There’s a reason the CR-V is so popular – it’s good at pretty much everything. It has a spacious interior. Drivers of all sizes will be comfortable behind the wheel, and there’s enough rear seat room for most small families. The cargo area is usefully shaped, it has a low liftover height, and the rear seats fold down nearly flat with the low cargo floor. The interior is well designed, with simple controls, handy storage cubbies, and uses materials of high quality. Access through the large, wide-opening doors is easy, and the view out is good through the big windows. Handling is responsive, and the ride is comfortable and quiet. Real world fuel economy ties for the best in the class.

The CR-V has few demerits. This version of the CR-V is starting to show its age, having first gone on sale for 2017 – again, showing how hyper competitive and fast moving this class is. This is evidenced most in the Honda’s infotainment system. It’s intuitive to use, but the technology itself feels dated with a lower-resolution screen and slower response times than the best of the more modern setups. And, due to the popularity of the CR-V, if you want to drive something special, this isn’t it. Drive to the grocery store, and you’ll pass a dozen on your way.

Honda keeps a redesign schedule for the CR-V you could set your watch to, introducing an all-new version every five years. By that math, we’ll be due for a new CR-V for 2022. And if the 2021 CR-V is still this good in the likely last year of its lifecycle, its competition is in for a world of hurt when Honda releases a new one.

Mazda CX-5

Image of the 2020 Mazda CX-5, one of the best compact SUVs

I’m not shy about my affinity for the Mazda CX-5. For its many pros, the engine and transmission deliver good performance for this segment. For faster acceleration, there’s also a turbocharged engine available on top trims. But handling is where the Mazda really shines. It feels athletic and sporty through turns, helped by well-weighted steering. And between the interior and ride, the CX-5 compares favorably against luxury brands. There’s good space inside the stylish and premium-feeling interior. Materials have a luxurious appearance and feel, even more so on top trim levels. It’s quiet inside, and the ride is among the most compliant in the segment. To top it all off, the CX-5 is currently the only compact SUV with an excellent predicted reliability rating according to Consumer Reports. And, it’s only one of two to be rated as a Top Safety Pick Plus by the IIHS.

But, it’s not perfect. Fuel economy is average for this class. The tradeoff for the curvy, sleek, and athletic styling is that the CX-5 doesn’t feel as open and airy as do the CR-V and Forester. But probably the biggest knock against the Mazda is it’s infotainment controller. You use a knob between the front seats to control the screen. It can be operated by touch as well, but only when the CX-5 isn’t in motion. I do believe that users can adapt to this setup, and that the CX-5’s overall excellence warrants the learning curve. But there’s no question that it’s less intuitive than a standard touchscreen interface.

So, do you want the most fun to drive compact SUV? Mazda CX-5. Most reliable? CX-5. Most luxurious? Safest? You see where I’m going with this. It’s an outstanding choice.

Subaru Forester

Image of 2020 Subaru Forester, one of the best compact SUVs

Those with a pragmatic disposition can find a lot to appreciate about the Subaru Forester. It’s the sensible choice. It has a very comfortable ride, and feels more solid and substantial than its size would imply. The interior is bright and airy thanks to the large, upright windows, and space inside is excellent. On a recent test drive with a client, all 6’4″ of me had an abundance of space in the back seat. Driving and operating the Forester is easy. Handling and steering are both fine, there’s a good driving position, the controls are well laid out and the touchscreen is easy to use. It ties the CR-V for the best real-world fuel economy for a non-hybrid compact SUV, and like most Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard equipment. The Forester, along with the Mazda, is a Top Safety Pick Plus according to the IIHS.

The Forester has few downsides. Like most cars with a continuously variable transmission, the engine can drone loudly on acceleration. And the styling of the Forester, inside and out, projects its utilitarian, practical purpose. Few would call the Forester beautiful, and while the interior does feel well constructed, it isn’t posh.

But if comfort and practicality are top priorities for you, and you’re less concerned with driving the most stylish SUV on the block, then the Forester should be at the top of your shopping list.

In conclusion…

Back in my day, in the late 1980s and early 90s, the most popular family vehicles were the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Chrysler’s minivan twins. But today’s family cars are now in this class, the compact crossovers. During the first half of 2020, nearly 25% of vehicles sold were SUVs in this size class. You have plenty of choices here, but the real standouts in this highly competitive segment are the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, and Subaru Forester.

As always, thank you for reading! If you know someone who’s shopping for one of these popular vehicles, please pass along this post.

What class of vehicles would you like me to rate next? Let me know!

And if you need help determining exactly which vehicles will best suit your needs, wants, and budget, or if you want to score a great deal on a new vehicle without the hassle, please get in touch. I’m here to help!

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