What Should I Buy? Compact SUVs
Sedan Efficiency, SUV Utility, Huge Variety
The Situation: You want a vehicle with good mileage, ample cargo space and a high driving position. They come together in these compact SUVs.
The Obvious Choice: 2014 Honda CR-V
Pros: Roomy interior, good fuel economy, intuitive controls
Cons: No manual control over transmission, not very exciting to drive
When it comes to utility, comfort and efficiency it's hard to beat the 2014 Honda CR-V. Every CR-V comes with a 185–horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is available on every trim level. Base trim (LX) CR-Vs aren't strippers, either. They come with Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a standard rearview camera and a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel. Opt for the EX and you step up to 17-inch alloy wheels. The top-trim EX-L gets dual-zone climate control, heated (up front) leather seats and offers navigation and rear-seat entertainment as options.
Primary among the CR-V's many strengths is its roomy, practical interior. There's a good sense of space inside, which is nice in a segment where many vehicles leave their occupants feeling confined. There are also 37 cubic feet of space behind the second row and 71 cubes available when the seats are down — both numbers that are among the best in the class.
The CR-V's modest powertrain will leave some drivers desiring more power, and its transmission doesn't offer full manual control like many competitors.
Starting Price: $23,775 (LX FWD)
Configuration: Transverse front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger SUV
Powertrain: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder, 185 hp, 163 pound-feet of torque; five-speed automatic transmission
EPA Fuel Economy: 26 mpg combined (23 city/31 highway)
See Edmunds' rating of the nearly identical 2012 Honda CR-V here.
The Upscale New Player: 2014 Nissan Rogue
Pros: Available third row, high-end interior, good fuel economy
Cons: Sluggish dynamics, CVT-induced engine drone
The Rogue isn't new to the market, but it has been redesigned for 2014. Nissan updated its small SUV with a fresher interior, more space, better fuel economy and abundant features.
The only engine — a 170-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder — is paired to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Front-wheel drive is standard, but all three trim levels can be had with all-wheel drive. Possibly the Rogue's most distinguishing feature is its interior. Soft-touch surfaces as well as precise knobs and buttons elevate the Rogue's interior quality above many competitors. SL trims get leather as standard. A third-row seat is available in S and SV trims, and models without three rows offer a configurable cargo area.
Included with all-wheel-drive Rogues are features like a locking center differential and hill descent control, which enhance the Rogue's abilities in low-grip situations.
That the Rogue isn't the most responsive small SUV won't trouble many buyers. Its CVT makes it slow off the line and its chassis simply doesn't respond as quickly or as controllably as others in the segment.
Starting Price: $23,650 (S)
Configuration: Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, five- or seven-passenger SUV
Powertrain: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 170 hp, 175 lb-ft, CVT
EPA Fuel Economy: 28 mpg combined (26 city/33 highway)
See Edmunds' rating of the 2014 Nissan Rogue here.
The Sporting Option: 2014 Mazda CX-5
Pros: Rewarding to drive, very efficient, striking styling
Cons: Mediocre navigation system, underpowered with 2.0-liter engine
In the CX-5 Mazda has created a compact SUV that manages the one thing none of the others can: driving reward. No, the CX-5 isn't going to overwhelm you with its acceleration, but bend it into a corner and you'll be amazed by what it can do.
People don't buy SUVs for autocrossing, however, and Mazda realizes that. So the CX-5 is also practical and efficient. Two engine choices are available: a 155-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a 184-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder. A six-speed manual transmission is standard with the 2.0-liter, and a six-speed automatic is optional. The 2.5-liter engine comes with the six-speed automatic only. All-wheel drive is available with either engine but can't be had with a manual transmission. It's worth springing for the bigger engine in the CX-5, as it better pairs with the SUV's rewarding chassis.
Inside, the CX-5 is both highly functional and well built. It gives up a few cubic feet to the roomiest competitors, but we lived with one for a year and seldom needed more space. Also, its front seats are among the most comfortable and supportive in any SUV.
The biggest downside to the CX-5 is its optional TomTom navigation system, which has lower resolution and a more cumbersome interface than the best systems in the segment. It does cost marginally less than average, but it's not an option we'd choose.
Starting Price: $22,225 (Sport)
Configuration: Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, 155 hp, 150 lb-ft, six-speed manual transmission
EPA Fuel Economy: 29 mpg combined (26 city/35 highway)
The Value Option: 2014 Kia Soul
Pros: Good value, roomy interior, sporty handling
Cons: Average fuel economy, no AWD option
In terms of space and utility, Kia's Soul bridges the gap between sedans and compact SUVs very nicely. However, it does so at a price well below the three SUVs on this list. As a bonus, it handles well, too.
The Soul is available with two engines: a 130-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder and a 164-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The small engine comes standard with a six-speed manual, and a six-speed automatic is optional. The 2.0-liter comes only with the six-speed automatic.
Among the Soul's many strengths (character, value, handling) is a solid list of standard equipment. Base models get Bluetooth, satellite radio and an iPod interface. Loaded versions — which can be pricey — get navigation (with a large touchscreen), a panoramic sunroof, heated leather seats and even a heated steering wheel.
With an electronics interface and warranty that are among the best in the business, the Soul should be a real consideration for anyone in the compact SUV market. But it's the low cost of entry that should keep you interested. Keeping the price under $20K still gets you a vehicle with ample usable space and the high driving position many buyers prefer.
Downsides? The Soul can't be had with all-wheel drive, which is commonplace in small SUVs, and its fuel economy could be better.
Starting Price: $15,695 (base wagon)
Configuration: Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger wagon
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, 130 hp, 118 lb-ft, six-speed manual transmission
EPA Fuel Economy: 26 mpg combined (24 city/30 highway)
See Edmunds' rating of the 2014 Kia Soul here.