Let's face it: The battle for diaper-hauling supremacy is raging in America.
In a time when four-dollar-per-gallon fuel is as common as soccer moms, the crossover SUV is the vehicle of choice for many practitioners of the domestic arts. Whether it's toddler toting or simple commuting, small utility vehicles frequently pull rank over midsize sedans because of their all-weather utility, flexible cargo space and superior visibility. And since 2008, the two best-selling compact SUVs in the country have been the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V.
So if you've got diapers to haul and need new wheels to haul them, the simultaneous redesign of these two crossovers is hugely significant. Despite their common goals, the 2013 Ford Escape and 2012 Honda CR-V take very different approaches. Which approach is better? That's what we're here to find out.
Different Strategy, Same Mission
Ford's strategy for the Escape includes a choice of three different four-cylinder engines: two of them direct-injected and turbocharged and one normally aspirated, all of which are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. They all drive the front wheels but all-wheel drive is optional. Our Escape tester was a top-of-the-line Titanium version with all-wheel drive, which comes standard with the most powerful engine, a turbocharged 2.0-liter that cranks out 231 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque.
Honda's CR-V follows a more traditional formula under the hood. Only one engine is available — a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 185 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. It relies on port fuel injection, atmospheric aspiration and a five-speed automatic transmission to drive the front wheels. All-wheel drive is available with every trim level and — following Honda's usual price structure — navigation is the only other option.
We tested fully loaded versions of each vehicle. With the Escape that meant $3,185 in options on top of the Titanium's base price of $32,945 for a final price of $36,130. There are no such add-ons for the CR-V, so our EX-L with navigation rang in at $30,825.
Sizing Them Up
Dimensionally it's clear these two utes are targeting the same clientele. Only 0.2 inch separates their overall length while the 2013 Ford Escape is 0.8 inch wider and 1.2 inches taller. Its 105.9-inch wheelbase is also marginally longer than the CR-V's 103.1-inch wheelbase.
Once inside, however, Honda pulls a clever switcheroo by producing more interior space from slightly smaller exterior dimensions. Partially this is thanks to the Escape's rising waistline and sloping roof line, which look great but compromise overall roominess. Despite producing additional volume, the CR-V's load-in-the-shorts styling won it few fans.
Speaking of loaded shorts, the CR-V's physics-defying interior is also better for installing rear-facing infant seats, which consume a disproportionate amount of space. With the driver seat set to accommodate a 5-foot-9-inch driver, the Escape's seatback rested against the front of an infant seat. In the CR-V there was a small space left over between the seatback and infant seat.
A quick look at each SUV's cargo area hints at what the SAE's objective measures verify: The Honda is easily the better of the two when it comes to cargo volume. Although cargo room behind the CR-V's second row is only 2.9 cubic feet more than the Escape, it measures larger in every single dimension. Drop the seats and the CR-V's advantage continues (68.1 cubic feet vs. 70.9).
Dropping those seats is significantly easier in the Honda, too. It can be accomplished from the cargo area by pulling a handle on either side. The Escape's seats fold completely flat, but the CR-V's fold flat enough to minimize the compromise in utility. Liftover heights, at 27 inches for the CR-V and 27.5 inches for the Escape, are similarly low.
Jump In, Look Around
Inside, the Ford looks more modern than the new-but-still-familiar Honda design. We found the driver seat in both amply comfortable, but the CR-V's greater sense of space is undeniable. More than one tester commented on the CR-V's roominess, while others noted the Escape's more confined interior space.
Honda's use of space remains unparalleled when it comes to small-item storage, too. There's unexpected volume in the center console that stretches the length of the CR-V's seat bottoms and is nearly as deep as the seats are tall. There's also a perfectly flat floor in the backseat, while the Escape's foot room is invaded by a center hump.
Ford regains some ground by installing center-mounted HVAC vents for the rear passengers — a comfort feature kids in back will certainly appreciate.
There's no ignoring the fact that the Escape's cabin reeks of genuine technological innovation, while the 2012 Honda CR-V packs its features into a familiar but dated-looking package.
Both SUVs have dual-zone climate control, front seat heaters, navigation systems with traffic data, rearview cameras and sunroofs. The Escape adds a self-parking feature, blind-spot monitoring, keyless entry/start, HID headlamps and 19-inch wheels (the CR-V has 17s).
The Escape's power-operated tailgate also opens via the key fob, a button on the liftgate or by passing your foot underneath the rear bumper when the key fob is in your pocket — a feature that is undeniably useful for perpetually full-handed mothers.
Also worth noting is the fact that the Escape's MyFord Touch user interface for the phone, climate, audio and navigation system doesn't use the infuriatingly ineffective touchpad buttons found in the larger Explorer. Both SUVs were also relatively easy to pair with our smartphone and managed to remember it every time we climbed inside.
Punch It, Mommy
It's worth noting that the 2013 Ford Escape, despite being nearly identical in size to the 2012 Honda CR-V, is 361 pounds heavier. That's a considerable difference for a small SUV, yet there's a promptness to the Escape's responses that is sorely lacking in the CR-V.
This is largely due to its significant power advantage, but gearing and transmission calibrations also play a role. Fourth and 5th gears in the CR-V are overdrive ratios and it seeks them out often to maximize mileage. Not since driving the GMC Terrain have we witnessed such a profound case of upshiftitis.
The Escape, blessed with one additional cog in its transmission and sufficiently motivational torque, is neither confused nor reluctant when its throttle is opened. It just goes. Engine braking is more easily accessible than in the Honda, which might seem like a small thing until you descend a steep hill in both. What's more, if we had to perform light towing, the Escape's 3,500-pound tow rating makes it an easy choice, as the CR-V is only rated to tow 1,500 pounds.
When it comes to objective measures of acceleration the Escape mops the floor with the CR-V. Sixty miles per hour arrives in 7.4 seconds (7.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as at a drag strip) in the Escape. That milestone requires 9.4 seconds (9.1 seconds with rollout) in the CR-V. The Escape's 15.5-second quarter-mile time at 87.5 mph is a full 1.3 seconds and 4.5 mph quicker than the CR-V's 16.8-second pass at 83 mph.
Both SUVs utilize electric-assist steering but the Ford's ratio is quicker, which partially explains its snappier responses. Handling tests, unsurprisingly, fell in favor of the Ford's quicker reactions. It circled the skid pad at 0.82g — significantly better than the CR-V's 0.76g. At 62 mph it also slalomed faster than the CR-V (60.7 mph). Some 124 feet were required to stop the Escape from 60 mph — 5 feet shorter than the CR-V.
It's possible you've heard the one about there being no free lunch. It's never been truer than in the power/fuel consumption compromise we observed in this test. According to the EPA, the Escape's fuel mileage ratings (21 city/28 highway mpg) are slightly lower than the CR-V's 22 city/30 highway mpg.
Forget that for a moment, because in the real world, the world where the Escape's responsive turbocharged engine makes 107 lb-ft more torque than the Honda's engine, your mileage will vary. Ours certainly did.
During 1,328 miles of mixed driving we observed 20.5 mpg in the Escape. Driven largely on the same roads during the same period of time by the same drivers, the CR-V delivered 27.7 mpg over 1,520 miles. It's a difference that's hard to ignore.
Certainly the 231-hp Ford's advantage in response, drivability and outright speed is nice to have and we certainly enjoy its capabilities. But that kind of performance isn't mission-critical for most families. Fuel economy, however, is at the top of the list. That's probably why Ford offers two smaller, more efficient engines in the Escape, including the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, which Ford expects to be the crossover's volume engine. Of course with this smaller 173-hp power plant, the Escape acceleration isn't as brisk, but its fuel-efficiency ratings are more in line with the Honda's and in some cases better. Still, in this contest, the Escape was clearly out mpg'd.
Here we have two very different crossover utility vehicles — one defined by what its powertrain does and one defined by what its powertrain does not do. With ample power, a modern, obedient transmission and superior handling, the 2013 Ford Escape is unquestionably the more enjoyable vehicle to drive. Its features, too, sift it out of the crossover crowd — even if you have to pay more for them. Combined, though, they're still not enough to pull off a win.
It's possible that the Escape's smaller, 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine might have reversed our decision here, but that's another test for another time.
It's not performance or features that draw most buyers to this segment. And beyond those, we're hard-pressed to find meaningful reasons to choose the Escape over the CR-V. Fuel economy and practicality are what sell small SUVs and those qualities endure prominently in the 2012 Honda CR-V. Sure, the CR-V doesn't break a lot of new ground in the segment, but it does honor the primary reasons people are drawn to small SUVs in the first place. Its combination of respectable fuel economy and a large, flexible interior is a potent one.
So if you're practicing the domestic arts, the 2012 Honda CR-V is the diaper hauler you'll likely prefer as a partner.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.