Small SUV Comparison 2021: Honda vs. Hyundai vs. Mazda vs. Nissan vs. Toyota

Small SUV Comparison 2021: Honda vs. Hyundai vs. Mazda vs. Nissan vs. Toyota

Five compact SUVs, one winner

Small SUVs can deliver an ideal mix of high fuel economy, versatile cargo space, smooth comfort and helpful technology features. That's why they're among the most popular choices for families each year. They're usually priced between $25,000 and $40,000, but you'll generally find the best value around $30,000.

For this 2021 small SUV comparison, we've gathered together a combination of the most popular, newest and our favorite examples to explain the pros and cons of each. Like last-year's compact SUV comparison, this year's entrants include the 2021 Honda CR-V, 2021 Mazda CX-5, 2021 Nissan Rogue and 2021 Toyota RAV4. This year we also included the redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson to find how it stacks up against its rivals.

We've thoroughly tested these vehicles as well as other variants and trim levels. Some we've even lived with for up to 50,000 miles as part of our long-term test program. How did the rankings shake out? What's the winner of the Honda CR-V vs. Toyota RAV4 battle? Read on, as we list our findings in reverse order according to our SUV rankings.

Fifth place: 2021 Toyota RAV4, 7.7 out of 10

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 is an easy recommendation to those who just want simple four-wheeled transportation. It's competent at tackling all the needs of a small family. And we should know since our editorial team once drove a 2019 RAV4 through all 48 contiguous states in a week.

We like the simple, well-built and generally quiet interior. You know exactly how to use most of the controls just by looking at them, and there are a lot of useful nooks and cubbies for storing stuff on long-distance drives. In a world of ever-more complex touchscreen systems, we value these simple pleasures.

The interior space is generous, as is the cargo volume. On the downside, there's no way to lower the second row of seats from the trunk, so shorter folks will have at least one mild annoyance when loading large items.

The best thing we can say about the driving experience is that there isn't anything dramatically wrong with it. Just expect steering that feels a bit vague and slightly slower than average acceleration — unless you get the plug-in hybrid. Otherwise, the ride balances comfort and control nicely, and the seats are generally plush and supportive. We have one gripe with the front passenger seat: It's mounted too high and lacks height adjustment. Sit here and you might feel like you're on a perch.

While most of the RAV4 attributes are average, its lineup does include a couple of standouts. One is a TRD Off-Road version that has an upgraded all-wheel-drive system and all-terrain tires. You won't outmuscle a Jeep, but it is better equipped than most other alternatives.

The other is the Prime plug-in hybrid that offers 42 miles of all-electric range and mid-5-second 0-60 mph acceleration. That makes it more efficient and quicker than the other options, but at a steep entry price of roughly $40,000.

As for fuel economy, most RAV4 versions get an EPA estimate of 28-30 mpg combined, which is better than average. The hybrid gets 40 mpg, which is the best of any hybrid you'll find in this comparison test. In the Honda CR-V Hybrid vs. Toyota RAV4 Hybrid contest, the two are a near tie in our rankings.

Overall, the RAV4 is a pleasant SUV that rides smoothly, has a roomy interior that's easy to live with, and offers plenty of utility. It stops and handles confidently, and it's generally fuel-efficient. The merely satisfactory engine and indifferent steering, however, prevent it from being a top choice for a small SUV.

Fourth place: 2022 Hyundai Tucson, 7.9 out of 10

The redesigned 2022 Hyundai Tucson is the newest arrival, and it's styled to make an entrance. The funky design may be polarizing, but the rest of the Tucson is generally agreeable. As far as price, features and comfort go, this is an impressive SUV.

We like the size and shape of the interior. The Tucson is a little longer and wider than most other small SUVs, and consequently its interior is slightly bigger than most in key areas, including legroom. Factor in generously sized doors and windows, and you have a vehicle that's easy to access and easy to see out of. Similarly, the cargo area also gets bragging rights as the largest on paper, but only by a hair.

We even like the seat comfort and the digital displays on the top trim level. So what's the downside? Well, those screens have touch-sensitive controls instead of buttons, and the center console isn't as clever as leaders with regard to storage.

You could get used to those things, but our bigger frustration is the tepid acceleration from the standard 2.5-liter engine. This is one of the slowest vehicles in the class, and that means merging with traffic takes careful planning.

You'd figure if an engine wasn't powerful, it'd better be fuel-efficient. This one, though, is midpack, getting an EPA estimated 26 mpg combined with all-wheel drive. Compare the Hyundai Tucson vs. Mazda CX-5, and it's more of a head-scratcher. Both have 2.5-liter engines with similar power and fuel economy ratings, yet the Mazda is quicker.

The Tucson hybrid is the one to get. It makes more power and has a smooth-running powertrain. Its EPA-estimated 37-38 mpg combined (depending on front-wheel or all-wheel drive) is a significant improvement over fuel economy with the standard Tucson engine as well. If we were comparing hybrids only, it'd be our top recommendation. There's also a forthcoming plug-in hybrid that Hyundai estimates can go 32 miles on all-electric power from a fully charged hybrid battery.

Overall, the Hyundai Tucson is an impressive crossover for the money, with a comfortable ride and helpful technology features that aid the ownership experience. We also like its upscale-feeling materials, class-leading warranty and abundance of space. Unfortunately it's dogged by a sluggish engine that has trouble keeping pace with traffic.

Third place: 2021 Nissan Rogue, 8.0 out of 10

Like the Tucson, the 2021 Nissan Rogue recently underwent a big update that enhanced its appeal. It now has bold styling, especially at the front, so it's difficult to say which one stands out on the road more in a Nissan Rogue vs. Hyundai Tucson contest. Underneath that new styling is an SUV with lots of features, comfortable seats, a large and functional interior, and modern tech.

The Rogue's highlight is comfort. The seats are soft and match well with the ride quality. There's even available three-zone climate control, which is unique in this segment. The large doors make for big openings, and the rear doors open wider than those of most vehicles for easier loading. We really like the configurable partitioning system in the cargo area too.

As you start climbing in price, the Rogue gains impressive tech and interior materials, from a large and clear center touchscreen and digital instrument cluster to diamond-quilted leather seats. You really feel like you're getting your money's worth.

The shortcoming is the no-better-than average driving experience. Like other lower-powered SUVs, the Rogue takes its time on freeway on-ramps. Also, the steering seemed a touch vague to some of our staff. In a Nissan Rogue vs. Mazda CX-5 comparison, the Rogue can't compete. But if you don't care about the nuances of driving fun, this doesn't really apply.

As for fuel economy, the EPA says to expect 28-30 mpg combined for a Rogue with the 2.5-liter engine, which is better than average. Overall, the Nissan Rogue makes a lot of sense for many shoppers. Its interior is easy to use and is the right size, and we like a lot of the tech features that are available. While it's not as nice to drive as our highest-rated SUVs, the Rogue has enough appealing qualities to keep it high in our rankings.

Second place: 2021 Mazda CX-5, 8.1 out of 10

When you look at the 2021 Mazda CX-5 through the lens of practicality, it is not a great compact SUV. But when you get behind the wheel, you don't care. This is the SUV to get if you enjoy driving. It is far and away the most fun of this group, by such a significant margin that it could be in its own category.

As we learned during a yearlong test with our long-term car, the CX-5 makes some sacrifices to get that experience. The biggest is with the cargo area, which is smaller than the rest of the group and by a pretty good margin. And in a Mazda CX-5 vs. Honda CR-V comparison, the Mazda's interior storage options aren't as plentiful or versatile.

The other negative is phone integration that's slightly behind the curve. It still supports Android and Apple phones, but it lacks wireless charging. Unlike all the other vehicles here, you use a dial to control the screen. Doing so takes some time to get used to, but more than a few of us on staff prefer this setup.

Then there's the matter of pricing, but this isn't really a negative. The CX-5 is best at its most expensive. The base models are still fun to drive from a handling perspective, but you really want to upgrade to the version with the bigger 250-horsepower turbo engine. Not only will the acceleration make you smile, the interior quality makes the CX-5 feel like a luxury SUV. The design and materials look better than anything else here, and you honestly feel better sitting inside because of it.

With great acceleration comes not so great fuel economy. That upgraded engine is rated at 24-25 mpg combined depending on front- or all-wheel drive — that's the worst of our group. And the base engine is only a little better at 26-28 mpg combined.

The CX-5 offers a high-quality interior, sharp handling and good acceleration, but it comes up short in terms of cargo capacity and fuel economy. Why do we rank it so high? We believe that the driving experience warrants it. Skip the Mazda if you want more of a four-wheeled appliance, but if you want to enjoy your time behind the wheel, the Mazda CX-5 remains one of the best small SUVs around.

First place: 2021 Honda CR-V, 8.1 out of 10

RAV4 vs. CR-V? We recommend the 2021 Honda CR-V as the best choice for most shoppers looking for a small SUV. Today it remains a favorite of ours, though it is showing its age (this generation was introduced for the 2017 model year).

We put close to 50,000 miles on a 2017 CR-V we purchased for a long-term test. We also recently acquired a 2021 CR-V Hybrid to continue our evaluation. Both ownership experiences have emphasized its strengths but have also highlighted some weaknesses.

The CR-V's interior is exceptionally roomy and offers lots of clever storage space for cargo. The large door openings and low step-in height make for easy access, like when you're loading kids or an uncooperative dog, and the seats are comfortable and sport wide adjustment ranges.

Though it's far from quick — it's middle of the pack in acceleration in our testing — the CR-V makes for a nice commuter thanks to a careful merger of great ride quality with better-than-average steering and handling.

What are the downsides? Most of them have to do with technology, which makes sense because this generation of the CR-V is one of the older vehicles in this group. The touchscreen supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, and we recommend using one of those systems because the regular screen doesn't look as modern or function as fluidly as those in the competition. Similarly, the exterior camera system isn't as comprehensive for parking and the displays aren't as sharp as the ones in newer rivals including the Tucson and Rogue. Also, some of the interior materials, even in the fully loaded trim level, don't look as sharp as what you'll find in competitors.

The CR-V gets an EPA estimated 29-30 mpg depending on front- or all-wheel drive. We averaged a bit less than that with our test car over the course of nearly 50,000 miles, but to be fair, we do that with more than a few of our test cars (thanks, L.A. traffic!). If you're comparing the optional CR-V Hybrid vs. Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, know that the Honda's fuel economy rating is also touch lower at 38 mpg combined.

Despite the flaws, the Honda CR-V remains a brilliant small SUV due to its high competency across the board. It has exceptional storage space and functionality, plenty of features, a comfortable ride and enjoyable performance. All of that comes at a competitive price for the class.

Edmunds says

While the CR-V remains our top pick, you'll notice by looking at the scores that these SUVs are separated at most by a few tenths of a point. That shows the true competitiveness of this group. You could make a case for any of these vehicles, be it Nissan Rogue vs. Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5 vs. Toyota RAV4 or the Tucson, depending on your own unique needs and desires.

The segment only continues to grow more competitive. Kia has a new Sportage on the way, and we expect to see a redesign for the CR-V and CX-5 in a year or two. Keep up with the latest by visiting our SUV rankings.


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