On Autos: Compact crossover class boasts variety of options

The 2017 Mazda CX-5 is one of several recently updated compact crossovers that impress in this market segment. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Across the country, many buyers have decided that compact crossovers are the most sensible blend of versatility and value — especially as their fuel efficiency, refinement and driving dynamics continue to improve. In the city, they have the added benefit of shorter body lengths than similarly spacious midsize sedans.

For example, the Honda Accord midsize sedan has the same 30-mpg EPA fuel economy rating as the brand’s CR-V compact crossover and has similar passenger space. But the Accord has less cargo room, a lower seating position and no available all-wheel-drive. Moreover, it’s nearly a foot longer and even costs more when comparably equipped.

The 2017 Honda CR-V is a well-rounded compact crossover with a particularly roomy interior and outstanding fuel economy. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Honda has long excelled at interior packaging for the CR-V, designing this vehicle with a low cargo floor that boosts volume and requires less of a lift to get heavy items in and out. The rear seat and cargo area rival — and sometimes trump — bigger midsize crossovers.

A 2017 redesign brought a dashboard that’s more stylish and also boasts an upgraded infotainment system. A big improvement is a volume knob, which was an unfortunate omission on the 2015 and 2016 CR-V and several other recent Hondas. The new system also syncs with compatible smartphone apps using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. However, the screen is still on the small side by today’s standards, some icons are inconveniently clustered together — thus hard to choose correctly while moving — and the system could respond faster.

On the road, Honda smoothed out the sometimes-stiff ride of last year’s CR-V while preserving a measure of extra handling agility compared to a Toyota RAV4 or Nissan Rogue. Honda also introduced a new 190-horsepower turbocharged engine on most CR-V models — all but the base LX — that improves both power and fuel economy. It costs $2,750 to upgrade from the $24,985 LX to the next-up EX, which adds the turbo as well as a host of valuable safety equipment and welcome convenience features.

Overall, the CR-V beats the other compact crossovers in some ways and is competitive or better in all the rest — making it a convincing leader in its class. However, several recently updated models offer standout qualities in different areas, allowing each to impress in their own respective niches.

The 2018 Chevrolet Equinox is smaller but more luxurious than its predecessor. (Brady Holt/The Current)

First of all, Chevrolet transformed its aging and bulky Equinox into a smaller and more modern crossover. The 2018 model features greatly improved driving dynamics, interior quality and overall refinement.

Even with svelter dimensions, the Equinox’s extra-quiet ride and posh cabin decor mean that it’s still a viable alternative to a midsize Ford Edge or Nissan Murano, at least for buyers who are more interested in a premium feel than the roomiest possible interior. The CR-V, though roomy and generally pleasant, doesn’t quite feel like a luxury car; the Equinox, at least in the tested high-end Premier version, pulls it off better. Chevrolet also has an optional 252-horsepower four-cylinder engine for buyers seeking more power than the CR-V or the Equinox’s own base 170-horsepower engine.

But the CR-V and its competitors tend to cost at least several thousand dollars less than the Equinox. The Chevrolet’s base price is a competitive $24,525, but most optional equipment can be quite expensive, driving the cost up quickly. The Equinox also trails the CR-V’s fuel economy by 2 mpg in front-wheel-drive versions and 3 mpg with all-wheel-drive even with the base engine — which is also slower than the Honda. And there’s less total interior space.

The 2017 Mazda CX-5 is sportier and more luxurious than most competitors, but not as roomy. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Meanwhile, some buyers will look for an enjoyable driving experience even in a roomy, useful vehicle like a crossover. The leading options for this niche are the redesigned Mazda CX-5 and the updated Ford Escape.

The CX-5 has stood out for sporty handling since its debut as a 2013 model, but the new 2017 version improves the overall experience with a more polished interior and a quieter ride. Materials are upgraded and the interior styling is more upscale. Fortunately, the pursuit of luxury didn’t dilute this Mazda’s endearing handling — it still has quick, alert steering and feels composed even when you take a sharp curve quickly.

It’s also a pretty good bargain, especially if you aren’t looking for every possible option. Mazda was good about giving even the base $24,985 Sport and the mid-level Touring a generous assortment of luxury, safety and convenience features.

However, while the CX-5 offers competitive interior space and gas mileage, it’s not a standout in either area. EPA fuel economy ratings are 27 mpg with front-wheel-drive and 26 mpg with all-wheel-drive. Moreover, some buyers who prioritize driving enjoyment will want more power than the Mazda can deliver with its 187-horsepower four-cylinder engine.

The 2017 Ford Escape is offered with a powerful engine that complements its agile handling. (Brady Holt/The Current)

An option for additional power is the Escape, which is offered with a 245-horsepower engine in addition to a base engine with 168 horsepower and a mid-level 179-horsepower motor. And like the CX-5, the Escape boasts better handling poise than the typical crossover.

This Ford doesn’t have the Mazda’s or Chevrolet’s modern, luxurious cabin, and even its smallest engines have mediocre fuel economy ratings — no Escape beats an EPA rating of 26 mpg, and the 245-horsepower model with all-wheel-drive hits just 23 mpg. Also, although Ford has added an available forward-collision warning on the high-end Titanium model, no Escape can automatically apply the brakes like most of its competitors.

Though its base price of $24,465 is similar to the competition, the Escape often has steeper discounts than most small crossovers — making it a potentially appealing value option. Use a pricing site like Truecar.com to compare local transaction prices as opposed to just the cars’ window stickers.

The 2017 Jeep Compass is heavier-duty than the typical small crossover. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Buyers looking for some off-road prowess, meanwhile, may not be impressed by the light-duty vehicles that dominate the compact crossover class. While the redesigned 2017 Jeep Compass doesn’t match the competition for on-road polish, the new model comes closer than before — while also offering a more sophisticated four-wheel-drive system and better ground clearance. It’s half a size smaller than the CR-V, which improves its maneuverability but cuts into interior space and doesn’t provide a fuel efficiency benefit. Another off-road-ready small crossover is the Subaru Forester, which has an impressive all-wheel-drive system, excellent visibility and a generally hardy ambiance, though it’s short on everyday interior volume and refinement compared to the leading competition.

If you’re most interested in a good all-around compact crossover, also consider the aging but still compelling Nissan Rogue, which impresses for its interior space, comfort and value. It’s not as posh as the leading compact crossovers, with comparatively dated interior decor and a less heavy, substantial feel to the ride. That said, Nissan’s decision to install emergency automatic braking as standard equipment beginning with the 2017.5 model year helps it stand apart from the crowd, and it’s roomier than nearly every competitor.

The 2017 Nissan Rogue compact crossover is roomy and comfortable, but it’s not especially fancy. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Rogue also features a widely available surround-view camera that’s handy while parking, and it’s rated for a respectable 27 mpg in mixed driving with all-wheel-drive — without complicated turbochargers for its four-cylinder engine. Prices start at $25,395. Don’t confuse the Rogue with the new Rogue Sport, a smaller and less powerful subcompact crossover.

Another older model, the Toyota RAV4, offers a roomy interior and lots of standard safety features, but it has disappointing ride and handling. That said, its gas-electric hybrid model offers outstanding fuel savings in city driving. Lastly, Volkswagen has just launched a redesigned 2018 version of its popular Tiguan with more room and a lower price, though with mediocre gas mileage.