Best SUV/CUV under $35,000:
Ford Escape 1.6L EcoBoost
Price (base/as tested): $29,099/$33,379
Based on the Ford Focus platform, the Escape, which won this category, shares a lot with that compact car in the way it drives. The steering is light but accurate and it handles with a crispness that gives away its European roots. The new Escape’s high quality dash is modern, angular and a visual treat with its back-lit gauges. This 178 hp, 184 lb-ft 1.6L EcoBoost turbo four gives adequate performance but works against 1,653 kg — the heaviest CUV in this group. The back seats have short and thinly padded seat cushions.
Price (base/as tested): $18,495/$24,765
Built on a shortened Chevy Cruze platform, this is the smallest crossover here and carries the lowest base price of $18,495. Like the car on which it is based, the Trax is a competent handler with decent steering and a smooth quiet ride. The interior looks a bit cheap but the funky “motorcycle” digital/analogue gauge cluster adds some spice to the proceedings. The 138 hp 1.4L turbo four provides adequate (although hardly scintillating) go, but it does return good fuel mileage — tied with Subaru XV Crosstour for best of this test loop.
Honda CR-V LX
Price (base/as tested): $28,140/$28,140
I found this AWD LX to be the most satisfying drive of the group. The CR-V manages to feel light on its feet yet substantial, and the nicely weighted and direct steering makes it a joy on a twisty road. The suspension strikes a fine balance between comfort and sport. Yes, the interior may have more hard plastic surfaces than some competitors, but the layout is logical with large easy use buttons and the central gauge cluster very clear. Seats are good both front and back, and the rear cargo space features an easy access low load floor. Strong 185 hp 2.4L four works well with the 5-speed auto. Not a lot of bells and whistles for this price point (you do get heated seats), but the CR-V wins me over with its fine sense of integration.
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Price (base/as tested): $26,499/$30,299
Hyundai’s strategy of hit-’em-over-the-head-with-features was in full play here with this Santa Fe Sport. Powered by a smooth 190 hp direct-injection 2.4L four mated to a six-speed auto, this sharp looking newcomer was fitted with front and rear heated seats, heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, rear door blinds and wiper de-icers. It has a compliant ride, but this Hyundai is bit of a dull drive with numb steering. Not that this will matter much to its intended audience.
Mazda CX-5 GT
Price (base/as tested): $22,995/$32,750
This new cute-ute from Mazda, tested in top GT trim with AWD, was the handler of the group, offering direct steering and taut body control, although the tradeoff was a busy ride with plenty of road noise. Mazda’s SkyActiv strategy combines fuel-efficient engines with aerodynamic and weight-saving technologies, and on the test loop the CX-5 handedly bested the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe 2.0. The Mazda’s 155 hp 2.0L four felt tepid, however, lacking any meaningful low-end punch. It’s a crisply styled little ute with a simple yet nicely done interior.
Subaru XV Crosstrek
Price (base/as tested): $24,495/$25,795
Subaru jacks up the Impreza hatchback and adds some butch body bits and funky wheels to create this tidy “crossover.” Being based on a car, it was naturally the most carlike to drive here, yet stands out in this group as the only vehicle with standard all-wheel-drive. It’s nimble and has reasonably compliant underpinnings. The 148 hp flat four works with the CVT to provide brisk step-off, although you do get some engine drone when planting the right Sketcher. It tied with the Chevy Trax for best observed fuel economy on my test loop. And as far as this Tangerine Orange tester? It’s good to see Subaru back in the quirky car biz again.
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