Goldilocks wants a new compact crossover. As circumstances would have it, she's in luck. She's interested in a segment chock full of nice vehicles from just about every carmaker you can think of -- from Kia to Range Rover and every manufacturer in between.
In the high-volume part of the compact SUV group, there are two numbers winners, the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape, which tend to duke it out for the top sales spot. Goldilocks wants a mainstream, well-equipped vehicle that comes standard without sticker shock, so she'll be looking at both of these vehicles. As a bonus, they're both new: a redesigned CR-V debuted a few months ago, and a brand new Ford Escape will be hitting showrooms shortly.
There's a third new player on the field, too: the Mazda CX-5. Not only is it new this year, it replaces the Tribute, which used to be a rebadged Escape. We gathered all three vehicles for a day of driving and realized that while their recipes are almost identical, the end result is three very distinct flavors. Which one will Goldilocks like best? Well, it depends on what kind of porridge she prefers.
2012 Honda CR-V AWD EX-L NAV
Honda has a long reputation for getting stuff right, and while some of the company's other products have missed the mark lately, the CR-V is chugging along nicely. This is the vehicle that virtually defines its class -- and, indeed, the two competitors we rounded up are near clones of the Honda: all three measure within 0.6 inch in length, 0.6 inch in width, and 0.8 inch in height. They come exclusively with four-cylinder engines and all offer the choice between front or all-wheel drive. The "Cute Ute" has been boiled down to a formula (we'll call it Goldilocks Porridge Reduction) and you could certainly argue that Honda's CR-V has, historically, had the winning recipe.
There's nothing particularly high-style about the CR-V -- on the outside, it's anything but sexy, with a bizarre front end, a minivan profile, and small (in this company) seventeen-inch wheels with tall sidewalls. Inside, it's a similar story, with gathered leather seats that look like they're from a 1990s Acura. Even our fully loaded tester doesn't come with keyless-go, so you'll have to put a metal key into the ignition switch. It does have a navigation system, although its monochrome graphics seem to have been inspired by an Atari 2600. There's another LCD screen, too, which is slightly better -- think original Nintendo -- but it's too small, too far away, and displays occasionally redundant information in a font and color scheme that doesn't match the nav screen's.
Sounds like a bitter bowl of porridge, doesn't it? Well, it's not. The CR-V might not win on presentation, but if you have an appetite for utility, the Honda wins the taste test by a mile. The minivan looks mean minivan usability: there are enormous storage bins everywhere, for example. The high console-mounted shifter feels just right in your hand, and the seats are comfortable. Best of all, the rear seats fold flat in the most breathtakingly simple mechanical origami this side of an Alton Brown cooking contraption -- no motors are involved, just a gentle tug on one of the two handles mounted cleverly (and accessibly) by the rear hatch. In one motion, the seat bottoms flip up and forward, then the seatbacks flop down. The CR-V might be the same size as these other two vehicles, but no one told its interior -- cargo room dwarfs the other two vehicles with the seats up or down. And the liftover height is impossibly low.
Should Goldilocks fancy herself a racecar driver, she'll be excited by the highest redline here. Honda's 2.4-liter straight-four is torquey and chock full of personality, and it makes its 185-hp power peak right at its lofty 7000-rpm redline. Unfortunately, it's mated to a five-speed automatic that's geared for fuel economy, not performance. Red light! Green Light! ...No! No wheelspin (thanks to an electronic AWD system that preemptively sends power rearward), but also not so much in the way of acceleration. The wait to get through first gear is a long one -- you'll be nearing freeway speeds before you feel the first shift. And second gear is virtually identical to the Mazda's third: it's good for a rather shocking 83 mph. Acceleration isn't painful, but it's never exhilarating, either.
The CR-V's electric power steering is far too overboosted to let road feel through to the wheel, and its ratio (16.7:1) is, by a wide margin, the slowest of the group. Its ride is slightly busy over broken pavement and the suspension can get a bit loose over big bumps. The Honda's ground clearance trails the other two vehicles by a wide margin (6.7 inches for AWD models versus 7.9 for the Ford and 8.5 for the Mazda), which might make it less capable in deep snow.
Not much about the CR-V will excite Goldilocks' inner Danica Patrick, but when it comes to an extremely usable, dependable, and very well put-together compact crossover, this porridge's lack of spice means it'll appeal to many and offend very few.
PRICE: $30,605/$30,605 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 2.4L I-4, 185 hp, 163 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 22/30 mpg
2013 Ford Escape Titanium 4WD
A Ford-loving Goldilocks is in trouble if she's indecisive, because unlike the other cars here, which are available with one single engine offering, the Escape comes with your choice of three. Base models are equipped with a 2.5-liter, 168-hp four. Next up is an EcoBoost (turbocharged, direct-injection) 1.6-liter that makes 178 hp. And leadfooteded Goldilocks can have an EcoBoost 2.0-liter that makes 240 hp.
Call us GoldiLeadfoots, because we tested the top-of-the-line Escape with every bell, whistle, and Bear Detection System. Well, not the last bit, but the Escape is, in this group, a rolling techno showcase. It came equipped with keyless-go, blind-spot monitoring with cross traffic alert (meaning it'll let you know if you're about to get sideswiped while backing out of a parking spot), automatic HID projector headlights, LED daytime running lights, active park assist (meaning it'll park itself), a power rear liftgate with Hokey-Pokey control (meaning it'll open or close electrically if you wave your foot under the rear bumper), a full-length panorama glass roof, and, of course, the MyFordTouch infotainment system -- which includes SYNC voice-activated commands, navigation system, a killer Sony sound system, and a touchscreen to control it all. It has four auto-up and -down power windows -- the other cars have it only on the driver's porthole.
There's no reason for Goldilocks to even sample the other cars' seats -- Ford's Sport Seats are "wow!" comfortable, and they're trimmed in leather and, like the others, heated. The Escape's cabin is full of angles and edges, including the rim of the steering wheel, which is uncomfortable to hold as a result. But the turquoise needles on the gauges are a cool touch -- and the high-resolution, colorful, and customizable LCD screen between the gauges trumps all.
Although MyFordTouch has been substantially revised (the previous one was, to use a word, dreadful), its clear, colorful, and very high-resolution touchscreen interface highlights exactly what's wrong with using a touchscreen: the virtual buttons appear on a flat, featureless screen, so Goldilocks will be taking her eyes off the road for a very long time to use them. Good luck if she hits a bump while trying to press a button -- the little graphical boxes that make up the buttons are so small that she could easily hit the wrong function three buttons over.
We didn't spend enough time in the Escape to test all of MyFordTouch's features (though unlike in older versions, we experienced no sudden reboots or failures), but some features didn't work properly. For example, if Ms. Goldilocks uses her iPhone for music, she's best off plugging it in via the USB adapter. This not only charges the phone, but allows her to use the touchscreen (or SYNC voice-activated controls) to find the music that's not too hard rock or too classical, but Top 40 Just Right. Except that if her iPhone is also paired to the system via Bluetooth, she’ll have to consult the owner’s manual to figure out how to listen to music via the USB adapter – either that, or she can to switch to Bluetooth streaming (which eliminates the possibility of browsing the music collection by voice or touchscreen). Either way, she’ll be confused. Sound confusing? It's more than confusing, it'd infuriate even Papa Bear from a relaxed hibernation.
Once the music does come on, though, the sound quality is superb and well beyond what you'd expect at this price point. Clearly, with all the gadgets and gizmos (and the powerful subwoofer), Ford is playing to a younger Goldilocks than Honda is.
And then you hit the gas. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost is a rocket compared with the other crossovers here. Its turbocharged torque curve is as flat as the surface of overcooked porridge, and instantaneous thrust is available whenever you want it. Turbo lag is, of course, present, but a loose torque converter masks it almost completely in normal driving. The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and quickly, and if you sprain your wrist just right, you can call up a pseudo-manual mode with an ill-placed rocker switch on the side of the shifter. Still, the ability to call up individual gears might help when towing -- and when equipped properly, the Escape can tow up to 3500 lb (far in excess of the Honda CR-V's 1500 lb and the Mazda CX-5's 2000 lb).
The weight of the big nineteen-inch wheels seems to stress the Ford's chassis rigidity (no doubt weakened by the enormous panoramic roof), inducing some cabin rattles over broken pavement. The suspension tuning seems oversprung and underdamped, leading to a bouncy ride on back roads, but the bump stops were left fully unmolested over the biggest of impacts. Ford's stability control programming is excellent, never intruding unless necessary, and then slowing the vehicle only as much as required. Like the Honda, the Escape's AWD system uses a computer-controlled clutch that predicts wheel spin before it happens, so even with all its prodigious power, the Escape won't squeal a tire on dry pavement.
The Escape's electric power steering is quick and responsive, though rubber-bandy in its effort. It has the widest turning circle of the group -- and the narrowest interior. Not only does the Ford trail its other rivals in shoulder room front and rear, but the sloped center stack intrudes noticeably into the driver's footwell. As a result, Goldilocks' right leg will remain in constant contact with hard plastic, fighting to get her leg far enough to the right to reach the offset and partially obscured gas pedal.
The Escape is the only car here that can't fold its rear seats using a lever at the back of the car, but at least the process is supremely easy to do from the rear doors: one lever flips each of the seats over almost completely flat. Despite the smallest overall interior of the group, the Escape's cargo-carrying ability is smack in the middle. The rear seats can be reclined (like the Honda's), making the back of the Escape a very comfortable place to be.
In fact, overall, the Escape is a very nice vehicle to spend time in. We think Goldilocks will like it -- if she's young and in love with high-tech toys. But if all the fairy tales are right, she'll likely love the crossover that's not too minivan-like and not too high-tech toyish. There's a third bowl of porridge that is, to borrow a phrase, just right.
PRICE: $32,945/$36,130 (base/as tested)
ENGINES: 2.0L Turbo I-4, 240 hp, 270 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 21/28 mpg
2013 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring FWD
At $29,165, our Mazda CX-5 was the least expensive vehicle in our trio -- but it lacked four-wheel drive and produced the least horsepower. While we're on the subject of frugality, it also boasts the best EPA fuel economy ratings, and in our rigorous testing (we drove like animals) used by far the least fuel. In fact, it beat the Ford by 30 percent and the Honda by fifteen.
If the defining feature of the CR-V is usability and the Ford's is high-tech, the Mazda CX-5's calling card is gimmick-free elegance. There's a richness to the vehicle that goes beyond the others -- in its exterior styling as well as its cabin. The red-stitched black leather looks and smells more expensive than the hides in the other cars; the no-frills dashboard trades overwrought styling features for simple functionality, and the Mazda's driving dynamics are, simply put, a whole class ahead of its rivals.
The CX-5's steering feels like its rack came straight off the shelf of the Porsche engineering center. It's accurate, well-weighted, and highly communicative. Will Goldilocks care about steering? Does a bear cook in the woods? Absolutely! The typical crossover buyer may not speak in terms of on-center steering feel and load buildup, but all drivers know good steering when they feel it: Goldilocks will get in this car and instantly feel like she's connected with the wheels and in control of her vehicle.
And when the bears come running after her, the CX-5 will make the quickest getaway. It may be down 85 hp from the Ford and 30 hp on the Honda, but the Mazda's body weighs some 300 lb less than the Ford and about 100 lb less than the Honda when comparably equipped. With short, closely spaced gearing and a transmission that loves to play ball, the Mazda doesn't suffer much from its lack of power -- and the well-weighted leather shift knob can be thrown into a fully manual gate that uses the racing layout (forward for downshifts, rearward for upshifts).
The CX-5 leisurely rounds bends at speeds that would have the CR-V's tires screaming loud enough to scare off any attacking furry mammal, and it demonstrates class-leading body control over potholes, frost heaves, and speed humps. The front suspension will bottom out over big bumps that the Ford takes in stride, but the rest of the Mazda's driving experience is flawless. And its ride is quieter and more supple than the others'.
In terms of usability and technology, the CX-5 again falls right in the sweet spot. Its cargo room is the smallest of the bunch, but its cabin is biggest overall, meaning it has the most space for people. The rear seat is split 40/20/40, and it can be folded forward in any combination by way of very clever handles near the rear hatch. The resulting load floor isn't, however, perfectly flat.
The CX-5 features some of the Ford's high-tech goodies without feeling overly gimmicky. Like the Escape, our Mazda was equipped with blind-spot monitoring -- which isn't available on the Honda, which needs it the most thanks to thick D-pillars that obscure rearward visibility. All three cars had reverse cameras, though the Mazda's screen is quite small. The CX-5's optional swiveling HID headlamps make for great visibility on curvy roads at night, and we suspect its Bose stereo is good enough to keep passengers entertained on long journeys over the hills and through the woods -- whether to Grandmother's house or to a rave.
Getting lost shouldn't be a problem since Mazda's navigation system was designed by TomTom, and while the screen is by far the smallest of the three, its graphical buttons are the largest and easiest to operate. The steering wheel controls and gauges are simple, straightforward, and highly legible -- and like the other cars, the CX-5's dual-zone climate control is easy to use, and it spit out the coldest air-conditioned air of the group.
The interesting thing about children's stories is how well they apply to our adult lives. Sure, you can have your porridge any way you like it. The Honda CR-V is like oatmeal -- not very flavorful, but packed with benefits. The Ford Escape is a warm bowl of peppered grits packed with lots of spice and flavor -- though perhaps too much for some. And then the Mazda CX-5 is a delicate polenta -- it's the same basic idea, but somehow this porridge comes across as more substantial, more expensive, and more elegant. Or as Goldilocks might say, it's just right.
PRICE: $27,840/$29,165 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 2.0L I-4, 155 hp, 150 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 26/32 mpg