When mini-SUV's first hit the scene, they were aimed at entry-level buyers who liked the notion of active-lifestyle four-wheel-drive vehicles but couldn't pony up for a full-blown SUV. Since then, a lot of things have gotten bigger-NBA salaries, budget deficits, Kirstie Alley-and the prices of these little people carriers are no exception.
The originators of the trend-the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4-are moving upmarket and leaving the entry level to Hyundai and Kia. Along with relative newcomers the Ford Escape and the Chevrolet Equinox, the CR-V and RAV4 now sport prices between $25,000 and $30,000, rivaling some of their mid-size brethren.
The big question is what you get for your money. Are they worth it? We sought the answers in a diligent effort to help you make a wise choice. Here's what we learned.
Where It All Started
The RAV4 got the ball rolling back in 1996. But whereas the original RAV4 was a sporty runabout with no pretensions, the latest generation has other ideas about its lot in life. Comfort and convenience are emphasized, it's handsomely attired in crisply pressed sheetmetal, and its interior has some of the best design and materials in the class. High-quality plastics with tasteful textures abound, and the cloth material in our test model didn't make us feel cheated for lack of leather. The bottom line: $25,211, the least expensive in the quartet, despite $3645 of options, which included the L package ($1030), power moonroof ($900), front side and front and rear side curtain air bags ($680), 16-inch alloy wheels ($400), keyless entry ($230), and a roof rack ($220).
The center stack with the radio and climate controls is well-laid out and the dash instruments relay information in handsome gauges. The only chinks in the armor are hard-to-reach front-seat cup holders designed for no cup or bottle sold in this country-sloppy execution from a company known for smart engineering.
The RAV4's 2.4-liter four-cylinder makes 161 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. Paired with a slick-shifting four-speed automatic, the RAV4's powertrain tied with the Honda's for smoothest and most refined of the group. Thanks to its carlike construction and low center of gravity, the RAV4 is nimble and has none of the top-heavy feeling that the Equinox suffered from. With full-time all-wheel drive and standard ABS and traction and stability control ensuring grip, the RAV4 inspires confidence in the messiest of conditions. It's fairly frugal with a gallon of gas, too, covering 22 miles in city driving and 27 miles on the highway.
As for cargo capacity, the RAV4 comes in third with 29.2 cubic feet of room with the rear seats in use and 68.3 cubic feet with them folded. The right-side-hinged cargo door-a vestige of the RAV4's right-hand-drive origins-impedes curbside loading. Towing capacity is a minimal 1500 pounds, the same as the CR-V but less than that of the Escape and Equinox.
Small Ute, Big Price
According to Ford's press material, the redesigned 2005 Escape is "geared to active, young at heart drivers and first-time SUV buyers who desire SUV qualities in a more compact package." To which they should add "and have almost $30,000 to spend." Our fully loaded Escape Limited 4WD had the highest base price of $26,365 and then added options such as the luxury comfort group, which includes a six-disc in-dash CD player, dual heated sideview mirrors, heated front seats, and rear sensing system ($1095); power moonroof ($585); and the trailer tow package ($350). Total including destination charges: $28,985.
Although the '05 Escape received a buff and a polish this year, it still looks much as it did when it arrived in 2001. With its wide wheel openings, beefy front end and body cladding, it has a chunky, Tonka-esque look which we find appealing. It is tall and has a higher step-in height than you might expect; on the inside, that tallness translates into ample headroom, even with the optional moonroof. Our example was outfitted with a leather interior, but the insides of the seat bottoms were cloth. Hardly noticeable, but one wonders where other corners are being cut.
Drive the Escape, and such concerns fade-slightly. With its 200-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic, the Escape was the most powerful in our test, and with a well-tuned suspension and lively steering, it was fun to drive. Ride motions are nicely controlled, and the passenger cabin is largely undisturbed by rough surfaces. Get too spirited in the turns, though, and the high center of gravity will cause unseemly body lean. On the minus side of the equation, the Duratec 30 is a loud, coarse engine that moans asthmatically at low speeds, wails distressingly under full throttle, and makes 18 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. The Escape's four-wheel-drive system seemed the most sophisticated of the bunch, coming on transparently when needed and otherwise keeping a low profile.
As a cargo carrier, the Escape has 33.1 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 69.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. The top-hinged tailgate can be opened and closed without doing chin-ups, and a glass liftgate makes stowing smaller items quick and easy. With a 3500-pound tow rating, the Escape is a decent tow vehicle, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. Our magazine's executive editor, Mark Gillies, has towed his vintage Lotus racing car with both an Escape and a bigger SUV, and he says the Escape is the better tow vehicle. Where larger SUVs would try to muscle the trailer into submission, the Escape's more accommodating suspension worked in harmony with the trailer and made towing a breeze. Sometimes, size doesn't matter.
Bigger, but Better?
At $29,040, the Chevrolet Equinox AWD LT is the most expensive in this comparison-so is it the best? In a word, no. In three words, not even close. Some might argue that the Equinox is out of place here, since its size puts it closer to the mid-size end of the spectrum; others might argue that it's not so much out of place as outclassed. We'll take the glass-half-full view: hopefully, it's going to learn a lot in this company.
First impressions of the Equinox are promising. It's a good-looking SUV, with angular sheetmetal and an aggressive stance. It's big, too, with an overall length of 188.8 inches-21.3 inches longer than the RAV4, the shortest in this test. Climb inside, though, and you wonder where all the bigness went. Although the Equinox is first in headroom and legroom for rear-seat passengers and second for rear shoulder- and hip room, it has the least amount of front leg- and hip room and takes second place for front headroom. In a testament to efficient packaging, the tiny RAV4 takes first place for the most amount of front head- and legroom. On balance, the RAV4 is last in all rear-seat categories, but it is, after all, the shortest kid on the block.
The interior has a high-tech look, with the gear shift sprouting sportily out of the center console. The materials, however, are primarily hard plastic and, combined with the modern design, give the interior a cold, impersonal ambience. It is not lacking in amenities, thanks to the $3745 options package which includes heated leather seats, sunroof, OnStar satellite concierge, and an in-dash six-disc CD player. Head curtain air bags-a $400 option-were also included.
Chevy has rounded up one of its usual suspects to do engine duty: an outdated, pushrod 3.4-liter V-6 that makes 185 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque, teamed with a five-speed automatic. The second-most powerful engine on the test, it, too, makes a variety of unsophisticated sounds more often associated with a barnyard than an engine. All that power doesn't make it engaging, since the loosey-goosey suspension and easily distracted steering are unwilling partners when you put your foot in it. Even with all-wheel drive, the Equinox still seems too biased toward the front wheels, and spins them furiously for a half second before sending some power to the rear wheels. It is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
Packaging inefficiency shows up again in the amount of the Equinox's cargo capacity. With 29.2 cubic feet of room with the rear seats in use and 68.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, it has just 3.0 cubic feet and 0.3 cubic feet more, respectively, than the last-place Toyota. The Equinox's removable shelf system impinges greatly on the cargo area. The Equinox has a 3500-pound towing limit.
Not too Big, Not too Small-Just Right
Famous for its outside-the-box thinking, Honda put a lot of thinking into this boxy little SUV. The CR-V is arguably the most useful and utilitarian of the group, with plenty of room and storage for both passengers and the flotsam of life. At $25,565, the CR-V 4WD SE is the second-least expensive in the test but comes fully equipped with every amenity imaginable as standard: leather seats, a six-disc in-dash CD player with a cassette, cruise control, exterior temperature gauge, and a power moonroof being among the most noteworthy.
The CR-V received a comprehensive makeover for both interior and exterior styling in 2005, and a host of safety equipment-vehicle stability assist with traction control, anti-lock brakes, and emergency brake assistance-is now standard. For the interior, front-seat-mounted air bags and side curtain air bags are also standard, as are pretensioners for the front seatbelts.
The interior materials, while not quite as rich in appearance as the Toyota's, are still handsome and speak to good quality. Ergonomically, the controls are laid out well, with large, easy-to-use dials for the climate functions and the radio. The driving position is comfortable and visibility all around is excellent, thanks to the wide expanses of glass.
Out on the road, the CR-V's 160-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and five-speed automatic are ready to aid and abet when you feel like hustling it. Shifts are almost imperceptible and the transmission is willing to kick down without second guessing you. Steering is communicative and alert, and responds crisply to inputs without feeling overly sensitive. Despite changing to a new, cam-driven all-wheel-drive system, the CR-V still exhibits a sort of pulsing sensation as the power shuttles from the front to the rear wheels. EPA mileage is 22/27 mpg, and towing capacity is 1500 pounds.
Cargo room is tops in this class, boasting 33.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in use and 72.0 cubic feet when folded. There's room for small things, too, with plenty of oddment space throughout the cabin. A small table between the front seats has two cupholders built in as well as one that pops out from below the climate controls, and little compartments make for useful storage areas. And to spread out, there's a picnic table in the cargo floor that can be used for dining out of doors or impromptu Euchre tournaments. From items like grocery bag hooks throughout the cargo area as well as on the edges of the center console table, thoughtful touches abound and, like a proper butler, make you feel that all your needs have been anticipated and addressed.
Who's On Top?
Entry-level vehicles no longer leave buyers wanting more; all of these mini-SUVs attend to the needs of the driver and passengers. However, a lot still sets them apart. With just $350 separating the RAV4 and the CR-V, both offer comfort, convenience and luxury that make either a compelling buy in this segment, almost a decade after they invented it. Of the two, the CR-V is the better people carrier by virtue of its roomier rear seats and ample cargo space, while the RAV4 is longer on style and sportiness. Only when comparing towing ability do they fall short of the bigger-and more expensive-SUVs in this comparison. The Equinox and the Escape, on the other hand, can probably be found with enough dealer incentives to level the purchase-price playing field. It would have to be a pretty good deal, though, to make either more attractive than the RAV4 or the CR-V.