Comparison: Ford Escape vs. Honda CR-V vs. Mazda CX-5

Matt Tierney

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.

The Specs

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

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I'm actually struggling with a decision of which of these to buy.  I don't want a SUV, but we need the cargo capacity for our business.  I really like the Land Rover Evoque, but it costs too much and doesn't carry enough stuff.  It also only comes in 4WD and we want FWD.  So far its the Ford Escape that seems the best choice for us.  We've had Hondas and life them, but the CR-V is too ugly to tolerate.  The Escape has some style and the 240hp should make for some fun driving.  Struggling because I'd never imagined I have to drive an SUV.  It's like surrendering your manhood.
The Ford escape looks like a van and more towards a chick car. The Mazda CX-5 looks so much better then the escape. Not to mention ford never has the right mileage. I test drove both and the Mazda has better handling, standard 17' alloy wheels, Bluetooth and has blind spot system on there mid trim car. MAZDA is more of a reliable car unlike Ford with engine fires on the new escape and the recalls the 2013 Escape had within a year. I own both Ford and Mazda vehicles(in my household) and retired from Ford, overall I choose the Mazda and I ended up buying the CX-5!
Good comparison review but, the goldilocks theme for comparisons is a little past cliche. Talk about taking away from the content.Jason I enjoy your writing please stay away from goldilocks.
All in all, my decision to spend a few more bucks for my '12 Audi Q5 2.0T continues to be the right decision. Although, I must say I hoped for better for the new Escape and would still likely take it over either of the others. Oh, and I've owned several Mazdas including 2 Miatas and an RX-8. The lack of torque is disconcerting at best.
Seven weeks ago tomorrow, I took delivery of the first AWD CX-5 in my city. With three reasonably long trips and plenty of city driving under my belt, I can affirm that the vehicle has superior dynamic capabilities and all of the bells and whistles that I want without being too "gimicky". Gas mileage is good (29.96 mpg on the last highway fill-up) and improving by the tankful. I have friends who own near-new RAV-4s and CRVs who are now rethinking their choices. The vehicle could use more passing torque, but the transmission does an excellent job of maximizing the available power.I'm very pleased with the latest addition to my Zoom-Zoom fleet.
Always good to see Mazda get good marks. Easily the most underrated car company out there. They really do try to put some zoom zoom in each and every car. Would like to see them get more air time and respect from the press. Good competitors make for better products for all of us. Now if I can only convince them to put a supercharged 4 cly, AWD into the RX8...
@ $36000no offense, I would rather be driving the Infiniti EX35 and if I were in Europee, the EX37!!300-333HP, AWD option, and it's as light as the sedan :D
To make the test fair and objective, the Ford should have had the 1.6 engine and the Mazda all wheel drive. This is just a beauty contest.
V8 S80
Whooop. way to go mazda. I was hoping you might win out a comparison between the two.

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2013 Ford Escape

Honda CR-V

2013 Mazda CX-5

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