Seven Up: Picking the Best Compact SUV

Andrew Trahan

2014 Jeep Cherokee Altitude 4x4
Time was when clambering over rocks and powering through muck would have been a major component of this drive, since that's what everybody thought SUVs were for. Now we know that they're really used just like cars, so we never put a tire off the pavement. More's the pity, as far as the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is concerned. If you really want to go off-road, your SUV search begins and ends here. More specifically, it ends with the Trailhawk version of the Cherokee, which has the most serious of the Jeep's three (!) available four-wheel-drive systems, with a locking rear differential, Select Speed Control (which functions like cruise control for off-road), and a low range -- although the latter comes on the mid-level 4WD system as well.

In contrast, our Cherokee Latitude, which is one level up from the base Sport, was equipped with the most basic AWD system, Active Drive I. The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder paired with Chrysler's new nine-speed automatic completed the powertrain of this mainstream offering. Although nine speeds sounds impressive, it is less so in practice. The top four ratios are all overdrive, and the car almost never makes it into the super-tall ninth. The MultiAir four puts out a respectable 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque, but it's overmatched by the heavy Cherokee, which at 3941 pounds is easily the porker of the group. With so much weight to contend with, and the engine's torque peak at 4600 rpm, the transmission is very busy, regularly sending the engine well up into the rev range, where it made lots more sound than fury. At the same time, fuel economy is unimpressive at 21/28 mpg (city/highway), which is no better than the far more powerful Ford Escape, whose turbo 2.0-liter bristles with an additional 64 hp and 99 pound-feet of torque. The Cherokee's available 3.2-liter V-6 offers a lot more power (271 hp) with not much of a fuel-economy penalty.

Aside from the powertrain, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee mostly made a good showing. "It feels really solid, supple, and refined," said DeMatio, who also praised the back seat for its room and comfort. The front seats, though, felt soggy and unsupportive. Nearly everyone liked the interior design and materials, and the available eight-inch UConnect touch screen was deemed the best here. The interior looks nice; too bad it's so hard to see out of. The chassis generally received high marks, although, as one driver said, "from behind the wheel the Cherokee still seems more Dart than Grand Cherokee." While the 2014 Jeep Cherokee has very good space for people, we were disappointed by the cargo bay, which is the smallest of the group by a substantial margin and suffers a high load floor—which seems like poor packaging given that the Jeep was one of the larger vehicles overall.

With a light load of options, the Cherokee's as-tested price was the second lowest here, at just a shade over $30,000. Our test example was missing leather -- which requires a step up to the Limited model -- as well as navigation and a sunroof. It did come with the $1995 comfort/convenience package, which netted a backup camera (an essential), a power driver's seat, keyless ignition, satellite radio, a power liftgate, and several lesser items. The Altitude package, with black exterior trim and 18-inch black wheels, bought a lot of visual punch for $500. The Cherokee driving experience, though, was defined mostly by the $1495 that wasn't spent -- for the optional V-6.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Altitude 4x4

MSRP (with destination) $27,490
Price as Tested $30,485
Engine 2.4-liter DOHC I-4
Horsepower (hp) 184 @ 6400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 171 @ 4600 rpm
Transmission 9-speed automatic
Drive 4-wheel
Fuel Economy (city/highway/combined) 21/28/24 mpg
CHASSIS AND MEASUREMENTS
Steering Electrically assisted
Front suspension Strut-type, coil springs
Rear suspension Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r Vented discs/discs
LxWxH 182.0 x 73.2 x 66.2 in
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Track f/r 62.2/61.9 in
Curb weight 3941 lb
CAPACITIES
Doors/Passengers 4/5
Cargo (behind second/first row) 24.6/54.9 cu ft
Legroom (first/second row) 41.1/40.3 in
Headroom (first/second row) 39.4/38.5 in
Towing 2000 lb
Richard Edwards
I wonder how the luxury models in this segment would fair.  Considering how long a Honda or Toyota lasts, I might be able to justify the "luxury" version or one of its competitors.  Or maybe that is a separate test.
I find myself looking more broadly in my comparison than merely a configuration and narrow price range.  Of course my "new" car is a 10 year old CRV, and my old cars are a '97 and '99 2 door coupes. . 
Harry Ohe
We've considered this market segment for some time and came to very similar conclusions. The Mazda is clearly the drivers car. Pricing from $21K for openers to an internet price today of a loaded Grand Touring of $26,700. I am not sure sure what brand Ford is smoking, but they need to get real! Options: We liked the BMW X1 the best and found a fairly loaded model w/ sun roof for $27995. w/ 5 yrs of free maintenance included and a "Lifetime" warranty on the drive train. The deal breaker could be the Mazda when it is equipped w/ the new diesel which rumor has it that the CX5 will deliver approx. 50 MPG HWY. The BMW is not equipped w/ diesel yet, buts it's turbo (comes Standard)  runs well at 240 HP  and for $1700 the dealer installed kit brings it to 340 HP and full warranty.  If you're concerned about the vehicle  lasting, the BMW will do just that "IF" you service it correctly. One of my cars is a BMW that 13 years old and looks and runs like new. Few minor repairs along the way, but I am NOT MAKING CAR PAYMENTS! Would be nice if BMW put their new diesel in the X1. Their Diesel upgrade is a deal at only $2000.
andyoo
I have the 07 CRV and it's less power but really it's enough most of the time. if you need to haul stuff...get american suv with v8.
andyoo
A few things buyers think about that car maganizine tester never will...1. How long does my 30K SUV last ?   American car? 100-150K mile on average.   CR-V, RAV4?  200K mile to 250K mile on average....    so for amount of money spend and how long it will last, and trouble free in between (instead of staying in repair shop all the time) That's why CRV, RAV4, camery and accords are selling big.It's dollar vs life time of the car.if the car last twice as much...that means my cost of car is way lower....like my TSX last 250K mile (and still running without major issue) for 30K price vs a smilairly priced american car only last 150K mile and you need to buy another one for another 30K......that is a lof of saving....for the price of a second car....people will overlook boring exterior, interior, noise, even fuel efficiency (that does not really save you nearly as much)2. interior noise....yes...rough engine sould ok for a short test ride..it's really annoying when you have to keep it for 10 years...espically it only get worse when the engine gets old.
liveride
The CR-V is in deperate need of Honda's new direct-fuel injection engine which they are using in the new accords; but its still a just nice enough vehicle that nobody's leap frogged over them yet; though Mazda and Subaru combined sales are close to doing that.
C Richard Lane
The GM version (all three on same base(Chevy,GMC and Buick) are lacking rear vents to the second row.  We just go rid of a 2013 GMC and will never buy another GM product.  They cut any thing to save a penny (Ex. their faulty ignition switch).
Alan Seitel
Just got a CX-5 Touring a couple of months ago to replace a Mazda 6 Sportwagon which is no longer imported to the USA. Mileage has been decent-averaging about 29 mpg combined. Very comfortable but the connectivity is not up to what I would like. As to the driving, very good feel and response on the road. I needed a hauler for the family and this is as close to a drivers vehicle as it comes in this class.
Zack Kibler
I've never been able to get over Subaru's interiors and powertrains (base ones, anyway). They just kill the whole car for me.
AP
Wow, Automobile is really DOA......7 comments?  If this was CD, there would be hundreds!
CarNut2014
So the Mazda placed mid-pack in most areas but was the most fun to drive so it was your top pick. Not a surprise. But with a poor infotainment system and drab interior it will not be the top pick by most shoppers. A friend of mine test drove one and agreed it was nice to drive. But features/utility were just not best in class. Also the road noise - common in many reviews of Mazdas - is a big negative when it comes to needing a highway cruiser. I think if Mazda drops the new Mazda3's infotainment in it will help make it more competitive. Of this group I would probably go with a Jeep with the V6 and FWD with UConnect at my own personal pick. But of the models you tested I actually think the Rogue is probably the best all around CUV for the target market/buyer. The Honda is simply outdated now. The Rogue is sort of the new CR-V.
AP
"The seating position and the relationship to the controls brought to mind the BMW 3 Series."
HUH?  I know they really wanted the Mazda to win, but I have driven both and the 3 series in no way has a driving position like a Mazda CX5.  BS, Pure and simple.  Internet auto mags are just pathetic.
AP
Am I missing something?  Where are the comparison charts?
AP
"The 2.5's much-needed extra oomph does not exact a major penalty at the pump, as the CX-5 returns the best mileage of any non-CVT vehicle in this group"TRANSLATION:
We said this to try in any way to make the Mazda look better.  In other words, the Mazda was third in MPGs. 
kramden
I'm looking to replace A 2002 GMC Envoy which averages around 19 mpg combined driving. This CUV class is too small and the Highlander sized vehicle is no more efficient than mine 12 years later. I realize the Highlander is slightly larger than the Envoy but still the power train options are not very efficient yet. These CUV's are popular not for their utility so much as the lower price point vs more spacious but pricey to own larger units. I have settled on the 2015 updated Outback when it arrives as the least offensive replacement but am not happy with the choices available today.  Where are the reliable, affordable AWD wagons? VW has poor overall dependability long-term even though the diesel Sportwagen re-do looks good. Mazda won't bring the wagon Mazda 6 to the US. They also can't get their diesel to perform properly with US emissions. Subaru engines haven't been modernized yet, maybe their Toyota partnership will result in something for 2016. Toyota's new engine family is also a 2016 event for larger displacement needs. Overall really amazed what $30K doesn't buy these days.
Whatnow
Subaru didn't sell as many units as the CRV, but they also didn't product as many and their profit margin is a lot higher.
Jay.C
CR-V

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