Comparison Test: Five Compact Crossovers Battle For Supremacy

The newcomer 2014 Subaru Forester takes on the big-engine 2014 Mazda CX-5 and stalwart 2013 Honda CR-V, 2013 Ford Escape, and 2013 Toyota RAV4 in our latest comparison test.

By Jacob Brown | Photos By Jason Davis | May 29, 2013
Ahead of the first parent-teacher conference I had in grade school, I told my parents about "creative" spelling we'd been learning, a concept that my first grade teacher said put each kid on a level playing field. Spell a word like it sounds. If you spell a word incorrectly, at least you put in the effort. After all, all first graders are winners, and you can't crush a child's morale under the harsh weight of reality at just six or seven, can you? My parents argued that there was only one way to spell: The right way. The first-grade teacher wouldn't have it, kicking them out indefinitely. Happy to pat myself on the back, a few years later, I'd go on to win the school spelling bee. For what it's worth, my first grade teacher was in attendance. I bring this up because, while I'm sure there was a point in all of our lives when we were mommy's little angel, it's unrealistic to think that everyone gets a gold sticker. Some people can spell better than others. Some people can do math better. And some can engineer and build a better car, no matter what your biases may tell you.
On the surface, the compact crossover segment looks like it has five can-do-no-wrongs from a list of more than a dozen vehicles: The 2013 Ford Escape, 2013 Honda CR-V, 2014 Mazda CX-5, 2013 Toyota RAV4, and 2014 Subaru Forester. If you're an urbanite, have a young family, or your recent hip replacement makes it a bit tough to get into or out of your Park Avenue, the above vehicles probably look a lot like the top-5 on your shopping list.

The Lineup

Our criteria for this roundup of crossovers called for all-wheel-drive, four-cylinder models with sub-200-horsepower engines, and prices around $30,000, in other words, the meat of the market. However, we did have one that fell well outside of our criteria in two respects: The 2013 Ford Escape Titanium, which cost $34,735, and instead of the 178-horsepower EcoBoost 1.6-liter engine, it had a turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost ringer with 240 horsepower. Aside from the engine, the Escape was equipped fairly similarly to the rest of the bunch.
Next up was the $30,825 2013 Honda CR-V EX-L with Navigation, a vehicle which goes head to head with the Escape for segment sales dominance. Redesigned for 2012, we have to admit that we're still heartbroken that Honda eliminated its built-in picnic table in this generation, but the 185-horsepower four-cylinder engine and ample cargo space still make this a compelling choice. Following the CR-V was the 2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE, coming into our test as an all-new model. A midrange model at $28,149, our RAV4 lacked leather and a few of the fancier options of the other vehicles in the test, but it still had most of its options bases covered. All RAV4s now come equipped with a 2.5-liter, 176-horsepower four-cylinder engine, no longer having an optional hot rod-like V-6, or even a third row of seats for that matter. Fourth up was the 2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring, $32,220, also an all-new model. While a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-4 is available, we opted for parity with most of the group, picking a Forester equipped with a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine without the extra boost. Rounding out the top five was another newcomer, the $31,890 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring, which returns in its second model year with 29 much-needed extra horsepower by way of a larger 2.5-liter engine, bringing the total to 184. At this point, you'd think ranking them from one to five would be like splitting hairs with the bowl-end of a spoon. But it didn't take long to figure out which was going to be first and which was going to be last. Two through four were the toughies. To test them, we put the five crossovers through their paces in Ventura County, at one point braving an 8,000-acre wildfire to measure their performances, features, fuel economy, and value. Then we sorted through the muck of decision-making. Now that we've introduced the contenders, it's time to get this party started.

Dogs, Toilet Paper, and Baby Seats

Other than the commanding view of the road, bulked-up styling, and sure-footed foul-weather traction, the big reason to get a crossover is its hauling capability. To test these soft-roaders, we brought in two guest judges, Chico and Baja, Associate Editor Megan Stewart's Chihuahua and Shiloh Shephard. Unfortunately, lacking opposable thumbs and a mastery of English, they weren't able to provide us any notes, but we enjoyed their companionship nonetheless, and neither seemed to have too many issues getting into or out of any of the vehicles, so we opted for another test of space.
To test maximum cargo capacity, we used 30-count packs of Cottonelle two-ply toilet paper. Because, let's face it: If we tell you that if a vehicle has a maximum cargo space of 70 cu.-ft., that's a little hard to visualize. But 30 cases of toilet paper? Dang, that's a lot of TP! Since all of the crossovers came with backup cameras, we loaded them to the ceiling with the Cottonelle to see which would hold the most. Not surprisingly, at least to us, the Mazda CX-5 held the least, at just 25 packs with the rear seats folded, reinforcing our subjective opinion about its relative lack of cargo space. Next up, the square-roof Subaru held 28 packs, 30 if we squeezed two more into the rear footwells. The Ford held 29 packs, and the Honda and Toyota tied for the top spot at 32 apiece, which translates to 960 rolls of toilet paper without having to fill crevices with single rolls. That's 168,960 two-ply sheets. Or, to put that into better perspective, that's 11.2 miles of toilet paper, enough to last a single person more than eight years, according to Toilet Paper World. Yes, we looked that up. Then, we did our normal regimen of installing of infant and booster seats. Even the smallish Mazda CX-5 has enough of room for kid duty with its backrest canted for more space. The others, by contrast had far more upright rear seats and didn't need much fancy packaging to make loading a child seat possible. We found all of the Japanese crossovers easy to live with, but the Escape needed some extra finagling with the LATCH points to stop our booster seat from sliding around.

The Results

1: Honda CR-V (tie): You can tell Honda has been at this game since the beginning. Its Magic Seat works wonders for creating a flat floor.
1: Toyota RAV4 (tie): Toyota has been there even earlier, and it didn't need magic to do just as well.
3: Subaru Forester: Boxy looks make this look bigger than it is, which is still massive.
4: Ford Escape: Cavernous cargo space is let down by difficult LATCH installation.
5: Mazda CX-5: It works fine; it's just a bit smaller than the others.

On the Road: A Tale of Two Underdogs

The Honda, Ford, and Toyota have long-dominated the compact crossover segment. Curiously, none of the three bowled us over when we got them out on the road. The Honda drove like it was on sedatives: Competent, thoroughly well-thought-out, and devoid of any character. "People-hauling at its absolute finest," said Associate Editor Trevor Dorchies. "As per usual with the CR-V, nothing catches your attention right off the bat," which is a good thing for most people who just want reliable transportation that gets their families where they need to go without fail. It didn't help our opinion of the CR-V in that it was, by far, the loudest of our quintet.
The Ford shares plenty of chutzpah with the Focus on which it's based--a car we like--but its engine didn't feel 70 horsepower punchier than the weakest Subaru's, its brake pedal felt spongy, and its ergonomics, which we'll touch on a little later, dampened our driving aspirations. The Toyota was amicable as could be, gliding over the road. It was just about as utterly forgettable, which made it a pleasant long-distance cruiser. Going toe-to-toe with the Honda, the RAV4 slightly quieter and plusher, but harsher-riding. The biggest problem with any of the three of them is that the Mazda and Subaru simply outclassed them. "Love the suspension," said Associate Editor Jason Davis of the Mazda CX-5. "It's taut, ready for any surface, and maintains traction well. No lean or dive at all." It was hard for any of us to not like the Mazda because its manners on the road felt like they were a class above the competition--like a bargain-priced BMW more than a mainstream people-carrier. In fact, Jason Udy, on loan from our sister publication Motor Trend, said it had a less-is-more approach to interior distractions he described as "Germanic" on top of fantastic driving dynamics. The Subaru didn't wow us quite as much, but with a low center of gravity, it felt planted to the road and fun to drive. And while continuously variable transmissions often get criticism for their rubber band-like feel, the Subaru had the smoothest transmission of our group, besting the conventional five- and six-speeds of the others. At the end of nearly 200 miles of driving, the Forester's fuel economy far exceeded the competition, in spite of its large size, earning a 27.9-mpg average. The Mazda's light weight propelled it to second place among fuel-sippers at 26.3 mpg. The Honda and Toyota clocked in at 25.8 mpg and 25.1 mpg, respectively. And the Escape's engine guzzled gas at a rate of 22.5 mpg. To be fair, the Ford had a larger, more powerful engine than the other vehicles in this comparison, but it should be noted that while all the others all exceeded their combined EPA fuel economy ratings, the Ford fell 1.5 mpg below its projected number.

The Results

1: Mazda CX-5: Fun, frugal, and sophisticated; it drives like a much more expensive vehicle.
2: Subaru Forester: Holy fuel economy, Batman! It also drives really well to boot.
3: Honda CR-V: By the narrowest of margins, it beats out the Toyota. Chalk this one up to personal preferences.
4: Toyota RAV4: Better steering, but a sloppier ride than the Honda. Japan's Big Two once again trade barbs.
5: Ford Escape: Missed the mpg mark; dynamically outclassed by the Mazda and Subaru.

Gadgetry and Infotainment: Consider Us Informed and Entertained

The infotainment system as we know it has only been around since the early 2000s. You probably don't remember what it looked like back then. If you need a reminder, check out the Honda CR-V's in-dash unit, more or less using the same interface Hondas have had since Windows 2000 was a thing.
Functional and easy to use as it may be, Honda needs to destroy it with fire. HondaLink in the 2013 Accord shows us the company can do better with a telematics system. We asked ourselves if we'd be willingly pay $800 for this outdated eyesore on top of the price of a CR-V EX-L. The answer came back a resounding and emphatic "no." Toyota ups the ante with its Entune infotainment system, a much more modern take on the concept. But as Dorchies notes, its "buttons look like the ones used on the oversized TV remote you buy for your grandparents. They look out of place at that size." However, it comes with redundant radio controls outside the screen--something the Subaru's Starlink sorely lacks. The Subaru makes up for it with the heaps of other technologies like Aha radio, Harmon/Kardon speakers, and EyeSight, a suite of safety systems that includes camera-based lane-departure warning, collision warning, and active cruise control. With the exception of the bright rays of sunrise and sunset, or a foggy windshield or splattered locust swarm blocking the cameras' view, it works like a charm. It's remarkable considering its price point. MyFord Touch is also a pretty trick piece, finally perfected to a point where voice commands will control just about anything on the dashboard. Our Escape Titanium also came with a sensor that can detect when you swipe your foot underneath it, opening up the tailgate. Stewart said she had problems with it: "The liftgate, on all Ford models, doesn't work. It got stuck, wouldn't close, and even when manually overridden, barely worked properly. I had the same issues on the [Ford] C-Max." We also posited this: How often are technologies like the kick-liftgate and MyFord Touch useful? Like other vehicles equipped with MyFord Touch, the Escape's dashboard is compromised, awash in tiny, difficult-to-read buttons. Want to turn up the air conditioning but don't want to pull a paddle and say, "Climate. 68 degrees. Climate. Fan high" only to have a femme bot tell you she can't abide because you mispronounced a word? You're going to have to fumble with nickel-sized buttons located behind the shifter at the bottom of the dash. That just leaves the Mazda, which is functional, yet basic. Its TomTom navigation system's screen is miniscule compared to every other's, but it works without fuss. Sometimes that's all you can really ask for.

The Results

1 Subaru Forester: Untouchable high-techiness makes us forgive its lousy music interface.
2 Mazda CX-5: Sometimes simple is just better.
3 Toyota RAV4: Entune works well, but its exaggerated large-font controls are a bit belittling.
4 Ford Escape: Ford's mission to make everything controllable by voice is compromising design and ergonomics.
5 Honda CR-V: Come on, Honda, we know you can put some effort into a newer design.

Rants and Raves

While automakers have been at the crossover game for more than 15 years now and you'd think their products would all be fairly homogenized, they're not. The little things can often escape you when you're mulling through five crossovers over the course of a few days. Take, for instance, the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5's cargo areas, which both have a small lip on them to stop items from rolling out when you're parked on a hill. The others would do well to have that. Or how about Ford's windshield washer that will belatedly make its last swipe across just to get more washer fluid out of your field of vision.
Other nits we picked--positive and negative--included the Subaru's fantastic outward visibility, upright with thin pillars and expansive windows and the CR-V's completely flat floor for rear passengers by way of its Rube Goldberg-inspired Magic Seat. A marvel of packaging, the CR-V also has a center console so big we think there was a Hobbit living there. The CR-V did have a drawback, though, as the 6-foot-2 Dorchies made a habit of hitting his head on the low-hanging hatch door in back. Conversely, the CX-5's hatch was too high, banging into my garage door when it was ajar. On the other hand, we found the materials and fit and finish in the Mazda among the best of our group, and it was one of the few with blind spot monitoring. Outside of its smaller interior space, the only complaint we registered concerned its digital clock, which looked had been dragged out of the 1980s. The Toyota garnered the same gripe. But mostly the RAV4 garnered indifference; high-quality and durable-feeling but a bit bland. By the time we reached the end of the day, only one of our crossovers was completely out of running: The 2013 Ford Escape. Its fuel economy didn't meet projections, its fan whistled a headache-inducing drone at full blast, and one of its door panels fell off when we were toilet paper testing. None of the other ones had any fit and finish issues. In our final tally, one editor ranked the Escape third, another ranked it fourth, and three ranked it fifth. On to the next ones.

And the Winner is…

Not the Ford, obviously. It needs more than just a powerful engine to win in this class. Ford needs to go back to the basics. Adding some soul-crushing insult to injury, the Ford was the only one to earn a "Below Average" cost of ownership rating from our sister site, Intellichoice.
Next up are two vehicles, tied for third, the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V. It sounds like a cop-out, but the Big Two from Japan are evenly matched, with each having strengths over the other. "Handsome, well-crafted interior, but cheap, rubbery steering wheel," said Davis of the RAV4, which didn't come with Toyota's SofTex synthetic leather. In Toyota's defense, the RAV4 we were supplied was by far the cheapest of the group, lacking some of the style and features that would have come with the par-for-this-group RAV4 Limited. The rest of its interior was beautifully laid-out, with a swath of stitched vinyl adorning the dashboard. Like the RAV4, the Honda CR-V is functional, utterly competent, and you know, like a cockroach, it'll be around forever. The Honda has better ride quality than its Toyota counterpart, but it feels dated two years into its production run, with an antiquated navigation system and the same kinds of plastics we complained about in the 2012 Civic before the car was upgraded. Still, both it and the RAV4 it feel like they've endured 15 years of evolution and refinement; shoppers won't walk away unhappy with either. That brings us to No. 2: the Mazda CX-5. "Why is this thing not more popular?" Davis lamented. That's a good question. It's addicting to drive; a lightweight, chuckable, down-to-business crossover that's nearly anything you could ever want. If only it had a little more interior room. So we arrive at the Subaru Forester, which handily wins this comparison, stealing a page from Honda and Toyota's playbook. Those two thrive on benchmarking the middleground, neither exciting nor disappointing their drivers. The Subaru does the same thing, then adds in some extra credit and captures a solid A instead of the standard Japanese B+. Functional, refined, fun, and frugal at the gas pump, this beast is big enough to legitimately replace your midsize sedan and rides the smoothest of any of the crossovers here. It has the most advanced technology of the group without overwhelming your senses with gizmos and buttons, always sticking to a blatant sense of simplicity. Rather than sticking to the archetype crafted by Toyota and Honda over the last 15 years, Subaru has gone its own way and made a noticeably better crossover as a result. While most of the crossovers come out of our test honor students, the Forester was far and away our valedictorian.

Basic Specs

2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Touring
Price-as-tested: $32,220
2.5-liter 4-cylinder, Continuously variable automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 170-hp, 24 mpg city/32 mpg hwy/27 mpg combined/Observed fuel economy: 27.9 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 429.3 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average
2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
Price-as-tested: $31,890
2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 184-hp, 24 mpg city/30 mpg hwy/26 mpg combined/Observed fuel economy: 26.3 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 384.8 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average
2013 Honda CR-V EX-L w/Navigation
Price-as-tested: $30,825
2.4-liter 4-cylinder, 5-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 185-hp, 22 mpg city/30 mpg hwy/25 mpg combined/Observed fuel economy: 25.8 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 382.5 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average
2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE
Price-as-tested: $28,149
2.5-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 176-hp, 22 mpg city/29 mpg hwy/25 mpg combined/Observed fuel economy: 25.1 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 397.5 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average
2013 Ford Escape Titanium
Price-as-tested: $34,735
2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 240-hp, 21 mpg city/28 mpg hwy/24 mpg combined/Observed fuel economy: 22.5 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 362.4 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average
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CX5 all the way...  the only car here that has premium feel for low econo price.  Subaru looks old already and CVT plus soft suspension with rather isolating steering feel and mushy breaks can bearly beat CRV and Toyota...

Ranger Minney
Ranger Minney

The Ford Escape and Honda CR-V are good buys and nice looking, not sure about the Toyota, Mazda is sporty...but I can't even look at the Subaru it's just too fugly!

Michael Mabus
Michael Mabus

Subaru or Ford. They're the only ones who passed the new crash test