Small is Big for SUVs

The Honda CR-V is the best-selling small crossover.

Even as the economy gradually rebounds and people buy new cars again, there has been a shift in what they buy. The full-size SUVs that had become suburban staples during the late 1990s and early 2000s — replacing everything from minivans to sedans are now on the decline. Instead, smaller families are increasingly choosing the compact SUV and crossover.

That's why we picked the segment for our latest family-focused Shootout.

Can a family of four really live with crossovers of this size? And which vehicles require the least amount of sacrifice for those downsizing in terms of vehicle size, fuel use and, most importantly, price?

It's not an easy selection in a market that has become flooded with competitive players. Wrangling nine of the most popular options for the Shootout was a tough endeavor, and even then we left out several smaller players.

To understand just what they're all gunning for, take a look at the most popular model, the Honda CR-V. Not only is it the best-selling model in the segment, it has broken into the top 10 U.S. sales list over the past few months.

The CR-V is relatively old in terms of its product shelf life. It debuted in 2006 as a 2007 model and has seen only minor revisions since, yet it remains one of the best all-around vehicles in this segment. That didn't help it win over our expert testers, as it finished sixth out of nine. However, the fourth through sixth slots are only a couple of points apart. 

Consumers have voted for the CR-V with their wallets. Its sales haven't wavered much since 2007, when they peaked at 200,501 units; sales are up 30 percent from its previous generation. Sales dipped slightly to 197,279 in 2008, then 191,214 in 2009, and look to be steady for 2010. That consistency during this turbulent economic period is impressive.

The Subaru Forester was the only car in the family crossover shootout to have all-wheel drive.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for competition. Ford's Escape and Toyota's RAV4 have been solid options for years, although both came up short in our competition. Now, Hyundai with its Tucson and Kia with its Sportage look to grab a larger part of this market with brisk sales.

Others are competing at the same price point with slightly larger vehicles, such as the Chevy Equinox and Dodge Journey, which finished first and second in our Shootout. But Kia's Sorento and even Subaru's Outback can be had for about the same cash as a smaller Honda CR-V. Manufacturers were allowed to enter only one vehicle for our Shootout.

That means families have a lot of options if they want to avoid the typical family sedan or larger vehicles like three-row crossovers and minivans.

Small crossovers are beginning to pack family-friendly technology like that found in larger vehicles for years now. Backup cameras are available for all of the vehicles in our test, and DVD entertainment packages are available in four of our competitors: Chevy Equinox, Dodge Journey, Ford Escape and Subaru Forester. Neither technology is readily available today in mainstream family sedans, yet these crossovers are priced more in line with a sedan than with larger SUVs and minivans.

If you're a family on a budget, this segment holds a lot of allure.

These smaller crossovers also pack foul-weather capability with available all- or four-wheel drive. This feature, which made large SUVs popular in the past, now can be had across the pint-size segment, too.

Subaru's entire lineup, including the Forester competing in our Shootout, comes standard with a very capable all-wheel-drive system. No other competitor on hand featured all-wheel drive. Manufacturers instead decided to send less-expensive front-wheel-drive models, a wise choice for a competition held in sunny and dry Southern California that takes mileage and sticker price into account for the final score.

That factor hurt the Forester's position in terms of being a value proposition versus the field, but it helped in handling. The all-wheel-drive system didn't even negatively impact the Forester in our mileage challenge, helping it land in the fourth spot. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our entire test was just how different these crossovers are from one another. While the family sedans seemed to blend together in our last Shootout, the various sizes and driving dynamics of the crossovers were definitely distinctive. The dad looking for a terrific-handling small crossover can opt for the Kia or Hyundai, while the mom looking for a quiet cabin wouldn't be able to turn down the Dodge Journey.

While many of us in the industry wonder why more families don't settle for less-expensive sedans, it's clear after this Shootout that a compact or slightly larger crossover or SUV can get the job done with more kid-friendly features. They come at a cost, but none of these vehicles would be considered extravagant. And a few might even make your neighbors envious.

© 01/31/2011