$29,000 SUV Shootout: The Results

The reviewers: David Thomas, Cars.com; Kristin Varela, Cars.com; Jennifer Newman, Cars.com; Chris Woodyard, USA Today; Brian Robinson, "MotorWeek"; Joey and Chandie Lawrence, family testers.

No. 9 2011 Toyota RAV4; 566.2 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Toyota RAV4)

Clearly, the RAV4 wasn't helped by the fact that it's one of the oldest designs in the competition. Even though it was the least expensive of the nine, for only an additional $300, Hyundai Tucson buyers get a navigation system, USB connection and Bluetooth connectivity. "It's just kind of getting left behind by the competition," Robinson wrote, "in the segment it basically created."

Pros: "The RAV4's saving grace is its family-friendly features like front cupholders with removable, washable liners," Varela wrote. "It has a huge cargo area," Thomas noted, while Woodyard enjoyed "excellent headroom" in the cabin.

Cons: "A $25,000 car shouldn't feel like a $12,000 car," Lawrence griped. "It feels like a rental." Beyond that, virtually every reviewer hated the swing-gate, as opposed to the liftgate in all of its competitors. "It's annoying and ridiculously heavy," Newman wrote. Varela noted that "the rear seat belt receptors are not only on flimsy bases, but they're also stashed in recessed pockets in the seat and covered with an elastic strap, making buckling a pain for anyone in the back." In addition, "there's a lot of roll in the corners," Robinson noted. Lawrence agreed: "My daughter and I both have terrible car sickness, so this wouldn't be the car for us."

Key RAV4 Points

    • As-tested price: $23,660 (least expensive of the group)
    • 22/28 mpg city/highway, 24 mpg combined
    • Only model not equipped with USB input for MP3 players. It is available, however.
    • Not an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick
    • Cloth seating
    • No navigation system
    • No Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
No. 8 2011 Ford Escape; 582.9 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Ford Escape)

The Escape has been a best-seller for Ford, but it's possibly the Ford vehicle most in need of a redesign. It was clearly the most traditional, true SUV in our test, and that played both to its advantage and to its detriment. "The Escape is the automotive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight," Thomas wrote, and he wasn't alone.

Pros: Crucial to any family, "the seating upholstery felt high-tech, rugged and durable enough to stand up to years and years of family abuse, er, use," Varela wrote. Robinson noted, "It was the only one that looks like it might actually be based on a truck frame ... "

Cons: "But it feels like an old-school SUV as much as it looks like one," Robinson concluded. "It might be a nice choice for a family," Woodyard wrote, "that wants to relive the 1990s." Part of that aged legacy, he noted, were the flip-up second-row seats. "The center stack is a sea of buttons," Newman complained; put another way, Varela asked, "What's with the 20 million buttons in the center stack?" Thomas found the Ford's driving experience less than thrilling. "If ever there was a loser in the handling department, the Escape was it," he wrote.

Key Escape Points

    • As-tested price: $28,970 (most expensive in the group)
    • 21/28 mpg city/highway, 23 mpg combined
    • Not an IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Cloth seating
    • No navigation system
    • No backup camera
    • Bluetooth and voice-activated Sync
    • Rear DVD system
No. 7 2011 Nissan Rogue; 590.7 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Nissan Rogue)

"Average is the word for the Rogue," Thomas wrote.  Virtually all of the experts shared his view. While there were some nods for the Rogue's looks, its small size and continuously variable automatic transmission drew barbs.

Pros: The testers found it hard not to damn the Rogue with faint praise. "It has old-school three-knob climate controls," Robinson wrote. "Simple, and they work." A few noted that they really liked the two-toned leather interior, and Varela wrote that the Rogue "has some thoughtful family storage features like a cavernously large glove box big enough to store a small child in (please don't try that at home)."

Cons: As much space as that glove box offered, Newman noted that "backseat passengers hardly have any storage space." And about that CVT? "It whined, moaned and groaned at me when I asked for just a little more power," Varela wrote. Thomas and Lawrence both commented negatively on the driver's seat, with Thomas writing, "The driver's seat had very little support and was the only model that made my back sore." "Horrible support," Lawrence chimed in. Robinson took the dimmest view of the Rogue's looks, saying, "It looks OK, but not great, kind of girly. I'd put it firmly in the midpack in this comparison." And that's pretty much where it landed.

Key Rogue Points

    • As-tested price: $27,255 (sixth-highest priced in the group)
    • 22/28 mpg city/highway,  25 mpg combined
    • Not an IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Leather seating
    • Navigation system
    • Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
No. 6 2011 Honda CR-V; 590.7 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Honda CR-V)

Like Toyota's RAV4, the CR-V is a pioneer in this category, but it is also one of the older designs. What lifts it above the RAV4 is a combination of features and a solid driving experience. "There's a reason why this is one of the best-selling vehicles in the country," Thomas noted. What keeps it near the back of the pack is that it's not attention-grabbing. "The car is benign but competent," Lawrence said. "I guess that's their motto."

Pros: "To my mind, the CR-V was the best all-around performer in terms of a comfortable ride, agile handling and a silky smooth transmission," Thomas wrote. Others liked the feeling of space. "Tons of legroom in the second row means that everyone can have space for their legs," Varela wrote.  "Probably my favorite interior," Robinson wrote. "Very roomy and practical."

Cons:  "The doors sound cheap and hollow when closing them," Varela wrote, "which doesn't start off the experience well." "There's ugly, and then there's inoffensive," Thomas wrote. "The looks barely registered with me, and I would guess most shoppers, too." Newman wasn't wild about the handling: "The steering felt extremely loose, and on twisty roads, I really had to crank the steering wheel." Addressing the concerns about the CR-V's design age, Thomas called Honda out: "I've said it once, and I'll say it again: Honda needs to put its latest nav unit in all of its cars. The one in the CR-V looks ancient, and Honda should be ashamed to charge for it."

Key CR-V Points

    • As-tested price: $28,645 (second-highest in the group )
    • 21/28 mpg city/highway, 24 mpg combined
    • Not an IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Leather seating
    • Navigation system
    • Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
No. 5 2011 Hyundai Tucson; 666.2 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Hyundai Tucson)

As you'll see in the fourth-place finisher's score, the Hyundai Tucson missed out on moving up a spot by less than a point. Both the expert and the family found it to have a "sophisticated look inside and out," as Newman put it, but it still had enough issues to make it "frustrating" for Newman and others, too.

Pros: "The handling was terrific for a front-wheel-drive crossover," Thomas wrote, and several experts shared that sentiment. Varela declared it "the perfect fit for me in terms of both size and drivability." As often is the case with Korean automakers, there were a lot of features for the money. "The value proposition was unreal with navigation, iPod integration and partial leather seats rounding out a great-looking cabin," Thomas said.

Cons: "The nice interior and exterior are undone by a few rough edges," Woodyard wrote. A common family-related issue: "Again, more flimsy seat belt  receptors," Varela snarled.  And while several reviewers liked the handling, they weren't as wild about the ride. "It's bouncing you around at 60 mph," Lawrence noted. "It's startling." "You get a lot of goodies for the money," Thomas pointedly noted, "but you better commute to work on freshly laid pavement to enjoy the ride."

Key Tucson Points

    • As-tested price: $23,945 (eighth-highest in the group)
    • 22/31 mpg city/highway, 25 mpg combined
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick (one of five in the group)
    • Cloth seating
    • Navigation system
    • Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
No. 4 2011 Subaru Forester; 666.6 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Subaru Forester)

The Forester was the only SUV in the bunch with all-wheel drive, and that appealed to a lot of the reviewers. In addition, Newman liked that the Forester's cargo area "has a lot of features to make a parent's life easier."

Pros: "Hands down, the Forester was the best-handling of the group," Thomas wrote, "but at this price, it would only be the top pick if you absolutely needed all-wheel drive." Excellent visibility was a plus picked up on by more than half of the reviewers, and Woodyard liked "nice touches like the red-rimmed instrument dials." Varela found that it had "the most flexibility in seating and cargo capacity" of the contenders, a verdict that several other reviewers agreed with.

Cons: "The engine, though peppy, is also noisy and buzzy," Robinson wrote. Varela agreed: "The Forester was the loudest car. I felt like I had to raise my voice just to carry on a conversation with my passenger." "It feels like I'm driving a double-stuffed couch," Lawrence griped as the Forester drove over some bumpy roads in our driving loop. As for the interior, Newman wrote, "the customizable cupholders are way too clunky looking."

Key Forester Points

    • As-tested price: $28,343 (fourth-highest price in the group)
    • 21/27 mpg city/highway, 23 mpg combined
    • Only car in Shootout with all-wheel drive
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick (one of five in the group)
    • Leather seating
    • No navigation system
    • Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
No. 3 2011 Kia Sportage; 708 points

(See the scorecard or Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Kia Sportage)

Kia's redesigned Sportage definitely won praise for its sharp, aggressive looks. "It's very modern-looking," Robinson wrote, "with just a little bit of toughness thrown in."  But looks alone weren't enough to carry it to victory.

Pros: Every expert and Lawrence commented favorably on the SUV's looks. As is often the case with Kia, the features were an added bonus. "I'm surprised by the number of extra features in the Sportage at this price," Varela wrote. "It has nice touches," Woodyard wrote, "like projector-style headlights and cool daytime running lights." Those LEDs also drew praise from Lawrence, who noted that they're often found on much more expensive cars, such as Audi.

Cons: "The Sportage"s ride may be rough enough to prevent me from recommending it," Thomas wrote, and it was a theme picked up by others. That rough ride was hurt by too much road noise. "The Sportage is the trophy wife of SUVs: great for making an impression," Woodyard wrote, "but it might be hard to live with."

Key Sportage points

    • As-tested price: $27,795 (fifth-highest price in the group)
    • 22/31 mpg city/highway, 25 mpg combined
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick (one of five in the group)
    • Leather seating
    • Navigation system
    • Bluetooth connectivity
    • Backup camera
    • Only car in Shootout with a cooled seat (driver only)

     

No. 2 2011 Dodge Journey; 737.6 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Dodge Journey)

The Journey was the newest SUV among the contenders; its redesigned interior was shown off to journalists only a week or so before we conducted the Shootout. It was also a big breakthrough: It wowed experts and family members alike, with its supple ride, supportive seats and vastly improved interior design, which led to the "most surprising award," Thomas declared.

Pros: "The 90-degree rear opening doors are a nice touch, especially for car seats," Woodyard noted. It wasn't the only family-friendly feature that got noticed. "There's a ton of storage," Newman said, "but my favorite is the under-floor storage bins in the second row." Speaking of families, Robinson said the Journey "is probably the most vacation-ready of any in this group." Why? "It has a very nice highway ride, and it's super quiet." Finally, Varela noted one unusual, thoughtful touch: "I love the large dry-cleaning hooks that let you hang more than two hangers. Who dry cleans only one or two shirts at a time, after all?"

Cons: Heavy second-row seats drew a complaint or two, and the Journey's un-updated exterior also drew criticism. "Awkward and boring minivan-like styling," sniffed Robinson. "There was a noticeable blind spot on the driver's side of the car that I found discomforting," Thomas wrote. "Fit and finish is still an issue," Woodyard pointed out.

Key Journey Points

    • As-tested price: $25,240 (seventh-highest in the group)
    • 17/25 city/highway, 20 mpg combined
    • Only car in Shootout with V-6
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Cloth seating
    • No navigation system
    • No Bluetooth connectivity
    • No backup camera

And the winner is?

No. 1 2011 Chevrolet Equinox; 797.3 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Chevrolet Equinox)

GM's most recent SUV (along with its GMC Terrain sibling), the Equinox wowed both our experts and our family. "The Equinox is the clear winner in my book," Varela wrote, "seemingly belonging to a completely different category of cars: the luxury category." Even a mildly sluggish engine couldn't slow down the praise.

Pros: "For $28,500, this car is loaded with family-friendly features," Newman wrote. Among them were dual fold-up DVD screens, a backup camera that could be viewed in the rearview mirror and the only powered liftgate in the group. "There's a real premium feel throughout the interior," Robinson wrote. Varela agreed: "The fit and finish go way above and beyond the others." "The Equinox is one of the most comfortable of the bunch from the driver's seat," Thomas wrote. "For a four-cylinder, it's great," Lawrence said. "It's so much more substantial."

Cons: Given its high EPA-rated 32 mpg highway estimate, it was no surprise that acceleration was where the Equinox, er, lagged. "There's a real delay when you press on the gas pedal that I find incredibly annoying," Robinson wrote, and it "felt a little boaty at times," Woodyard wrote. "Visibility was pretty poor," Thomas said, and he was joined in that opinion by several of the experts.
 
Key Equinox Points

    • As-tested price: $28,560 (third-highest price of the group)
    • 22/32 mpg city/highway,  26 mpg combined
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Leather seating
    • No navigation screen, but turn-by-turn directions through OnStar
    • Rear DVD system
    • Backup camera
    • Bluetooth connectivity
© Cars.com 01/31/2011