Our expert judges spend a week driving and comparing vehicles in the best way anyone can evaluate competitors: back to back. Judges include Cars.com editors and, often, an in-market shopper who take each car on identical routes to uncover the little idiosyncrasies that in some cases can determine the difference between a winner and a loser.
Our judges’ opinions account for a large portion of determining a contestant’s score, but depending on the class, we also include objective scoring in the form of fuel economy, car seat fitment, safety features and crashworthiness, and sometimes acceleration and braking. Below is how we scored SUVs in the 2019 Compact SUV Challenge.
Subjective Scoring Categories
Legroom, headroom and knee room are all considered when determining front-seat comfort. So is whether the cushioning is comfortable and if the seat can be adjusted appropriately. Features we look for include heated and ventilated seats, the extent of passenger seat controls, and memory and massaging functions.
Along with dimensions, backseat comfort is determined by cushioning, support and whether there’s a large center floor hump that could crowd foot room, as well as whether it’s easy to get in and out of. Backseat feature considerations include whether the seats recline and if it has adjustable air vents, rear climate controls, and heated or ventilated rear seats.
Multimedia and Controls
What we used to call a multimedia system now frequently takes on some responsibility for controlling vehicle features that have nothing to do with audio and smartphones, so we’ve combined the two aspects here. Judges consider ease of use for all controls — how logically grouped, visible and reachable they are. They also scrutinize usability of touchscreens, display quality, responsiveness, supporting controls and connectivity. In addition, we note the presence or absence of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, onboard navigation systems, Wi-Fi, wireless smartphone charging, head-up displays and virtual gauges. We measure screen sizes and record the number of USB ports and 120-volt household-style outlets.
Interior quality considerations include whether it seems appropriately appointed, rating the appearance and feel of the surfaces and overall craftsmanship. Judges note if the materials are well-made and authentic or a cheap imitation. Another consideration is whether the quality drops from the front to rear seats.
As the size of our smartphones and other mobile devices grow, it’s important to have the space to accommodate them. We evaluate those and other storage options in the cabin, including open and covered storage, and if there are enough cupholders and a sunglasses holder.
Considerations for visibility include whether roof pillars or low roofs obstruct forward visibility, as well as if there are large blind spots to the side or rear. We look for features that can improve visibility, such as rear head restraints that flip down, manually or remotely, and a full-time rearview camera mirror.
The powertrain score always reflects how well the engine and transmission work together. Judges look for whether there’s enough acceleration from a stop or for passing, if the transmission upshifts smoothly or downshifts without too much delay, and if the engine is smooth and refined or rough and unsophisticated. In the absence of track testing, Challenge judges also gauge each contestant’s acceleration versus the others.
Judges drive the car on the same route to determine how well each car corners, determining if it rolls (i.e., leans) as well as whether it feels planted and confident or uneasy, requiring too much effort to drive cleanly through a corner. Steering and all-wheel-drive execution also play a part.
Though we performed no stopping-distance tests, judges rate how strong and confidence-inspiring the brakes feel, how much pedal pressure is required and how linear the braking force is. Vehicles with mushy pedal feel or braking that is hard to modulate are scored lower.
Considerations for ride quality include how it contributes to the vehicle’s comfort level. Judges evaluate whether the ride is too firm, too soft, if it feels controlled over bumps and if it’s stable on rough roads.
Typically, Challenge judges gauge how much wind, road, engine and external noise enter the cabin during all circumstances, including highway driving and acceleration. After finding the contestants comparable in most ways for this Challenge, they agreed to focus on engine noise, which varied the most.
Judges determine if each test vehicle is worth the retail price as equipped. Considerations apart from the categories above include warranties, free maintenance, and standard and optional features.
Objective Scoring Categories
Rather than work exclusively from EPA mileage estimates, we embarked on a road-trip mileage test in which all seven contestants caravanned for more than 200 miles, broken into seven legs. After each leg, drivers rotated to balance out differences in driving style and weight. The route was primarily highway driving, such as you’d experience in a family road trip, with average speeds of roughly 45 mph as reported by the trip computers capable of providing this reading. The top-rated vehicle earns 30 points — the closeness of the point totals to the mpg results is coincidental.
We’ve reported how provided cargo specs can lie, and cargo storage is much more than a cubic footage number. When judging cargo room, we conduct our own volume measurements and also consider how usable the space is, how easy it is to load and retrieve objects, and if there’s usable underfloor space. We take into account associated features, such as whether the backseat can slide forward and back and/or fold to extend the cargo space, if there’s a power liftgate, cargo-area releases for the folding backseat and if the folded backseat creates a flat cargo area.
Safety and Autonomy
The safety and autonomy component is scored by the number and complexity of safety and driver assistance features equipped on the test vehicle. These include forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking (low versus high speed), lane departure warning (with steering or braking assist), lane-centering steering (low versus high speed), adaptive cruise control (higher speeds only or to a complete stop), blind spot warning, dynamic lines for the backup camera, 360-degree camera systems, rear cross-traffic detection, parking sensors, automatic high beams and adaptive, pivoting headlights.
Cars.com’s staff includes certified car seat installers who test the fitment of various child-safety seats in our test cars. You can find more information on how we install and test child-safety seats in our Car Seat Check section.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.