What's the Best Compact SUV for 2017?

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CARS.COM — It’s been little more than one year since we published our last Compact SUV Challenge, but much has changed within the market as several models have been redesigned or updated. So, we pit the previous winner — the Ford Escape — against five updated models plus the best-selling SUV in the U.S., the Nissan Rogue.

Our price requirement was a maximum of $35,000 including all options and destination charges, which yielded primarily all-wheel-drive SUVs (except for one) and mostly base engines. Competitors included the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox, 2017 Ford Escape, 2017 Honda CR-V, 2017 Jeep Compass, 2017 Mazda CX-5, 2017.5 Nissan Rogue and 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan.

The 2017 Compact SUV Challenge
Results | What You Get | Family Features | Video

Three judges individually awarded points in 12 categories: interior quality, front-seat comfort, backseat comfort, cargo storage, in-cabin storage, handling, powertrain, ride quality, noise, visibility, worth the money and multimedia — the latter a category that accounts for the touchscreen-based interfaces that are, more than ever, the means to activate and adjust fundamental features of the vehicle itself, not simply ways of controlling audio sources and navigation systems.

Each model was also awarded points for the advanced active safety features with which the test vehicle was equipped as well as for its grades in our Car Seat Check, which gauges the accommodation of various child-safety seats.

Judges for the Challenge were three editors:

  • Joe Bruzek, managing editor
  • Kelsey Mays, senior editor
  • Fred Meier, Washington, D.C., bureau chief

Read on to see how the vehicles ranked — and why — in the closest Challenge finish in history.

7 2017 Jeep Compass, 591 points

The verdict: The Jeep style, upscale interior design and urban-friendly size made us want to like this new Compass a lot, but it was held back by modest power and a cabin that failed to deliver in several ways.

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As-tested price: $34,660
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 22/30/25

The Compass received its first full redesign for the 2017 model year, though some of the previous generation that’s been around since 2006 were also manufactured as 2017s, which seems a greater offense than Nissan calling its mid-year-updated Rogue a 2017.5. The Compass is the only model in our test also offered in an off-road-capable trim level, the Trailhawk, though we tested a Limited, the highest trim. Sadly, its fresh redesign, high trim level and second-highest rating for safety features couldn’t save the Compass in this contest.

What They Liked

Touchscreen and multimedia: “The excellent, easy-to-use Uconnect multimedia system has only gotten better in this generation, with sharper graphics and belated smartphone integration,” said Meier. Bruzek agreed: “This is the system every other automaker should use as inspiration for controls, layout and usability,” he said. “The touchscreen is crisp and responsive, and it has loads of features and mechanical volume and tuning dials.” The Compass was top-rated in this regard.

Forward-folding front passenger seat: “The only feature like it in our group improves on the Jeep’s otherwise underwhelming cargo situation,” said Mays.

Safety features: Our Compass collected the second highest points total in advanced active safety features, being equipped with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and prevention, blind spot warning and a backup camera with rear cross-traffic alert.

What They Didn’t

Acceleration: Though the nine-speed automatic transmission worked better with a four-cylinder in this model than it has in other Fiat Chrysler vehicles we’ve owned and tested, it’s still far from being a class leader, and power is lacking: “There’s spirited off-the-line responsiveness,” said Bruzek, “but after the initial punch, acceleration dies off hard.” Meier agreed: “The 2.4-liter needs a power boost to move this SUV — not to be a Dodge Hellcat, just to confidently merge into high-speed traffic,” he said. The powertrain tied for last in the scoring.

Size: “As the smallish exterior might suggest, the cargo floor lacks depth and height,” Mays said. “If you need to carry passengers and cargo, Jeep comes up short.” Bruzek said the tight confines crowd more than just cargo: “Backseat room is snug, almost like a small sedan,” he said. “There’s a wide floor hump, and the footwell is narrow.” The small size also affected the Compass’ Car Seat Check grades, resulting in a lower numerical score there.

Cabin storage: “Dude, where’s my storage?” Mays quipped. “Between the tiny compartment under the armrest to the miniscule open spaces ahead of it, this is the group’s least useful center console.”

Build quality: “Cabin materials are competitive, but rickety stalks for the wipers and turn signals leave doubts on build quality,” said Mays. All the judges agreed. “The interior trim and controls showed some quality lapses in fit and action,” said Meier.

Research the 2017 Jeep Compass | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

6 2017.5 Nissan Rogue, 624 points

The verdict: The Rogue is still family-friendly, but despite a recent refresh, the current generation is showing its age.

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As-tested price: $34,715
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 25/32/27

The 2017.5 Rogue may be oddly labeled, but the appearance of the model-year-and-a-half right on the window sticker means shoppers will know they’ve found a Rogue with standard forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, a valuable safety feature. That feature and the only 360-degree camera system among the contestants earned praise and some points on our top-trim Rogue SL, but this longtime favorite is already looking older three (er, three and a half) years post-redesign.

What They Liked

Cargo accommodation: In addition to its roomy cargo area, judges unanimously praised the Rogue’s cargo management system. “With two movable partitions, you can set up dual levels or even build a box for enclosed storage,” said Mays.

Backseat: Scoring second only to the top-ranked model in this regard, the backseat is what Mays called the Rogue’s “ace in the hole,” and it goes beyond roominess. “The tilting, sliding, 40/20/40-split rear seat lets you stretch out or balance people and cargo needs,” Meier said.

In-cabin storage: The Rogue’s highly rated storage provisions included “a cellphone holder just forward of the center console that actually fit my iPhone 7 Plus in its massive case,” said Bruzek. “The phone was in easy reach without blocking the other storage areas.”

What They Didn’t

Handling: “The car doesn’t respond well to quick movements and is less composed than the others on winding backroads,” said Bruzek. “Maybe that’s OK for family duty, but it’s out-handled by the others in this class.” The other judges also cited floaty handling, body lean in turns and jiggling over rough roads.

Noise: “Nissan’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder and continuously variable automatic transmission can be loud and coarse when spurred,” Meier said of the model with the fewest points in this category.

Touchscreen and multimedia: “The multimedia system is an eyesore compared with the slick, large touchscreens in other models,” said Bruzek. Mays cited outdated graphics, Meier called out lower resolution — and all judges decried the presence of just one USB port for the whole Rogue. “The Equinox has more USB ports than seats!” exclaimed Bruzek.

Car Seat Check: Accommodating infant and rear-facing convertible child-safety seats required the front seat to be moved forward too far, resulting in a tie for the fewest Car Seat Check points.

Research the 2017.5 Nissan Rogue | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

5 2018 Chevrolet Equinox, 643 points

The verdict: It’s a good redesign, but it’s not as fun as it could be, and aggressive pricing means you can find others with more feature value per dollar.

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As-tested price: $33,980
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 22/29/25

The Equinox’s first redesign since 2010 resulted in a modernized SUV that’s more fuel- and space-efficient. Chevrolet provided an LT with an optional 252-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that raised the price by $2,395 over that of the 170-hp LT — and impressed the judges. The Equinox was the only contestant that includes two years or 24,000 miles of free maintenance, but it didn’t compensate for missing features.

What They Liked

Acceleration: “The Equinox is ‘holy crap’ fast, not because the optional 2.0-liter has significantly more power — it doesn’t — but rather that it’s harnessed so well by the nine-speed automatic,” said Bruzek of the contest’s top-rated powertrain. Mays echoed, “The transmission is actually responsive, unlike most nine-speeds we’ve driven.”

Ride quality: The highly rated ride “is firm but good, with controlled shock absorption and minimal bounce,” said Mays.

Electronics supremacy: Though the judges preferred the Jeep’s touchscreen overall and bemoaned the lack of a tuning knob on the Chevy, Meier encapsulated the Equinox as “the choice for the tech-intensive family, with six USB ports, three 12-volt power outlets, a 120-volt household outlet and an available 4G LTE connection with Wi-Fi for seven devices.”

What They Didn’t

Interior quality: “There are a few nice accents like the matte-chrome trim, but otherwise it’s basic and doesn’t stand out,” said Bruzek. “I scored the Equinox’s interior quality the lowest of the tested SUVs.” So did the other judges, on average.

Value: “The optional big engine sucks up money that could otherwise be used for AWD [this one was front-drive only] and optional interior appointments,” said Bruzek. Mays agreed: “With the uprated engine, AWD should be standard. In our front-drive test vehicle, even modest application of the gas would spin the tires.” Our Equinox earned the fewest points in the Worth the Money? category.

Safety features: “Where others make automatic emergency braking — an important safety feature — widely available, Chevrolet restricts its low-speed-only option to the Equinox’s top trim level, which we didn’t have,” said Mays. The same is true of lane departure warning and prevention, and 360-degree cameras, leaving our Equinox LT with blind spot warning, a backup camera, rear cross-traffic alert … and a tie for the lowest safety features rating.

Research the 2017 Chevrolet Equinox | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

4 2017 Ford Escape, 664 points

The verdict: The champion of our previous compact SUV comparison has the best overall driving experience of the group, but it’s missing convenience and safety features others provide at the same price.

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As-tested price: $33,615
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 20/27/23

The Escape was refreshed for 2017 with styling updates and new features including a couple of turbocharged engines, particularly the robust 245-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder option with which our mid-level SE was equipped. Unlike the Equinox, this upgraded engine comes only with AWD, from which it benefited.

What They Liked

Ride and handling: The Escape collected the most points for ride quality while taking second in handling — a rare feat. “The handling is not quite a Focus,” said Meier, “but the Escape is nimble and confident for a small SUV — without compromising a comfortable ride.” Bruzek called the ride quality “the most sophisticated of the bunch; it’s settled on rough roads and feels confident at highway speeds.”

Acceleration: This Ford was a close second to the Equinox for powertrain points. Meier called the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine “both docile in traffic and punchy fun in spirited runs. The crisp six-speed automatic with paddles was a perfect fit for the turbo. Carmakers struggling to tune nine- or 10-speed autos should take note.” Mays pointed out, “Our AWD test vehicle has none of the front-drive Chevy’s traction drama.”

Touchscreen and multimedia: “Ford’s updated Sync 3 atones for all the sins of the old Sync with intuitive operation and sharp, clean graphics that match the best,” said Meier. Mays described it as “a textbook case of user friendliness.”

What They Didn’t

Backseat: The judges called one of the test’s two lowest-rated backseats undersized, stiff and thin without enough thigh support. “The high positioning of the backseat means taller passengers may need to recline the back more than they want to get comfortable headroom,” Meier added.

Safety features: “Automatic emergency braking isn’t even available on the Escape,” said Mays. “That’s a big shortcoming on safety tech.” Like the Equinox, the Escape offers some features — like forward collision warning and lane departure warning and prevention — only on the highest trim level. With blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and a backup camera, our test Escape tied for last in this respect.

Cargo accommodation: “The Escape’s cargo volume is modest to begin with, and it also lacks many of the competitors’ aids — from cargo organizers and remote seat releases to a center pass-through and meaningful under-floor storage,” said Mays of the low-rated cargo area.

Value: “Despite coming within $472 of the group’s average as-tested price, our Escape seemed meagerly equipped: no heated seats, keyless access and only partial leather,” said Mays. Bruzek deemed it “the price you pay for choosing the more powerful engine” within our test’s price cap.

Research the 2017 Ford Escape | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

3 2017 Mazda CX-5, 709 points

The verdict: Mazda snuck a luxury crossover into this comparison with the CX-5 Grand Touring, a good-handling machine that makes your friends think you spent more.

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As-tested price: $34,380
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 23/29/26

The CX-5’s first redesign since 2012 brings Mazda’s terrific new styling and addresses the previous generation’s drawbacks by providing more agreeable ride quality and turning one of the noisiest models in its class to the top-rated one in this Challenge.

What They Liked

Interior quality: The CX-5 Grand Touring’s cabin trounced its competitors in the point tally. “Its interior is top of the class, and I wouldn’t have any reservations about comparing it to an entry-level BMW, or any $40,000 Acura or Infiniti,” said Bruzek. Mays added, “With stitched veneers and authentic-looking metallic trim, the CX-5 has knockout materials. Mazda sweats the details in luxury touches like fabric-wrapped A-pillars and stitched upper-door trim — with lush padding even in back, where nearly every competitor throws cheap hard plastic.”

Handling: “Throw the CX-5 into a corner, and it feels more like being behind the wheel of a sedan than a high-riding SUV,” said Bruzek of the top-rated handling. “The steering firms up as you crank the wheel, and it’s tight and responsive while cornering.” Though firm, the ride quality was deemed a good match. “The balance of ride and handling feels like you paid $10,000 more,” said Meier.

Features for the price: “Despite an as-tested price close to the group’s average, the CX-5 had premium features like a power, height-adjustable passenger seat and heated rear seats,” said Mays.

What They Didn’t

Touchscreen and multimedia: The CX-5’s combination of a 7-inch touchscreen (functional when stationary) with a multifunction knob on the console wasn’t universally despised, but the system racked up the fewest points in the Challenge. “The old-school, small-screen, almost monochromatic media display with no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration is even more of a letdown in such a well-designed SUV,” said Meier, its harshest critic. “It’s close to a deal breaker for me despite the CX-5’s overall appeal.”

Power: Though respectable, the CX-5’s power was eclipsed by its strengths. “It looks like a luxury car and handles like a luxury car, but it doesn’t accelerate like one,” said Bruzek. “The engine and transmission are a crisp combo, but the power falls short of the optional engines in the Escape and Equinox.” Meier added, “The 2.5-liter four-cylinder’s smoothness and torque fall short of the sophistication and competence of the chassis.”

Space: Though the judges awarded the most comfort points to the CX-5’s front seat and average points to the backseat, outright roominess was on the lower side. “The backseat is tighter than the other SUVs,” said Bruzek. “Cushioning is superb, but it’s not as airy or relaxed as the Rogue or Tiguan.” Mays said, “The cabin feels a bit narrow up front. Between the center console and the door, taller drivers may find limited space to spread their knees.”

Research the 2017 Mazda CX-5 | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

2 2017 Honda CR-V, 749 points

The verdict: The CR-V is the Swiss army knife of the comparison, a really nice, leather-covered, family-friendly multitool with versatile cargo capacity and storage options and a high-quality interior.

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As-tested price: $34,635
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 27/33/29

The numbers don’t lie — but in this case, the numbers are closer than ever between second and first place: just two points. Clearly, a difference in preference over anything from styling to equipment could reverse these two (or more) in a shopper’s mind. Like all the higher-ranking finishers, the CR-V was relatively strong across the board, though it tied for the lowest number of points for its powertrain — despite having an upgraded engine. Perhaps it’s fitting that the first-place model didn’t bring up the rear in any category.

What They Liked

In-cabin storage: The CR-V’s in-cabin storage obliterated the competition with the broadest point lead of any Challenge category. Dubbed “the minivan of small SUVs,” the CR-V is characterized by “a center console with elephantine storage provisions,” said Mays. Meier noted, “The clever configurable console can be set up for devices, odd-size gear or even a medium handbag or diaper supplies. And the sliding armrest suits drivers of all sizes.”

Safety features: The Honda earned the most points for safety features, with one more enhancement than the Compass: “The CR-V went a step beyond with lane-centering steering, not just the sort of lane departure prevention that pinballs you off the markings,” Mays explained. The CR-V was also the only contestant with a backseat that includes an additional middle Latch anchor for child-safety seats.

Cargo area: “The cargo area has a low load floor but considerable height, so the CR-V has loads of luggage room versus a few cargo-space-challenged competitors,” said Mays, reinforcing its minivan-like credentials. Meier observed, “The low lift-over height makes the CR-V the easiest SUV to load in this group.”

What They Didn’t

Acceleration: Even with our test vehicle’s optional engine, it garnered the fewest powertrain points from judges. “Acceleration lag is noticeable for an SUV with an upgraded engine, which doesn’t feel like much of an upgrade when combined with the CVT’s slow ramp-up to get the SUV moving to 10 mph or so,” said Bruzek. “I didn’t think it was too bad for highway passing, but that initial punch is disappointing because even the Rogue has more response from a stop with its CVT.”

Touchscreen and multimedia: “I love that Honda recognized the previous multimedia system needed a volume knob, but it’s a bandage on a system that still needs a complete overhaul to address the complicated user interface and multiple steps it takes for simple tasks,” said Bruzek. “It still needs to banish the touch-sensitive shortcut keys flanking the touchscreen and bring back a tuning knob,” said Mays.

Ride quality: “The CR-V didn’t ride that well, with a choppy ride and more noise than the others at highway speeds,” said Bruzek. Only the Compass scored lower.

Research the 2017 Honda CR-V | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

1 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan, 751 points

The verdict: Though it’s lost the premium feel of its too-small predecessor, the 2018 Tiguan raises the bar with its generous size and value.

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As-tested price: $32,625
​Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 21/27/23

Available only with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the Tiguan comes in S, SE, SEL and SEL Premium trim levels. Ours was an SE with 4Motion all-wheel drive. Like most Challenge winners, the Tiguan had decent scores in most respects and matched or exceeded the competition in several. It managed to win the day despite having the lowest as-tested price. The CR-V might be just two points behind overall, but the Tiguan deserves extra credit — apart from the point totals — for offering safety features including automatic emergency braking as an option on the base trim and standard in our SE and all higher trims.

What They Liked

Cargo accommodations: “The longest vehicle in the test, the Tiguan has a sizable cargo area, with remote seat releases and a center pass-through to boot,” said Mays of the top-ranked hauler. Meier agreed: “The cargo capability is top of the class — the flat load floor with the backseat down accommodated our 65-inch-long TV carton. Alternatively, you could stretch out your sleeping bag if you’re under about 6-feet-4.”

Backseat: “The seat design, padding and recline-and-slide adjustments make it the grown-up choice,” said Meier of the Tiguan and its top-rated backseat comfort. “The panoramic moonroof, low beltline and tall windows give it a light and bright feel.” Bruzek added: “This ‘small’ SUV has a huge advantage for shoppers concerned about getting the most room for the money.”

Outward visibility: Tied with the Honda for the most visibility points, the Tiguan “is like driving a fishbowl,” said Bruzek. “There are small pillars and tall windows, and the rear quarter windows are larger than those of competitors, so there’s a great view of the road from all angles.”

Touchscreen and multimedia: Just a step behind the top-rated Jeep system in points, “the Tiguan’s multimedia system is fantastic,” said Bruzek of the 8-inch option. “The look is slick, with an easy-to-navigate interface and volume and tuning dials.”

Car Seat Check: With the highest possible marks for child-safety seat fitment, the Tiguan earned the maximum Car Seat Check points.

What They Didn’t

Acceleration: The Tiguan’s drivetrain scored just below the group average. “The 184-hp, turbocharged engine and eight-speed automatic transmission are just OK. It’s slow from a start and doesn’t have much punch behind it at higher speeds. There’s accelerator lag and the transmission isn’t very responsive even in Sport mode,” said Bruzek.

Interior quality: “The interior design is clean and logical and the controls have a good feel, but the SE trim’s materials seem more serviceable than luxurious,” said Meier. Bruzek mourned the loss of the previous generation’s “premium experience.” Mays said the vinyl seats “won’t fool anyone for cowhide” and noted that the drop-off in materials quality in the rear seats — a common practice — is most severe in the Tiguan, to a degree he termed “mean-spirited.”

Ride quality: Another average showing was in the Tiguan’s ride. “At highway speeds, the suspension doesn’t isolate bumpy roads well, and at lower speeds it feels a touch busy on all roads,” said Mays.

Research the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

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How We Tested

Our weeklong test took place in the Chicago suburbs where judges drove each car on the same loop for back-to-back impressions. Other areas scored included awarding points for as-equipped crash avoidance technologies including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, lane departure steering and lane-centering steering. Plus, we evaluated and scored how well child-safety seats fit in each SUV.

The scoring broke down this way:

  • 86 percent from the judges’ scoring
  • 7 percent from child-safety seats
  • 7 percent from crash avoidance safety features

Here’s how each vehicle scored:

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Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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