When we set out to put together this small SUV comparison we had trouble whittling down the list of contenders, given that there are so many strong entries into this particular segment of the market. Finally, we decided to take three pairs of rivals and pit them head-to-head to see how they stood up to each other based on their individual merits. Almost every one the sport-utility vehicles listed below has its own loyal following, but it's those 'tweeners' - buyers who could be convinced to go either way when selecting a new small SUV - that each company is trying to woo.
Let's take a quick look at six small SUVs and compare their strong points and weak points to see which ones come out on top.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #1 - 2012 Toyota RAV4
The 2012 Toyota RAV4 was one of the very first mini-utes to hit the market, and over the years it has grown into a class-leading juggernaut in terms of sales popularity. The Toyota RAV4 is almost always mentioned when it comes time to compare small SUVs, and it shines with seven passenger seating, 73 cubic feet of total cargo space, and the option of all-wheel drive. The RAV4 is available with the choice of either a 179 horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine or a 269 horsepower V-6, matched with four and five-speed automatic transmissions, respectively. Fuel mileage is remarkably close when examining each model, as the four-cylinder's 22-mpg city and 28-mpg highway rating is a mere one mile per gallon better than the V-6 on the highway.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #2 - 2012 Honda CR-V
The 2012 Honda CR-V is hot on the heels of the RAV4 in terms of sales success, making it a natural rival for our small SUV comparison. Redesigned for the current model year, the Honda CR-V can seat five passengers, swallow up to 70.9 cubic feet of cargo, and offers a more generous interior in terms of first and second row comfort. The CR-V is sold exclusively with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine under the hood, which is good for 185 horsepower and fuel mileage of 23-mpg in city driving and 31-mpg on the highway. A five-speed automatic transmission is included free of charge, while all-wheel drive can be ordered as an option.
Small SUV Comparison Verdict
When comparing the 2012 Toyota RAV4 to the 2012 Honda CR-V, a few things immediately stand out. One is the lack of a third row in the Honda, a fact which becomes less of an issue when you realize that the RAV4's extra accommodations are small to the point where they are only really suitable for children. The other, more pertinent difference between the two models is the lack of a V-6 option for the CR-V. Some buyers appreciate - or even require - the extra power, which eliminates the Honda from the equation. That being said, for many eco-conscious drivers the Honda CR-V's loftier highway fuel mileage rating and more modern platform carry the day.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #3 - 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan
The 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan continues on as the German brand's first venture into compact SUV waters. Based on a platform similar to that used by the Golf hatchback, the Volkswagen Tiguan boasts an upscale interior, handling that is a cut above what one might expect from such a tall automobile, and five passenger seating. The Tiguan is additionally capable of carrying 56.1 cubic feet of gear with the rear row out of the picture. In the engine bay the VW SUV features a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that offers up 200 horsepower, along with fuel economy figures of 22-mpg city and 27-mpg highway. Refreshingly, the SUV also allows buyers to choose between six-speed manual and automatic transmissions, and 4MOTION all-wheel drive can be added to the Tiguan's spec sheet as an option.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #4 - 2013 Ford Escape
The 2013 Ford Escape is all-new, and it represents a significant deviation from the model that appeared in small sport utility vehicle comparisons in years past. The Ford Escape trades in its mini-truck looks for a smooth and svelte design that is longer and wider than the 2012 edition, giving it improved passenger (five) and cargo (up to 68.1 cubic feet) room. A 168 horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is listed as the entry-level mill, while a 1.6-liter, 178 horsepower EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder represents the next step up. The top of the line EcoBoost motor found in the Escape displaces 2.0-liters and provides 240 turbocharged horses to play with. Six-speed automatic transmissions are par for the course with each drivetrain, and all-wheel drive is optional. Fuel mileage for the mid-level EcoBoost motor checks in at 23-mpg city and 33-mpg highway, which is just a few notches better than the base motor.
Small SUV Comparison Verdict
It's hard to argue with the technology-laden 2013 Ford Escape, which offers not only advanced features such as MyFord Touch and the SYNC interface but also the EcoBoost turbocharging system that delivers significant horsepower without sacrificing fuel economy. That efficiency advantage alone would be enough to turn most buyers away from the Tiguan and towards the Escape, but add in comparable cornering capability and a considerably larger cargo area and it's a safe bet that many buyers will opt for the Escape - especially given its stellar reputation as a small family conveyance.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #5 - 2013 Subaru Forester
The 2013 Subaru Forester is another small SUV comparison stalwart, a vehicle that has grown past its tall wagon roots to offer legitimate soft-roading capability (thanks to ample ground clearance) and a squared-off, practical interior that can transport as many as five people or up to 68.3 cubic feet of luggage. The Subaru Forester comes with the brand's signature standard all-wheel drive system, and it provides a choice between naturally-aspirated and turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines. The entry-level unit generates 170 ponies and returns fuel mileage of 21-mpg city and 27-mpg highway, while the turbo motor churns out 224 horsepower while dropping fuel mileage by a three miles per gallon during highway cruising. Transmission choices include a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic.
Small SUV Comparison Contender #6 - 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek
The 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek is a sport-utility vehicle based on the same bones used by the Impreza compact hatchback. Butch styling and a boosted suspension system help to differentiate the Subaru XV Crosstrek from its road-bound cousin, but the resemblance between the two models is strong and intentional. The Crosstrek's interior can house five passengers, or 51.9 cubic feet of cargo with the second row folded forward, and it comes matched with Subaru's new 148 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. When shifted via the Crosstrek's optional continuously-variable automatic transmission, the SUV provides fuel mileage of 25-mpg city and 33-mpg highway. A five-speed manual is optional, and all-wheel drive is of course included with every model.
Small SUV Comparison Verdict
It might seem strange to compare one compact Subaru suv to another, but that's exactly what shoppers will be doing right on the showroom floor. These two compact small SUV comparison participants are similar enough in price and size to trigger more than a few head-scratching moments from potential buyers. Breaking it down, the Subaru Forester clearly has the cargo space and horsepower advantage, regardless of whether its turbocharged engine is selected or not, while the Subaru XV Crosstrek wipes the floor with its cousin when it comes to fuel efficiency. Whichever one of these characteristics is more important to you in the long run will ultimately help you make your decision as to which vehicle you will end up parking in your driveway.