Best Compact SUV for $28,000

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Buyers are grabbing compact SUVs so fast that the segment could well pass midsize sedans as the biggest single slice of the new-car market by year’s end.

So the TODAY-MotorWeek $28,000 Compact SUV Challenge — our latest head-to-head comparison — set out to find the best compact SUV for a modest price that’s about $5,000 less than the average new-car price today, and with a budget-friendly EPA mileage rating of at least 26 mpg in combined city-highway driving.

Here’s the finishing order and what the judges had to say:

No. 1: 2015 HONDA CR-V

Points: 752.8 (out of 1,000). Price with shipping: $27,675

Gas mileage test: No. 4 at 26 mpg (EPA: 26 city, 33 highway, 28 combined)

Notable features at this price: All-wheel drive, heated seats, moon roof, remote key.

What they liked: Creature comforts: “Love the easy-to-fold seats and low load floor,” Robinson said. “A lot of extra features for the money,” Meier pointed out, from a brand that’s not typically the price leader. The CR-V’s continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) behaved enough like a conventional automatic that it “could fool you,” Mays applauded. “Nissan and Subaru could learn a thing or two.”

What they didn’t: Despite improvements in the interior and the infotainment system, neither wowed the judges. “The door trim, in particular, remains econobox quality,” Mays said. “The interior looks a bit dated in comparison to others,” Varela said. Robinson went off on the new infotainment system: It “is a little easier to use than before, but it has come with the elimination of all knobs. I absolutely hate volume rocker switches. I need a knob.” Several judges found the handling “only adequate.”

Bottom line: “The best blend of good interior room, excellent visibility and a surprisingly rewarding driving experience … power it to the top of my scorecard,” Jackson said.


Points: 735.8. Price with shipping: $27,805

Gas mileage test: No. 5 at 25.4 mpg (EPA: 22/32/26)

Notable features at this price: 4G LTE hotspot.

What they liked: Equinox is a little bigger than rivals and has more people space. “GM’s big-boy chairs make the other cockpits seem like economy-class tickets,” Mays said. Said Meier, “It has limo-like rear space with sliding and reclining seats, no hump and wide doors for easy entry.” Said Varela: “The grippy, rubber-lined cup holders do something novel, they hold cups. … Others are too shallow, allowing cups to tip out at every turn, or too wide, causing cups to rattle loudly.” “I love, love, love that the child locks are accessible from the center console,” Holly Davenport said, and that was among reasons the family made Equinox its top pick. “Ride quality and noise levels reveal above-class composure,” Mays said.

What they didn’t: Behavior on bad roads. Said Robinson: “The suspension is really harsh over rough roads.” The interior “just doesn’t look rich, as there’s a lot of exposed hard plastic,” Jackson said. Several dinged poor visibility. “Fat windshield pillars and a narrow windshield cut your forward visibility,” Meier said. “The power and acceleration could be better.” Robinson said.

Bottom line: “A graceless interior shows the Equinox’s age,” Mays said, “but fundamentals like passenger space and ride composure can’t be beat.”

No. 3: 2015 GMC TERRAIN

Points: 705.

Price with shipping: $27,905

Gas mileage test: No. 7 at 24.6 mpg (EPA: 22/32/26)

Notable: 4G hotspot, only one without Bluetooth streaming.

What they liked: Terrain shared many compliments with its corporate cousin, the Equinox — people space, big seats, sliding second row — but it has its own rugged look. “Love it or hate it,” Meier said, “the Terrain has a distinctive design in a lookalike category.” Space for stuff, too. “Despite all the room given over to passengers,” Jackson said, “it still manages to have a large cargo area.” “The deep, narrow center console is the biggest of the group,” Varela noted, “and it’s definitely large enough to keep my electronics out of sight.”

What they didn’t: “Knowing that the Terrain can’t back up its rugged looks with its performance,” Robinson said. Though both GMs offer 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity, the Terrain did not offer Bluetooth streaming audio. “Inexplicable,” Meier said. Terrain also shared some Equinox complaints: poor visibility and the interior. “It manages to look less rich than the Equinox, and GMC is the more premium brand,” Jackson said.

Bottom line: “The Terrain is easily the most rugged-looking of the group,” Robinson said. “It’s probably the only one that looks like a traditional SUV, but, unfortunately, it also rides like one as well, and that kind of stands out in this class of very car-like rides.”

No. 4: 2015 NISSAN ROGUE

Points: 700.8 (out of 1,000). Price with shipping: $27,175

Gas mileage test: No. 3 at 26.5 mpg (EPA: 26/33/28)

Notable features at this price: Only one with 360-degree around-view parking camera, heated seats. One of only two with navigation, power tailgate. Remote key.

What they liked: A lot of features for the price. “The Around-View Monitor kicks butt when it comes to squeezing into and out of tight parking spaces,” Varela said. Not to mention that “a power liftgate, blind spot warning system, lane-departure warning and Moving Object Detection take the Rogue up to the top of my list.” “The cabin materials are lush,” Mays said, adding: “The cargo area has an embarrassment of riches with movable partitions, stackable shelves and lots of hidden under-floor storage.” But it’s not just about features. “The handling is confident and steering is precise,” Meier said.

What they didn’t: The sound of the CVT transmission. “If you press the gas to get more response, you get a whiny groan before anything else,” she said. Mays described the Rogue’s CVT as “a mess,” despite the automaker’s experience with that drivetrain. “The otherwise competent chassis loses composure on broken pavement,” Meier said. Jackson took the seats personally: “Someone at Nissan stays up nights designing seats specifically to hurt my back.”

Bottom line: “Not the most fun to drive, but the features for the price make this easily the value leader in this group,” Meier said.


Points: 696.3 (out of 1,000). Price with shipping: $27,439

Gas mileage test: No. 1 at 28.2 mpg (EPA: 24/32/27)

Notable features at this price: All-wheel drive, heated seats, moon roof, only one with automatic braking to avoid crash.

What they liked: “Visibility, visibility, visibility,” said Robinson. The all-wheel-drive system. “There aren’t many things in life that you can trust as much as Subaru’s all-wheel drive,” Varela said. “The Forester aims to be sturdy and practical, down to its heavy all-weather floor mats,” Meier said, “and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.” Subaru’s EyeSight electronic crash-avoidance system added to the overall value proposition.”For similar cash as the others,” Mays said, “Forester had all-wheel drive, a giant moon roof and Subaru’s excellent EyeSight system. That’s value.”

What they didn’t: Although the EyeSight system is cutting-edge, some other tech was not. “The retro infotainment system is complicated to operate,” Meier said, “and the sound quality is muddy.” Varela asked, “Is that a fly on my dash? No! It’s the world’s tiniest backup camera image.” Several criticized road noise, and Holly Davenport found she “just couldn’t get comfortable in this car.”

Bottom line: “The Forester has the best visibility of any car in this test; it’s surprisingly fun to drive, but it’s a very loud cabin, and it can get pitched around in crosswinds more than the others in the test,” Jackson said.

No. 6: 2015 TOYOTA RAV4

Points: 675.3 (out of 1,000). Price with shipping: $27,967

Gas mileage test: No. 6 at 24.8 mpg (EPA: 24/31/26)

Notable features at this price: One of only two with navigation, power tailgate, moon roof.

What they liked: “It’s probably the best here at delivering both a good ride quality and decent handling,” Robinson said. Varela agreed: “Comfortable on a variety of road surfaces, smoothed out harsh bumps and didn’t create a lot of driver fatigue.” Mays enjoyed the center controls. “They had a wealth of features, from dual-zone automatic climate controls to a touch-screen stereo with navigation.” Jackson noted “the cargo area is enormous for a car that’s not particularly large on the outside.”

What they didn’t: Cubbies. Said Jackson, “While the cargo area is huge, up front in the cabin, there’s not a lot of cargo space.” Interior materials. “Toyota spruced up the dash with a ribbon of stitching … and phoned it in everywhere else. From rickety climate dials to cardboard-quality headliner, this is a study in cost-cutting,” said Mays. “The bean counters spared nothing.” Varela said, “The backseat is very stiff, hard and flat.”

Bottom line: “The RAV4 is not a bad choice,” Meier said. “It’s a competent vehicle that’s good at everything, but not really the best at any one thing.”

No. 7: 2016 MAZDA CX-5

Points: 673.3 (out of 1,000). Price with shipping: $27,765

Gas mileage test: No. 2 at 27.5 mpg (EPA: 26/33/29)

Notable features at this price: Remote key, moon roof.

What they liked: Quickness. “Mazda’s beefy four-cylinder won’t fool anyone for a V-6,” Mays said, “but it pairs with a responsive transmission to turn the CX-5 into a capable highway passer.” “The handling felt tied-down and more like a sedan than a tall crossover,” Meier said. Interior quality. “Seat comfort is very good,” Robinson said, “and the interior layout is refreshingly simple.” “The technology — pairing phones, playing music — is easy to use,” Jackson said. “The blind spot warning came in handy for those tricky merges onto the highway,” Varela added.

What they didn’t: “Power aside, the CX-5 is not a slam-dunk in the fun department,” Mays said. “The steering is weighty but somewhat numb, and the brakes feel muddy in the first inch of pedal travel.” “The trade-off for its handling is a ride that will be too firm for many,” Meier said. “Yeah, I know everyone likes zipping around in this fun-to-drive car, but if you’re going to drive it as a daily hauler,” Varela said, “something with a little more give to the suspension would be more enjoyable.”

Bottom line: Said Varela: “While it definitely features some niceties above and beyond the others … it just doesn’t shout, ‘Take me home and drive me for hours on end every single day.’ ”

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