Rivals: Ford Escape vs. Honda CR-V vs. Toyota RAV4

Roadshow puts the three best-selling small SUVs through on- and off-road driving challenges, and there can only be one winner.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read
Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Look at a list of the top-selling cars in the US, and among the many midsize sedans you will find a solid collection of small SUVs. It seems that people find this class of car worthy as an everyday driver, and why not? The modern small SUV has about the same footprint as a midsize sedan, gets decent fuel economy and offers very versatile interior space for passengers and cargo.

Automakers have responded to this popularity with a deluge of small SUVs. Given this wealth of choice, we chose the top three sellers so far in 2016, the 2016 Honda CR-V, 2017 Ford Escape and 2016 Toyota RAV4, as the subject of this episode of Roadshow Rivals.

For our comparison, we considered road feel, cabin space, electronics and driver assistance systems. Going above and beyond a typical test, we chose the all-wheel-drive versions of these cars and took them off-road.

Watch this: Rivals: Best-selling small SUVs put to the test on pavement and dirt

After initial comparison drives, our editors agreed that each of these cars drove very well, and given similarities in cabin space and pricing, coming up with a winner would be difficult. We understood that we would be splitting hairs in drive quality, calling out nuances that many buyers won't even notice. However, we found significant differences in infotainment systems, and our off-road course proved the final arbiter.

Third place: Honda CR-V

Of our three small SUVs, the CR-V came with the most power, 185 horsepower from its direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Appropriately, it also showed the most engaged road feeling, but we didn't feel that was necessarily a plus in this segment. While a stiff suspension lead to the best cornering among these cars, it adversely affected basic ride comfort.

Honda CR-V an engaging, but flawed, small SUV

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Our editors, being driving enthusiasts, certainly appreciated the power response and steering feel of the CR-V, but we reasoned that a small SUV buyer won't typically be flogging the car down a twisty mountain road. The car will more likely see use on a traffic-filled commute and suburban shopping runs.

Like our other small SUVs, the CR-V came with useful driver assistance features, such as a backup camera and adaptive cruise control. However, Honda gives the CR-V some quirks, such as requiring a complicated sequence of buttons to activate lane departure prevention, or using a right-side camera, rather than radar and side-alerts, for the blind-spot monitor system.

Honda's navigation head unit also appeared a bit older than the competition, not offering much in the way of connected features.

2016 Honda CR-V

The CR-V offers comparable interior space and better fuel economy than its competition, but its cabin electronics are mediocre and it failed our off-road hill climb test.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

When it came to the off-road section, the CR-V was the only one that couldn't make it up our hill climb. About three-quarters of the way up, it felt like the all-wheel-drive system was just not willing to deal with the kind of slip the wheels were experiencing. In one way, that might prevent the car from digging itself into sand or soft dirt, preventing it from getting stranded, but the Escape and RAV4 both made the climb.

The 2016 Honda CR-V goes for a base price of $23,845, the middle price for this pack of small SUVs. However, the example we chose for this Rivals was in top Touring trim with all-wheel drive, putting it at $34,395.

Second place: Ford Escape

The Ford Escape proved an able contender, and came in just a squeak behind the RAV4. In fact, we considered it better for its electronics. The Sync 3 navigation head unit is easy to use and offers built-in connected features, while also supporting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Ford offers a wealth of advanced driver assistance features, going beyond typical features like adaptive cruise control to automated parking.

Small tweaks add up to big changes for the 2017 Ford Escape

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Unlike the competition here, the Escape offers more than one engine option. It can be had with a base 2.5-liter four-cylinder, a powerful turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder or the midtier turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder. Our test car was that last one, matching well in power and price to the CR-V and RAV4. That engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

For driving dynamics, the Escape fell in between the CR-V and RAV4. Its ride quality felt tuned for a more performance edge, but at the same time its steering felt numb. The electric power-steering rack responded quickly to inputs, but seemed soulless. Power delivery from the 1.5-liter was prompt, its 179 horsepower ample for this small SUV's needs.

2017 Ford Escape

The Ford Escape includes the excellent Sync 3 infotainment system and a choice of three engines.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

On the off-road course, the Escape's 7.8 inches of ground clearance was the best among our competitors. It climbed our hill reasonably well, its all-wheel-drive system throwing torque to the front or back as needed. Paddle shifters allowed better control over the power output.

The 2017 Ford Escape boast a low base price of $23,100, but that version comes with the less powered 2.5-liter engine. Prices go all the way up to $37,170 for a Titanium trim all-wheel-drive model with the powerful turbocharged 2-liter. However, for this test, we used the more comparative SE trim model with all-wheel-drive and turbocharged 1.5-liter engine, far undercutting the other two at about $29,185.

First place: Toyota RAV4

Toyota has a long history with the RAV4, first introducing it in 1994, a particularly early entrant for a car-based SUV. That long experience must help Toyota realize what does well in the segment. During our street driving, we found that the RAV4's tuning for power, ride and handling all consistently leaned toward comfort. The ride felt a little softer than the others and the steering allowed an easy amount of play without losing its on-center positioning or responsiveness.

2016 Toyota RAV4 features improved looks, sportier SE model (pictures)

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The RAV4's 2.5-liter four-cylinder comes in behind our competitors with only 176 horsepower, but it's not a significant deficiency in real-world driving. Toyota also gives the RAV4 a seven-speed automatic transmission, which makes efficient use of that power.

As for its electronics, the RAV4's navigation head unit seems a little basic, and lacks Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support, but it counts Entune as its hold card. Entune enables a number of connected services through a paired smartphone running the Entune app, letting drivers access Yelp and online destination search, among others.

2016 Toyota RAV4

The RAV4 not only proved the most comfortable on pavement, it was surprisingly capable off-road.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Most surprising was how well the RAV4 handled the off-road course. At 6.3 inches, it had the worst ground clearance of the lot, but Toyota equips its all-wheel-drive system with a locking system, ensuring that it puts half its torque to each axle. Few small SUVs have this capability, and it made a difference for the RAV4. After completing our standard hill climb, Roadshow editor Emme Hall took it up a much, much steeper, longer climb that would prove a challenge to many off-roaders.

At $24,350, the 2016 Toyota RAV4 commands the highest base price of our trio. And in Limited trim with all-wheel drive and its Advanced Technology package, the price finished at $35,230.