SEEKING THE COMPACT CROWN
Motor Trend|November 2021
HONDA’S CR-V HAS REIGNED SUPREME. CAN TOYOTA, NISSAN, OR HYUNDAI LEAD AN SUV REVOLUTION?
MIGUEL CORTINA

Think of compact SUVs, and chances are the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 come to mind. They’ve dominated sales charts the past few years, and each has a long history of loyal customers who return to buy or lease the latest versions.

Although the RAV4 is the sales leader, with more than 430,000 units moved in 2020, the CR-V is no small player—Honda sold 333,000 last year. But as the segment grows more competitive, automakers are equipping their crossover SUVs with cutting-edge tech, cool designs, and spacious interiors. Take the Nissan Rogue and the Hyundai Tucson, for example; they aren’t as popular as the Honda and Toyota, but their latest generations are more attractive and tech-rich than ever.

To make this comparison as fair as possible, we asked the participating automakers to send us their top-trim models with all-wheel drive. The 2021 Nissan Rogue SL we received wasn’t the ladder-topping Platinum trim, but it was nevertheless decently equipped with the Premium package. Powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 181 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque, the Rogue employs a continuously variable transmission to send power to all four wheels. Our test model carried a $36,805 price tag, a decent value for the features it included.

The 2022 Hyundai Tucson is all-new this year, and it was represented by the Limited version. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 187 hp and 178 lb-ft and is mated to an eight-speed automatic. At $37,580, it comes with a ton of technology, a bigger cargo area, and more passenger space than before.

As the second most popular crossover SUV, the Honda CR-V has many things to like, particularly its value. At $36,325, the CR-V was the least expensive model we tested, and that was despite being represented by the top-of-the-line Touring model. Its 190-hp 1.5-liter turbo-four engine is paired to a CVT.

The 2021 Toyota RAV4 has proven to be an attractive proposition. With its 203-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, it’s also the most powerful SUV of this group, and it features an eight-speed automatic. As the range-topper, the Limited’s starting price is just north of $37,000, and our model included a couple of packages that raised its price to $40,451, the highest in our test.

As close as these SUVs are in terms of power and engine displacement, each offers a different driving experience. In the interest of fuel economy, the Tucson’s transmission grabs for high gears with fervor, often reducing available torque at a given time. And when exiting a corner, the gearbox takes a moment to catch its breath before downshifting. The Tucson also felt lethargic when merging onto the freeway, something we verified at our test track, where the Hyundai took 9.3 seconds to reach 60 mph—the slowest SUV of the group. Its suspension also disappointed us as the harshest in this test, though excellent body control was the payoff.

The RAV4’s punchy engine showed well on our test loop, and the vehicle was the most fun to drive overall in this group. That’s no small compliment; the RAV4 delivers great acceleration, and its body motions are well controlled on poor pavement or twisty roads, as we found on our drive along Southern California’s Palos Verdes Peninsula. Its sometimes raucous engine note is a bit bothersome, but the Toyota delivers an enjoyable experience behind the wheel.

For its part, the Rogue is more unsettled, particularly through Portuguese Bend, an area of our loop where constant land movements make the pavement quite bumpy. One of our drivers likened the experience to trying to run in work boots. The Rogue’s engine has decent power, and its CVT represents a marked improvement over that of the previous generation. The transmission still isn’t as smooth and unobtrusive as Honda’s, but the engine note is more subdued even as the four-cylinder itself seems eager to deliver its power.

Honda’s CR-V is the oldest SUV in the group, but it comes across as “experienced” rather than “outdated.” Indeed, despite the arrival of new players, it continues to impress with its feel and handling. Its steering is direct and properly weighted, its suspension absorbs big bumps spectacularly, and despite being the least powerful, it was the quickest to reach 60 mph. Of course, it has its flaws: Push it hard, and the engine gets pretty rowdy. And truth be told, its body control isn’t as sharp as the RAV4’s.

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