I’m looking for a versatile small SUV that is both capable in less than ideal conditions, and yet is a practical commuter vehicle (fuel-efficient). I wish I was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner, however these aren’t within my budget or fuel-efficient enough. My question is: Of smallish AWD SUVs that are also reasonably fuel-efficient, is there much variation in the capability of the AWD system? I’m looking at the Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 as top choices. The Kia Sorento has a lockable AWD system and I wonder if this makes it significantly more capable? Deep snow is my primary concern. I love my 2003 Ford Explorer Sport, but the gas bill is awful. Any comments or suggestions for this commuter who still wants to get off road on weekends? – Bret in Hamilton, Ont.
Cato: We are in danger of getting into a discussion of centre differentials and transfer cases and torque transfer and big boxes of gears, and ...
Vaughan: Well, we could also keep this simple and useful and just start by saying that the new 2013 Escape is a hundred times better than that old 2003 Explorer Uncomfortable – I mean Sport.
And forget about V-8s. You can’t even get a six-cylinder in the new Escape; it’s four-bangers only.
And the Escape is vastly more affordable than any Explorer: $21,499-$37,499. Trimming your budget in this case only improves your ride.
Cato: The question here is which AWD system is best for deep snow.
So is the Escape tops in the snow? Honestly, I have yet to drive one in the winter. But I can tell you Ford thinks its so-called “intelligent torque-on-demand” AWD system is better than most of the competition. Why? It’s capable of sending torque – engine power – to either end of the vehicle depending on where the wheels find grip. That’s good in the snow and on ice.
Vaughan: Not all small SUVs can do this. Without getting absurdly technical, we’ll just say not all AWD systems do this.
Cato: Picture this in your mind’s eye, Bret: Your Escape’s front wheels are in snow, the most basic AWD systems will leave you stuck because the engine power will go to the front unless there is some kind of locking device. You get a locking device on the Sorento – locking the torque split front and rear.
The Escape has the computer brainpower to tell when the fronts are slipping and – automatically – send power to the rears where there is some grip. Off you go. That’s good in such an affordable small SUV.
Better systems still can send torque side to side. Honda’s Super-Handling AWD can do this at the rears. You have even less chance of getting stuck, say, in an Acura MDX.
Vaughan: But Bret’s not interested in the MDX; he’s asked about the Mazda CX-5 and that’s the anti-Ford. Mazda used to be partly owned and tightly controlled by Ford. And Mazda engineers are happy to have Dearborn off their backs. They’re now doing the stuff the Ford bean-counters used to say no to.
It’s designed Mazda’s way with “KODO” – the Soul of Motion design language. Okay, that sounds a little goofy but the result is great to look at.
But it’s the SkyActiv technology with rigid, lightweight body and new efficient engines and trannies that really count. You’ve got to give this a good hard look even in the face of the Escape competition from their former owner-partner.
Cato: And you have discussed everything but what’s most important to Bret – AWD. The CX-5’s AWD acts very much like the Escape’s: if the front wheels are slipping, up to 50 per cent of the power goes rearwards. Automatically.
Vaughan: Cato should mention that if you’re in a snow bank so deep this doesn’t work, you have two choices: start digging out with a shovel, or go back inside your cottage and drink something warm until the weather improves.
Cato: As for the Sorento, it’s bigger than either the Escape or the CX-5.
You can get it with seating up to seven, but that will cost you $40,995. You do get a V-6, though. The starter model has a 191-horsepower four-cylinder. The AWD system is also fully automatic and very snow-worthy.
Vaughan: This one might be tough and capable enough for Bret after his monster Explorer. He’d have to pay up for the AWD, as front-wheel-drive is standard. But then he’d find the Sorrento with its V-6 and six-speed automatic would power through the deepest snow. It and has lots of safety and braking features.
Cato: Bret, the Sorento will remind you most of your Explorer. The CX-5 has the best handling but needs more than 155 hp. My ranking overall: Escape, CX-5, Sorento.
Vaughan: The Escape impresses me, but I’m even more impressed by the Mazda CX-5. That would be my first choice.
HOW THEY COMPARE
|2013 Mazda CX-5 GT||2012 Kia Sorento EX Luxury V-6||2013 Ford Escape Titanium|
Track, front (mm)
|2.0-litre four-cylinder||3.5-litre V-6||2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged|
|150/155 lb-ft||276/245 lb-ft||240/270 lb-ft|
|All-wheel drive||All-wheel drive||All-wheel drive|
|Six-speed automatic||Six-speed manual||Six-speed automatic|
Curb weight (kg)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km)
|8.0 city/6.4 highway||11.5 city/8.2 highway||9.8 city/6.9 highway|
Base price (MSRP)
Source: car manufacturers
Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.
You can e-mail Cato & Vaughan here: firstname.lastname@example.org