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Canadian International Autoshow

Compact SUVs: The clear winner in Canada's vehicle popularity contest

The most popular vehicle segment in the market offers practicality, versatility and affordability

Honda’s CR-V, second in sales to Toyota’s RAV4, uses a continuously variable transmission.

They're the most popular cars on the market, and they're not even cars.

SUVs and crossovers have taken over from sedans and coupes because they're more practical, more capable, and let their drivers sit up higher. Every manufacturer now offers a compact SUV and there seems no end of choice.

Front-wheel-drive models start in price in the mid-$20,000s and all-wheel-drive usually around $30,000, but which are the ones to look out for?

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Toyota RAV4

The most popular SUV in Canada last year, the RAV4 – which means recreational activity vehicle, four-wheel drive – was also Toyota Canada's best-selling vehicle, edging out the Corolla sedan by selling almost 51,000 units. All versions except the hybrid are made in Ontario; the hybrid is unusual among compact SUVs because it is already fuel-conscious, and the extra electrics make it a costly alternative.

Like most of its competition, the RAV4 actually offers optional all-wheel drive, switching power automatically to all four wheels when the going gets slippery while normally cruising in front-wheel drive on a dry road. This saves fuel, with little disadvantage in traction, if any.

The Toyota is so popular because it's affordable and economical, but it's also proved its reliability. It's grown in size over the years and adapted to popular trends: the rear door now hinges more conveniently from the top, not the side, and the spare wheel is contained inside the vehicle, not hung off the back.

Honda CR-V

A close second to the Toyota in sales, there's little now to distinguish Honda's popular SUV in abilities or features. It really comes down to style and how much you like your local dealer. Both have similar engines and power, though the CR-V uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) while the conventional RAV4 uses a traditional six-speed automatic transmission.

Honda and Toyota use different pricing structures for their individual models, so if there's a particular feature you value, such as a heated steering wheel or powered seat with lumbar support, you really need to cross-shop between the trim levels of the two brands to find which offers your best deal.

Mazda CX-5

Redesigned for last year, the CX-5 is one of the most fuel-frugal compact SUVs on the market and its new-for-2018 2.5-litre Skyactiv-G engine is even more so. It's the only four-cylinder engine in North America that offers cylinder deactivation, shutting off the two outside cylinders when their power isn't really needed. Mazda claims an improvement of 5 per cent when cruising at 80 km/h, and up to 20 per cent when driving at 40 km/h.

The CX-5 is also one of the most refined compact SUVs available. It's not an exciting vehicle to drive, but it's extremely quiet and comfortable and spacious.

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Ford Escape

Ford's popular compact SUV is by far the brand's top-selling vehicle in Canada – except for pickup trucks, of course. Ford sells more than twice as many Escapes as it does the larger Explorer, and more than four times as many as the Focus sedan. And why not? It sits higher, fits more cargo, and offers all-wheel drive.

In fact, Ford claims the Escape offers more driver's assistance features than any of its competition: it will park itself, steer itself within a lane, and hold its speed in cruise control to the speed of the vehicle in front, among many others.

Chevrolet Equinox

Comfortable, capable, cutting-edge and all-new for 2018, the Equinox has perhaps the widest range of options among its competition. There's a turbocharged 1.5-litre engine and a 1.6-litre turbo diesel engine, but also a 2.0-litre turbo engine that creates 252 hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, which is especially capable for towing.

The Equinox is very well-fitted for its price, and comes with some unique features, such as its Teen Driver technology that displays a report card showing such information as how many times the forward collision alert warning was activated, or how often the throttle was pressed to the floor.

Nissan Rogue

The comparatively new Nissan Rogue is the Japanese maker's best-selling vehicle in Canada, and for good reason. It feels sporty – probably the sportiest of the compact SUVs – and is really more of a crossover, with more focus on style than off-road ability.

It's also very practical: the rear cargo area includes an optional luggage management system that's truly ingenious, separating clean from dirty and wet from dry, as well as making sure nothing falls out when you open the tailgate.

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Recently, Nissan tied in with the Star Wars franchise after the release of 2016's Star Wars: Rogue One movie, and the connection has done the vehicle no harm whatsoever. It helps distinguish the Rogue, with its fuel-saving CVT and affordable trim levels, from the many others on competing dealer lots.

Hyundai Tucson

A new generation of the Tucson was introduced in 2016 and it helped Hyundai's compact SUV catch up to the rest of its competition. It's a stylish vehicle that doesn't really pretend to be an off-roader, and it offers good performance and full connectivity with excellent value for money. It's difficult for it to stand out in such a competitive market, but if you like its good looks, it's worth a closer look.

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