Ford Escape 1.6 L EcoBoost
Base price: $29,099
Like many of my fellow auto scribes, I didn't see this one coming. I felt the Escape was one of the more under-powered models in this group and, loaded down with four passengers and their cargo, would have trouble getting out of its own way. No bottom end and little in the way of torque.
Its Sync driver interface also remains problematic. If you owned one of these, you'd probably adjust to the controls and switchgear eventually, but I still find them counter-intuitive and distracting. Also, it has less cargo room than the perennial leader in this group, the Honda CR-V, and less of that hard-to-define driveability factor.
Interestingly, the Escape Eco-Boost delivers the same fuel economy as the CR-V but is actually inferior to that of the Mazda CX-5.
High equipment level here, though, with all-wheel-drive, heated front seats, Sirius satellite radio (for six months), four cup holders and rear fog lamps all standard. My tester also had a power rear lift-gate, which is nice, but a $500 option. And here's a couple of interesting tidbits: the seat cushions and backs contain soybeans and the carpeting is made from recycled pop bottles. I'll drink to that.
Base price: $28,140
This was my pick as the winner. Honda still owns this category as far as I'm concerned, and the CR-V is still the most driveable and versatile model out there. It also has a titch more power than the Escape, and doesn't need a turbocharger to get it.
Hyundai Santa Fe
Base price: $26,499
I also thought that this would do better than it did. These days, at TestFest, it seems that if it's made in South Korea, it's going to be a category winner. I was surprised to see that a Santa Fe with this level of equipment is actually pricier than a comparable CR-V. Watch it, Hyundai – that's always been your edge.
Subaru XV Crosstrek
Base price: $24,495
This was one of the least-powerful models in this category – and one of the cheapest. Given its price tag and legendary off-road ability, the Crosstrek could be considered a bargain. Its undoing: the CVT transmission, which, in this application, is better than others I've encountered, but still a negative.
Base price: $18,495
With a paltry 138 horsepower available and just 148 lb-ft of torque, this one won't be making tracks in a hurry. It's just not a soundly engineered automobile. One thing I did like, however, were the standard equipment driver's seat arm rests. Reasonable base price, too.
Base price: $22,995
As tested: $32,750
One of the first models out of the gate with Mazda's new SkyActiv technology, the CX-5 delivers good fuel economy with a high driveability quotient. But, despite its 155 horsepower, this is an underpowered automobile. When it's thrift versus performance in this price range, thrift takes it every time.