Compact SUVs are increasingly popular with U.S. families, from couples starting out to empty-nesters. The good news for families on a budget is that these haulers are getting more affordable even as they offer more standard features and get better gas mileage. To see which offers the most value for a family, experts from USA TODAY, car-shopping site Cars.com and PBS' MotorWeek— plus a real Chicago family — compared six models that met a mainstream price limit and were EPA-rated at least 30 miles per gallon for our $25,000 Compact SUV Shootout.
To see just how much a family on a moderate budget can get in a compact SUV, we set the price cap for entries at $25,000 before shipping.
And with fuel efficiency increasingly important for the family budget, we required at least a 30-miles-per-gallon EPA highway rating. That left out a couple of well-known crossovers — Toyota's RAV4 and Nissan's Rogue — each at 28. But expect their coming redesigns to post higher mpgs.
The 2012 Chevrolet Equinox; the 2013 Ford Escape (new); the 2012 Honda CR-V (new); the 2012 Hyundai Tucson; the 2012 Kia Sportage; and the 2013 Mazda CX-5 (new).
A note about the price cap: For a couple, including the Escape, the next-higher model, with an engine upgrade or extra features, exceeded the cap by less than $100. But the top-rated SUVs in our test weren't the ones pushing the price cap, so the price difference with fancier versions of others that just missed the cut is significant.
The testing and scoring
The six SUVs were tested over three days in and around Chicago, including:
•A 200-mile gas-mileage test from urban driving to interstates.
•A day of back-to-back testing by our five experts over the same course to score the features, cargo and storage space, technology and the driving dynamics, including ride, noise, handling, acceleration and braking.
•A day of testing by a family of four in the market for a compact SUV to replace their 2001 Chevy Tracker.
The winner got the most points out of 1,000, with the real-world gas mileage rank weighted to count for 10% of the total score, the five experts' scores for 75%, and the family's scores for 15%.
The expert and family testers
Our experts: David Thomas, Cars.com managing editor; Jennifer Geiger, an editor at Cars.com; Bill Jackson, a Cars.com senior editor; Fred Meier, automotive editor for USA TODAY; and Brian Robinson, auto journalist and a producer for PBS' MotorWeek program.
The family: Erin and Nicholas Ravelingeen of Chicago, and their children, Trudy, 4, and Mason, 2. In addition to the Tracker, they own a 2001 Oldsmobile Alero. They use the vehicles for errands and road trips, says Erin, a stay-at-home mom. Nicholas, who works in risk management downtown, doesn't use a car to commute. They put about 8,000 miles a year on each auto.
And the winner is …
No. 1: 2012 Honda CR-V EX
Points: 809 (out of 1,000)
Price with shipping: $25,425
Observed gas mileage: 30.3 mpg, No. 2 in test (city/highway EPA rating 23/31)
Key features: Sunroof (only one in test). Backup camera. Pandora Internet radio (only one in test). Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick.