SMALL SUVs * FIVE TRUCKS TRY TO BEAT THE BIG BOYS IN FUEL EFFICIENCY AND ECONOMY.
Three years ago, it would cost the average driver about $20 a week to power a midsized SUV like the Ford Explorer. Today, it costs about $31.
Consumers are noticing that higher gasoline prices are not an anomaly, but a new reality. Sales of large SUVs have plummeted 20 percent, and midsized SUV sales have been flat from a year ago, according to our analysis of data from Ward's Automotive Reports, which tracks vehicle sales. However, sales for smaller, more fuel-efficient SUVs have risen 10 percent in the same period.
The best small SUVs get about 21 mpg overall. The five we tested here get between 18 mpg and 26 mpg--much better than the 13 to 16 mpg that many midsized SUVs manage.
While they're called small SUVs, each easily seats five and has at least adequate cargo space. All offer all-wheel drive, or with the truck-based Xterra and Liberty, more rugged four-wheel drive with low-range gearing.
The Ford Escape Hybrid and Jeep Liberty Diesel are at the high end of the group at around $31,000, and their unique powertrains price them at several thousands higher than their conventional versions. The Hyundai Tucson and Honda CR-V EX are about $22,000 and $24,000, respectively.
The Honda CR-V, which gets 21 mpg overall, easily topped this group and finished just behind the Subaru Forester, our top-rated small SUV, which also gets 21 mpg. For 2005, the CR-V received a five-speed automatic transmission and an extensive safety package that includes standard ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), and side-curtain air bags.
The CR-V rides comfortably, handles well, and has a spacious, well-conceived interior. Prominent road noise is its only notable fault.
The Hyundai Tucson is derived from the Elantra sedan and is nearly as spacious as its midsized sibling, the Santa Fe. With its optional V6 engine, which only gets a combined 18 mpg, the Tucson is priced like four-cylinder Japanese competitors such as the Forester, CR-V, and Toyota RAV4.
The Tucson has a quiet, comfortable ride; very good fit and finish; and standard safety equipment that includes ESC and both side and side-curtain air bags. But it's not a crisp handler.
The Ford Escape Hybrid is much like the conventional Escape, except for its advanced powertrain. It gets a class best 26 mpg overall, 8 mpg better than the V6 we tested earlier. It handles well, accelerates adequately, and is roomy. It uses similar hybrid technology to the first-generation Toyota Prius. A nickel-metal hydride battery supplies power to an electric motor that can propel it at low speeds and add supplemental power during acceleration.
The redesigned Nissan Xterra is much better than its predecessor, It retains body-on-frame construction and a solid rear axle, but the powertrain, steering, and interior quality are contemporary. The transmission is smooth and handling is responsive. Its standard V6 is powerful and polished, but it gets only 17 mpg combined. The Xterra is an excellent off-roader, but it has a stiff ride.
The Jeep Liberty Diesel, which gets a combined 18 mpg, is neither a green nor an economical choice over the much less expensive, gasoline-powered, V6 Liberty Sport, which gets 15 mpg overall.
Its best points are responsive handling and good off-road capability. Slow acceleration and loud noise from the engine and turbocharger mar the driving experience.
CR Quick Recommendations
To excel in our tests, an SUV must be well-rounded. It should mate ample cargo capacity with good on-road performance, comfortable accommodations, and acceptable fuel economy. If it has low-range gearing, it should also be a capable off-roader, although off-road prowess doesn't count toward its overall score.
Of the 19 small SUVs we have tested recently, we can recommend 9. We lack reliability information on the Hyundai Tucson (5), Ford Escape Hybrid (6), Nissan Xterra (9), Chevrolet Equinox (13), and Jeep Liberty Diesel (18). In addition, the Ford Escape (7), Hyundai Santa Fe (10), Saturn Vue (12), and the Equinox can't be recommended because they tipped up in a government rollover test. The Land Rover Freelander (16) and Pontiac Aztek (19) have had subpar reliability.
The Ratings rank vehicles on how they scored in our tests, regardless of price or reliability. Recommended models ([check]) not only tested well but have shown average or better reliability and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test. Recommended models that performed especially weft in both IIHS tests and at least one of the government tests are designated with a (([check]).) Quick Picks are recommended models that in our judgment deserve special consideration based on your needs.
1 Subaru Forester
2 Honda CR-V
3 Toyota RAV4
All are well-designed, reliable, and get respectable fuel economy. The Honda is the roomiest, the Forester has the best ride, and the Toyota is the nimblest.
Best small SUV alternative:
4 Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe
The reliable Matrix and its twin the Pontiac Vibe scored lower than the vehicles above, but are roomy. In all-wheel-drive form they deliver most SUV attributes even though they are small wagons. They get 24 mpg overall.
Best for towing and off-roading:
15 Kia Sorento
17 Jeep Liberty
The Kia and Jeep are both capable off-roaders that don't shine on the road. They have a 5,000-pound towing capacity.
Ratings small SUVs In performance order. Blue key number indicates a Quick Pick. Make & model In this issue SMALL SPORT-UTILITY VEHICLES ([check]) 1# Subaru Forester 2.5 X ([check]) 2# Honda CR-V EX e ([check]) 3# Toyota RAV4 [check] 4# Toyota Matrix XR/ Pontiac Vibe (AWD) 5 Hyundai Tucson GLS e (V6) 6 Ford Escape Hybrid e (4-cyl.) 7 Ford Escape XLT (V6) [check] 8 Honda Element EX 9 Nissan Xterra S e 10 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS (2.7) [check] 11 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS 12 Saturn Vue (V6) 13 Chevrolet Equinox LT [check] 14 Suzuki XL-7 EX [check] 15# Kia Sorento LX 16 Land Rover Freelander SE [check] 17# Jeep Liberty Sport (V6) 18 Jeep Liberty Limited e (turbodiesel) 19 Pontiac Aztek Make & model Overall score P F G VG E SMALL SPORT-UTILITY VEHICLES ([check]) 1# Subaru Forester 2.5 X [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] ([check]) 2# Honda CR-V EX [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] ([check]) 3# Toyota RAV4 [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] [check] 4# Toyota Matrix XR/ [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Pontiac Vibe (AWD) 5 Hyundai Tucson GLS [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] (V6) 6 Ford Escape Hybrid [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] (4-cyl.) 7 Ford Escape XLT (V6) [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] [check] 8 Honda Element EX [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 9 Nissan Xterra S [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 10 Hyundai Santa Fe [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] GLS (2.7) [check] 11 Mitsubishi Outlander [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] XLS 12 Saturn Vue (V6) [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 13 Chevrolet Equinox LT [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] [check] 14 Suzuki XL-7 EX [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] [check] 15# Kia Sorento LX [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 16 Land Rover [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] Freelander SE [check] 17# Jeep Liberty Sport (V6) [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 18 Jeep Liberty Limited [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] (turbodiesel) 19 Pontiac Aztek …