There’s no question that crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, are the family haulers of choice for Canadian consumers. In January, sales of CUVs and SUVs reached nearly 48,000 units; an 11.5 per cent increase over the same month last year and representing 43 per cent of all auto and light-truck sales in the country (source: goodcarbadcar.net).
CUVs can best be described as the family wagon of the 21st century.
While that may date me, it’s true that wagons were once the family hauler of choice, until minivans made their move. Van coolness died out quickly, though, and more style-conscious families started taking to sport-utility vehicles, or SUVs, as their preferred option.
While early SUVs gained popularity among consumers, they were loathed by a large contingent of critics who cited terrible handling, uncomfortable ride, high fuel consumption and a lack of creature comforts.
But that was then — roughly 20 years ago — and this is now. Car companies have recognized the opportunity and developed these crossovers to include the best things about SUVs — rugged styling, all-wheel drive and a high, commanding view of the road — and exclude their aforementioned flaws.
The SUV/CUV market in 2017 is stronger and more competitive than ever. There’s a size to fit every need and, amazingly, the segment covers a huge spectrum. You can have something resembling a jacked-up subcompact hatchback (Mazda CX-3, Chevy Trax), an eight-passenger van-challenger (Ford Flex, Toyota Sequoia) or a premium people mover (Land Rover Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne).
Each fits somewhere on that spectrum, and the vast selection means that times are good for those in the market for a new set of wheels.
Compact crossovers represent the bulk of this segment, accounting for several of the top 10 sales positions. And we’ve had the chance to drive a few of the big players in recent weeks, with some very interesting outcomes.
After an effective mid-cycle refresh in 2016, Toyota’s RAV4 is fighting hard for sales leadership in the segment. The 2017 model brings a raft of smaller changes, including the introduction of a new Platinum trim to top the range.
Honda has completely revamped its CR-V for 2017, now in its fifth generation. With it, their intention is to advance the state of the compact CUV art in terms of style, performance and safety.
The current Hyundai Santa Fe Sport — first introduced in 2013 — gets tweaked for 2017, offering up sharper styling, fuel efficiency enhancements and a suite of technology offerings in a new top Ultimate trim.
I’m considering each of these in the context of what might become our next family vehicle. It’s a bit of a switch for us; our needs are changing and we’re seeing that a mainstream crossover might best suit our needs for the foreseeable future.
And here’s how this battle shakes out:
3rd Place: Toyota RAV4 Platinum
Even though we might be going mainstream with our next purchase, it doesn’t mean we want an appliance. The RAV sells in big numbers and it’s easy to see why: it’s roomy, efficient and enjoys an enviable reputation for dependability and resale value.
Trouble is, the competition is fierce and there are other entries that offer everything the RAV does, but in much more appealing packages.
For starters, I stepped from a $38,000 VW Golf Alltrack into this $40,000 RAV4 and some things were immediately apparent. The RAV’s interior is plasticky. Its shift lever is clunky (try it). Controls feel cheap. It has loose steering, a floaty ride and an abundance of road noise in comparison.
In short, my first drive in the RAV made me rethink the whole crossover idea for my family.
And while the Alltrack gives up some practicality to this trio of crossovers, it’s not only the VW that the RAV loses ground to. The Honda and Hyundai get leather, the Toyota gets leatherette. The others get rear heated seats, the RAV does not. Want a panoramic roof? Sorry, not in the RAV.
Despite what is described as an active all-wheel drive system, the RAV has a distinct front-drive vibe under acceleration, with hints of torque-steer evident to remind you that it’s only the front wheels getting power until after they slip.
While the RAV checks all of the boxes on paper, I urge buyers to get behind the wheel of this and its competitors. You just might be surprised at what you find.
2nd place: Honda CR-V Touring
Speaking of surprises, the CR-V was the biggest of the bunch. Before trying this all-new version, I would have lumped Honda’s compact crossover in the same group as the RAV4: a great vehicle, but bland and uninspired. But much like what Honda has done with the new Civic, the CR-V has been completely reinvented — and to good effect.
It’s still recognizable as a CR-V, but one who’s been to the gym. It’s a beefier look, and the unfortunate hunchback rear that has plagued the third and fourth-gens has finally been refined to a point that’s now more pleasing. To these eyes, there’s a bit of Volvo XC60 to the new CR-V’s rump, and that’s not a bad thing.
Things just get better as we look inside. A cleaner, more upscale design with more expensive-feeling materials differentiate the CR-V from its competitors. Where the Toyota feels like a Toyota inside, this Honda feels like an Acura.
And the handling. Oh, the handling. Honda has made the greatest strides here. A supple yet controlled ride. Responsive steering. Confident turn-in. Traits that are foreign to the RAV4. And the 1.5 turbo is refined and gutsy.
There is still room to improve though: this is a Honda after all, which means its user interface is frustrating and lacks the basic voice recognition that pretty much every other manufacturer has well in hand. In automatic mode, the climate control blasts the fan speed. I was surprised when my daughter’s hockey bag didn’t fit lengthwise in the cargo hold (with the rear seats up), which means that it can’t fit two bags side-by-side. The others can do that. But what the CR-V lacks in cargo space it makes up for in rear seat legroom.
Finally, my disdain for continuously-variable transmissions did not lessen during my week with the CR-V. This one is so obviously designed for efficiency that it feels downright sluggish under acceleration when left in normal mode. Sport and Low modes improve the situation, but they keep the engine boiling longer than necessary, wasting fuel. In this case, it comes down to programming. It also comes down to winning the fuel consumption war, where the CR-V’s published fuel consumption numbers are astonishingly low.
1st place: Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
I should start by saying this wasn’t exactly a fair fight. Where Honda and Toyota sent their loaded-up offerings, Hyundai’s press vehicle was strictly mid-range: at $34,899, this 2.4 SE model we drove undercut the $39,665 RAV and $38,090 CR-V by thousands.
So, despite that the Santa Fe we drove is strong on content — this mid-trim model gets the heated rear seats and steering wheel, leather, panoramic roof, rear camera with cross-traffic alert, blind spot and lane departure warning — it can’t match some of the goodies on display in the others here.
But those are options, and I’m happy to evaluate the Santa Fe on its intrinsic goodness, understanding that it can be equipped just as well as the Honda and Toyota if customers so choose.
In many respects, the Santa Fe lands between the RAV and CR-V in the areas that matter to me. It has a six-speed automatic, which I prefer over the CVT found in the Honda. Its cargo hold is longer than the others’, and that can be further adjusted by the reclining and sliding rear seats found in upper trim levels. Despite the CR-V publishing higher cargo volumes, the space in the Santa Fe is more usable.
Its interior is in between as well; not too plasticky, but not in the same league as the premium feel found in the CR-V. Steering response is quick and the suspension is not too floaty. If anything, it’s a bit too harsh on sharp bumps.
Hyundai appreciates that its owners don’t want to use a prop rod every time they open the hood, and that a hinged cover for the washer fluid is vastly superior to the bendy plastic ones, especially in winter.
Even though the Santa Fe has had some cosmetic upgrades—a new grille, light clusters, and wheels—it’s still a conservative design. It’s more attractive to me than the RAV and won’t date as quickly as the CR-V.
The 2.4-litre four-banger is middling in terms of power (and thirstier than the others), and a road trip in the hills with the Santa full of people and stuff had it working through the gears more than I expected.
That brings me to one of the reasons I like the Santa Fe best: there’s an option for more power. A 2.0-litre turbo that generates 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque can be had, and it will leave the others in its dust. There’s no rule that says a compact crossover needs to be slow.
If we matched prices with the Honda and Toyota, we’d be somewhere between the 2.4 Luxury and the 2.0T Limited in a Santa Fe Sport. Both the CR-V and RAV have all the active safety driver aids at that price; one needs to upgrade to the $44,599 2.0T Ultimate to get these in the Santa Fe Sport. Only then will radar cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and the multi-view camera make an appearance. We’re hoping those features will trickle down to the other models in the lineup very soon.
The Santa Fe continues its tradition of offering families an attractive crossover option that isn’t a chore to drive.