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Small SUVs, Big Market

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author photo by Nick Jaynes June 2012

Ford forever changed the automotive landscape when it launched the 1991 Explorer. Since then, SUVs have been a sales juggernaut. At first they were truck based, with body-on-frame construction and heavy-duty 4x4 underpinnings. Then, as gasoline prices rose, consumers began to shift away from the big and heavy SUVs of the 1990s in favor of more carlike and smaller SUVs.

Having grown accustomed to the versatility of the SUV body style, Americans have begun purchasing compact SUVs that achieve far better miles-per-gallon numbers than the larger, truck-based SUVs on the market.

In 2011, small-SUV sales figures increased by 20.3 percent over the previous year; that's one of the largest sales percentage increases by vehicle type for the year. As compact SUV sales figures grow, the field has increasingly improved and become more competitive.

Accordingly, we felt it fitting to compile a list of five of the newest and most noteworthy compact SUVs on the market.

2013 Acura RDX

The 2013 model year introduces the second generation of the RDX. An early adopter of the compact SUV, Acura has pushed the RDX up the ladder for its second incarnation, especially in styling. The new RDX has a longer, more sculpted hood and a longer and wider wheelbase; these changes make the RDX look more like a full-size SUV.

It's not only in its outward dimensions that Acura goes against the compact-SUV grain with the 2013 RDX. With the newest wave of compact SUVs, automakers are ditching their V6 powertrains for smaller, more efficient turbocharged 4-cylinders. Acura has done the exact opposite. From its inception, the RDX was available with only a turbocharged 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. For 2013, the RDX will only be available with a 3.5-liter V6. Unexpectedly, Acura's new powertrain-coupled with the more aerodynamic body and a new six-speed automatic transmission-achieves a better mpg rating than the outgoing model at 19/27 mpg for the 2WD and 20/28 mpg for the AWD version, versus 19/24 and 17/22 mpg for the 2012 model.

As the only luxury compact SUV on this list, the RDX will feature more standard features, including technological goodies. The front-wheel-drive RDX went on sale this spring; it starts at $34,320, with the all-wheel-drive version with Technology package topping out at $39,420.

2013 Ford Escape

The Escape is America's current bestselling SUV, and for 2013, it's even better. Ford made waves with its last-generation Escape Hybrid. For 2013, Ford has surprisingly done away with the Hybrid, replacing it with the availability of two EcoBoost gasoline engines, a 1.6-liter and a 2.0-liter. The standard engine for 2013 is an updated 2.5-liter inline-4. In spite of the Hybrid's retirement, the average fuel economy of the new Escape lineup is slightly better than the previous model year., with the all-wheel-drive version getting 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, versus the 20/27 mpg of last year's AWD model. No matter which of the fuel-efficient 4-cylinders customers choose, it will be mated to a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission.

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For 2013, Ford focused not only on fuel efficiency but also technology. In the cabin, customers will find SYNC with MyFord Touch, an automatic parallel parking system, a new blind spot information system and a hands-free power liftgate activated by waving one's foot under the rear bumper.

On the outside, Ford has given the Escape a much more modern body that's 10 percent more aerodynamic. The 2013 Escape's pricing ranges from $22,795 to $30,695.

2013 Mazda CX-5

The all-new 2013 CX-5 is the first Mazda to show off the automaker's new KODO Soul of Motion design language. It has a new signature wing grille that sets the tone for the front fascia. Although new-looking, the CX-5 is recognizably a Mazda. Mazda is proud of the CX-5's wide, low-slung and powerful stance, which is available with 17- and 19-inch wheel and tire combinations.

The CX-5 is the newest entry into the compact SUV market and, like the Escape, it is in the running for best-in-class fuel economy. Under the hood, Mazda has placed its exclusive SKYACTIV-G 2-liter inline-4 engine making 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque. In the front-wheel-drive, manual-transmission version, the CX-5 is estimated to achieve 26 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. When customers step up to the all-wheel-drive version, fuel economy drops to 25/30 mpg. All things considered, that's not a huge efficiency loss for the added benefit of all-wheel drive.

The 2013 CX-5 starts at a very competitive $20,695 MSRP and tops out with the Grand Touring model at $28,295. The CX-5 is on sale now.

2012 Chevrolet Equinox

Also boasting best-in-class fuel economy numbers is the Chevrolet Equinox. When fitted with the standard 2.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder engine, the front-wheel-drive Equinox is capable of achieving an EPA-estimated 32 mpg on the highway. When customers opt for the 3.0-liter V6, economy numbers drop to 25 mpg on the highway.

Chevrolet, like Ford, is rolling out a new global design style, and the Equinox is one of the newest adoptees of this look. With its two-tier grille and a prominent bow-tie emblem, it's hard to mistake the Equinox for anything other than a GM product. Although this might help tie the brand together, it really detracts from vehicle individuality. From not too far away, the Equinox looks like a Traverse, the mid-size Chevrolet SUV.

What is most notable about the Equinox is that it has a lot of customer-drawing power. Most Equinox buyers have never before owned a Chevrolet. The 2012 Equinox is on sale now and has a base MSRP of $23,530.

2012 Honda CR-V

The 2012 CR-V looks a bit different, but it's virtually unchanged from its previous iteration. Under the hood is the same 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 185 hp and 163 lb-ft of torque. The transmission remains the same as well: a five-speed automatic. The familiar 2.4-liter is capable of 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway in the front-wheel-drive version. These numbers are a slight improvement over the 2011 model but certainly nothing to write home about-especially compared with the competition.

Honda says the new body design is more dynamic and sophisticated. We agree. We also think, however, that it looks like a small Volvo XC60. The new-look 2012 CR-V starts at $22,295.

A Brave New Small-SUV World: Subcompact SUVs

As compact SUVs begin to dominate auto sales, automakers have been inspired to explore the small-SUV market even further. For 2013, Buick has announced the introduction of an all-new subcompact SUV, the Encore. Audi, too, has shown interest in the fledgling segment with its Q3 concept, which made its debut at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. Like their bigger relatives, subcompact SUVs provide customers all the benefits of an SUV with a more accessible interior and a taller ride height, while also benefiting from higher fuel economy numbers and a more urban-friendly stature.

Even though we don't think subcompact SUVs will be big sellers in the U.S. anytime soon, subcompact car sales are expected to double by 2015. So it might not be too long before other automakers introduce their own subcompact SUVs.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Small SUVs, Big Market - Autotrader