Americans like pretty much everything about wagons except the dorky image, so it's no surprise that crossovers have taken over our roadways-they're essentially wagons on stilts. The extra ride height gives crossovers an inherently tough appearance, but underneath, their car-like construction makes them modern-day heirs of the Griswold family's Wagon Queen Family Truckster. Americans also like a good value, of course, and today's marketplace is teeming with affordable crossover options. While they're all more enjoyable than the Wagon Queen, there are real differences between them, so we're here to make your shopping easier by identifying the best crossovers under $25,000.

Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain

The first thing to know about GM's budget-friendly crossover twins is that they're a lot bigger than their modest prices suggest. You don't buy one of these things to squeeze into urban parking spots or dart through rush-hour traffic. You do buy one, however, if you drive NBA players around on a regular basis, because the Terrain-quinox has a positively enormous backseat (though a third-row seat isn't offered). The four-cylinder model with front-wheel drive also offers some of the best EPA fuel economy ratings you'll find in any non-hybrid crossover, clocking in at 22 miles per gallon city, 32-mpg highway, and 26-mpg combined - that's on par with some four-cylinder family sedans.

Dodge Journey

A couple years ago, the idea of putting the Journey on a best-anything list wouldn't have passed the laugh test, so abysmal was this crossover's interior quality and overall refinement. Well, what a difference not being bankrupt makes. Treated to an overhaul by Dodge's corporate overlords at Fiat, the Journey now features an attractive new dashboard with pleasant materials, and the 283-horsepower Pentastar V6 is available under the hood. That's the Journey we're talking about, by the way-the V6 model is the only one that merits praise, as the base four-cylinder Journey is ill mannered and saddled with an archaic four-speed transmission. But if you spring for the V6 with its exclusive six-speed automatic, you'll get smooth, satisfying acceleration, and you can also add a useful third-row seat if you don't mind breaking the $25,000 barrier by a few hundred bucks.

Kia Sorento

Like the Equinox (and the Journey, for that matter), the Sorento's bigger than you'd expect at this price point-but unlike the Equinox, this Kia makes use of its extra space by offering a third-row seat. Moreover, with the introduction of a direct-injected 2.4-liter inline-4 for 2012, the Equinox now matches the Chevy with 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway (the combined figure, oddly, is 1 mpg lower at 25 mpg). If you'd rather have more power, the Sorento V6 just squeaks under the $25,000 threshold this year, and its gem of an engine gives Toyota's superlative V6 a real run for its money.

Kia Sportage

Two Kias on the same list? You better believe it. One look at the Sportage and you'll never think of Kia the same way again. Whereas the Sorento is positioned as the sensible choice, the Sportage is for the cool kids who live in urban lofts and drink lattes. You know who you are, and you know you appreciate that this crossover was penned by a former Audi designer. Compact and nimble, the rakish Sportage zips around on errands like a little hatchback while giving you all the ground clearance you need to negotiate those downtown potholes. By the way, the turbocharged Sportage SX is a screaming 260-horsepower bargain at around $27,000, delivering Acura RDX performance for thousands less.

Volkswagen Tiguan

So suppose you want something compact like the Sportage, but you'd rather blend in with the crowd. Look no further than the redesigned 2012 Tiguan, which pairs manageable dimensions with German restraint and attention to detail, all for comfortably less than $25k. It's got spunky turbocharged power, too-the 200-horsepower inline-4 is the same one you'll find in the GTI hot hatch. You can even get a manual transmission with that turbo four, which is a unique tandem in this segment. Growing families might want more space, but the Tiguan otherwise strikes a compelling, mature balance between functionality and drivability.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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