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Comparison Test: 2024 Compact SUVs for the Real World


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From the May/June issue of Car and Driver.


To all our beloved readers who've written to kvetch that we don't cover affordable cars or vehicles that real people buy, this one's for you.

It doesn't get any more mainstream than this group right here. The word "automobile" once conjured images of bestselling mid-size sedans such as the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Ford Taurus, but now this is what we see on the road. The Toyota RAV4 overtook the Camry as the bestselling Toyota in 2017, one year after the Honda CR-V passed the Accord, and the Taurus quit the U.S. market in 2019. Today, Americans buy more compact SUVs than any other type of vehicle.

The segment's volume leader, the Toyota RAV4, is represented here by the tough-looking TRD Off-Road model. Next in ubiquity, as you probably could have guessed, is the Honda CR-V. We requested an EX-L, which is the highest trim with the turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four, rather than the more powerful hybrid powertrain that enlivens the CR-V's top trim levels. The Nissan Rogue also populates highways and byways just about everywhere, and here, it's dolled up in the top Platinum trim. Rather than compare the sort-of-off-roader Bronco Sport, we requested the considerably more popular Escape, which arrived equipped to go after our fun-to-drive score with a 250-hp engine in the ST-Line Elite trim. The recently redesigned Kia Sportage seemingly couldn't decide what to wear, so it combined rugged and fancy with its X-Pro Prestige duds. The Volkswagen Tiguan arrived carrying just a whiff of sportiness in the form of the SEL R-Line model. Mazda is represented by the newer CX-50 rather than the smaller CX-5, and it was a nattily attired Premium Plus, packing the turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four under the hood. Finally, the relative newcomer Dodge Hornet appeared with its base powertrain (rather than the available plug-in hybrid) but with the Blacktop and Track Pack options bringing the signature Dodge 'tude. Taking a lesson from the warmhearted television fare of our youth, we stopped at eight, because eight is enough.

Click here to see how Mazda ranks

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We realize some players in this vast field are missing, most notably the /, the , and the . All are on the eve of redesigns or refreshes, so they sat out this round. And Mitsubishi wasn't able to rustle up a non-plug-in . Excepting the mid-spec Honda, at $37,965, the vehicles on hand ended up in a fairly tight price range of $40,030 to $44,844--just below the most recent new-car average of $47,401. That's keepin' it real, people.

Our herd assembled, we headed to the South of France. Ha! No. We went to the most real state we could think of: Ohio. Part of America's Heartland, it also happens to be right next to Michigan. This is the true story . . . of what happened . . . when eight normcore SUVs . . . were let loose . . . in the real world.

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8th Place: Nissan Rogue

Climb into the Nissan Rogue Platinum for the first time, and you may be wowed. Caramel-colored leather--real and synthetic--appears on the instrument panel, the doors, and the sides of the center console. The seats have a quilted stitch pattern, and there's an attractive mix of trim materials. Ultrawide-opening doors aid access to the roomy rear seat, which had the most amenities, with seat heaters, climate controls, A/C vents, and window shades. The infotainment looks good, retains a few buttons, and nestles into the dash, providing a padded rest for your hand.

HIGHS: Interior looks like luxury, welcoming rear seat, lots of equipment.
LOWS: Resistant to having fun, numb and aloof steering, falls far short of its EPA numbers.
VERDICT: First impressions aren't everything.

We wish Nissan had put the same level of effort into the Rogue's major controls. Several drivers called out the numb, woolly steering, and more objected to the spongy brake pedal. The comfort-biased suspension makes for smooth highway sailing, but don't ask much more of this chassis. The Nissan suffers from significant body roll in faster corners and brake dive in hard stops, and it just seemed easily discombobulated. Then there's the powertrain, where Nissan strays from the established formula, but the novel approach doesn't bring much payoff. Nissan boldly employs only three cylinders, whereas the others in this contest rely on four. Granted, the Rogue's turbocharged engine is no smaller than the Honda CR-V's turbo at 1.5 liters, and it features Nissan's variable-compression-ratio technology (it ranges from 8.0 to 14.0:1). The resulting output is 201 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque. When it comes to powertrains, this test was bifurcated into the fast group (Dodge, Ford, Mazda) and the slow group (everyone else). Of the latter, Nissan's turbo three and CVT combo was--just barely--the quickest to 60 mph at 8.0 seconds. But once you're cruising along at a steady speed, the turbo three suffers from sluggish throttle response--note the Rogue's last-place showing in the 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70-mph acceleration tests (the latter tied with the Sportage). At least this engine is well muted when giving its all--it's the quietest of the group, in fact, so there's no offensive droning.

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With the fewest cylinders to feed, the Nissan boasts the best EPA numbers, which look good on the window sticker. But this hardworking triple fell 5 mpg short of its EPA combined estimate in our hands, landing midpack at 26 mpg.

Overall, the Rogue is just fine if you don't look past the surface, but others here have more depth.

2024 Nissan Rogue Platinum AWD
201-hp turbocharged inline-3, continuously variable automatic, 3729 lb
Base/As-Tested: $41,590/$43,375
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.1 sec @ 87 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 31 mpg

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7th Place: Kia Sportage

Will it surprise you to learn that, aside from the mid-trim Honda, this top-spec Kia had the lowest as-tested price? Or that it came with a raft of features and amenities? Those include heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, a 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitoring, and Kia's Highway Driving Assist--a luxury-grade haul for just a hair over $40,000.

HIGHS: Wallet-friendly price, all the bells and whistles, quiet cruising.
LOWS: Oh so slow, middling fuel economy, longest stopping distance.
VERDICT: How slow can you go?

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The exterior is edgy, if polarizing, while the screentastic dash conveys a note of modernity inside. Once you get past the pointless home screen on the center display, you'll find a pleasing array of audio and navigation information. But no one liked the ridiculous dual-mode haptic buttons and dial (also found in other Kias) that switch between controlling climate and audio functions, all but guaranteeing you're always in the wrong mode. We did appreciate the plentiful stowage, and the sliding and reclining rear seats offer an extra measure of versatility. Splashes of piano black and the seats' novel stitch pattern divert attention from the liberal use of hard and cheap-looking plastic elsewhere--perhaps the reason why this cabin smells like a dime-store shower curtain.

None of us were overly impressed with the Sportage dynamically, with drivers calling it out for excessive body roll and brake dive. The X-Pro trim's 17-inch wheels and 65-series all-terrain tires smother bad pavement, but they also cling to the skidpad with only 0.81 g and contribute to a 182-foot stop from 70 mph, the longest in this comparison test.

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The biggest issue, though, is in the engine room. Our Sportage had the base engine, and the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder struggled like an air-cooled VW bus on uphill grades. The gutless powertrain also requires a lot of planning for passes. Although the 187 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque are only three horsepower and one pound-foot in arrears of the CR-V's engine, the Kia's 9.1-second 60-mph time is a full second slower than the Honda's. And since you have to work the engine so hard, there's no payoff in fuel economy, with the Kia's 25-mpg observed average trailing all, save for the much-quicker Mazda and Dodge.

Relief for this biggest pain point, however, isn't far away. We'd invite you to check out the quicker and more economical hybrid and plug-in-hybrid Sportage models.

2024 Kia Sportage X-Pro Prestige AWD
187-hp inline-4, 8-speed automatic, 3737 lb
Base/As-Tested: $39,365/$40,030
60 mph: 9.1 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.9 sec @ 84 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 31 mpg

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6th Place: Toyota RAV4

With a portfolio of off-road favorites such as the Tacoma, the 4Runner, and the Land Cruiser, it's no wonder Toyota would want to spread some of that rugged image to the RAV4. Our test example was decked out in TRD Off-Road trim, which, in addition to a slightly tougher appearance, brought softer suspension tuning (springs and dampers), 18-inch wheels with Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail 01A tires, roof rails, and a front skid plate.

HIGHS: 4Runner-wannabe rugged looks, plenty of space for people and their stuff, observed fuel economy tops the field.
LOWS: Engine strains and sounds coarse doing so, off-road kit is a hindrance on-road, interior is more practical than pretty.
VERDICT: A Toyota that will please people who like Toyotas.

That equipment would likely give the RAV4 greater off-pavement capability than the rest of this bunch, a boon for those who go off-road. But most drivers don't, and we didn't either. And on asphalt, the all-terrain tires do the handling no favors, as steering feel is largely AWOL, and the Toyota posted the lowest skidpad grip at just 0.79 g. The tall sidewalls provide an extra measure of cushion over potholes, however, and the RAV4 also exhibits good body control, considering the TRD Off-Road setup.

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Superfluous running boards, $620 for the pair, were an obstacle to step over on each entry and exit (the TRD Off-Road's ride height isn't nearly great enough to require them, and they'd just be a hindrance on the trail). Inside, the rubberized vinyl, chunky HVAC knobs, and thick door pulls set the style tone. Copious storage space enhances the practical vibe, as does the straightforward switchgear. Our testers deemed the driver's chair to be about average, while a low cushion hurt rear-seat comfort, although space is more than adequate.

"Just adequate" describes the RAV4's 2.5-liter engine, at least in city and suburban traffic. The farther you push the pedal, though, the more gutless the four-banger feels, as it makes more noise than thrust. At 78 decibels, the RAV4 tied the Mazda for loudest under acceleration, but its engine note is far more irritating. At least this engine is paired with an eight-speed automatic rather than a CVT. The Toyota's 60-mph time (8.3 seconds) and quarter-mile effort (16.5 seconds at 87 mph) were slower than all but the Kia's.

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Despite working hard, this naturally aspirated four-banger squeezes a lot of miles out of each tank of gas. At 29 mpg, the RAV4's observed fuel economy led the field, and its 32 mpg in our 75-mph highway test was also the most efficient, tied with the Escape.

Top-drawer fuel economy is historically a Toyota trait, as is a practical interior, and the trail-ready getup doesn't seem like an artifice. Add presumed reliability, and the RAV4's combination of virtues explains its popularity but doesn't push it to the front of this pack.

2024 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road
203-hp inline-4, 8-speed automatic, 3719 lb
Base/As-Tested: $39,645/$44,844
60 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.5 sec @ 87 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 176 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 32 mpg

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5th Place: Dodge Hornet

Starting our drive on the cratered roads of southeast Michigan put the Hornet in the worst possible light. We hadn't gone 1000 yards before slamming into a pothole that we feared might've bent a rim. All the way to our first driver-change point outside Toledo, the Dodge was repeatedly racked by broken pavement. Flicking through the stupefying amount of information available in the digital instrument cluster and the center display (which includes peak g, turbo psi, and torque output), we thought we might have found the cause: tire pressures that were 43--44 psi. It turns out that the recommended cold pressure is 42 psi, so we concluded that the Hornet is supposed to drive this way.

HIGHS: Hemi-like acceleration, sporty interior environs, hot-hatch persona.
LOWS: Hemi-like fuel consumption, painful over potholes, cramped back seat.
VERDICT: The small crossover for those who really want a Challenger.

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It's also supposed to drive lively, affecting the persona of a racy hot hatch rather than a workaday SUV. And it does. Look no further than its 268-hp turbo four, the most powerful here--and that's the base engine. The Hornet took the checkered flag in the 60-mph sprint with a time of 5.7 seconds, and it also hustled through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds (just a tick behind the Escape) at 95 mph. Power delivery isn't perfectly linear at low speeds, but that's perhaps to be expected, as is the snarling exhaust note. It contributed to a 73-decibel din on the highway, where the speedy Dodge also had a greater-than-average thirst for unleaded.

The steering is hyperresponsive, and the Hornet wants to dive through corners. Even with its dampers in Sport mode, the Hornet feels taller than a real hot hatch when the road gets twisty, but its 0.85 g of grip is the best here, aided by the most athletic footwear in the test (Z-rated Michelin Pilot Sport All Season 4 tires).

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The red-accented cabin features heavily bolstered, body-hugging seats that hold you in place for all the action. Most drivers praised them, although some found they had to adjust the seating position awkwardly high to see the gauges, putting their noggin close to the ceiling. There was unanimous agreement about the rear seat, which is seriously cramped. And the luggage compartment is the smallest in the test. The highly configurable infotainment looks great but can be laggy, and the tiny touchpoints are too small a target to hit when on the move. The cabin also has some ergonomic oddities, like an audio volume roller tucked behind the shifter and a wiper stalk whose logic is inscrutable. The Hornet, though, is unbothered by such mundane concerns.

2024 Dodge Hornet GT Plus AWD
268-hp turbocharged inline-4, 9-speed automatic, 3844 lb
Base/As-Tested: $37,995/$44,725
60 mph: 5.7 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.5 sec @ 95 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 28 mpg

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4th Place: Ford Escape

In the 1973 film White Lightning, bootlegger Gator McKlusky (played by Burt Reynolds) pilots a specially prepared Ford Custom 500 whose plain brown wrapper conceals a hotted-up engine within. Our Ford Escape wore a similar cloak of anonymity with its almost intentionally anodyne styling, but it too was packing under the hood.

HIGHS: Overachieving powertrain, surprising fuel economy, well-laid-out infotainment.
LOWS: Depressing interior environs, wonky brake-pedal action, exterior is a style-free zone.
VERDICT: All ate up with motor.

Boasting the model's top-of-the-food-chain engine, a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, this Ford has 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. That was enough to vie with the high-strung Dodge in acceleration: The Escape was the quickest off the line (to 30 mph) and the quickest to triple digits--in between, its 5.8-second time to 60 is just 0.1 second in arrears of the Hornet. From 30 to 50 mph and again from 50 to 70 mph, the Ford is in front, besting all comers. Away from the drag strip, the Escape has plenty of easy oomph, and throttle response and power delivery are more linear here than in the Hornet. There is a Sport mode (buried three layers into the touchscreen), but it seemed only to lock out top gear, so it's not something you'll want to access anyway.

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Despite the powertrain's hustle, the Ford is a suburban softy at heart, as it showed on the winding, diving, roller-coaster-like two-lanes in southern Ohio, where it gamely went along with the crowd but did so with a grimace and gritted teeth. Or maybe that was the driver. Either way, blame the weirdly springy steering effort and brakes that suffered from both a squishy pedal and grabby response. The convex-feeling seat cushion adds to the awkwardness.

The Escape is far more at home in the suburban slog or motoring along bombed-out urban freeways. Its comfortable-riding suspension shrugged off the slings and arrows of northern Ohio's and southeast Michigan's most battered pavement. Oh, and over the course of our test, the Escape also posted the second-best gas mileage, just 1 mpg behind the far-slower RAV4.

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This generation of Escape has been around since 2020 but boasts plenty of screen acreage inside, part of a 2023 update. The digital instrument cluster is a basic affair with limited configurability, but the well-designed central infotainment display is able to show multiple functions on its home screen. Look away from glowing displays, however, and the Escape cabin could be something from the Big Three bankruptcy era, as Ford appears to have wrung every nickel of cost from this black-grained-plastic interior. The materials are starkly below the rest of the field, an

2023 Ford Escape ST-Line Elite AWD
250-hp turbocharged inline-4, 8-speed automatic, 3697 lb
Base/As-Tested (2024 model): $39,455/$43,355
60 mph: 5.8 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.4 sec @ 97 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 166 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 32 mpg

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3rd Place: Honda CR-V

Sitting in the Honda CR-V, there's lots to like. Thin pillars and large windows enhance visibility and overall well-being. The driver's seat earned the best score for comfort, and the rear seat took top honors for space and was judged the most comfortable. Additionally, the CR-V has the roomiest cargo hold with rear seats up or folded. Although our EX-L was far from top spec, the door panels and dash look rich, with interesting details. The steering wheel feels great, although the thinly padded door armrests do not. Three knurled-edge knobs look and feel like quality, but the Honda was not immune from minor fit issues. We don't ding the CR-V for its physical gauges--we actually kind of prefer them--but there's no charm in the puny infotainment screen and its small touchpoints.

HIGHS: The ace of space, pleasing cabin, charming chassis.
LOWS: The lack of pace, missing features, smallish infotainment display.
VERDICT: Much of what we love about the Accord, in SUV form.

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Steering that's absurdly light at parking-lot speeds quickly firms up once you're on the move. When the road gets twisty, the helm's natural feel makes guiding the Honda an almost unconscious exercise. The CR-V feels unflappable, even though its 0.82-g skidpad result was unremarkable. The brake pedal is similarly well tuned, and the brakes hauled the CR-V down from 70 mph in just 163 feet, the best in this test. The contrast with the Escape (from which our drivers migrated as we moved through the cars in alphabetical order) was striking.

Accelerating onto the freeway, however, cues the sad trombone. A 5-to-60-mph charge down the on-ramp takes 9.0 seconds. Honda's pint-size 1.5-liter musters 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque and is lashed to a CVT. The CVT's faux shifts mitigate elastic throttle response somewhat, but this droning powertrain underserves this nicely tuned chassis. However, observed fuel economy, at 28 mpg, was just 1 mpg shy of the top-ranking Toyota.

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Honda doesn't offer its top-drawer model with a nonhybrid powertrain, and that held the CR-V back a bit in the final tally, as the Honda's missing features outweighed the $2065 savings compared to the richly equipped Kia.

Of course, the CR-V offers more expensive models that are better equipped, and they feature a higher-achieving hybrid powertrain that both accelerates quicker and returns better fuel economy. But we wanted this test to focus on nonhybrids, so that's not what we had here.

2024 Honda CR-V EX-L AWD
190-hp turbocharged inline-4, continuously variable automatic, 3614 lb
Base/As-Tested (2024 model): $37,510/$37,965
60 mph: 8.1 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 89 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 163 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.82 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 31 mpg

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2nd Place: Volkswagen Tiguan

Tired of flailing in the U.S. market, Volkswagen finally decided to give the people what they want. And VW figured that what Americans want is really big SUVs. Therefore, the Tiguan--measured from nose to tail--is the biggest SUV here (just as the Atlas is among the biggest in its segment and the Taos in its). It's big enough to squeeze in a third row; without that option, our test example swallowed 11 carry-on-sized boxes with the seats up (just one less than the CR-V) and 25 with the rear seats folded (tying the Rogue for third place behind the CR-V and the Sportage). Certainly, the cabin feels roomy, an impression bolstered by expansive glass. VW has also learned that Americans don't always demand the finest materials, so there are lots of hard-edged surfaces in here, although the SEL does get real cowhide on the seats. VW has gone all in on screens, and while the central display works well, the new haptic climate controls are a step back ergonomically. There are more haptic buttons on the steering wheel. What we really wish, though, is that someone could snap Wolfsburg out of its obsession with touch sliders.

HIGHS: American-size interior, Korean-level value, German-correct suspension tuning.
LOWS: The lowest horsepower meets the highest curb weight, fussy touch controls.
VERDICT: Designed for America, with just a hint of the Old World.

The Tiguan is the only member of our octet to weigh in on the high side of two tons, against which Volkswagen's turbo four brings the fewest ponies to bear (184). Its 221 pound-feet of torque, however, arrives at a low 1600 rpm. That helps the Tiguan move easily through traffic, albeit with some turbo lag. Still, an 8.2-second 60-mph time is the result of too many pounds and not enough horses.

Despite its heft, the Volkswagen slightly overachieved in fuel economy, returning 30 mpg in our 75-mph test (against a 29-mg EPA highway rating) and 26 mpg overall (beating its EPA combined estimate by 2 mpg).

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If the Tiguan shows any evidence of VW's roots, it's in the chassis tuning. The suspension is taut and well controlled--dare we say Germanic? A vestige of old VW. And the Tiguan's 0.84 g of skidpad grip tied the CX-50 for second place. Good sightlines and a chair with enough lateral support to hold you in place help the driver pilot this SUV confidently on winding roads. It's too bad about the overboosted steering, which feels like another sop to our market.

VW has also learned that we love a good bargain. The Tiguan's as-tested price is within a few hundred dollars of the Kia's, and that's with a similarly deep roster of equipment. All of this combines for a well-rounded package, enough to give the Tiguan a podium finish.

2024 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL R-Line AWD
184-hp turbocharged inline-4, 8-speed automatic, 4003 lb
Base/As-Tested: $40,305/$40,700
60 mph: 8.2 sec
1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 85 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 181 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 30 mpg

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1st Place: Mazda CX-50

The compact SUV isn't typically a species that gets by on its looks, but the Mazda CX-50 almost could. Longer, lower, and wider than its CX-5 sibling, the CX-50 is model handsome with its scowling visage and long-hood profile that convincingly ape an upscale, rear-wheel-drive layout (it's a ruse; the CX-50 has a transverse engine, just like the others here). Only the fake rear fascia vents and the thick band of black plastic along the lower body torpedo its invitation to the Museum of Modern Art.

HIGHS: Fetchingly wagon-like proportions, robust turbo four, ride and handling in harmony.
LOWS: Cavelike rear seat, not-so-great gas mileage, infotainment struggles.
VERDICT: A top-tier powertrain meets a top-tier chassis.

Whereas the others serve up a new-car smell that's a mix of off-gassing plastics and glue, the smooth-grained hides on the CX-50's dash and door panels give the Mazda's high-design interior the aroma of a fine-shoe store. We're also charmed by the physical switchgear and the real gearshift, but we just can't follow the obtuse logic of Mazda's rotary controller for the infotainment system. And despite being more than five inches longer than the CX-5, the Mazda's dark rear seat was deemed cavelike and not particularly comfortable, and its luggage compartment was smaller than the group average.

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Start driving, though, and the CX-50 quickly elbows its way back to the front of the pack. The steering's heft seems like an artificial concoction, but the three-spoke wheel is deliciously precise and the responses predictable. Skidpad grip, at 0.84 g, is just 0.01 g behind the Dodge. The tightly wound suspension manages to rein in body motions effectively without transmitting undue harshness over broken pavement. This is the best-realized chassis in the group, and it lends the Mazda an air of upmarket refinement that's missing among the rest.

With a relatively large 2.5-liter inline-four, the Mazda doesn't rely heavily on turbo boost. Throttle response and power delivery are smooth and linear. Despite 256 horsepower and a best-in-test 320 pound-feet of torque, the Mazda trailed the Ford and the Dodge in most acceleration tests but was solidly in the upper echelon. Although they worked harmoniously together, the biggest-displacement engine and the transmission with the fewest ratios were not a winning pair at the gas pump; the CX-50's 23-mpg average brought up the rear in this measure.

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Despite falling short in some practical measures, the Mazda's combination of a solid powertrain and winning chassis made it the vehicle we most wanted to drive and live with. And the plush, high-quality interior is a fine place to spend time, even when sitting in traffic. The real world can often be unglamorous, but the Mazda proves that the right compact SUV can elevate the mundane.

2024 Mazda CX-50 Turbo Premium Plus
256-hp turbocharged inline-4, 6-speed automatic, 3864 lb
Base/As-Tested: $44,675/$44,675
60 mph: 6.4 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.9 sec @ 92 mph
Braking, 70­--0 mph: 167 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.84 g
75-mph Highway Driving: 29 mpg

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