Big Test! 2023 Honda CR-V vs. Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5Blog Mar 7th, 2023
Welcome to the compact SUV market. If you’re actively shopping for such a vehicle, it might be because it’s your first new car, or maybe your family is growing, or maybe you want more space for weekend getaways. Or perhaps you’re downsizing after years in something larger. Whatever your story is, now that you’ve made the decision, it can be daunting to choose the best small SUV in one of autodom’s most populous segments.
Allow us to help. We’ve conducted other comparison tests in this segment in recent years, but models come and go with furious frequency, and so we’re back to work with the latest offerings. Per usual, we evaluated these utes on practicality—interior space, versatility, technology, safety, fuel economy—as well as ride and handling. As to the latter, while small SUVs tend to focus first on comfort and convenience, we believe the driver should still feel engaged and enjoy time behind the wheel.
The group we’ve gathered this time includes most of the top players. Each vehicle you see here is among the most important nameplates for their respective automakers, and all have annual sales volumes that eclipse 100,000 units.
The 2023 Toyota RAV4 is the bestselling model in the category. Its well-known reliability and the current generation’s rugged styling continue to court buyers by the bucketful, and its expansive lineup ensures no shortage of choice. We asked all automakers to send us their top trims with the gas engine, but Toyota was only able to send us a TRD Off-Road model for our comparison. This version’s adventure-ready look, higher ride, all-terrain tires, and two-tone paint stand out from the rest of the pack.
The 2023 Honda CR-V is brand new, getting a complete redesign this year and adding new technology. For the 2023 model year, Honda mixes the gas and hybrid engines within one lineup—rather than splitting the hybrid off with its own trim hierarchy as before—with the EX and EX-L getting the gas engine and the Sport and Touring being hybrid-only. Our EX-L test car arrived with more than the basics but wasn’t as well-equipped as the other competitors.
With a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo engine, the 2023 Nissan Rogue Platinum is down one cylinder on every other SUV here. Even so, the new engine means the popular SUV has more power while simultaneously sipping less fuel, and its sophisticated styling and comfortable cabin are major plusses.
The Kia and Hyundai entries look different outside, but under the sheetmetal they share a lot in common. The 2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro Prestige and 2023 Hyundai Tucson Limited are underpinned by the same platform, and they share the same heart—a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 187 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque. They also both rank highly on value, offering tons of amenities.
The 2023 Mazda CX-5 hasn’t been updated in a few years, but it continues to be a favorite among enthusiasts. It delivers the company’s trademark “zoom zoom” and offers the most powerful engine in its class— a 2.5-liter turbo-four with 227 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. It sacrifices other things, but Mazda puts the driver and emotion at the top of its list.
Finally, the 2023 Subaru Forester Touring isn’t the most handsome SUV out there, but it continues to be popular among outdoorsy types. With standard all-wheel drive and a boxer engine, the Forester Touring prioritizes comfort, all-weather peace of mind, and a quieter ride.
Before we get started, a caveat: You’re probably surprised there isn’t an American player in this game. We invited the 2023 Ford Escape to join the fun, but Ford didn’t have any examples available. The Chevrolet Equinox and Jeep Cherokee haven’t received notable updates or redesigns; they finished in the bottom two spots in our last compact SUV Big Test, so there’s no reason to believe they’d fare better now. The group we rounded up, however, is as competitive as it can get.
Ride And Handling
These SUVs weren’t developed around a racetrack or with a dynamic feel in mind, but the segment has come a long way on that front. Some are more fun to drive than others, but we know that’s not the only thing that matters when buying an SUV; comfort and a quiet cabin are top priorities.
The Rogue is a great example of this philosophy. It delivers a serene ride while keeping the vibrations out of the cabin, favoring comfort over anything else. “I commend Nissan for going with such a comfort-oriented chassis tune rather than making it stiff in an attempt to pretend to be sporty,” associate editor Alex Leanse said. Its steering is light but well-balanced, and its three-cylinder engine’s 201 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque are plenty for a compact SUV. Power is plentiful and immediately available, and it never feels underpowered.
Still, while we enjoyed the Rogue’s ride, we had more fun in the CX-5. The jock of the pack, the Mazda feels at home on twisty roads and offers excellent body composure. Its steering feels closer to a sports car’s, with loads of feedback and precision. “I’m really blown away by the maturity of its steering and ride,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said. Its turbocharged engine packs a punch; it reaches 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, making it the quickest in our group by a landslide. Associate editor Bob Hernandez noted its brakes feel like they have the most bite, too, which increases confidence.
Despite sharing platforms and powertrains, the Sportage and Tucson feel different on the road. The Kia’s eight-speed automatic transmission is more refined, but both SUVs lack power. All Sportage X-Pro Prestige models are equipped with all-terrain tires, making the ride a bit bouncier and noisier than in the Tucson Limited we had, but the Kia’s steering ratio has a quicker feel. Otherwise, “the Hyundai and Kia are effectively a wash when it comes to how they drive,” Seabaugh said. “Both are underpowered and slow, but the Kia’s superior transmission tuning makes this engine easier to live with.” All editors were disappointed with the powertrain, especially considering each company has scored a recent MotorTrend Golden Calipers trophy (with the Telluride and Ioniq 5, our 2020 and 2023 SUVs of the Year).
The CR-V has long been a MotorTrend favorite. It won our SUV of the Year title in 2015 and 2018, it came out on top in the last Big Test we executed, and the new generation mostly sticks to the model’s proven formula. The 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is carried over from the previous generation, still making 190 hp and 179 lb-ft. The engine is well paired with the CVT, but it feels a bit stressed at moderate throttle inputs. “It sounds like it’s working hard to provide the power that it does,” Leanse said. Its ride, however, is composed and serene; it stands out by doing everything reasonably well. Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana described the CR-V as “the best handler of the bunch,” yet some editors had a harder time getting used to its brakes, which lack strong engagement at the top of the pedal travel.
The most popular vehicle in the segment isn’t a strong handler, which we can understand, but it’s harder to forgive the RAV4 for its lack of comfort relative to other small SUVs. In this case, pin some blame on the TRD Off-Road’s all-terrain tires and tuned suspension, as it rode jigglingly firm compared to every other SUV in the test. Its steering, however, ranks at the top of the group, providing the most direct road feel. Unfortunately, more negatives appear in the form of the loud, unrefined 2.4-liter four-cylinder and an eight-speed transmission that hunts for gears and feels like it’s fighting the engine instead of working together. “You bury the throttle, and after getting a few milliseconds of zero reaction, the RAV suddenly responds with a lurch,” Hernandez noted.
A tried-and-true crossover, the Subaru Forester has held the top spot in our Buyer’s Guide rankings because it tends to do everything well. The 2.5-liter boxer engine delivers 182 hp and 176 lb ft but feels stressed when passing or climbing a hill. Torque delivery can feel a bit too aggressive from a stop, and its CVT lacks the refinement of Honda’s. Its ride isn’t remarkably better, either. “Either this road is bumpier than I remember,” Evans said, “or the Forester seems to translate every single bump into the seat.” And prospective buyers should be aware that the Forester’s steering feels considerably less connected to the road than others.
With Leanse’s frame reaching an impressive 6-foot-10, our Big Test judging crew had an opportunity to test the limits of interior space and driver positioning, while also zeroing in on overall comfort, cargo room, technology, and utility. The Rogue quickly stood out with its premium-feeling interior featuring quilted leather seats, ambient lightning, and three-zone climate control. The Rogue is the most expensive of the group ($1,320 more than the RAV4), and it feels like it. “Features like the Rogue’s panoramic roof and small things like the soft detents of the switchgear are further upscale,” Hernandez said. But we were let down by its infotainment screen, which is laggy and displays dated graphics.
The CR-V has always been about versatility and interior room, but the new generation takes a step backward. The rear seats can only be folded from the seat backs and no longer have the option to fold flat from the cargo area. The EX-L, the second-highest trim in the CR-V lineup, doesn’t have rear USB ports, something the previous model offered on every trim except the base. The 9.0-inch touchscreen looks small in this competition, and its infotainment system already seems old. Worse, the backup camera only fills about half of the screen instead of using the entire display. But there are many positives—the seats are comfortable, and the cabin design is smart, airy, and uncluttered. Ayapana called it “the Marie Kondo of interiors.”
We preferred the Sportage’s cabin design over the Tucson’s. The curved display in the Kia combines the infotainment and digital gauge cluster into a single panel, giving the interior a chic and avant-garde look. And the Kia’s attention to detail, such as cool air vent designs and hangers on the back of the headrests, distinguish the Sportage from its competitors. “I can take or leave the exterior,” Seabaugh said, “but I hopped into the driver’s seat and was immediately impressed with how warm and welcoming the Sportage felt, with its faux wood trim; large, curved infotainment display; and metallic accents that tie into the meaty D-ring door handles.” Although we like the Kia’s styling, having the HVAC and radio controls contained in one touch-sensitive panel that swaps between them is a step in the wrong direction. The same knob is used to turn up the volume or temperature—it’s odd and awful.
The Tucson uses individual buttons for those functions, but we found them a bit hard to use while driving, as they’re too close to each other. However, we appreciated its cleverly packaged center console; the push-button shifter allows for easier access to the center storage bin. And the Tucson checked every box on the equipment list: heated rear seats, panoramic roof, wireless charger, Bose premium audio system, four USB ports, and more. The Tucson is also the most affordable SUV of this group, showing great value.
As a 2022 model, our RAV4 lacked the new infotainment system introduced for 2023. Our test vehicle had the old system, whose aging graphics and low resolution were noticeable, so we’re glad the updated RAV is getting better tech. Aside from that, the interior design didn’t change; there are some cool touches, like the chunky A/C knobs with a rubbery texture and extra storage on the dashboard. To the bad, the rear door openings are narrow, the rear seats don’t fold completely flat, and you can’t fold the rear seats from the cargo area. And although we like the TRD logos and orange details, we wish the cluster had a bigger screen to display its information.
Over the past several years, Mazda has been trying to make its products feel premium, and although the CX-5 has a clean interior design, it didn’t win our hearts. “As much as I appreciate how stylish the interior is, I do wish Mazda would offer it in more colorways than black and chrome,” Evans said. On the tech front, the CX-5 doesn’t offer a full digital cluster or a touchscreen; it’s the only vehicle here that lacks a touch function for its main display, as Mazda believes its central control knob is safer. Interior room isn’t its best trait, either. Rear legroom is tight compared to any other vehicle in this class, and the two USB ports for rear seat passengers are located on the center armrest, which means you’ll need to thread the cables through the seatback when a third person is sitting back there. However, we do like its 40/20/40 split rear seating, which allow users to haul longer items without folding down multiple seats at once.
Like the RAV4, the Forester needs a redesign. Even in the uplevel Touring model in this test, which came with a two-tone brown and black leather interior, the cabin’s design hasn’t aged well. If we were in the early 2010s, we’d be pleased with its small LCD screen between the speedo and tach and its small EyeSight screen sitting atop the dash, but in 2023 it simply needs more modern technology to keep pace. Behind the front seats, however, the Touring model is as well-equipped as it can be—tons of legroom, heated seats, USB ports, air vents, and the same kind of soft plastics as in the front. “The Subaru has the best cargo area of the group: sturdy hooks, even in the ceiling, a biggish underfloor storage space, and a rubber mat design that’s distinctive,” Hernandez said.
We rely on IIHS and NHTSA crash ratings for passive safety, though we tested the active safety features in each SUV.
Five of the seven vehicles here—the Tucson, CX-5, Rogue, Forester, and RAV4—have received IIHS’ Top Safety Pick+ recognition, which looks at several crash tests, headlight brightness and pattern, active safety technology, and seat belts and child restraints. The Sportage received a Top Safety Pick rating, and the new CR-V has yet to be tested (although the outgoing model was a Top Safety Pick+).
On the road, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist was the best driver assistance aid of the bunch, with the system confidently reading the lane lines on the highway, maintaining a safe distance with the car in front, and keeping the Rogue centered in its lane. We also gave high marks to Kia and Hyundai. Their cruise control systems work great in stop-and-go traffic and work with less frequent driver interventions. The CR-V, Forester, and RAV4 come with plenty of standard advanced safety features; all three SUVs’ systems are decent, but the Toyota had the most trouble seeing lane markings.
The Mazda has the worst driver aids in the test—its lane keep assist had issues, including that its alerts to warn that you’re veering out of a lane activate quite late. “There’s zero effort at any kind of lane centering here, just your basic lane departure prevention—really more of a simple warning,” Evans said. This, however, is similar to our findings in other Mazda products, and its engineers would rather have lively steering feel, which can be compromised by the software and hardware required to offer a setup that tugs at the wheel to keep you centered in your lane.
Value And Cost Of Ownership
Looks, technology, versatility, interior space, and the way they drive are important, but “How much?” is likely the first question someone asks when looking at this segment. At $27,615, the entry-level Kia Sportage has the lowest starting price, but the models tested here all start in the high $30K range.
From our as-tested models, the Tucson Limited AWD is the least expensive at $37,505. The Rogue stands out with its $43,030 price tag, but it offers not just a bunch of equipment but a strong sense you really are getting more for the money. Honda has a reputation for strong value, but we expect more features for $37,510.
The used car market continues to fluctuate, but based on the most recent IntelliChoice analysis, the Honda CR-V (2022) has the lowest five-year cost of ownership and the most retained value.
|TRIM NAME||EX-L AWD||Turbo AWD||TRD Off-Road AWD||Platinum AWD||Limited AWD||Touring||EX AWD|
So, Which Small SUV Is Best?
Sometimes selecting the last place finisher is a tough decision, but we had no difficulty ranking the Tucson at the back of the pack here. It’s great on value and safety and comes packed with features, but the Hyundai had the worst powertrain and ride of the group. If you don’t care about the drive, the Tucson is an amenable choice, but we question Hyundai’s decision to use this engine and transmission in its most popular model.
Next up comes the Toyota RAV4. Its powertrain needs further refinement, and its rowdy ride turned off our judges. We aren’t fans of its narrow rear door opening and lack of advanced tech given its $41,710 price tag. (We didn’t evaluate the TRD Pro’s off-road-focused equipment in this showdown, but we did in this comparison test.) There are some positives, though—its design has aged well, and its cabin is full of cool little details like the orange trim and rubber-wrapped knobs.
Fifth place belongs to the Forester. “It’s competent but not all that exciting,” Seabaugh said. Its expansive cabin and ample cargo area are great traits for a compact SUV, but its powertrain seems stressed when going uphill and passing on the freeway, and its bland exterior design fails to stand out.
The CX-5 scored fourth. There’s a lot to like, especially the way it drives. But in a segment as competitive as this one, driving isn’t all that matters. The Mazda doesn’t deliver a great in-cabin experience, lacking the technology and interior space the others offer. We hope the next-gen CX-5 addresses these concerns.
Third place belongs to the Sportage. Kia overhauled its compact SUV in a big way, and it’s packed with neat features others don’t have. Its biggest downside is its weak powertrain, but it finishes so far ahead of the mechanically similar Tucson on the strength of its much smarter transmission programming and cool design (particularly inside), while its ride, interior space, and safety tech are good enough to land it here, above the oldest entrants.
The all-new CR-V lands in second place, and so a nameplate we’ve awarded numerous times over the years falls short of the top spot this time. It continues to trade strongly on its ride quality, handling, and refined powertrain, but the new model is no longer the feature-packed, strong value we’ve come to expect.
This leaves us with the Rogue. Propelled by a high-tech turbo three-cylinder engine and packed with tons of goodies, premium materials, and excellent safety gear, the Nissan earns the top spot. If you’re looking for a compact SUV with a versatile and spacious interior and great value, the Rogue should top your list.
7th Place: Hyundai Tucson
- Airy cabin
- Interior room
- Excellent value
- Unrefined transmission
- Gutless engine
- Bouncy ride
Verdict: If you don’t care much about driving, the Tucson will deliver.
6th Place: Toyota RAV4
- Rugged styling
- Ample room
- Smart interior features
- Loud interior
- Bouncy ride
- Unpolished powertrain
Verdict: The most popular player in the game needs a better ride and a more refined powertrain.
5th Place: Subaru Forester
- Great interior room
- Spacious cargo area
- Standard all-wheel drive
- Boring styling
- Stressed engine
- Vague steering
Verdict: A good all-arounder that has fallen behind its quickly improving competition.
4th Place: Mazda CX-5
- Fantastic dynamics
- Powerful engine
- Mighty ride
- Cozy second row
- No touchscreen
- Poor driver aids
Verdict: It’s a favorite among enthusiasts, but Mazda needs to deliver on more than the driving experience.
3rd Place: Kia Sportage
- Cool interior features
- Great value
- Stylish cabin
- Awful touch buttons
- Weak powertrain
- Noisy ride
Verdict: The most improved SUV; the Sportage feels competent despite its underpowered engine.
2nd Place: Honda CR-V
- Ample interior room
- Great ride and handling
- Spacious center console
- Short equipment list
- Small infotainment screen
- Low-res backup camera
Verdict: It’s still a great SUV, but the new CR-V takes steps back in utility and value.
1st Place: Nissan Rogue
- Premium cabin
- Tons of features
- Punchy and efficient powertrain
- Priciest in the test
- Laggy infotainment
- CVT takes a bit to respond
Verdict: The Rogue is feature-packed and comfortable, and drives well to boot.
|2023 Honda CR-V AWD (EX-L) Specifications||2022 Hyundai Tucson Limited AWD Specifications||2023 Kia Sportage X-Pro AWD (Prestige) Specifications**||2023 Mazda CX-5 2.5T AWD Specifications**||2023 Nissan Rogue Platinum AWD Specifications**||2023 Subaru Forester Touring Specifications||2022 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road Specifications|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Port- and direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Port- and direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head||Turbo direct-injected DOHC 12-valve I-3, alum block/head||Direct-injected DOHC 16-valve flat-4, alum block/heads||Direct-injected DOHC 16-valve I-4, alum block/head|
|DISPLACEMENT||1,498 cc/91.4 cu in||2,497 cc/152.4 cu in||2,497 cc/152.4 cu in||2,488 cc/151.8 cu in||1,498 cc/91.4 cu in||2,498 cc/152.4 cu in||2,487 cc/151.8 cu in|
|*2023 Pricing of 2022 photo/test vehicle; **Identical 2022 model tested|