This is the Year of the Compact Crossover. With Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 racking up unit sales rivaling the compact sedan market, even the lux makers want a piece of the action. Everybodyís downsizing from the Lexus NX to the Lincoln MKC to the Porsche Macan. Heck, even, Peterbilt is probably working on one.
Given homo sapiens preference for riding up high ó Americans conquered the West on horseback and Conestoga wagon after all ó Iím wagering it wonít be long before crossover utility vehicles take over the sedan segment entirely. For sure, before the Lions win a Super Bowl. Heck, even Europeans have adopted this most American of trends, with CUV sales doubling over the last six years. Just this year, Jeep announced it will make its Renegade crossover in Italy and Ford will export the Edge. Whatís next? Soccer-crazed Brits turning to baseball?
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and CUVs. And no one understands the Yankee mind better than Honda.
While Detroit led the switch from big cars to big utes, Honda translated its small car success to small crossovers. Debuting an early example of the species back in 1997, the bulletproof, CR-V has led the way ó and won class rodeo again in 2013 with more than 300,000 sold. Saddle up, Detroit. Motown is hot on the CR-Vís trail with its own superb crossovers, the Escape and Equinox. Which is better positioned to conquer the West?
Duel at high noon. We put these two pistols back-to-back. Twenty paces, gents.
Thinking outside the box
The CUV separated itself from truck-based SUVs by building on car-inspired, unibody chassis. Now their exterior skins are mimicking sedans as well.
Think outside the box.
Compacts like the Escape, Mazda CX-5, and Kia Sportage lead this wave with raked styling, attractive grilles and curvy hips. Where the Honda CR-V brought Civic-like dependability to the class, the Escape has leap-frogged the Honda in styling. A generation ago, the Escape looked like it was carved from a block of cheese. Now it looks like a Ford Focus on steroids.
From its angular front and rear lights to its full fascia grille (sure to be Aston Martin-ized soon like the rest of Fordís lineup) to its swept greenhouse, the Escape shows a lot of leg to the passing sedan crowd. Dads who bought the Escape for their soccer moms will find themselves sneaking out to the garage at first light to take it to work instead of their aging (big, boxy ute name here).
The squared-off Equinox is a tidy, attractive interpretation of Chevyís split-grille, two-box architecture. But next to the Escape it looks a generation behind. Only the muscular wheel wells stir any passion. In the salon chair next to the Equinox is the larger Traverse which has received the full Camaro-inspired, Impala-like extreme makeover. What the Equinox wouldnít do to get the same stylist.
Surprisingly, the Escapeís sloped greenhouse does not compromise interior room and visibility. Indeed, the Fordís angular glass carves out room in the D-pillar to improve driverís rear-corner visibility. The Equinoxís more traditional D-pillar combines with the second-row headrest to make rear visibility difficult. All SUVs, however, suffer from D-pillar blindness. The solution? Blind spot assist on the mirrors. Donít leave home without it.
Inside, only Sequoias like your 6-foot-5-inch author will notice the slight reduction in rear headroom from the Escape roof while still beating the Equinox in interior room.
Devil in interior details
My neighbor Betsy Walbridge is a stickler for detail. Sheís a master chef with a shrewd taste for the right ingredients. She can spot an overcooked entree at 500 paces. And she loves her Escape interior.
Buyers lured by the Escapeís exterior detail will be won over by the high-IQ interior. Fordís interior design engineers must have hammock-sized circles under their eyes because they sweated every detail. As in the exterior comparison, the Equinox is well-groomed, but just hasnít spent as much time in front of the mirror as its Dearborn competitor.
May I call your attention to the Escapeís upright center console which is more accessible than the Equinoxís sloped approach. Both screens are high on the dash, necessitating sun shielding. The Escapeís canopy is wonderfully integrated into the interiorís swept design whereas the Chevy visor looks like an aftermarket job.
Fordís infamous, glitchy SYNC system has been the single best advertisement for the CR-V. The new Escape shows off a much-improved system which, like Chevyís ubiquitous MyLink system, gives you the world at your fingertips. Nav, radio, blue-tooth phone ...
Whatís that, Mrs. Walbridge? Oh, yes, the devil is in the details.
To answer the phone, Ford provides a fingertip-accessed tab aft of the wheel. The Equinox sports a standard thumb button by the steering wheel hub. But if you have my neighborís small thumbs itís a stretch.
More details. Foot-activated rear lift gate, three USB jacks, innovative two-shelf glove box, directional fog lights, fold-flat rear seats. ... Sure the Equinox comes with sliding rear seats, but when the other dude shows up at the front door with flowers ó and a box of candy, and tickets to the Tigers game, and a babysitter for your kid sister, which one are you gonna go with?
Both CUVs option with all-wheel-drive, which is not only useful for winterís wrath but for getting out of the post-thaw potholes. For all the Escapeís interior and exterior eye-candy, however, the real difference-maker is hidden under the hood.
Class-leader Honda offers one engine ó a 2.4 liter four banger. The Escape offers three: A standard 2.5 liter, a 1.6 liter turbo, and the terrific, 240-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo in the Titanium model that I drove. The Equinox is pro-choice as well ó offering a base 2.4 and a 3.6-liter V6. Like Jeepís racy Cherokee, Chevy is betting the V6 still has premium cachet.
But the Escape turbo is cutting edge: Quiet, no turbo lag, lots of low end grunt. Itís like a V6 but without the appetite. 24 mpg vs. 19 mpg.
They say the smart phone industry is about convergence. Users want a phone with the screen size of a tablet. The automobile has been around for a century, but it seems to be on the same course: Ute-size with car styling. The Ford Escape is that future.
2014 Chevy Equinox
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger small sport utility vehicle
Price: $25,315 base ($33,740 as tested)
Power plant: 2.4-liter, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder
Power: 182 horsepower, 172 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7 seconds (TopSpeed.com); 131 mph top speed
Weight: 3,777 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined
Highs: Muscular fenders; sliding rear seats
Lows: Poor rear visibility; more USBs, please
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.