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Payne: Ford, Mazda and Mitsubishi scrap for small-SUV best value

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

These are interesting times.

Where Americans once coveted soap-bar smooth sedans, now they crave the boxy, five-door SUV. Give me a game show where contestants have to identify utes by their profile and contestants would be stumped. When I arrived at my aunt’s house driving a BMW X4 she asked if it was the latest Chevy SUV. Oh, dear.

Brands have been working hard to break the monotony with coupe-like roofs and daring fascias. Peel back the top of these tin cans, and it gets more compelling: dazzling digital displays, remote rotary-controllers, high-tech driver-assist features. And that’s on vehicles that cost $30,000 and less.

Take the three small SUVs that I’ve been flogging: the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Ford Escape Hybrid and Mazda CX-30.

Throw out the rule book. Traditionally, Mitsubishi would be the budget play here. But technology and SUV segments are moving so fast that the Japanese model is not only a generation behind the Ford and Mazda on tech smarts — it also trails in value.

Indeed, the compact-segment Escape Hybrid gives so much bang for $30,095 that it is priced competitively with the two subcompact entries here even as it offers considerably more cargo space and a fancy-pants hybrid powertrain.

The subcompact $28,720 Outlander Sport is the junior version of the compact Outlander, and it is fully loaded for our three-way comparison. It features modern amenities like push-button start, blind-spot assist, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto with Google navigation, heated leather seats, sculpted wheels and all-wheel drive.

Except for all-wheel drive, the bigger Escape matches the Mitsubishi feature-for-feature. Then it jumps ahead a whole generation.

The Escape styling is smooth and car-like. Where the Outlander still sports the chunky, upright grille of classic SUVs, the Escape looks like a Porsche Macan — itself a rendition of the Porsche 911 sports car. The Ford is easy on the eyes.

The styling contrast continues inside where the Outlander Sport is layered in hard plastic and an uninspired center console capped with aluminum. The Escape has soft-touch materials in all the right places (despite geeking out on dimpled door inlays).

The center console is a delight with a safety-conscious rotary shifter that automatically spins to Park if you accidentally open the door in the mall lot while still in Drive. It also opens up lots of console storage space.

The Escape is a student of the digital age with a 12.3-inch instrument cluster and iPad-like infotainment display. Instrument details include fuel-economy numbers, a hybrid energy indicator and dazzling drive-mode graphics.

The interior of the Outlander Sport is conventional with fixed, round instrument dials and minimal information in between. The Escape bristles with modern ergonomics. The heated front seat controls, for example, are operated by button compared to the Outlander’s clumsy rocker switch.

Safety technology is really where the Ford makes its mark.

Blind-spot assist and automatic headlight high-beam assist come standard on all Escapes — matching the loaded Outlander Sport GT trim’s offerings. These are conveniences so useful you can’t go back once you’ve experienced them.

Elsewhere, the Ford has has thoughtful touches like a double-pull hood lever so you won't burn your hands searching under the hood for the latch. The rear seats fold flat, making for good load capacity when necessary — but only the Escape gives my knees breathing room with sliding rear seats.

The Outlander Sport feels nimble thanks to its subcompact proportions. But despite gaining 250 pounds on the Mitsubishi, the larger Escape is easy to drive with good torque from its hybrid electric motor.

Add it all up and the upsized, sophisticated Ford comes in at just $1,375 more than the Mitsubishi. Add in the hybrid’s 60% better fuel economy (41 mpg compared to 25 mpg) and the Escape will earn back the difference in fuel savings in just three years.

But ...

We have one more player in our test: the Mazda CX-30. What a revelation this little dumpling is.

The CX-30 combines the best of the Ford and Mitsubishi and then cooks them into a nice recipe seasoned with Mazda’s signature handling. Like the Escape, it offers the latest electronic features standard — and more.

The result? For $28,700 (same price as the Outlander Sport) the CX-30 offers all-wheel drive like the Mitsu, looks like the Escape, and has equivalent interior features: heated leatherette seats, blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist, automatic windshield wipers, Bose audio, eight-way seats and so on.

And then it ups the ante with a luxe-like interior and state-of-the-art adaptive cruise control.

Adding adaptive cruise control — which I would argue is one of the most important safety systems out there today — on the Ford Escape adds another $2,900 to the bottom line. AWD? Another $1,500 for $34,490 total.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Standard electronic features are not only making it hard to justify the 15-grand jump from mainstream to luxury brands — it’s making it hard to justify the 5-grand jump between mainstream segments.

Ultimately, I think Detroit automakers like Ford will offer the same standard features now found on the pioneering Japanese brands like Mazda.

But as the CX-30’s handsome lines and interior betray, there is more premium here than just electronics.

I enjoy the hybrid Ford’s smooth driving experience courtesy of its hybrid drivetrain. But the CX-30’s 6-speed automatic is buttery smooth, too, and more compelling than the Ford’s dry CVT transmission. And its 186 ponies are just 12 shy of the bigger Escape.

On road, the Mazda is in its own league when it comes to handling.

Some of my motorhead peers have scoffed at the idea of nimble SUVs. The irascible Jeremy Clarkson from “The Grand Tour” writes that there’s a reason SUVs aren’t exciting to drive: “People who buy medium-sized SUVs don’t want to hammer along as if their hair is on fire.”

And my fast friends at Car and Driver wonder why anyone would want a high-riding CX-30 when its lower, nimbler Mazda 3 hot-hatch twin is available.

Fair points. I covet the Mazda 3, too.

But for those on a budget who need an SUV because it’s easier for entry/egress and offers a taller command of the road, the CX-30 compromises little of the 3’s sporty character. And lack of compromise is the theme of this comparison, after all.

For $30,000 or less, you can have it all in a SUV: looks, tech, fun, utility. Especially if it’s got a Mazda badge.

2020 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

2020 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $28,720, including $1,095 destination charge

Powerplant: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder

Power: 168 horsepower, 167 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 123 mph 

Weight: 3,316 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 23 city/28 highway/25 combined

Report card

Highs: Loaded with standard features; tight handling

Lows: A face only a mother could love; interior a generation behind

Overall: 2 stars

2020 Ford Escape SE Sport Hybrid

2020 Ford Escape SE Sport Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger compact SUV

Price: $30,090, including $900 destination charge

Powerplant: Hybrid with electric motor and 2.5-liter Atkinson 4-cylinder

Power: 198 horsepower, torque NA

Transmission: Automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT)

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; top speed, 126 mph

Weight: 3,554 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA, 44 mpg city/37 highway/41 combined

Report card

Highs: Face like a Macan; 41 mpg

Lows: Lags Japanese in standard features; mediocre handling

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Mazda CX-30

2020 Mazda CX-30 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $28,700, including $1,045 destination charge

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 186 horsepower, 186 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 123 mph (est.)

Weight: 3,408 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. 24 city/31 highway/26 combined 

Report card

Highs: All the standard features you want; loves a curvy road

Lows: Heavy black cladding; tight in back

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.