Growing families on a budget will find two very impressive daily drivers in the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. But they're quite different in many ways—and pretty much the polar opposites of this vehicle class.
Which is the better pick? As we tease, there are plenty of ways in which both the Escape and CR-V excel, and they're both among the best in the segment, but for very different reasons. It boils down to your personal priorities: If you're looking for the flexible, utility-driven safety specialist, take the CR-V; or if you weigh the driving experience and sportier styling higher on your list, then the Escape is going to be the better bet.
Overall, we score the CR-V a lot higher than the Escape, thanks in part to the fact that it's a much fresher design. The Ford's subpar safety rating also holds it back. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
CR-V LX models utilize a largely carried over 2.4-liter inline-4 engine rated at 184 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. All other trim levels, including the EX, EX-L, and Touring, make use of a more advanced 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that checks in with 190 hp and 179 pound-feet, the latter of which is spread across a much wider range of the engine's revolutions. That translates to far quicker acceleration and passing power with from the turbo model than from the standard engine in the LX. Both models make use of a CVT.
That said, after a day's drive in the athletic, attractive new Escape, we'd give it the enthusiast nod, each and every time. Not only does it look the part of a hot hatchback—the CR-V's hunched-over back has nothing on Ford's rally-ready air intakes and rakish angles—the Escape's turbo thrust, ride and handling hold up to repeated thrashings. The electric power steering at least feels like it's in the game, the ride's very well damped—even taut— and the 240-horsepower inline-4's able to hit 60 mph in under 8 seconds, even with only a 6-speed automatic running plays underfoot. (A pair of less powerful engines are available in the Escape, too: a 2.5-liter four with 168 hp, and a 1.5-liter turbo-4 with 179 hp.)
Fuel economy ends up in Ford's corner: the CR-V's top EPA ratings hit as high as 34 mpg ion the highway, while the best Escape model is rated at a mere 30 mpg highway.
The area often most important for families—quality and comfort—is one in which the CR-V shines. It's a little smaller than the new Escape in some critical dimensions, but it delivers more usable interior space thanks to a more upright shape with more efficient packaging. The seats are more plushly upholstered, too—and the flip-fold mechanism that turns the second-row seat from passenger perch to cargo bench is the most clever touch in its class. By comparison, the Escape reads more like a tall station wagon, with the combination of a rather low dash but upright driving position feeling a little more car-like overall.
For those times when running around off-road is part of the plan, the Escape can tow up to 3,500 pounds, and has optional all-wheel drive, just like the CR-V. Its cabin has much firmer seats with much thinner padding, which telegraphs a sportier feel without delivering discomfort. Its back seats fold forward too, though not with the final flourish of fold-forward fancy that Honda's mustered in the CR-V.
On the safety front, the CR-V hasn't yet been tested, so this is an incomplete story. One important thing to note is that its advanced safety tech like automatic emergency braking is standard on EX and higher trim levels. That tech is now available on select Escape trim levels, but it can't hide the fact that this crossover hasn't performed especially well in the IIHS and the NHTSA's testing.
As for features, the Escape triumphs, though Honda's made good progress. The CR-V now has standard Bluetooth, and streaming audio and mobile connectivity are reality. The Escape feels in a class above, if you shop by feature lists, with options for leather, a panoramic sunroof, MyFord Touch's voice-command controls, even a hands-free tailgate that opens or closes with the wave of a foot. One thing to remember, however, is that the Escape gets pricey with options, while the CR-V tops out under $35,000.
In the end, if you've narrowed it down to these two, it's more an inward question about those priorities. The Escape's far from the faux-SUV it once was, and it's now a much sportier vehicle—almost a tall sport wagon if you see it in the right light. The CR-V on the other hand has changed in no-nonsense, evolutionary ways, keeping it at the top of the class for the mission it has in mind. Our advice: If you're so busy you barely have time to think of the driving itself, get the CR-V; but if you want a little fun sprinkled in, the Escape stays true to its name.