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.
If your priorities end up somewhere in the middle, you're going to want to read on, as we outline more of what makes these two models so different, even though they both score very high here in our full review process.
For families hunting down a new commuting appliance, the CR-V works extremely well; and with this year's substitution of the new-generation 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, with direct injection and hooked up to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), it's even more drivable yet more fuel-efficient than before. 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; the 240-horsepower four's able to hit 60 mph in under 8 seconds, even with only a six-speed automatic running plays underfoot. (A pair of less powerful engines are available, too: a 2.5-liter four with 170 hp, and a turbo 1.6-liter four with 178 hp.)
Fuel economy ends up in Ford's corner: the CR-V's top EPA ratings hit 29 mpg Combined, with 27 mpg city, 34 highway (up a solid 3 mpg versus 2014), while the best Escape model is rated at 33 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 carlike 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.
These models both earn a four-star overall score from the federal government, yet both models earn mostly 'good' scores from the IIHS. Both just last year had a less-than-ideal performance in the new IIHS small overlap frontal test, but with a retest, the CR-V has now improved to 'good' while the Escape remains at 'poor.' Technically the Escape offers more advanced safety technology like parking sensors and active park assist, although with the 2015 CR-V's optional Collision Mitigation Braking System, optional on the Touring model, it can now earn the IIHS 'superior' rating for front crash prevention and the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ nod.
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.
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.
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