If you're looking to buy a compact crossover and hate the burdens of visiting multiple dealerships to conduct test drives and compare prices, there's a simple choice: the Honda CR-V. The popular Honda's 2017 model redesign yielded class-leading fuel economy and class-leading interior space, along with decently sporty driving dynamics and a respectably-polished interior — all at reasonable prices.
But the CR-V isn't perfect. Some drivers will seek a better bargain or a simpler control layout. Others will crave a more luxurious experience or a higher-tech cabin. Others still will just want to try out additional options.
Depending on your own particular preferences, two recently-tested compact crossovers offer appealing alternatives to the CR-V. The Nissan Rogue nearly matches the Honda's outstanding gas mileage and interior room, while offering steeper discounts. And the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe Sport feels like a bigger, more substantial and more expensive car, while also being available with a more powerful engine.
Of the two, the Rogue is the more similar to the CR-V and to the Toyota RAV4. Indeed, these three models have been jockeying for the best-seller title in recent months, trading off for the top position. Although the Rogue has seen few major changes since its current iteration debuted as a 2014 model, it remains highly competitive in the compact crossover class.
The Nissan's key strengths begin with the aforementioned interior space (comfortable seating for five passengers, 39 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seat and 70 cubic feet with the rear seat folded) and fuel economy (27 miles per gallon in mixed driving with all-wheel-drive and 29 mpg with front-wheel-drive). The Rogue also boasts a smooth, comfortable ride; decently peppy engine; and straightforward dashboard design with simple controls. The tested SL model is also dressed up with brown-orange leather upholstery, including the dashboard.
Nissan has also boosted the Rogue's appeal by offering generous standard safety equipment even on the base $25,395 model. Starting with the 2017.5 model, these features include emergency automatic braking and a blind-spot monitoring system. While Honda also offers these items, they're not included on the CR-V's base LX trim.
The Rogue feels more basic than the CR-V, with a louder engine, looser steering and a plainer dashboard design. It's also missing the Honda's Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. But given the value that Nissan packs into this crossover, there's still a respectable degree of comfort, luxury, refinement and technology. And it blows away the RAV4, which trails the Nissan for ride, handling and fuel economy; has comparatively inconvenient-to-fold rear seats; and doesn't offer much to offset those weaknesses. Note that both the Rogue and RAV4, but not the CR-V, are offered as gas-electric hybrid models that promise excellent fuel savings in stop-and-go traffic or other low-speed driving but yield less benefit on the highway.
Don't confuse the compact Rogue with the subcompact Rogue Sport, a smaller, less powerful and less expensive crossover. Nissan used Sport simply to mean a smaller vehicle, not a performance-oriented one.
That's also the case with the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport – a five-passenger version of the three-row Santa Fe. But even with a shorter size, the Sport brings in most of the comfort and luxury that its larger sibling offers at a higher price point.
The Santa Fe Sport is half a size bigger than the CR-V or Rogue, slotting between them and a midsize five-passenger crossover like the Ford Edge or Nissan Murano. But it's reasonably priced from $25,845, a price point that includes respectable amounts of standard equipment and Hyundai's long warranty coverage.
Luxury is subtle in the Santa Fe Sport. Even on the tested, fully-loaded Ultimate model, priced at $39,875, you won't see decadent cushiness or flashy design flourishes. But if you drive the Santa Fe Sport back-to-back with the Rogue or another compact crossover, the latter will feel unexpectedly light and flimsy in comparison — a rather surprising experience that's been ongoing since the current Santa Fe Sport generation debuted as a 2013 model. It doesn't feel big or ponderous, just pleasantly substantial.
The main reason for the Santa Fe Sport's solid feel is easy to figure out. It's heavy, some 400 pounds heftier than the Rogue and 500 pounds more than the CR-V. That tonnage hits you at the pump, where the most efficient Santa Fe Sport is rated for merely 24 mpg in mixed driving. The tested Ultimate, with the optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine and all-wheel-drive, is rated for a pretty dismal 21 mpg in mixed driving — just 1 mpg behind the V6-powered seven-passenger Santa Fe.
Despite its size, the Santa Fe Sport doesn't have quite as much interior space as the Rogue, CR-V or RAV4, though it doesn't trail by much. The Hyundai's extra width also helps if you need to squeeze in a fifth passenger. The cabin is well-finished and sensibly laid-out.
Perhaps the leading competitor to the Santa Fe Sport is the newly redesigned 2018 Chevrolet Equinox and its GMC Terrain sibling. They emulate the Hyundai's more upscale feel, but a recent weight-loss program has greatly improved their gas mileage. Unfortunately, both these models and the Santa Fe Sport restrict emergency automatic braking to pricey trim levels, whereas the cheaper Honda, Nissan and Toyota make this valuable technology either standard equipment or at least widely available.