There was a time in the not too distant past when gas-guzzling SUVs were reserved for the occasional snowstorm or off-road excursion and sedans served as the vehicle of choice for family-friendly daily driving. Our tastes have changed, though. Compact SUVs have displaced both as our go-to do-it-all transportation tool.
Those compact SUVs have evolved with us. Take a look at what was offered in the early 2000s. Vehicles such as the Jeep Cherokee, Nissan Xterra, and Subaru Forester all proudly sported city-friendly dimensions and some real off-road capability. But their modern equivalents have grown by a half-foot or more, ballooning not only in size but also in price.
Although a new generation of subcompact crossovers could seemingly backfill that size and price gap, most are still smaller than yesteryear’s compacts—and their on-road comfort and off-road credentials, in some cases, are suspect.
So what’s a crossover buyer looking for that “just right” fit to do?
Thankfully, Jeep, Nissan, and Subaru have entered into this no man’s land of budget-friendly crossovers that straddle the unclaimed dimensionality between subcompact and compact crossovers with the Jeep Compass, Nissan Rogue Sport, and Subaru Crosstrek. Bonus: All three are new to the market this year.
The new Jeep Compass Trailhawk is the most off-road-capable trim level of the second-generation Compass lineup. Built on Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s Small-Wide 4×4 architecture, the Compass straddles the gap between the subcompact Renegade and compactish Cherokee.
It shares not only its platform with its stablemates but also its drivetrain—it’s powered by a 2.4-liter I-4 that produces 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque and comes mated to ZF’s infamous nine-speed automatic. That 2.4-liter engine, both the biggest and most powerful of our trio, is paired with a Trailhawk-specific all-wheel-drive system, which includes a shorter axle ratio to allow the gearbox’s first gear to mimic a true four-wheel-drive vehicle’s low range.
The Trailhawk also includes off-road tires, a minor suspension lift giving it 8.5 inches of ever-important ground clearance, and a Selec-Terrain system to ensure the Compass’ all-wheel-drive system has traction on a variety of surfaces. Compass Trailhawk prices start at $29,690 with standard fare such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, but our nearly loaded model, which includes forward collision alert, lane keep assist, and other options, stickers for $34,060.
Our tested Nissan Rogue Sport SL AWD is new to the States but has been a known quantity overseas for years. Called Qashqai (CASH-kye) in Europe, where it’s one of Nissan’s best-sellers, the Rogue Sport slots between the smaller Juke and larger Rogue in the automaker’s U.S. lineup. It marries the styling, interior bits, and practicality of the larger (and Nissan’s best-selling) Rogue with more city-friendly dimensions, measuring just over a foot shorter than its big brother.
Its sportier little brother gets a 188-hp turbocharged I-4, and its big brother gets a 170-hp four-cylinder, but the Rogue Sport inexplicably gets saddled with a 2.0-liter I-4 that makes a mere 141 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque—the lowest horsepower in our test. The Rogue Sport sends its power through a standard CVT to an optional all-wheel-drive system. Our Rogue Sport SL AWD tester comes pretty well equipped at its $28,380 base price, which has 7.4 inches of ground clearance and features such as Nissan’s Around View 360-degree camera system and a driver-selectable all-wheel-drive lock switch. With the addition of a handful of option packages containing radar cruise control, lane departure warning, and a slew of other active safety tech, our Rogue Sport stickered for $31,625.
Rounding out our trio of tweeners is the redesigned second-generation Subaru Crosstrek Limited. Although it’s easy to dismiss the Crosstrek as a lifted Impreza hatch (with which the Crosstrek shares its new chassis and powertrain), a lot of engineering work goes into differentiating the two models. The most obvious difference is the Crosstrek’s suspension lift, which gives the crossover an impressive test-best 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and Stablex dampers designed to allow the Subaru to absorb hits from punishing conditions both on- and off-road. The Crosstrek’s power comes from a 2.0-liter flat-four pushing out 152 hp and a comparison-low 145 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is standard on the Crosstrek, but our tester puts its power to its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive-system through a CVT. The Crosstrek comes standard with Subaru’s X-Mode off-road assist system and the automaker’s new Apple CarPlay and Android Auto–friendly infotainment suite for $27,210. Our tester was loaded up with Subaru’s EyeSight active-safety package, a moonroof, and a premium audio system for an out-the-door price of $30,655.
The winner of this comparison must balance on-road manners with light off-road capability while delivering good fuel economy and an interior that belies its wallet-friendly price. It must also have the most practical and all-around nicest cabin, and perhaps most important, it must represent the best value in its segment.
Using the Mojave Desert—a perfect no man’s land metaphor if there ever were one—as our staging ground and off-road course, we’d hit the road and use our arduous SUV of the Year drive loop to suss out a winner.
Third Place: Nissan Rogue Sport SL AWD—Fair-Weather Friend
There are two ways to look at the Nissan Rogue Sport: on its own merits and against the competition. The 2017 Rogue Sport SL’s sheetmetal is attractive, and despite having not changed since its debut as the Qashqai overseas in 2014, it has aged well both in and out—save for the dated infotainment system and display, which washed out in direct sunlight. The cabin itself is comfortable, borrowing materials and components from the upmarket Rogue. However, it is a bit claustrophobic for extra passengers; with a tight second row, our sunroof-equipped example also lost precious headroom.
Although “Sport” is in this Rogue’s name, buyers might want to check their expectations at the driver’s door; the sportiest thing about this sport-utility vehicle is its flat-bottomed steering wheel. The acceleration run from 0 to 60 mph takes the Rogue Sport a poky 9.8 seconds, and the quarter mile falls in a leisurely 17.5 seconds at 80.6 mph. In our 60–0 braking tests, the Rogue Sport needed 137 feet to come to a stop, though it’s worth mentioning that we suspect the Nissan is capable of stopping shorter—conditions were far from ideal during brake tests for all three of our competitors. Figure-eight performance for the Rogue Sport was a respectable-for-the-segment 29.6-second lap averaging 0.53 g. On the fuel economy front, all-wheel-drive Rogue Sports are EPA-rated at 24/30/27 mpg city/highway/combined.
Out in the real world, “smooth” might be a better word than “sport” to describe the Nissan. Dip into the throttle, and the Rogue Sport slowly strolls forward, steadily building speed as the CVT fakes a traditional automatic’s shifts at redline. Steering feel seems to have been an afterthought for the Rogue Sport’s engineers, but the team did do its homework on the suspension, which features impressive ride quality in a variety of conditions. “It rides better than expected, especially on concrete freeway expansion joints,” associate editor Scott Evans said. “It’s definitely bouncing, but the shocks are doing a good job of isolating me from the bumps.”
Part of our testing included a 1.34-mile light off-road course. This course featured a variety of terrain designed to simulate real-world conditions that crossover buyers put their vehicles in, such as a long, rutted, and twisty dirt road like you might experience at a national park, a deep sand pit that effectively simulates how a vehicle’s all-wheel-drive system handles wet and deep snow, and a silt-covered hill, which mimics a vehicle’s ability to climb steep grades in low-traction conditions.
This is where the Rogue Sport really leaves us wanting. Plunge into the sand, and the engine consistently bogs down and cuts power before surging forward, only to repeat the cycle again. Engaging the AWD lock switch, which engages a 50-50 front–rear torque split below 25 mph, or turning off traction control didn’t seem to help much, either. Even more disappointing is that the Rogue Sport is the only one of the three to get stuck on our light-duty course. After executing a 20-mph panic stop test in the sand, the Rogue Sport couldn’t get going again. I tried the AWD lock switch, reversing, rocking the Rogue Sport back and forth, and finally turning off traction and stability control, yet the Nissan lacked the horsepower to free itself from no more than 2 inches of soft sand. It took two extra humans’ power—courtesy of photographer Jade Nelson and intern Darren Martin—to wrest the Nissan free.
On manicured asphalt, the Rogue Sport is a perfectly serviceable crossover, but with 70 percent of the country experiencing annual snowfall, it’s fair to say that buyers in those markets expect far more low-traction capability than the Rogue Sport offers. Ultimately, this is where the Rogue Sport flops while its rivals flourish.
Second Place: Jeep Compass Trailhawk—Get ’er Done
The Compass possesses a sense of playfulness and character. It feels like an old-school body-on-frame SUV—and that’s a good thing. Climb up and into the dark, red-accented cabin, close the door with a satisfying thud, and take stock of your surroundings. You sit up satisfyingly high, with excellent sightlines over the hood and around the Jeep, thanks to its large greenhouse and roomy cabin.
Unfortunately, the Compass Trailhawk’s test numbers were pretty old-school, too. Despite having the largest and most powerful engine of our trio, its performance is middling. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph takes the Compass 9.4 seconds, and the quarter mile takes 17.2 seconds at 77.2 mph—the second fastest quarter-mile time but the slowest trap speed of the three. Thanks to the off-road-oriented tires and poor testing conditions, the 60–0 panic stop test took the Jeep 144 feet, which was the longest stop of the three. In our figure-eight testing, the Compass Trailhawk tied the Rogue Sport’s 29.6-second lap at 0.53 g. The off-road hardware also hurts the Jeep a bit at the pump, where it nets an EPA score of 22/30/25 mpg city/highway/combined, the lowest of the three.
On pavement, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk is a bit hit or miss. The Jeep’s 2.4-liter engine and nine-speed automatic combo, though much improved compared to earlier versions of the powertrain, still leaves a bit to be desired. The engine revs slowly and loudly, and although this iteration of the nine-speed finally allows the engine to pull to redline, its shifts are agonizingly slow. At least the jerky downshifts and slushy upshifts that characterized earlier versions of this powertrain (in vehicles such as the Jeep Renegade) have been banished.
The Compass Trailhawk rides and handles real-world roads far better than its test numbers would suggest. The steering wheel loads up nicely through corners, and the off-road-oriented tires start to squeal far before the Jeep is ever at risk of losing grip. The Compass Trailhawk’s ride is also particularly noteworthy—it eats up harsh pavement and potholes without transmitting any of the impacts into the cabin. Inside, the interior bits are far too cheap and plasticky, and the lack of lateral bolstering in the seats is an issue.
The Jeep really excels in our off-road testing. Simply put, the Compass was never challenged by our course. With Auto, Snow, Sand, Mud, and (the Trailhawk-exclusive) Rock modes, the Compass earns that Jeep badge on its nose. Even in its default Auto mode, the Compass stomps through the off-road obstacles. Placed in Snow or Sand mode, the Jeep exhibits seemingly endless traction. The Compass Trailhawk is especially fun in the latter mode—disabling the traction control brought its tail out with big, dusty drifts in our sand pit.
Despite its noteworthy off-road performance, it’s the same old story for the little Jeep’s powertrain, lacking that extra dose of refinement needed to make it a true all-arounder. If all-wheel-drive capability is your priority, the Trailhawk might seem to be the best option. However, our winner proved to be just as capable off the beaten path while even better to drive on pavement.
First Place: Subaru Crosstrek Limited—Slow, Steady, Superior
In a segment looking for the Goldilocks fit, the second-generation Subaru Crosstrek marries the off-road capability of the Jeep with the on-road ride quality of the Nissan while bringing an impressive level of refinement and value to this emerging segment.
The Crosstrek begins to separate itself from the Compass and Rogue Sport at the track. Despite midpack power numbers, the Subaru consistently outperformed its rivals in all of our instrumented testing. The 0–60 run took the Crosstrek 9.0 seconds, but the Subaru pipped the quarter-mile marker in 16.9 seconds at 80.8 mph. Just like its competitors, braking distances were adversely affected by weather conditions, so the Crosstrek’s test-best performance in our 60–0 braking tests was still just 131 feet.
The Subaru’s low curb weight (3,284 pounds versus the Jeep’s 3,656 and Nissan’s 3,426 pounds) also helps the crossover to lap our figure eight in 28.4 seconds at a 0.58 g average. The flyweight Subaru is also easy on the wallet at the pump, with 27/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined per the EPA. With gas prices on the rise, this is a not-insignificant gap.
Out on the road, the Subaru really seems to do it all even if we do want a little more under the hood. Around town the Crosstrek pulls away from the line quickly, thanks to smart gearing and a well-tuned CVT. But as you approach highway speeds, the Subaru’s lack of torque rears its head. “The Subaru gets out of its own way,” Evans said, “but only if you’re giving it a lot of throttle.” More so than the Jeep or Nissan, the Crosstrek is practically begging for more power. After struggling with a high-altitude freeway merge, road test editor Chris Walton barked: “C’mon, Subaru! You already have a 2.0-liter turbo in the WRX, and there’s plenty of headroom to add it as an optional engine on the Crosstrek.”
Yet despite its lack of power, the Crosstrek is really enjoyable to drive. Steering is light, nimble, and communicative, and the ride quality is downright plush with luxury car levels of suspension compliance and rally car–rivaling suspension travel, aided by the Subaru’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance. The well-tuned suspension and steering combined with the Crosstrek’s CVT and all-wheel-drive system really help to make the most of the engine’s modest power output, giving the driver the confidence to keep speeds up and the engine in its sweet spot on twisty roads.
The combination works equally well on our dirt and sand course, too, where the Crosstrek faithfully lives up to Subaru’s reputation of off-road excellence. “Like most Subarus, it’s a little rally car in the dirt,” Evans said. The Crosstrek plowed right through the sand that stopped the Rogue Sport in its tracks, and like the Jeep, the Subaru was happy to slide around tight dirt corners.
A comfortable, quiet, and spacious interior rounds out this winning package. Up front the driver and passenger have supportive seats, exceptional visibility outside the cabin, and a snappy, intuitive CarPlay-friendly standard infotainment system. The upgraded Harman Kardon stereo delivers crisp, clear audio, from Metallica to Madonna. The back seat is spacious, even for grown men. Although the lack of air-conditioning vents and USB plugs in back is an unfortunate oversight, the seats are comfortable and adult-friendly.
At the end of the day, the Crosstrek is the one of our three that most faithfully plugs the growing gap between subcompact and compact offerings. It retains the value and off-road credibility its predecessors were known for while adding modern-day driving manners, technology, and safety to the mix. Simply put, the Subaru Crosstrek does it all. It’s a solid, honest little car. And for that, it’s our winner.
|2017 Jeep Compass Trailhwalk 4×4||2017 Nissan Rogue Sport SL AWD||2018 Subaru Crosstrek 2.0i (Limited)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head||Flat-4, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||144.0 cu in/2,360cc||121.9 cu in/1,997cc||121.7 cu in/1,995cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||180 hp @ 6,400 rpm||141 hp @ 6,000 rpm||152 hp @ 6,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm||147 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm||145 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,700 rpm||6,250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||20.3 lb/hp||24.3 lb/hp||21.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed automatic||Cont variable auto||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.0-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS||11.7-in vented disc; 11.5-in vented disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 10.8-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 17-in cast aluminum||7.0 x 19-in cast aluminum||7.0 x 17-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/65R17 99S (M+S) Falken Wildpeak H/T||225/45R19 92W (M+S) Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus||225/55R18 98H (M+S) Falken Ziex ZE001 A/S|
|WHEELBASE||103.8||104.2 in||104.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.7/60.3 in||62.4/62.2 in||61.0/61.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||173.0 x 73.8 x 65.3 in||172.4 x 72.3 x 63.3 in||175.8 x 71.0 x 62.6 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.5 in||7.4 in||8.7 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||30.3/33.6 deg||17.3/28.2 deg||18.0/29.0 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.3 ft||36.9 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,656 lb||3,426 lb||3,284 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||59/41%||59/41%||59/41%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||2,000 lb||Not recommended||1,500 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.2/38.5 in||38.3/38.5 in||37.6/37.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.8/38.3 in||42.8/33.4 in||43.1/36.5 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.7/55.1 in||56.6/55.7 in||56.7/55.6 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||59.8/27.2 cu ft||53.3/19.9 cu ft||55.3/20.8 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||3.2 sec||3.5 sec||3.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||5.1||5.1||4.4|
|QUARTER MILE||17.2 sec @ 77.2 mph||17.5 sec @ 80.6 mph||16.9 sec @ 80.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||144 ft||137 ft||131 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.73 g (avg)||0.75 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||29.6 sec @ 0.53 g (avg)||29.6 sec @ 0.53 g (avg)||28.4 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,300 rpm||2,000 rpm||1,700 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$34,060||$31,625||$30,655|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||13.5 gal||14.5 gal||16.6 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||22/30/25 mpg||24/30/27 mpg||27/33/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||153/112 kW-hrs/100 miles||140/112 kW-hrs/100 miles||125/102 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.78 lb/mile||0.74 lb/mile||0.66 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|