Compact Crossover Challenge: Is It Tired In Here Or Is It Just Me? [Comparison Test]



Wallpaper paste. Golf. Grass growing. Curling. Watching somebody play videogames. Country music. Baseball. And of course compact crossovers.

You wouldn’t wish any of these exceedingly dry pursuits upon the fatherless punk who picked on you in junior high, much less voluntarily choose to have a conversation about them, and yet, auto manufacturers seem to talk of nothing else. “If it’s not a compact crossover, it won’t sell”, their sharply dressed marketers likely say to their in-office baristas between creative thinking sessions, “and I would know”. Which they do, right?

Customers want economical high-seated hatchbacks, and even if they don’t, it’s remarkably easy to convince them that they do. Most of our lives demand nothing more than a Fiat 500 but wily manufacturers don’t stay in business by producing what people need, merely what they’re willing to pay for. In the year 2012, no manufacturer, from the most luxurious to the most mainstream, can think of a better way to rake in dollar bills than the small raised wagon also known as the compact crossover. Land Rover now has the Evoque, Porsche’s Macan is in the pipeline, and the Ford Escape has been the best selling SUV of any kind for the last 8 years in Canada. We’ve all been convinced that the compact crossover is the panacea for modern life.

But it’s still a very dull class brilliantly disguised as an interesting one, so I assembled two of these supposedly useful devices, both priced around C$37,000, for a comparison test that might actually make sense; unlike, say, a test designed to find the best 6.2L vehicle for owling (Camaro vs Raptor), or the best fwd 4-banger for very small parking spots (iQ vs Explorer). After a week with Honda’s redesigned 2012 CR-V and 12 days with Volkswagen’s redesigned 2012 Tiguan, not to mention several brow-furrowing days trying to determine which one is better to drive/live with/own, this is the painfully boring truth:

Neither of these is terribly exciting.

No, neither has laser-guided rocket launchers that pop out of the wing mirrors. Not even as an option.

The Tiguan tries to overcome this shortcoming by being quite engaging to drive quickly. Yup, a compact crossover than confidently hustles. The steering is weighty and accurate and the ride is composed over most any surface. The 2.0T engine makes some dieselly grumbles below 1,200 rpm before the turbo finally delivers on its promise of a Hawaiian wave of torque around 1,750. The 200 hp, 207 ft-lb engine runs out of steam a good grand before the 6,500 rpm redline, but by then you’re well into extra-legal territory and it’s probably time to dab the brakes before a high-visibility vest and a radar gun ruin your day. Disconcertingly, the pitiful brakes are nowhere near sufficient to haul down 3,668 lbs. You’ve covered a fair bit of ground and worked your right leg surprisingly hard before you’ve scrubbed off the speed.

But the Tiguan is still more fun to drive, by an order of magnitude, than the CR-V. Yet all of this driver enjoyment isn’t enough to overcome the economic reality. The Tiguan Comfortline, the mid-level VW trim, even at the very dear as-tested price of $37,130, didn’t come equipped with the xenon headlights nor defining LEDs, nav, rear-view camera, or even back-up sensors. Adding those options adds another $4000 to the price. Going balls deep with the Tiguan and you’ll find a sticker north of $50k. For a compact crossover! As good as the Tiguan is to drive, that’s only compared to the wallowy CR-V. If you really want to buy a VW hatchback because it’s more fun to drive, the only marginally less practical and immeasurably more entertaining Golf R will give you TT-S performance and hatchback utility for $40k starting later this year. It’s true that there will only be 500 units of the Golf R brought to our frozen paradise, but that exclusivity is really a bonus, if anything.

The CR-V makes a better case for itself as a compact crossover because it’s actually thoughtfully designed. It’s also really dull, but as it should be. With the lowest loading floor in its class, hauling life’s many accoutrements is more ergonomic than ever. The fold-flat rear seats also have convenient latches by the trunk door that are every bit as useful as the electronically activated folding seats in the new Explorer without the same likelihood for costly repairs down the line. In total, the CR-V has fully 50% more cargo volume at 1,011L, as well as more leg room and shoulder room for both rows of passengers than in the Tiguan. The CR-V’s victories in usefulness continue up front where the shifter is mounted half-way up on the console, freeing up room for more accessible cupholders and a cavernous storage bin ideally suited for hiding valuables and smuggling drugs.

At $36,580 as-tested, the CR-V Touring is also loaded with back-up camera, navigation, bluetooth audio, and everything else that was flashy and new on cutting-edge cars 5 years ago. Honda has shied away from the latest round of flashy features like the kick-open liftgate offered on the 2013 Escape, but it’s a trusted path. Those new technologies haven’t proven themselves yet, so Honda isn’t interested. In an age of downsized turbo mills, the 185 hp engine is a carry-over for the simple reason that it works perfectly as-is. The 2.4L rips all the way up to 7,000 rpm, just the way every living, breathing enthusiast thinks a Honda should, and it sounds fantastic all the way there. The CR-V still sucks to drive briskly because the steering is more remote than Tibet, and parsecs away from the confident Tiguan, but it’s a compact crossover for chrissakes. Remember: Golf R.

The interior ambiance is similarly opposed between our two contenders today. The CR-V doesn’t feel as airy inside only because the Tiguan cheats the numbers with its fully panoramic glass roof. The glass roof in my tester, however, developed a troublesome rattle with only 5,000km on the clock. The interior of the CR-V feels classy, intuitive, and of high quality. The Tiguan’s interior is basic and clean in comparison, but also colder in its execution, as if the designers didn’t believe in hugging their mothers. The CR-V is the friendlier and cosier place to be.

The back seats, with rattly Tiguan left and rock-solid CR-V right…

…and the front seats, but CR-V left and Tiggy right.

The CR-V is true to the segment by being predictably dreary, but also comforting in its warm honesty. If you want a compact crossover, and you probably do, buy the dependable CR-V. It’s baseball. It’s country music. It’s curling. It’s Honda’s ode to sleeping in class. It’s the better compact crossover in the redesigned class of 2012.

And that’s the Philosophy of Driving for this week. See you next Monday morning!

[Photo credits: author using Frametastic for iPhone]