The crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, is an invention of the last decade and the fastest growing segment of the auto industry.
Gas guzzling SUVs, for many, have given way to these smaller, more fuel efficient, and terribly handy, vehicles. For many families, especially those stopping at two children, it has become the station-wagon of the 21st century.
AOL Autos Editors offer here our picks for the three smartest, best CUVs we think you can choose this summer, as well as three we would stay clear of when you are researching your next set of wheels and the deals that go with them.
Best CUVs No. 3: Mazda CX-5
MSRP: $20,695 - $28,295
Invoice: $19,794 - $27,056
Fuel Economy: 26 city/35 highway
The Mazda CX-5 is a brand new CUV that went on sale this month replacing the Mazda Tribute and competing in this very hot segment. As a brand new entry, we don't have J.D. Power or Consumer Reports ratings to dial in to our recommendation. But we are so impressed with the CX-5's ride, handling, fit quality and fuel economy that we are going out on a limb to rate it No. 3.
To differentiate the CX-5 from the competition, Mazda gave it distinctive styling the first production car to employ the company's new "Kodo" design language and focused immensely on driving experience at every step of the engineering process.
Mazda has long prided itself on making fun cars and has maintained that its current production cars are derived from the Miata one of the most loved cars in the industry.
Fuel economy is a huge win for the Skyactiv powertrain in the CX-5, with manual-equipped models expected to deliver a best-in-class 33 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 mpg in the city. Adding the automatic transmission drops the highway number to 32 mpg, and equipping the CX-5 with all-wheel drive reduces overall economy to 25/30 mpg.
Best CUVs No. 2: Honda CR-V
MSRP: $22,295 - $28,295
Invoice: $20,751 - $26,316
Fuel economy: 24.3 MPG
The biggest change in the new CR-V, redesigned for the 2012 model year, is a 2.4-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder engine, which will give drivers more horsepower, torque and better fuel economy. The interior was reworked to make is more spacious inside, even though the vehicle is smaller overall.
CR-V drivers are going to love how much stuff they can fit in the trunk, especially with the rear seats folded down (which is easy enough, with a simple lever) and the spaciousness of the cabin will create a comfortable commute. And the revamped all-wheel-drive system is one of the most advanced in its class, probably second only to Subaru.
The CR-V has been routinely rewarded by J.D. Power and Associates for both short term and long term quality, and we believe this new design will carry on the tradition.
Best CUV No. 1: Chevy Equinox
MSRP: $23,530 - $30,970
Invoice: $22,354 - $29,422
Fuel Economy: 22 city/32 highway
The most powerful of the compact CUVs is the Chevrolet Equinox, with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 182 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque. That engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. It is also super fuel efficient, at 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the Equinox and Toyota RAV4 both "good" in frontal offset and side-impact testing. Those two, receiving the best IIHS ratings, also received an "Acceptable"rating in roof-strength tests.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave Equinox, as well as Honda CR-V, 5-star ratings in Front Driver/Front Passenger as well as 5-star ratings in Side Driver/Side Rear Passenger impact testing.All that pretty much puts the Equinox atop the category in safety.
The Equinox is the roomiest of our choices, and the four-cylinder engine is nothing to apologize for, while delivering terrific highway fuel economy. Styling is exceptional, and the vehicle represents Chevy's recently-honed commitment to premium feeling fitments all over the interior. In other words, it feels and looks more expensive than it is.
For being an all around pleasure to drive and live with, combined with solid hard numbers to show it means business against Asian rivals, the 2012 Equinox is, for us, pound for pound and dollar for dollar the smartest SUV to buy under $30,000 and above $20,000.
Worst CUVs No. 3 Suzuki Grand Vitara
MSRP: $19,649 - $25,399
Invoice: $18,863 - $24,383
Fuel efficiency: 19 city/26 highway
Suzuki, like Mitsubishi and Isuzu before it, is a brand that can't just seem to get traction in the U.S. despite the four-wheel-drive offerings in its lineup.
The Kizashi sedan may be the best car, mechanically, that no one knows about or cares about despite the fact that the company, better known for its motorcycles than cars and crossovers, has advertised on the Super Bowl.
The Grand Vitara was upgraded for 2012. Dubbed "Ultimate Adventure Edition," this Suzuki SUV has 18-inch alloy wheels, water-resistant seat fabric, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and integrated fog lamps. The new tailgate design allowed the Grand Vitara to ditch the exposed spare tire on the rear (on select models), while the interior will benefited from an upgraded navigation system that includes voice recognition, traffic information, 3D map lane guidance and Google Local Point of Interest search.
But we still can't get there. There are just so many other better crossovers offered from more trusted companies with better dealers that we can't put the Grand Vitara on our recommended list. We'd actually rather have a slightly used Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V than a brand new Grand Vitara, whose residual value will drop faster than Herman Cain's presidential aspirations.
Research the Suzuki Grand Vitara
Suzuki Grand Vitara Photos & Information
Suzuki Grand Vitara Specs
Suzuki Grand Vitara Local Dealer Price Quote
Worst CUVs No. 2: Jeep Liberty
MSRP: $23,395 - $28,995
Invoice: $22,722 - $27,960
Fuel efficiency: 16 city/22 highway
Jeep is a great name in SUVs, but the company lost the plot with this model years ago. We almost hesitate to group with crossovers, but when you search on crossovers in a search engine, up comes the Liberty.
The V6 is sluggish, out-dated, fuel thirsty and crummy too drive. It is also pathetically mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The car handles sloppily, and is a beast to drive on a long trip. The only plus we can really muster for the Liberty is that it is pretty serviceable off-road. Chrysler's previous owners spent some much time making sure the darn thing was "trail-rated," they forgot to make it a decent road-going vehicle.
The Liberty will be phased out next year, and Chrysler, under Fiat management, has strongly suggested the all-new and much needed replacement will be named Cherokee. You might well find deep discounts on the Liberty, but we do not recommend this particular Jeep.
Better choices in the Jeep lineup would be the Fiat-improved Jeep Patriot and Compass, which will give you better than adequate off-road and on-road capability, as well as nicely upgraded interiors. The Patriot is an especially good value these days.
Worst CUVs No. 1: Mitsubishi Outlander
MSRP: $22,345 - $27,895
Invoice: $21,402 - $26,717
Fuel efficiency: 23 city/28 highway
We caution against being lulled into buying the current Mitsubishi Outlander when faced with cheap sticker prices or easy lending terms.
The Outlander did surprise a few critics earlier this year when the Outlander Sport nabbed an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "Top Pick." But that's not enough to get us to put this on the "avoid" list.
Mistubishi ... how do we say it? We can't trust buying one of these cars yet. The company has seemed to teeter on the brink of extinction for the last ten years. Sales have been anemic. The dealers that are left selling this brand are hanging on to hope like owners of Palm Pilots. The company's quality scores are near the bottom of the industry. And resale value is non existent.
What do the numbers say? If you go for a base two-wheel-drive ES model, the Outlander Sport starts at just $19,275. Our all-wheel-drive SE model starts at $22,995 (plus $780 in destination charges), and thanks to a few of those aforementioned fixings reaches $28,570. The Outlander Sport AWD SE's base price, however, is below that of the Honda CR-V EX-L ($26,645), Hyundai Tucson Limited ($26,345) and Kia Sportage EX ($24,795).
What do we say? There are far better choices and values.