• Image Credit: Mazda

    The Compact CUV category has been explosive the last few years as more and more U.S. drivers are trading down in price and up in fuel economy for vehicles that provide utility and room for five passengers.

    The category in the U.S. currently has around twenty models, including vehicles such as the Jeep Patriot, Ford Escape, Subaru Forester, Chevy Equinox, and the top seller, Honda CR-V.

    As part of our "Editors' Choice: Smartest Buys" series, we have combined reliability and quality ratings from J.D. Power & Associates and fuel economy, and combined that information with our own driving impressions to rank our top five Crossover choices among those priced between $20,000 and $30,000, the sweet-spot of the compact crossover category.

    To see how new technology is working to make the cars we are shopping for safer, better performing and more fuel thrifty, go to our new content hub, Techsplanations, where you will find Technology Explained. Simply

  • 5. Mini Countryman
    • Image Credit: Mini

    5. Mini Countryman

    MSRP: $21,750
    Invoice: $19,657
    Combined Fuel Economy: 29 MPG

    National Average Base Selling Price: $21,528

    This is the smallest of the compact crossovers we are recommending. And why not? It is, after all, a MINI. It seats four, not five, but we snuck it in to this list because of its styling and fuel economy.  It is closer in size and dimensions to a Nissan Versa than it is, say, one of our other recommendations like the Honda CR-V. That makes it ideal for a single person, couple, or couple with one child.

    While some of our other endorsements here are downright matronly in styling, the MINI has some serious cred for looking good. The exterior is sporty, and the interior suitably MINIesque--sharp and attractive with the giant speedometer common to MINIs, a sensibly laid out set of instruments in the center-stack and two-tone seats.

    Mated to a six-speed manual transmission (an automatic is available too), AWD models will hit 62 miles per hour in 7.9 seconds, and if you opt for the two-wheel-drive configuration, you'll shave three-tenths of a second off that time.

    Fuel economy is rated at a combined 29 for the front-drive version, and 28 for the all-wheel-drive package. Good stuff considering where gas prices are headed.

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  • 4. Toyota RAV4
    • Image Credit: Toyota

    4. Toyota RAV4

    MSRP: $22,650 - $28,650
    Invoice: $21,178 - $26,788
    Combined Fuel Economy: 24.9 MPG

    National Average Base Selling Price: $21,337

    The RAV4, while outsold by the Honda CR-V, is the steady-Eddie of the segment. The latest version has styling that is a bit more "trucky" and authoritative than the more curvacious Honda and new Mazda CX-5.

    The Toyota RAV4 features a 2.5-liter engine rated at 179 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque and connected to a 4-speed automatic transmission. Seriously, Toyota, only four speeds in 2012?

    The IIHS rated the RAV4 and rival Chevy Equinox both "Good" in frontal offset and side-impact testing. Both the RAV4 and Chevy also received an "Acceptable" rating in roof-strength tests. Those ratings put them atop the category for safety.

    The Toyota RAV4 also earned a NHTSA 5-star rating in Front Driver, 4-star rating for Front Passenger, and 5-star ratings in Side Driver/Side RearPassenger impact testing. The RAV4 earned a 4-star rating in Rollover testing (2WD model).

    The Honda CR-V is the only vehicle in this class to make it onto J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study ranking, as the firm only lists the top three in any category, but we have found the RAV4 to be a solid performer in quality, reliability and driving competence.

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  • 3. Honda CR-V
    • Image Credit: Honda

    3. Honda CR-V

    MSRP: $22,295 - $28,295
    Invoice: $20,751 - $26,316
    Combined Fuel Economy: 24.3 MPG

    National Average Base Selling Price: $22,161

    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.

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  • 2. Mazda CX-5
    • Image Credit: Mazda

    2. Mazda CX-5

    MSRP: $20,695 - $28,295
    Invoice: NA
    Combined Fuel Economy: 29 MPG

    National Average Base Selling Price: $20,765

    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 #2.

    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.

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  • 1. Chevrolet Equinox
    • Image Credit: GM

    1. Chevrolet Equinox

    MSRP: $23,530 - $30,970
    Invoice: $22,354 - $29,422
    Combined Fuel Economy: 26.6 MPG

    National Average Base Selling Price: $23,225

    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.

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