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Dear KBB.ca: In Search of a Sporty Compact SUV

The Challenge: Finding a Fun-to-Drive Small SUV


As more Canadians turn to compact SUVs, the number of models and trim choices of these utility vehicles is growing each year. Beyond being used as basic, day-to-day transportation pods, there are now several models that offer driver-oriented features and equipment, hoping to attract buyers who prefer something a little sportier to drive. 

While none of these sporty compact SUVs will replace the feel of a lighter, lower or swifter sports sedan or sports car, our list of contenders offers a modicum of sporty driving characteristics. But which one is the best choice when it comes to putting the “sport” in “compact sport utility vehicle”? 

The Contenders


2020 Honda CR-V Sport

As one of Canada’s best-selling compact SUVs, the front- or all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger 2020 Honda CR-V appeals to a broad audience. Yet unlike other Honda Si or Type-R models that offer a comprehensive set of features and equipment, the sportiest CR-V focuses more on show than go. With a Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price that starts at $34,240 CDN, the exclusive to Canada CR-V Sport adds sport pedals, leatherette-fabric seats, heated leather steering wheel, and Honda Lanewatch blind-spot technology. 

From the driver’s seat, the CR-V Sport’s powertrain is like every other non-hybrid CR-V. A 1.5-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder makes 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque, mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that simulates stepped gear changes mimicking a traditional 6-speed automatic. There are no upgrades over non-Sport models, but the Honda’s steering is nicely assisted, with enough feedback to make it enjoyable when the road starts to twist.


2020 Ford Escape SEL/2.0 EcoBoost

The completely redesigned 2020 Ford Escape comes with four engine choices. The most powerful is a 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, available as a $2,000 CDN option on the AWD $33,549 CDN Escape SEL and standard on the fancier $40,149 CDN Titanium model. A new 8-speed automatic transmission pairs nicely with the 2.0 EcoBoost. Shifts are smooth and well measured. If you are looking for a little extra burst of power, paddle shifters come with the 2.0-turbo engine. Of the five drive mode options on the Escape SEL, Sport livens up the throttle response a bit, too.

Wider and lower than the previous generation, the 2020 Escape SEL doesn’t feel top-heavy, especially around corners. Around 91 kilograms (200 pounds) lighter than the last Escape, acceleration is quicker and feels nimbler. The Ford has refined shocks, springs and bushings and overall feels comfortable without being floaty or sloppy. The ride is surprisingly good— we’d even venture to say it’s punching above its class.


2020 Kia Sportage SX

One of the more stylish compact SUVs available, the front- or all-wheel-drive 2020 Kia Sportage already attracts buyers looking for a sportier driving experience. While the Kia’s 181 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque 2.4-litre 4-cylinder base engine is adequate for typical compact SUV duties, drivers will want to opt for the topline Sportage SX that starts at $39,995 CDN. With its 237 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, the sportiest Sportage competes well with the more fun to drive compact SUVs on the market.

On the road, the Sportage SX’s electric-assist steering feels natural, and the suspension makes for a ride that’s comfortable and compliant without being floaty. The Kia compact SUV is a great place in which to spend some time, thanks to supportive and comfortable seats, logically placed controls, red backlighting that makes the instrument panel easy to read at night, and a flat-bottom steering wheel.


2020 Mazda CX-5 GT

For compact SUV buyers looking for a more engaging driving experience, the 2020 Mazda CX-5 offers a lot of value. Starting at $27,950 CDN, the base front-wheel-drive Mazda CX-5 GX's 187 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine is adequate. But the 250 horsepower (when 93 octane fuel is used, otherwise, the engine makes 227-hp with 87 octane fuel), turbocharged version of the same engine is the sportier choice. Linked to a 6-speed automatic transmission that's available on the $39,650 CDN GT and $41,900 Signature models, standard all-wheel-drive helps manage the turbocharged engine's robust 310pound-feet of torque and sharpens the compact SUV's responses immediately.

Traditionally, the CX-5's ride quality hasn't been quite as supple as, say, a Honda CR-V, but thanks to perfectly weighted and sharp steering, deftly calibrated brakes, and its standard G-Vectoring Control Plus technology, this is one fun SUV to drive. Beyond its sportier driving capabilities, the topline Signature trim transforms the CX-5 into a luxury SUV with premium Nappa leather, real wood trim, front and rear parking sensors, a 360-degree view camera, and a navigation system.


2020 Subaru Forester Sport

While a high-performance, WRX-badged Forester has been long a dream of compact SUV buyers looking for a sportier ride, the $35,495 CDN Forester Sport is the sportiest model for 2020. Like the Honda CR-V Sport, the sportiest Forester is distinguished in the lineup more from an appearance aspect than hardware, with gloss-black exterior trim, and orange accents on the black mudguards and roof-rail mounts. As well, Subaru’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology with Lane Centering Assist, High Beam Assist and Reverse Automatic Braking Steering responsive headlights and vertical LED fog lights are standard.

Beyond the trim and safety tech upgrades, mechanically, the 2020 Subaru Forester Sport drives much like every other model. A 2.5-litre 4-cylinder with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque matched to a CVT is standard. At least the Forester’s Sport driving mode delivers sharper responses. The ride quality is well judged, providing comfort that’s balanced by enough control to keep the Forester from leaning too much through quick curves. That’s relatively impressive, given the almost nine inches of ground clearance. 


2020 Volkswagen Tiguan R-Line

If you aren't looking for your next compact SUV as a track-day car, the 2020 Volkswagen Tiguan R-Line is a sporty compact SUV to consider. Only available as a $1,980 CDN package above the topline, all-wheel-drive $39,575 CDN Tiguan Highline, the R-Line optional equipment package adds 19-inch alloys, heated leather steering wheel, R-Line interior and exterior design, and brushed stainless steel pedals.

While not as powerful as some competitors, the Volkswagen compact SUV's 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder makes 184 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. With the standard 8-speed automatic transmission, the powertrain provides a nice balance between fuel economy and performance. More suited for highway driving than back road blasts, every Tiguan offers marvellous German ride and handling. The Tiguan's excellent steering and pedal response—expected attributes of any VW— contribute to an overall driving feel that's among the best in the segment. Supportive seats, a quiet cabin, and superior steering-feel qualify the new Tiguan R-Line as an excellent long-haul companion.


Our Choice

If you are merely looking for a sportier appearance, the Honda CR-V Sport and Subaru Forester will suit your needs without compromising their inherent utilitarian qualities. Both the Ford Escape SEL/2.0 EcoBoost and the Kia Sportage SX step things up a notch with juiced-up engines and tauter driving characteristics than their two Japanese rivals. 

But if you are looking for the sportiest among these half-dozen compact SUVs, the Mazda CX-5 GT offers a more comprehensive performance package. Get behind the wheel, and the CX-5 displays an extra talent that’s rare elsewhere in the class. The driving experience is genuinely engaging. That’s why we think the CX-5 is the best choice if you are searching for a sporty compact SUV.

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle and have a unique buying request, please contact KBB.ca at EMAIL.




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