Crossover comparison: Kia Sportage vs. Hyundai Tucson vs. Honda CR-V

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(April 16, 2017) Demand for small SUVs is very strong, with buyers moving up — and down — into the comfortably sized vehicles. This has driven automakers into a competitive frenzy, and given buyers unprecedented choice. Built off the platform of a brand’s C-segment sedan, these vehicles scratch an itch that has afflicted buyers like a trip through a poison ivy patch, allowing them to own a crossover without throwing thrift out of the widow or sacrificing amenities or style.

2017 Kia Sportage

Recently three 2017 C-segment crossovers rotated through our fleet, each with a distinct take on the small SUV formula, and all in top line all-wheel drive trim. Two — the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage — are related and share many of the same parts and pieces, while the Honda CR-V is one of the oldest nameplates in the segment. Yet, as the table below shows, each is surprisingly similar to the next, proving that you not only can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge vehicles by their specifications.

The greatest disparity between the three is the choice of engine and transmission, though each is powered by a turbocharged inline four-cylinder:

 Despite its 50 - 65 horsepower and 58 - 42 lb.-ft. advantage, the Kia Sportage is not the rocket the numbers would have you believe. Livelier than either the Hyundai or Honda, the Sportage trades fuel economy for power, getting an EPA estimated 20 city/23 highway/21 combined. The least powerful vehicle here, the Tucson, returns an estimated 24 city/28 highway/25 combined. Yet the middle of the road CR-V beats both with EPA ratings of 27 city/33 highway/29 combined.

During our time with these vehicles, the Hyundai averaged 24 mpg, the Kia a surprisingly poor 20 mpg, and the Honda 29 mpg. Unlike other vehicles fitted with a continuously variable transmission (the Toyota Corolla and just about every Nissan with a CVT come to mind), the CR-V’s combination of the turbocharged 1.5-liter four and CVT is surprisingly benign.

2017 Hyundai Tucson

Climbing a grade does not result in the engine thrashing at a constant high speed until enough speed is gathered for the transmission to step up to the highest ratio possible for the rate of acceleration. Nor does it sound like a wounded water buffalo in its death throes when accelerating from a dead stop on light throttle as the CVT doggedly holds a high ratio. You still know it’s a CVT by the disconnect between engine rpms and acceleration, but the engine’s smoothness coupled with the CR-V’s exemplary sound deadening reduce the aural assault without strangling the engine note altogether.

The Tucson’s dual-clutch automatic, on the other hand, snaps off shifts crisply, while the Sportage’s conventional six-speed automatic is aided by steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow you to go up or down through the gears as desired.

Dynamically, and here are words I never thought I’d ever write, the Hyundai feels the most composed when asked to perform on winding roads at normal speeds. (Bouts of snow and sleet and a strong sense of responsibility prevented pushing the cars near their limits on public roads.) You’ll never mistake it for a sport sedan, but the Tucson’s responses are honest and the rear end doesn’t feel overly light or nervous when unloaded as when braking while entering a turn. The Kia has similar responses, but feels like they must be filtered through a layer of gauze and seems to have slightly firmer damping.

The combination puts a dulling layer of “luxury” over the intended “sporty” tuning, but misses the mark on both. It’s not as honest as its Hyundai brother, feeling like what you’d expect from Audi if it used nothing but VW parts, and just fiddled around the edges. Though the CR-V has great isolation over rough surfaces and a ride you’d expect from a crossover one class up, it begins to show its limitations when asked to perform.

2017 Honda CR-V

Brake into a turn and the weight transfer unloads the rear to the point it begins to feel light, and this induces a mild but annoying vertical oscillation. Like the others, the nose begins to run wide as understeer sets in, but you don’t feel like this is a vehicle in which you can go out and play. A mild rethink of the bushings and dampers would reverse this feeling, but sportiness isn’t a characteristic Honda seems to want in the CR-V. That’s a shame. Though a Type R is out of the question, the Civic-based CR-V could use a bit more Si tuning.

Inside, each is spacious and filled with trim and materials that would have been unheard of in a small SUV just five, or even three, years ago. The Hyundai is the most prosaic, though this shouldn’t be construed as cheap. The design is crisp and clean, and the dark upper/light lower color combination brings an airiness the other two lack.

The Kia’s dark monochrome is punctuated by flashes of brushed metal, and has an almost Germanic severity. Meanwhile Honda adapted the layout and design of the Civic (the instrument cluster is the same), and uses metallic “wood” accents to give the instrument panel a three-dimensional look. It also has the most storage areas, and more sophisticated styling.

It’s when you combine this information with a look at the interior measurements that you begin to discern the real differences between this trio’s members:

As you would expect, the Hyundai and Kia are closely matched, though head room isn’t the priority in the Sportage that it is in the Tucson. This is in keeping with the Kia’s sportier design language. It is Audi to Hyundai’s VW. The Honda, which has a surprising deficit in terms of rear hip room, carries more cargo and gives rear seat passengers a much needed advantage in terms of leg room. And while it would be easy to brand the CR-V as more utilitarian, this advantage — when taken in light of the fuller shapes and detailing of its interior and exterior styling — allows it to hit above its weight.

It’s as if the introduction of the HR-V has given Honda the opportunity to move closer to the slot that exists between the CR-V’s predecessor and the much larger Pilot. For many buyers this, and the Honda’s greater quietness, comfort and fuel economy, will be enough to seduce them as they will perceive they are getting a larger, more luxurious and mature vehicle.

For buyers downsizing from a larger crossover, this pull will be especially strong. It may even appeal to a subset of the young or young at heart looking for a sporty upscale ride, and who might otherwise choose the Kia. Hyundai’s Tucson? It may not be as fresh and fully formed as the Honda, but it has an honesty the Kia can’t match and a dynamic cohesion the Honda just misses.

None is a bad choice, but the Honda CR-V is hard to beat.

The Virtual Driver