2011 Car Comparison: Honda CR-V vs Toyota Rav4 vs Ford Escape

Last Updated: Dec 13, 2011

The Competition
In this compact crossover-SUV comparison we compare the 2011 Honda CR-V, 2011 Toyota RAV4, and 2011 Ford Escape. These are the top-selling vehicles in one of the most popular automotive market segments. All three have entertaining car-like road manners and an element of practicality few small cars can match. And each takes a slightly different route to attract a broad spectrum of buyers. This 2011 Honda CR-V, 2011 Toyota RAV4, and 2011 Ford Escape comparison picks a winner based on price, features, and performance.

The current-generation Honda CR-V design dates to model-year 2007 and the 2011 model is the best-selling crossovers of any size. The 2010 CR-V received modest styling updates and the 2011 CR-V adds an SE (Special Edition) trim level. Today’s RAV4 design debuted for model-year 2006, was facelifted for 2009, and gets minor trim tweaks for 2011. The Escape has undergone several updates over the past decade but is basically the same design introduced for model-year 2001. Aside from adding an HD radio option it sees no notable updates for 2011.

Less than $1,000 separates the starting prices of these three crossovers. The 2011 Ford Escape has the lowest base price, at $21,995. The 2011 Honda CR-V starts at $22,475, while the base price of the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is the highest here, at $22,835. (Base prices in this comparison review include the manufacturer’s delivery fee; note that Toyotas sold in some Southeastern and Gulf states are delivered by independent distributors and may carry different destination fees.)

The Similarities

  • The 2011 Honda CR-V, 2011 Toyota RAV4, and 2011 Ford Escape are more like tall four-door hatchbacks than old-school truck-based SUVs. The Honda and Ford are five-passenger models, while the RAV4 can seat seven with the optionally available third-row seat. All have relatively spacious front seats and good headroom all around. Putting three adults in their rear seat is a squeeze, while the RAV’s third-row seat is strictly for small kids. All the rear seatbacks fold to create generous cargo holds, with the Honda and Toyota offering a maximum cargo volume of 73 cubic feet and the Escape, which has the shortest body length of the three, maxing out at 67.2 cubic feet.
  • Each model delivers car-like handling, though they have different road manners and ride characteristics. The CR-V has the sharpest steering and feels most nimble, thought its ride is quite firm over bumps and ruts. The RAV4 feels taller and a bit heavier than the CR-V or Escape, but has the most composed ride. The Escape shows its age with slow handling response and imprecise steering, though its ride quality is generally good.
  • All these crossovers offer a choice of front-wheel drive or basic all-wheel-drive (AWD). Their AWD systems automatically shift engine power between the front and rear axles as needed to counter wheel slippage and maintain traction on wet or snowy roads. None of the three is meant for severe off-roading, though the RAV4 is the only one here with a dashboard button that enables the driver to lock in a 50/50 front/rear power split to improve low-speed grip.
  • Good fuel economy is a welcome virtue for these crossovers, with the Ford Escape edging the other two in EPA ratings. With its four-cylinder engine, the 2011 Escape rates 23/28 mpg city/highway with manual transmission and 21/28 with automatic; with the available V-6 and AWD it’s rated at 20/26. The Escape is the only one of this trio available with a gas-electric hybrid powertrain (see The Differences section for details), and it rates 34/31 mpg with front-drive and 30/27 with AWD. All 2011 Honda CR-Vs are powered by the same four-cylinder engine and rate 21/28 mpg with front-wheel drive and 21/27 with AWD. With its four-cylinder engine, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 rates 22/28 mpg with front-drive and 21/27 with AWD. V-6 RAV4s rate 19/27 with front drive and 19/26 with AWD.
  • These crossovers come standard with the expected range of features, including air conditioning, a CD audio system, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. Also along for the ride across all three model lines are front-side airbags and curtain side airbags, plus antilock brakes and antiskid stability control for safer stopping and turning. Available options include GPS navigation systems, upgraded audio systems, power sunroofs, and leather upholstery. The Escape is the only one of these three that can be found in essentially the same form but with mildly different styling under another brand. That would be the 2011 Mazda Tribute, though the Tribute does not offer a hybrid version. 
  • All three of these SUV designs are nearing the end of their current lifecycles. The CR-V will be all-new for model-year 2013. The RAV4 and Escape are set for model-year 2012 redesigns. The next-generation CR-V and RAV4 are shaping up as evolutions of the current models. Expect the 2012 Escape to be the most radical departure from today’s version. It’s likely to be essentially an Americanized edition of the extremely curvy Ford Kuga sold elsewhere in the world as a crossover wagon based on the Ford Focus compact car.

The Differences

  • The 2011 CR-V has one engine, the RAV4 offers two, and the Escape is available with three power plants. The CR-V’s four-cylinder delivers an adequate 180 horsepower and 161 pound-feet of torque. (Horsepower describes an engine’s maximum power; torque indicates how quickly it can get up to speed.) The RAV4’s four-cylinder has 179 horsepower but feels livelier than the CR-V’s thanks to its 172 pound-feet of torque. With the V-6, the RAV4 is the hot rod of the group, scooting away on 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque. Escape’s gas engines are the laggards in this group, with 171 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque from the four-cylinder and 240 horsepower and 223 pound-feet from the V-6.
  • The 2011 Ford Escape Hybird is the most fuel-efficient SUV on the market. That’s thanks to the canny teaming of a gas four-cylinder engine with an electric motor-generator and a self-charging battery pack. Net output is 177 horsepower. The Escape Hybrid can run solely on battery power at lower speeds for limited distances and shuts down the gasoline engine at idle to further save fuel. The Escape Hybrid uses a gearless automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that delivers seamless acceleration without pausing for shift points. Transmissions for the other models are conventional automatics, with the Escape arguably holding an edge by virtue of its six-speed unit versus a five-speed for the CR-V and V-6 RAV4. The four-cylinder RAV4 is saddled with a four-speed automatic. The greater the number of ratios a transmission has the greater its opportunity to deliver engine power efficiently. That translates to smoother performance and fuel savings. The four-cylinder front-drive Escape is the only model here available with a manual transmission.   
  • None of these three is likely to win a beauty contest, but only the CR-V’s styling has come under criticism, mostly for its odd and busy grille design. The RAV4’s look is rather handsome if unaggressive. The nicely proportioned Escape celebrates the upright boxy look that characterized SUVs in the early 2000s and, given the Ford’s strong sales numbers, apparently still resonates with lots of buyers. Inside, Escape’s interior trails the other two because of its dated design and abundance of cheap-feeling plastics. The CR-V and Escape feature conventional top-hinged tailgates. RAV4’s rear hatch is a right-hinged door and compromises convenience if you’ve parallel parked on a crowded city street.
  • The oldest design here, the Escape, offers the greatest number of cutting-edge high-tech features. Its exclusives in this group include the Ford/Microsoft-developed Sync voice-activated multimedia control system, hard drive storage for digital music, and HD radio for receiving and playing digital radio stations (where available) with CD-like sound quality. The Escape also is alone in this trio with a rearview camera (displayed either on the rearview mirror or the optional navigation system’s screen). And only the Escape can parallel park itself. Thank Ford’s Active Park Assist option that determines a suitable parking space and uses the vehicle’s electric power steering to back Escape into the slot while the driver merely tempers its speed via the brake pedal. As if that’s not enough, the Escape offers Ford’s MyKey system that lets parents put speed and audio system limits on teenage drivers and helps enforce seatbelt usage. The CR-V and RAV4’s technology offerings are far more limited, though both do offer Bluetooth mobile phone interfaces in select versions.
  • Delve deeper than simple base-price comparisons and the Escape emerges as the not only the least expensive of this group at the low end but the costliest at the high end, especially when loaded with all available amenities. The 2011 Ford Escape front-wheel-drive models start at $21,995 for the base XLS, $25,115 for the volume-selling XLT, and $26,715 for the top Limited model. AWD adds between $1,600 and $1,750, depending on model. The V-6 engine is available on XLT and Limited versions and is priced at $1,195. The Escape Hybrid starts at $30,825 for a base front-drive version and $33,335 for the top Limited model. AWD adds $1,750 to the cost of either hybrid trim level.
  • As per Honda practice, the CR-V doesn’t offer options per se, coming instead in well-defined trim levels that increase features as they climb the price ladder. That makes the 2011 CR-V’s base prices appear a bit high relative to these competitors, but differences fade once you option the rivals to match comparable CR-V models. With front-wheel drive, the 2011 Honda CR-V starts at $22,475 for a base LX, $23,175 for a slightly better equipped SE, $24,775 for the well-appointed EX, and $27,425 for a leather-clad EX-L. AWD versions are priced $1,250 higher. Front-drive 2011 Toyota RAV4 models start at $22,835 for the base model, $24,535 for the Sport, and $25,825 for the top-line Limited. Add $1,400 for AWD and between $1,930 and $2,038, depending on the trim level, for the V-6 engine.

The Winner

2011 Toyota RAV4. The RAV’s winning advantages start with its smooth, powerful V-6 engine. Even with a full complement of passengers and cargo, a V-6 RAV has plenty of power for brisk on-ramp merging and confident passing. That’s not true with any of the four-cylinder models in this group, and not really the case with the V-6 Escape, either. The RAV4 is nicely styled, has a degree of luxury when loaded up, and offers growing families a third-row seat to transport toddlers to play dates. The 2011 Honda CR-V is stalwart if somewhat bland, but uses its space very efficiently, has a smartly designed cabin, and boasts great reliability and resale value. The 2011 Ford Escape is an odd combination of modern features and dated design. We’d suggest waiting to see how the next-generation 2012 Escape stacks up against the competition.