Unless you know exactly what you're looking for, shopping for a small SUV can be an unpleasant experience given the sheer number of choices. It's a very muddled category: very often there isn’t much difference between a compact SUV, crossover and wagon.
Take today's opponents, for example. The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and the Ford Escape Titanium are two seemingly very different SUVs. The Jeep looks like a champion of the trails, while the Escape gives off more of a luxury family model vibe. The Cherokee seems to want to call attention to itself (have you seen the towing hooks?) while the Ford is perfectly content blending into the crowd with quiet elegance. The Trailhawk has a V6 while the Titanium relies on a turbocharged four-cylinder.
However, if you dig a little, you'll notice several commonalities, too. Their prices are similar ($31,595 for the Cherokee Trailhawk versus $33,749 for the Escape Titanium), they're basically the same size and have the same wheelbase and interior dimensions. On the other hand, each uses very different technology to save fuel. To break the deadlock, we had no choice but to take to the road (and the trail!).
Ford Escape: If it’s good enough for Europe...
There's no denying that the Ford Escape (especially the Titanium version in metallic red) is easy on the eyes. Its European style (remember that the vehicle comes to us from over the pond, where it's known as the Kuga) hides its size well, and it seems like a tall wagon. The height is ideal for getting into the passenger compartment, but you have to be careful not to hit your head on the A-pillar. Inside, several details jump out at you, in particular the steering wheel and the central console that bears a striking resemblance to those found in the Ford Focus.
The version I test drove came with the Sync infotainment system; once you get the hang of it, it works well, but it isn't exactly intuitive. The quality of the materials is average: while certain surfaces, like those of the seats and steering wheel are very good quality, others are covered in cheap plastic. Visibility is excellent both in front and on the sides. The sunroof adds a touch of natural light to the passenger compartment, which is already very spacious, and headroom is generous.
As soon as we started moving, it was obvious that the Escape was an urban utility vehicle, not a truck. The suspension absorbed bumps well, the power steering is light and you forget that you're driving a vehicle of this nature, which is rare in the segment. The six-speed automatic gearbox is smooth and gets the job done without a fuss. The Ecoboost engine, with its substantial torque in low gear and linear power curve for a turbocharged engine made us forget all about the old Duratec V6. As all-wheel drive is still available, the 240 horsepower is easy to control, but fuel consumption may surprise you. I was hard-pressed to achieve a combined city/highway figure less than 12.5 L/100 km.
Rubicon Trail, meet the Cherokee Trailhawk
If the Ford Escape is an SUV that thinks it’s a car, the Cherokee chose the opposite approach: its architecture is the same as that of the Dodge Dart (and the Chrysler 200S), but its look, suspension and ride have been modified to make it worthy of the Jeep name. I must admit that when the vehicle was unveiled, I was one of its most vocal critics. However, equipped with the Trailhawk package, I saw its unique style in a totally new light: it went from vulgar to just eye-catching enough.
It’s easy to get into, but you’ll have to hoist yourself a little higher than for the Ford. Once you’re comfortably inside (the bucket seats offer good lateral support), you can start to admire the work of Chrysler’s stylists. Not so long ago, their passenger compartments finished dead last in terms of style, quality of assembly and materials used. Now, soft leather rubs shoulders with rubberized plastics and nice-looking silvery accents. Sure, there are still a few controls (like the Select-Trac scroll wheel) that move and crack if you press too hard, but, overall, it’s a success.
On the road, this vehicle is also diametrically opposed to the Escape: the Cherokees’s dampers, heavier steering and bigger tires confirm that this is a Jeep. However, the ride is straightforward and long trips will leave you neither tired nor sore (unlike the old Cherokees). The visibility is good, except in back. For parking, you’ll have to rely on the rear camera whose images are transmitted to the enormous 8.4-inch Uconnect screen (the Trailhawk also feature an optional automatic parking system).
The engine used in my Trailhawk, a 3.2-litre 271-horsepower V6, is powerful enough for passing and its sound is surprisingly pleasant. On the other hand, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the nine-speed automatic transmission. It’s true that it brings good fuel economy (at highway speed, the engine revs at only 2,000 rpm, for a fuel consumption of 9.7 litres/100 km; for mixed city/highway fuel consumption, that figure climbs to approximately 11.7 litres/100 km), but it’s doesn’t work perfectly: the first gears seem too short, you distinctly feel the shift between the first two or three gears and the rest of the gearbox, and you’ll have to accelerate well beyond the legal limit to reach ninth gear.
If you want to get off the beaten path, the Select-Trac system offers a low gear range, various modes depending on the type of terrain (mud, sand, snow...) and even an electronically locking rear axle. All these gadgets are sufficient to help the little Jeep over obstacles at which its competitors wouldn't even dare look. Without a doubt, the Trailhawk truly earned the “Trail Rated” logo affixed to the front fenders!
A question of taste
The winner of this match will obviously depend on your tastes and personal needs. If your lifestyle keeps you primarily to cities and your definition of off-roading means driving out of a poorly shovelled driveway, the Ford Escape Titanium is a sound choice and represents an amalgam of the higher driving position of an SUV and the handling of a comfortable car. However, if you like to get a little dirty on back roads, you’ll find a vehicle that is able to drive you to work every morning and follow ATVs in the forest on the weekend in the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.