If you're shopping for a new sedan, would you pay a bit more for a small SUV that gives you more space and versatility?
Increasingly, Americans are answering "yes" to that question. Starting in 2014, compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape displaced midsize sedans as the top-selling automotive category (other than pickup trucks). This year through May, these small SUVs have sold a total of 1.22 million vs. 926,000 for midsize sedans.
What powered this switch? The sudden decline of gas prices in 2014 from around $4 a gallon led people to be less concerned about fuel economy and thus open to consider SUVs, said analyst Tim Fleming of Kelley Blue Book.
But unlike large SUVS, with these compact utilities you don't pay that much of a gas mileage penalty. The combined city/highway mileage rating for this category is 25 -- trailing midsize sedans by less than 4 MPG.
Small SUVS appeal to a range of buyers, from 20-something professionals who want to haul their skis and other gear to retirees who want plenty of space for groceries and grandkids. "The combination of practicality, comfort and affordability that these vehicles offer is hard to match," said Fleming.
The average selling price recently of compact SUVs is about $27,600, according to Kelley Blue Book. That compares with $25,100 for midsize sedans. That price differential matters to many buyers, however, and Fleming predicted that automakers will continue to sell about 2 million midsize sedans annually.
For the price-conscious buyer, compact cars like a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla will be attractive at an average selling price of $20,150. And unlike years past, these small sedans now feature the latest in automotive technology and safety features.
But if you're a buyer considering a compact SUV, take a closer look at the top five sellers this year and compare them to midsize sedans of the same brand.
Toyota RAV4 vs. Toyota Camry
This comparison pits the best-selling compact SUV vs. the best-selling sedan in the U.S. Reviewers praise the RAV4 for its comfortable ride and crisp handling. List prices for the RAV4 range from $24,350 to $32,920, while the Camry starts at $23,070 and goes up to $31,370.
In gas mileage, the Camry has the edge. Its four-cylinder engine is rated for 25 MPG in city driving and 35 on the highway, 28 combined. But the RAV4 is rated for a very respectable 23 city, 30 highway and 26 combined.
The cargo space numbers, however, show you the real RAV4 advantage. The Camry trunk will handle 15.4 cubic feet. The RAV4 with the seats up offers 37.2 cubic feet and with the rear seats folded 70.9. That's a lot of luggage or supplies from Home Depot.
Honda CR-V vs. Honda Accord
Here again the range in the list prices isn't that different. The CR-V ranges from $23,745 to $33,395, while the Accord goes from $22,205 to $34,680.
With gas mileage, the CR-V two-wheel-drive version is rated for 26 city, 33 highway and 29 combined. The Accord base engine is rated 27 city, 37 highway and 31 combined.
Again, the cargo space comparison is no contest. The Accord trunk will hold 15.8 cubic feet, while the CR-V can handle 37.2 cubic feet with the rear seats up, 70.9 with those seats folded.
Ford Escape vs. Ford Fusion
Reviewers praise the Escape for its fun-to-drive qualities, its well-designed interior and comfortable seats.
List prices for Escape range from $23,590 to $31,745. Prices on the Fusion sedan list from $22,750 to $33,720 -- a higher top-end number.
In gas mileage, the Fusion has a little clearer edge than in some other comparisons. Fusion is rated for 25 city, 37 highway and 29 combined. The Escape's EPA ratings are 23 city, 32 highway and 26 combined.
Inevitably, the Escape has a big advantage as a hauler. The Fusion trunk comes in at 16 cubic feet. The Escape cargo volume is 34.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 67.8 with those seats folded.
Nissan Rogue vs. Nissan Altima
Rogue's comfortable ride and roomy cargo hold earn praise from reviewers. Altima is cited for its well-designed cabin and easy-to-use technology features.
Prices for the Rogue range from $23,290 to $33,400, while the Altima goes from $22,500 to $32,690. Altima is the third-best-selling midsize car after Camry and Accord.
The two-wheel-drive Rogue has strong fuel economy ratings of 26 city, 33 highway and 28 combined. But the Altima is substantially better at 27 city, 39 highway and 31 combined.
In the cargo contest, the Altima trunk will hold 15.4 cubic feet. The Rogue accommodates 39.3 cubic feet with rear seats up and 70 with those seats folded.
Chevrolet Equinox vs. Chevrolet Malibu
The Equinox earns praise for its roomy passenger compartment and strong reliability. The Malibu is the best-reviewed Chevy sedan of recent years and was named best 2016 midsize car for families by U.S. News.
List prices on the Equinox range from $22,600 to $31,690, while the Malibu goes from $21,995 to $31,785. On gas mileage, Equinox is rated 22 city, 32 highway and 26 combined. The Malibu is estimated for 27 city, 37 highway and 31 combined.
As for hauling stuff, the Malibu trunk can hold 15.8 cubic feet. The Equinox can handle 36.5 cubic feet with the seats up and 63.7 with rear seats folded -- smaller numbers than some competitors.