These SUVs are economical AWD vehicles with seating for five. Which would you choose?

Which to Buy: Honda CR-V vs. Toyota Rav4 | CarMax

Are you in the market for a smaller, used SUV? If so, you've certainly got your fair share of options. It seems like just about every major auto manufacturer has their own model of compact SUV these days. Two of the more popular available options today are the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Both give their owners economy, a good mix of passenger and cargo space, and excellent all-weather traction in just about any climate.

Who drives a compact SUV like the CR-V and RAV4? Our sales consultants say Honda and Toyota drivers tend to be brand-loyal, so they’re often drivers with families who have outgrown the space they have in their Accord or Camry. These customers are seeking cargo space, driving flexibility, and passenger capacity.

“These SUVs are taller than sedans and customers like the improved view of the road they get when driving them,” one of our senior sales consultants says. “You just sit higher than you do in a sedan, and it’s a very noticeable difference once you’ve tried it. This also means these vehicles give you some extra ability, with all-wheel drive, in snow and rougher terrain.”

“You just sit higher than you do in a sedan, and it’s a very noticeable difference once you’ve tried it.”

- CarMax sales consultant

“Compact SUVs are also easier to get in and out of and their cargo space is almost always more spacious than a sedan’s.”

If you're torn between these two compact SUVs, it may be helpful to explore some of the main features of each, as well as review a side-by-side comparison. From there, you can make a confident choice regarding which vehicle best suits your own needs and budget.


The Honda CRV

Which to Buy: Honda CR-V vs. Toyota Rav4 | CarMax

First of all, know that the Honda CR-V made our list of the top SUVs of 2016. Then, consider the fact that the latest models have a number of significant improvements, including a boost in fuel economy and a reshaped body for improved aerodynamics.

Where it shines

Zesty VTEC engine

The latest CRV is available with a variety of engine options, depending on the trim level you choose (there are four trim options available). There's now a 1.5L turbocharged engine that comes in all trims except for the base LX, but the normally aspirated four-cylinder VTEC engines found in 2016 and earlier models offer very similar horsepower numbers. These engines provide a good amount of torque (160 lb ft), good for strong pulling power from a stop. 

One of our sales consultants says customers give this engine option high marks for responsiveness. “The CR-V steps up when you give it a little gas,” he says, “and drivers feel like there’s good power under the hood. And still, the CR-V returns true compact SUV mileage.”

Plenty of interior and cargo space

The Honda CR-V also boasts an impressive amount of interior head and leg room and cargo space, especially for a smaller SUV. Specifically, you'll find more than 70 cubic feet of space in the CR-V, which ranks it right up there with the space you’ll find in many midsized SUVs on the market. Keep in mind that this cargo space is achieved by folding down the rear seats.

The CR-V can also comfortably seat up to five adults, providing a surprising amount of leg room for an SUV of its size.

Comfortable, quiet ride

“The CR-V steps up when you give it a little gas,” he says, “and drivers feel like there’s good power under the hood. And still, the CR-V returns true compact SUV mileage.”

- CarMax sales consultant

One of the CR-V's attributes is a quite interior, and cabin noise levels in the newer models remain impressively quiet and comfortable. Engine noise is relatively low, although under heavy acceleration the noise can be noticeable in the cabin. Still, for a compact SUV, the CR-V does an excellent job of absorbing noise and shock from the road, even when taken off the beaten path.

Although the CR-V offers a number of great features and has even made our list of the top 10 crossovers of 2016, it does come with a few potential sticking points for some buyers.

Base-trim engine could use a little more giddy-up

The CR-V's engine performance is a bit lackluster. If you’re looking to really maximize your gas mileage, this engine will help you achieve high MPGs, but acceleration is a little sluggish. Since there are always tradeoffs between performance and economy, we recommend you test drive CR-Vs with different engines to see which you like better. CR-Vs that come after 2016 have an optional turbocharged engine.

Fuel economy good, but not up to small sedan standards

The CR-V has seen improvements in fuel economy with its recent model releases. But at 30 mpg on the highway with the four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive, there are better options out there for drivers who are conscious of their fuel consumption. On the other hand, you’re looking for an SUV here — if you’re a hyper-miler, take a look at smaller sedans that carry less but give you better mileage.

Basic infotainment features

Which to Buy: Honda CR-V vs. Toyota Rav4 | CarMax

The CR-V comes with standard, workmanlike entertainment features. Nothing flashy here. Some have noted that the touchscreen can be difficult to control and isn't always very responsive. 

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The Toyota RAV4

Which to Buy: Honda CR-V vs. Toyota Rav4 | CarMax

While the RAV4 may not have been through a total redesign for a while, it’s worth noting that it underwent a number of upgrades for the 2016 release. This is another vehicle that also made CarMax's list of top 2016 crossovers.

Where it shines

Smooth and quiet ride

Drivers will enjoy this compact SUV’s smooth, quiet ride, which makes it an excellent vehicle for daily commuters.

Our sales consultant says customers tell him driving the RAV4 feels more like driving a car. “It’s all in the seats,” he says. “It feels like you’re driving a car, but you’re sitting higher at the same time for a more commanding view. The ride is smooth, yet you’ve got some off-the-road capability when you need it.”

Even when the vehicle is accelerating from side street to highway speeds, the cabin noise remains relatively modest. The same could not be said with the Honda CR-V, so this is a major bonus in that department. The RAV4 is also able to deliver a smooth ride in a variety of road conditions, making it great for taking off the beaten path every now and then.

Excellent standard features

The Toyota RAV4 really shines in the standard features department. The list includes a forward-collision mitigation system, automatic high-beam headlights, and a lane departure warning on all four of its trim levels.

One of our sales consultants says the difference is in the details for the RAV4 — details like a 360-degree camera and front and rear parking sensors. “These are handy for sure because they help to minimize any blind spots, which some drivers aren’t used to if they’ve just moved up from driving a sedan.”

The RAV4 also comes with adaptive cruise control, which can really come in handy on long commutes or the occasional road trip.

Which to Buy: Honda CR-V vs. Toyota Rav4 | CarMax

Roomy interior space

Like the CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 also provides ample space for seating up to five adults rather comfortably. Even rear-seat passengers will be pleased to see that they’ve got a fair amount of leg and head room, even with the driver and passenger seats slightly reclined. From the inside, the RAV4 certainly doesn't feel like a compact SUV. If you didn't know any better, you might actually think you're sitting inside a full-sized SUV.

There are also a few areas where the Toyota RAV4 might struggle to meet all the needs of some customers.

Engine not so zippy

As with the CR-V, some drivers have noted that the RAV4's acceleration and overall “zip” is lacking. Furthermore, the RAV4 only has one engine offering — there is no turbocharged option, as with the very latest CR-Vs. The engine you receive in the base trim is the same as what you get at the premium trim level. This may rub some drivers the wrong way.

Storage challenges

Even though the RAV4 offers numerous storage compartments, drivers have noted that they can be difficult to access when compared to the Honda CR-V’s storage spaces.

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Side-by-side comparison

There actually aren't too many big differences between the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Their engines, fuel economy, stopping distances, and other typical specifics are very similar.

Both the CR-V and the RAV4 are available with all-wheel drive as an option. In addition to more interior space, AWD is one of the biggest reasons customers buy an SUV. But when it comes to operating these vehicles in the real world, there are some significant differences in the overall experience.

Ultimately, the vehicle that’s right for you will depend on a number of factors. How are you planning to use your vehicle? If you’re looking for a smaller SUV that's fun to drive and a little more on the sporty side, the Honda CR-V probably has the edge here. With its excellent handling in all road conditions, this SUV is a solid choice for adventurers.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a compact SUV that's loaded with features, the Toyota RAV4 may be the better option. This is especially true for small families. Although the power may lack a little (especially in terms of acceleration), drivers will enjoy a more comfortable and quiet ride in the RAV4.

If you’re especially budget-conscious, it's also worth noting that the base prices for these vehicles are very similar. Each can be found for around $25,000 or less, including the Honda CRV price, depending on trim level.

The bottom line

Overall, the CR-V and RAV4 are both excellent options if you’re in the market for a compact SUV. We believe the RAV4 sneaks ahead of the CR-V just slightly in terms of overall performance, but there are certainly instances where the RAV4 may be better suited for you. Either way, both of these vehicles provide a fun driving experience and all the benefits of a small SUV.

For more information on the CR-V, RAV4, and similar vehicles, check out our list of the top 10 4WD and AWD cars and our hybrid and electric vehicle buying guide.

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