By on January 25, 2021

They’re small and space efficient because they’re hatchbacks, and they sell well because they’re called crossovers. Which small American CUV is worth buying with real money if you’ve got a $25,000 budget?

Chevrolet Trax

The Trax is the oldest of today’s trio. On sale elsewhere since 2013, it arrived in North America in 2015 after GM saw the success of the more upscale Buick Encore. Updated and facelifted for model year 2017, the Trax continues into what’s likely its final model year relatively unchanged. The most upscale Premier trim vanished this year, which leaves the LS and LT. In LT all-wheel-drive trim, the Trax pairs its 1.4-liter inline-four (148 HP) with a six-speed auto, and asks $23,820.

Ford EcoSport

Ford’s EcoSport has been on sale in various markets around the world since 2013, though it didn’t arrive in North America until 2018. That year was a mid-cycle refresh year, and the point Ford was desperate for North American subcompact SUV product. The EcoSport is available in four trims: S, SE, Titanium, and the new SES. Unlike Trax, buyers can choose from either a 1.0-liter three-cylinder or a 2.0-liter four-cylinder on all trims except SES. Today’s budget nets us a mid-level SE trim, with 2.0-liter (166 HP) and all-wheel drive routed through a six-speed auto for $24,950.

Jeep Renegade

Renegade arrived in 2015, as the long-awaited replacement for the Jeep Patriot which seemed to soldier on forever. Sold in a wide variety of configurations around the world, the Renegade is on FCA’s Small Wide platform with the Fiat 500X and Tipo. It was updated and facelifted for the 2019 model year, which switched up engine availability. 2021 brings a dizzying array of eight Renegade trims which we won’t list here. Renegade reaches higher in price than EcoSport or Trax, so we must stick to base Sport 4WD trim today. 180 horses from the 2.4 are sent through a nine-speed automatic. You’ll pay $24,350.

Three subcompact sellers, which one goes home with you?

[Images: GM, Ford, Stellantis]

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74 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Affordable American Subcompact Crossovers in 2021...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I have a real problem calling cars with practically zero American parts content, and manufactured in Korea, India or Italy “American”. Having said that…

    Buy the Chevy. I have some time in its’ Buick counterpart – the Encore – and I was pleasantly surprised by how decent it was.

    Drive the Jeep. I’ve always had a soft spot for this car’s styling.

    BURN the Ecosport twice. It’s hot garbage.

    • 0 avatar
      N8iveVA

      After being in an Encore the interior of the Trax is awful.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      I would probably follow Freedmike in his choices. I know its not an option, but I feel like entrants in this field make a stronger case for running to the used car market than pretty much any other new car segment.

      All three of these are probably overpriced by about $5000 because they have 3 more inches of ground clearance than a regular hatchback.

    • 0 avatar
      parkave231

      This is the correct take.

      I do have to admit that while driving a rental Renegade I’ve had one of the absolute scariest moments in my 25+ years of driving. I was pulling out of a parking lot in beautiful downtown Providence, Rhode Island, and the exit onto the one-way street was at a roughly 45-degree angle. Everything lined up perfectly such that I couldn’t see the inner lane of oncoming traffic due to the large D-pillar — in normal driving I didn’t have any issues. I waited a few seconds, said a few prayers, and then mashed the accelerator…and didn’t get hit. Aside from that I really liked the car, but could have used about 25-50 more ponies under the hood.

    • 0 avatar
      redgolf

      Same with me on the 2016 Encore I leased ($25 k sticker ) it drove/rode very nice. Leasing a 2020 Equinox now, not as pleasant of a ride as the Buick but bigger with more safety items.

    • 0 avatar
      teddyc73

      Really gets under you skin does it. Good thing you said that.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Buy the Trax I guess. Hopefully the older components will give it some durability.

    Drive the Renegade. The name and the look are the best, but the 9A is not well-reviewed.

    Burn the Ford. I actually do not hate the EcoSport as much as some people but the higher trim you selected is a no-go.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Believe me, the Ecosport is trash. It’s one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven, and that includes rolling dumpster fires like an ’86 Chevette and a ’79 Rabbit Diesel…in Puked-Up-Pea-Soup-Green. no less. It looks like crap, it drives like crap and it’s built like crap.

      I’d say you can try one out for yourself, but I hate to see someone waste an hour of his life that he will never get back.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Are any of these 3 (or even their Japanese counterparts with the exception of the Mazda) even competitive with the offerings in the same category from Kia/Hyundai?

    • 0 avatar
      Yankee

      Good question Arthur. As a technician (not brand affiliated) I would say no. An employee of ours bought a new Trax a few years ago and has spent a lot of time at the dealership getting warranty repairs on ridiculous things for a new car (broken door latch comes to mind). Used car lots around here are filled with newer Renegades that people traded soon after they bought them (after working on them I can see why). I have no experience with this particular Ford, but if it’s as bad as their other SUVs, I’m not optimistic. I’ve seen Hyundai and Kia go from making absolute garbage in their initial offerings to producing some very well-built and reliable vehicles. There are exceptions, of course (e.g., exploding Sonata engines), but I have many customers with older Hyundai and Kia SUVs that I do minor repairs on (e.g., valve cover gaskets, brakes, exhaust – all age related) and they keep driving them.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      My sister tested a FWD Compass when she bought her Kona (she didn’t like the styling of the Renegade). She did like the Jeep overall and I’d say it was “competitive” in terms of features and comfort but it was too slow and the the 2.4L just doesn’t have a very good track record.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I’ve driven the EcoSport and the Renegade as rentals, so I have a little experience with them…

    Buy the Renegade. It’s probably the most comfortable of the three, and has decent tech for the price. The reliability scores aren’t the best though.

    Drive the Trax. It’s the one I haven’t driven so I can’t comment too strongly on it.

    But all of them still make the case that they are marketing over substance as regular hatchbacks and wagons drive better, are (were) cheaper, and overpriced for what you get.

    Burn (over and over) the EcoSport. Cheap feeling, ragged sounding, flimsy, weak-kneed sorry excuse. It’s impossible to believe that someone in Ford was so desperate to compete in this class that they imported this flaming heap. Try harder Ford…

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I agree 100% with your evaluation, save me the trouble of writing the exact same thing

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I think all three models were a result of a bet between GM, Ford, and FCA: who can build the crappiest subcompact POS that would still move enough volume to profit well.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        I think you touch on what bothers me most about the Ecosport – it’s so CYNICAL. If you must build something in a place where workers make three bucks an hour, which is the average manufacturing wage in India, then fine – sell it cheap, like Mitsubishi does with the Mirage. Fifteen grand sounds about right, and at that price point, it’d probably be a decent enough starter car that’ll run OK for four or five years. I think we need more vehicles like that for entry-level buyers, and I’d rather see them made here, but if they can’t be, then price them accordingly.

        But the one I drove stickered for twenty-five grand, which is the base price for a base CR-V or RAV4 (or their own Escape, which was sitting 10 feet away on the same lot). To me, that feels like a big, fat “f**k you” to their customers.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          I agree its a big middle finger to customers and dealers a like. IIRC Honda was also criticized for the HR-V and Toyota to a lesser extent for the C-HR, both of whom should be able to handle the segment better. Almost as if all the mfgs are phoning in the subcompacts with a message of “you really want the Equinox/Escape/Cherokee/CR-V/RAV4”.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          The manufacturers should be required to state the hourly wage of the workers assembling the vehicles in their ads if it’s below the US minimum wage. Drug makers state side effects etc, so why not labor rates for auto assembly in car ads?

        • 0 avatar
          Yankee

          You’re absolutely right FreedMike. Sadly, the domestics have been doing it for a long time. I think it’s kind of the ultimate middle finger to the US when GM took their bailout money from American taxpayers, then immediately afterward imported Asian-built SUVs to maximize their profit by not making them here. The same taxpayers bailed Chrysler out twice so they could import Fiats with a “Jeep” badge on them. I just don’t understand why people aren’t more upset. For my money, I’m buying quality no matter where it’s made (usually Japan) on the used car market. I’ll never buy new again. Can’t justify spending even $20k for the disposable crap being made today. My fellow mechanic buddies and I have been marveling for a few years now just how bad the quality has gone down given the kind of repairs we’re seeing.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Buy the Jeep – it is appealing to look at at least.

    Drive the Chevy – because I can only burn one.

    Burn the Ecosport. It is such a cynical cash grab. I get that everyone needs a bargain basement tiny pretend crossover. But taking a car already in other markets and bringing to the US with little or no changes – well, that sort of makes the “it’s too expensive to federalize” argument appear to be BS. Unless India has the exact same standards as the US.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      This is pretty much where I fall on things. My brother recently got a Renegade because his 10 year old Equinox was a pile of excrement. A new car warranty was appealing to him for his 70 mile round trip to work.

      Buy the Renegade, it’s not quite so tragic looking as the others.

      Drive the Trax, I have experience with Korean vehicles so…damning with faint praise. If they put a decent engine in the Trailblazer, that would ameliorate some of my reticence. It’s still not to my taste, but the proportions are slightly better. I’m still not sure I’m on board with a 3 cylinder.

      Burn the EcoSport. Ish, just ish. The styling is ridiculous.

    • 0 avatar
      NoID

      “Drive the Chevy – because I can only burn one.”

      Drive the Trax INTO the EcoSport!

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    Both the Trax and EcoSport are terrifyingly bad. If you have to go with one of these jacked up hatchbacks, there are better offerings from Korea and Japan.

    Why Ford is not bringing the EU market Puma to the US is anyone’s guess.

    https://www.ford.co.uk/cars/new-puma/gallery#

  • avatar
    Steve203

    I tend to have an aversion to captive imports.

    The first I would run away from is the Ecosport. The Ecosport used to have a decent sized global footprint, but now Ford had shut production in Brazil, eliminating the Ecosport from South America. In Europe, the Puma is eating the Ecosport’s lunch, and they are built in the same plant in Romania, so the Ecosport could be dropped, with barely a hiccup. That leaves only the plant in India, supplying that market and the US. Ford’s attempt to fob off 51% of it’s Indian operations on Mahindra collapsed last month, so I take Ford’s presence in India as very much on the bubble. If Ford bails out of India, breaking it’s relations with the Indian parts supply chain, I expect the Ecosport to become very much a red-headed stepchild that no-one will want to deal with.

    GM Korea has been on the bubble for years, but the Trax and Trailblazer could be sourced from China, so I give that one a provisional hold, due to geopolitical risk.

    The Renegade is built in a very modern plant in Italy, with a solid European sales footprint. The Melfi plant also builds it’s brother-under-the-skin 500X and the platform mate Compass. I expect that operation to be around for a while, in spite of the merger. So, even if the company implements the Steve plan to drop the Renegade from the North American market, now that the elimination of the 500 and Journey have freed up enough capacity at Toluca for all the Renegade prospects to be moved into a Compass, the parts supply chain for the Renegade will be intact.

    So there you have it. If I had to buy one of the three, the Renegade is the buy.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down y’all
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down

  • avatar

    Which Japanese three should we do for the next installment?

    I guess it’s HRV, C-HR, and Kicks.

    • 0 avatar
      slyons

      Mazda CX-3 is a good competitor. What remains of the old Mazda 2, on small stilts.

    • 0 avatar
      mmreeses

      Juke, Toyota C-HR…..and a comparably priced Fit to mix things up (EX or EX-L trim).

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      The Kicks might be low hanging fruit there. Toyota/Honda/Mazda might be the right trio. But I agree with an earlier post – by the time real world economy, transaction price, insurance, and comfort comes into play, this entire class seems to exist just so dealers can go “…for a few dollars more, you can get…” And given the real world transaction prices of these mini-CUVs, it isn’t that much of a stretch.

      • 0 avatar

        And so it shall be T/H/M in our next BDB!

        • 0 avatar

          Corey. May I suggest using the CX-30 instead of the the CX-3 as the Mazda entrant? It will give the HR-V a run for the money.

          • 0 avatar

            Yeah, I will. The CX-3 has needed attention for a while and is a very clearly dated product. They haven’t even given it the current corporate face yet. Not sure why they’re ignoring it.

          • 0 avatar
            tankinbeans

            The CX3 needs the 2.5, a bit of sound deadening, and the windshield based HUD (the little plastic pop-up screen is chintzy). My mom has one, and I think it could be a little pocket rocket with a bit of power.

            It definitely feels like they’re trying to euthanize it though since they dropped all trim levels for 2020. They just upped the standard equipment and said here, have a CX3; if you want more kit, there’s the CX30.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Small Cars Suck*. I didn’t make this rule, the OEM’s did. (But I’m smart enough to recognize that it is a real thing.)

    The executives don’t waste their time with small cars**, and neither should you. If you are buying from these guys, get something Larger and More Serious.

    *This rule applies to U.S. market and GM/Ford/’DCX-FCA’ products. The rule may change in the future, but it applies right now.

    **”Cars” in this context includes cars and crossovers.

    But if we must:
    – Buy the Chevy to show our support for Mexico and South Korea (before the new “Buy American” initiative kicks in) [but store it in a warehouse because driving it would just irritate me]
    – Drive the Jeep until we see what Stellantis offers in the future (I am fuzzy on the guidelines, but assume that ‘Drive’ implies no long-term commitment)
    – Burn the Ford – I hear it is bad

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      “show our support for Mexico and South Korea”

      Mexico getting work benefits the US. Helping the Mexican economy is in our best interests. South Korea is a good ally as well and wages are decent there.

    • 0 avatar
      mmreeses

      Labor costs in Korea are more than in the US right to work states. And historically, with the labor relations between management and labor in Korea, Joe Line Worker Korea makes the UAW look like cucks.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    The Chevy Trax POS LT is 23,8 in AWD?

    I feel like I am taking crazy pills.

  • avatar
    Styles

    Can I choose Burn, Burn, Burn?

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    How about buy the cheapest one. Park it next to the one you want to burn then drive the last one into the 2 parked cars. Repeat until they catch fire or are completely reduced to rubble.

  • avatar
    DevilsRotary86

    “The sky is red, I don’t understand
    Past midnight I still see the land
    People are saying the woman is damned
    She makes you burn with a wave of her hand
    The city’s ablaze, the town’s on fire
    The woman’s flames are reaching higher
    We were fools, we called her a liar
    All I hear is
    “Burn!””
    Burn by Deep Purple.

    When I read the headline, this song started playing in my head.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    BURN. THEM. ALL.

    :ahem: If you have to keep one, keep the Jeep. Buy and Drive.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Jeep Renegade- It has the most sensible packaging and the 2.4 is fairly decent however the A pillar might be an issue for some. Plus Trail rated!

    Drive: Chevy Trax- Meh It’s almost an Encore.

    Burn: Ford Ecosport- A mediocre Fiesta on stilts. Find a pre owned Fiesta ST-sporty, manual and just as practical.

    Honorable mention: Fiat 500X- If you like the retro styling you can get a good deal on the platform mate of the Jeep.

  • avatar
    dwford

    That anyone buys these turds instead of the vastly superior sedans and hatchs available for $25k just show how insidious the “must have SUV” madness is.

    I’d buy the Jeep – it’s the closest to a real vehicle
    Drive the Chevy
    Burn the Ford – it’ll probably just burn itself anyway

  • avatar
    Dan

    $24,000 of entry level crossover sure takes the stink off a 2021 sedan.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Ive had all of these as rentals…typically as punishment for my plane being late and them being all that is left on the lot. Burn them all. Being forced to pick one of these is akin to modern politics…They are all terrible.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I would take an Encore over any of these but I would take the Trax over Renegade and the EcoSport. Given a choice I would just skip this class of vehicles.

  • avatar

    It is not even funny.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    Friend was given an Ecosport as a loaner while the dealer tried to fix his 2.7tt Fusion Sport and waited on parts. He couldn’t believe it, and the rolling of his wife’s eyes told her story.

    They can’t give away Renegades in Canada. The pricing is aspirational, $40 grand, and as another friend who’s been warranty manager at a Chrysler dealer for two decades says, they don’t even bother to stock more than a couple for the odd punter who wants to be taken for a ride. Useless.

    The Trax is less than beige, it’s unobservable in the wild.

    Burn the lot of ’em and save the world.

  • avatar
    millerluke

    Burn ’em all.

    Then take the $25k and buy a lightly used CRV or Rav4 (if all you’re looking for is basic transportation)

    • 0 avatar
      teddyc73

      Why? These are basic transportation also so they are just as good a choice as the two you mentioned, but with a new car warranty.

      • 0 avatar
        millerluke

        No, teddyc73, they aren’t as good a choice. A five year old Rav4 or CR-V is still way better than these three turds. In fact, almost any other vehicle is better as being basic transportation than these (base Nissan products notwithstanding… don’t get me started on how crappy the Versa is…)

  • avatar
    teddyc73

    Good lord people, these vehicles aren’t that bad. They’re perfectly fine.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      @teddyc73, I’ll make you a deal.

      If you will pick one of these vehicles and explain right here, politely, why it is ‘not that bad’ or ‘perfectly fine’ (which are two different things by the way), I will drag my lazy butt down to the appropriate dealer and check out your claims for myself, point by point, with an open mind. I pledge to report back within two weeks. Deal?

      [Due to some unusual circumstances, I could currently cut a check for any of these at full MSRP with about 4 days advance notice.]

      If I were to actually consider purchasing one of these, you would need to convince me that:
      a) These are better than competing products in the same price range.
      b) These are a better deal at this price than are larger nicer vehicles at a higher price from the same manufacturers.
      c) Buying one of these is a better use of my money than any of the other multitudinous things I could do with $25K.

      But never mind all that. Just pick one, point out its merits, and I’ll take a test drive.

  • avatar
    NN

    The Renegade is the most successful Fiat ever sold in the USA. The design is good for a teeny Jeep, it has actual off road capabilities and is available with a stick shift. As a bonus, it is very popular in both Europe and South America. This is the vehicle that has succeeded in making Jeep a global brand, and it’s a Fiat. Definitely buy the Renegade, in 4×4 stick shift trim.

    The other two are reprehensible and have nothing going for them and nothing to recommend of them.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    A friend of mine drives a 2005 Toyota Matrix; a clapped-out, abused, neglected, beat, rusted Matrix. She had her car in a shop for a week and rented a Chevy Trax. I asked her how she liked driving a new car and she replied, “that thing is crap, I want my car back.” Buy/drive the Jeep, it’s got the Jeep name to improve resale.

  • avatar
    3SpeedAutomatic

    All three represent the bottom end of the CUV market. Just like the Chevette, Escort, and Omni of the past. Each is entry level quality allowing others to joint the now defacto SUV craze. You get what you pay for.

    Not happy with any of the three, but will take the plunge:

    Buy: Fiat/Jeep Renegade – Drove one in Ft Lauderdale for a week. All was OK, however, it had a electrical gremlin: the starter would not engage at random. Let the car sit for a few minutes, and all was fine.

    Drive: Chevy Trax – Used to be an import from Asia meant reliability and great engineering. Looks like GM didn’t get the memo. Have sat inside of a Trax while selecting from a selection of CUVs at a rental car lot and immediately felt something was missing. Went with the Renegade above.

    Burn: Ford EcoSport – Sorry, 3 pot engines don’t cut it on the Interstate. I understand a 4 cylinder is available, but only with AWD. Is it possible to swap out a 3 pot FWD with a 4 banger without telling William Clay??? Sure would make for a better product.

    At best, buy a used version of the above to send you child off to college or attend tech school. Once your offspring gets their first regular paystub, guess what gets immediately traded-in at the local dealership. Makes them appreciate money, effort, and reward.

  • avatar
    theonlydt

    Buy – Jeep. Their used prices are surprisingly strong. It’s funky. It’s an awful car, but so are the others on this list.

    Drive – Chevrolet Trax – at high speed into the side of the Ecosport. Seriously, it’s utter pump. The Encore has a charm, a very small charm, barely perceptible, but the Trax is dreadful. Not a good ownership proposition.

    Burn – Ecosport. The third worst vehicle I’ve driven in the last decade (the worst was the Dodge Caliber, second worse the Dodge Avenger). It was a “titantium” spec, like that made it any better. Cheap, cynical, nasty POS. BURN THE BASTARD!

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