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Public Utility

Public Utility
The Audi Q5 hybrid

Is it too soon for SUV nostalgia? Let's reminisce about those trendy hulks on wheels that were, not so long ago, the next big things in the automotive world, able to whisk Brady Bunch-size broods to soccer games or scale mountains with legroom to spare and rear-seat DVD movie theaters.

They were symbols of a simpler, more innocent era — $1.89 gas and a stable economy. Today, the full-size sport utility vehicle hasn’t gone the way of the pager, Smash Mouth or portable CD players, but their popularity has certainly dwindled. In this age of environmental awareness and insane gas prices, smaller car-based crossovers now dominate the segment. 

A surging lineup of compact crossovers has transformed the niche, and fierce competition for buyers ensures continuous evolution. Today’s crossovers offer impressive spaciousness, enhanced versatility, high-tech features and fuel efficiency that stretches into the 30-plus-mpg range. 

They’re a perfect fit for today’s environment — but don’t think for a second that “compact” equates to “compromise.” In fact, compact crossovers offer as much style and world-class technology as any of their much-larger brethren.

Little luxuries

A stellar example is the all-new 2012 Range Rover Evoque, a superstar of the segment that morphed from the buzz-worthy LRX concept. Think refinement and urban style combined with extreme off-road capability and all the amenities one expects from this iconic brand. 

The Evoque — set for its U.S. rollout this fall — is fitted with a 240-horsepower turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine.

The recently redesigned BMW X3 crossover is another highlight of the compact luxury lineup for 2012. With more interior space than previous incarnations, the five-seater combines BMW’s renowned agility and nimble performance with sport-utility versatility and improved riding comfort. 

Under the hood sits either a 240-horsepower 3-liter inline-six-cylinder or a 300-horsepower turbocharged inline-six. Oh, and the new X3 gets up to 26 mpg.

The sporty and dynamic Audi Q5 — long a leader in the luxury crossover segment — now stands as the best-selling Audi model with quattro drive. Next year, a revolutionary new 2012 Q5 hybrid quattro gets nearly 34 mpg through a 2-liter gas engine and electric motor that alone can power the Q5 up to 37 mph. 

A less-mini Mini

You know the crossover segment is getting very compact when Mini weighs in with a model. Meet the Mini Countryman, another entry in the BMW Group’s diminutive line, which took home 2011 Top Safety Pick honors from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Not bad for a 1-year-old.  

The Countryman looks every bit a Mini, but it distinctively stands apart from the Cooper line with a taller, more aggressive stance to go with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder motor that achieves 30 to 35 mpg highway. A turbocharged version gets 180 horsepower. 

This little crossover has a surprisingly spacious interior, with rear sport bucket seats that can slide back for extra legroom, recline or fold entirely flat to increase cargo space to 41 cubic feet. The interior can be enhanced with various extras, and ambient lighting can be customized in myriad ways.

The Juke’s no joke

Another standout in the compact segment is the sporty Nissan Juke, a sleek beast that epitomizes the growing movement of small vehicles that aspire to be hip and edgy.  

The Juke doesn’t lack for muscle — a standard turbocharged 1.6-liter four cylinder engine with direct injection gets around 188 horsepower — but fuel economy reaches an eye-popping 30 to 32 mpg highway.

The great Escape

While the Countryman leads the (gas-only) crossover segment in fuel efficiency, the popular Ford Escape is still a strong contender, fitted with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

The Escape Hybrid ups that to 34 in city and 31 highway and, besides the powertrain, is virtually identical to the gas-only version.

—Bob Young, Custom Publishing Writer