Buyer’s Guide: Transmission Options In Affordable Compact Crossover Models

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Compact crossovers are the new hot vehicles.  Here we break down which have manuals, which have CVTs or DCTs, and which have old-school geared autos.

If you are shopping for a compact crossover, you’ll love the wide variety of excellent choices in this segment.

Although compact crossovers are similar in many ways, there are four choices for shoppers when it comes to transmissions. The good news is each has its merits, and the compact crossover segment is one of the few automotive segments left that has a stick shift option available in multiple models.

forester split image with stick

Manual Transmission Compact Crossovers

There are ten good reasons to choose a manual stick shift transmission. We wish we could say that each automaker offered buyers the chance to change their own gears with a clutch and stick shift, but Subaru is the last of them when it comes to manual crossovers with AWD.

Subaru makes the stick available on its base 2.5i Forester and also the mid-grade 2.5i Premium.  Unfortunately, Subaru will not build you a sporty Forester XT with the 2.0-liter turbo and a stick shift, which we find odd. Opt for the manual Subaru Forester and you will even save a grand on the MSRP.

cx-5 split with stick

Mazda offers a manual transmission in its base CX-5 trim, and Mitsubishi offers a five-speed in its Outlander Sport base trim.  However, both of these companies only offer the manual with front wheel drive. It would be wise to phone ahead to ensure your dealer actually has one of these models. We strongly suspect they will be rare.

READ: BestRide’s Comprehensive List of Every Vehicle Offered With a Manual Transmission Here

escape split paddles and my image

Compact Crossovers With Geared Transmissions 

There was a time when it would sound weird to even say “geared automatic transmission.”  However, as our list below will show, continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) are taking over. They have not yet spread to every model, though.

Models with traditional geared transmissions include the new 2017 Ford Escape, which uses a six-speed automatic. Like many automatics these days, Ford’s Escape features a Sport Mode with paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

escape 17 auto shifter

Almost every Mazda CX-5 and all of GM’s Terrain and Equinox compact crossovers are built with a geared automatic transmission. Toyota’s RAV4 comes exclusively with a geared six-speed automatic, and it has a neat feature. The driver can move the gear lever over to a detent and lock out gears five and six. This works great when driving scenic back roads or when the vehicle is packed to the gills and you are headed to your vacation spot in the mountains. It keeps the RAV4 in its powerband.

VW’s Tiguan uses a geared, six-speed automatic transmission. No dual-synchronous gears for this Euro-hatch. Kia is also sticking with geared automatics in its Sportage even though its cousin, the Hyundai Tuscon is trying something new (see below).

Compact Crossovers With Constantly Variable Transmissions (CVTs)

CVTs still strike fear and loathing into the hearts of many buyers who remember the early versions that came to market. As we tell friends and family frequently, don’t let a CVT scare you off a model you want to check out. Automakers have refined CVTs and many fellow auto testers now prefer them. Once you become familiar with the smooth non-shifting operation of a CVT,  driving a geared automatic vehicle feels old-fashioned. CVTs are also the most fuel efficient transmission option.

Our sense is that CVTs will soon overtake the other transmission options in the U.S. compact crossover market. Nissan’s Rogue and Honda’s CRV are both top-sellers and use CVTs. So too does the Forester and Outlander.

Compact Crossovers with Dual Clutch Automatic Transmissions

Hyundai is moving towards dual clutch automatics in the Tuscon.  Only its base model now uses a conventional geared transmission. The Eco, Sport, and Limited trims of the Tuscon use a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic. Made popular by European premium brands, the DCT, as it is know, can make shifts more quickly than most typical automatics, and has some fuel efficiency advantages. Interestingly, some premium brands have been moving back to traditional geared transmissions lately after consumers didn’t find them better in non-sports models.

Want to keep on reading about transmissions? Check out our Buyer’s Guide to Sports Car Transmission options. Ready to start looking for your crossover with the perfect setup to suit your tastes? Why not start with BestRide’s new and used car listings?