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by Daniel DeGasperi

Compact SUVs – are they just six one way, half-dozen the other? Not so, if this bunch of newly-released and ultra-popular models are anything to go by. The top-selling Mazda CX-5 brings a new petrol engine to battle the class-favourite Volkswagen Tiguan, while the all-new Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Mitsubishi Outlander and Honda CR-V add fresh competition. Let sand fly… Words: Daniel DeGasperi. Photos: Easton Chang.

Four brand new compact SUV models have launched in Australia in the past four months. The Mazda CX-5, the top selling car in the segment, has just been given a larger engine. The Volkswagen Tiguan, long the class leader, has just been given more standard equipment. The Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 have switched to all-new generations, box fresh for the new year. Together, these six models have collectively snared almost half of all compact SUV sales in the first two months of 2013.

Time, then, to ask the big questions of the family car favourites Australians are laying down their hard-earned cash for.

We’ll assess which circa-$35,000 compact SUV is the most fully equipped for the money and the most practical. We’ll measure rear-seat legroom and boot space, and assess comfort on a long freeway run to see which is the best touring car. We’ll drive them on bumpy country roads to discover which has the best handling and the most competent active safety systems, before turning to the sand dunes to see which is best for a spot of light off-roading. After 600km, the half-dozen contenders will be re-filled with unleaded to see which is the most economical. This is the most comprehensive test of six family cars.

We requested entry-level all-wheel-drive models to test. All six contenders are available for between $32,000 and $36,000 in that basic specifcation, yet it’s important to note that if light off-roading isn’t required then all these manufacturers except Subaru offer two-wheel-drive versions for less than $30,000.

Despite similar prices, this group are separated by what they offer as standard equipment. All base models here include cruise control, power windows, keyless entry, stability control and front, side and curtain airbags as standard.

The Honda CR-V VTi tested is the cheapest car on test, and is one of the most generously equipped. At $32,790 it gets a reversing camera, alloy wheels, and steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters for the five-speed automatic transmission.

For just $90 more, the $32,880 Mazda CX-5 Maxx AWD matches the Honda’s reversing camera, and adds a 5.8-inch touchscreen interface and keyless push-button start. But it only gets steel wheels, not alloys. It’s important to note that Mazda could only supply a CX-5 Maxx Sport for this test, however, but it drives identically to the base Maxx.

For another $110, the $32,990 Subaru Forester 2.5i gets a reverse camera and steel wheels like the CX-5 Maxx, but uniquely adds single-zone climate control. Neither can quite match the value equation of the Honda.

Middle of the pack are the $33,990 Mitsubishi Outlander ES AWD and $34,490 Toyota RAV4 GX AWD. Neither score alloy wheels, but at least the Outlander includes single-zone climate control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, neither of which are found in the sparsely equipped RAV4. Both get reversing sensors, but no reversing camera. Both are the only two models to feature a ‘proper’ four-wheel-drive locking system. Not coincidentally, the Mitsubishi and Toyota proved to be the most capable off road (more later).

Mitsubishi, like Mazda, could only provide a mid-spec model to test, but the LS AWD drives just like the base ES AWD. If you want stuff like fog lights, a touchscreen interface, and even an extra pair of seats, the tested Outlander LS AWD requires a $38,990 outlay. Likewise, the CX-5 Maxx Sport tested gets you satellite navigation, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, alloys and fog lights for $36,620.

The Volkswagen Tiguan 132TSI Pacific is the most expensive ‘entry’ all-wheel-drive model, yet it is also one of the best value. For $35,990 it adds, over its five base rivals, headlights and wipers that automatically turn themselves on or off, fog lights, and dual-zone climate control. It even parks itself, with front and rear sensors that sense if the Tiguan will fit into a parking spot. The car then automatically steers itself into that spot, requiring only braking modulation.

With similar pricing, servicing costs may decide which is actually the cheapest overall. Only the Mitsubishi Outlander and Volkswagen Tiguan have 15,000km or 12-month servicing intervals, which is great from a convenience perspective – all other rivals here need six-month check-ups, with Forester every 12,500km and the RAV4, CR-V and CX-5 every 10,000km.

But that doesn’t mean the Outlander and Tiguan are the cheapest to service. The Outlander and RAV4 are the only models here to get fixed-price servicing, but the Outlander costs $360 per service, the RAV4 just $170.

Over three years and up to 60,000km, the Toyota asks $1020 in maintenance for six services, the Mitsubishi $1080 if going by time, or $1440 if going by distance. The CR-V ($1804), CX-5 ($2124), Forester ($2164 on time/$1784 to 62,500km) and Tiguan ($1530 on time/$2530 over 60,000km) all cost more to service.

The claimed fuel economy figures – that other big running cost – for each model runs 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres for the Mazda CX-5, 7.5L/100km (Mitsubishi Outlander), 8.1L/100km (Subaru Forester), 8.5L/100km (Toyota RAV4), 8.7L/100km (Honda CR-V) and 8.9L/100km (Volkswagen Tiguan). Those results are from laboratory testing designed to imitate urban and freeway driving.

Our real world results, divided between freeway, urban and hard driving on sand, saw fuel usage rocket beyond those numbers. Yet the CX-5 maintained its lead, drinking 10.8L/100km on test, ahead of the Forester (11.4L/100km), CR-V (11.8L/100km), RAV4 (12.0L/100km) and Outlander (12.8L/100km). Unfortunately, an off-road mishap with the Volkswagen Tiguan prevented us from getting a real-world fuel number. The Tiguan is the only car here to require costlier premium unleaded.

Based on our results, if you were to travel 15,000km per year (the Australian average) and if unleaded costs $1.50 per litre, you’ll fork out $450 per year more to fill the Mitsubishi Outlander compared with a Mazda CX-5.

The economy of the Mazda CX-5 is best in the laboratory and in real-world testing, and its 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is also the strongest engine on test. Smooth and refined, and teamed with an intelligent six-speed automatic, the newly re-engined Mazda offers the sweetest engine/gearbox combination.

Volkswagen finds a different path to power with the Tiguan 132TSI Pacific. It has a smaller engine of 2.0-litre capacity, but adds a turbocharger to boost its performance. The Tiguan is the most effortless performer, producing lots of torque low in the rev range, so if big miles need covering or mountains tackled, it’s the pick for overall driveability. The six-speed automatic always find the right gear.

The Toyota RAV4 almost matches the Mazda’s strength from its same-size 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine. It pulls hard through the middle of the rev range, and offers meaty grunt on light throttle at low revs. The RAV4 GX AWD is 50kg heavier than the Mazda, however. But it is also 21kg lighter than the portly Volkswagen, which is the heaviest car here. It would be nice if the Toyota engine sounded as sweet as those two competitors when revved.

Ears will love the sound of the Honda 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine as it revs towards its redline. It revs harder than any car here. But it also lacks torque, or pulling power, the net result of which means more throttle needs to be used around town or on hills. Luckily the five-speed automatic is a clever unit, deftly picking lower gears at the right time, particularly in Sport mode.

The Mitsubishi Outlander gets a 2.4-litre engine, too, but it is the noisiest engine of the six cars on test. It also lacks low-rev torque, like the CR-V.

But the Outlander and Subaru Forester are the only cars to get continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) that don’t actually have set gears.

Instead, a CVT acts as a ‘slider’ to constantly adjust the engine revs. Think of a dimmer switch on your bedroom light, and you’ll get the picture. What that means is rather than going back ‘gears’ on a steep freeway incline, for example, the Outlander and Forester smoothly and quietly raise the tachometer needle until the desired revs to keep the set speed are found. It’s smoother than any five-speed or six-speed auto.

For meaty urge, the 2.5-litre Forester sides more with the CX-5, Tiguan and RAV4 than the slightly weedy CR-V and Outlander. It’s a gruff performer when extended, but at least delivers plenty through the lower and middle revs.

For driveability, overall, it’s a clear win to the Mazda and Volkswagen, with Toyota a close third.

The tables are turned if you’re headed for some light off-roading. On the sand dunes we drove across, the Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan have the least capable four-wheel-drive systems.

At one point, the Mazda dug itself a hole in the sand at the front end and got bogged – the rear wheels barely helped out. Likewise the Volkswagen struggled with distributing power between its wheels, and lacked ground clearance.

Over one undulation that the others took in their stride, the Tiguan bottomed out severely, bashing its engine cover and knocking off the air conditioning hose, allowing compressed air to leak. It then had to hobble home.

At the other end of the scale, the Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander have the best four-wheel-drive systems.

Both have a ‘lock’ button that essentially divides power equally between the front and rear wheels at all times – the Mazda and Volkswagen mostly send drive to the front, with power only going to the rear wheels when the computer detects it should.

The Outlander ultimately gets the gong off-road, because its stability control can be completely turned off, where the RAV4 stability control can get confused and intervene too much.

That’s the downfall of the Subaru Forester – a stability control that just won’t quit. It grabs a front brake, only to upset the rear end, then tries to fix the problem it has created. Otherwise, the Forester is just as capable as the RAV4 and Outlander, and offers class-leading ground clearance.

The Honda CR-V has long been criticised for having a slow acting four-wheel-drive system that puts too much power to the front wheels and not enough to the rear wheels. But that accusation is now pointed at Mazda and Volkswagen.

The CR-V’s system – although it doesn’t have any ‘lock’ modes – thinks faster than before and is keener to distribute drive to the rear wheels. Call it a decent fourth place off-road.

On the road, the tables switch in favour of the Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan. For steering precision and handling agility, these two compact SUVs remain the leaders.

The difference is in their flavour – the Tiguan is the quietest and most comfortable car on test, soothing urban and country road bumps, where the CX-5 offers stunning handling.

In fact the CX-5 is the hot hatchback of SUVs, and handles better than most small hatchbacks, so if you love driving but need to default to an SUV by domestic necessity, the Mazda CX-5 is your only choice. It handles both tasks with ease.

The CX-5 and Tiguan allow families to feel safe in the knowledge that they have the most finely judged stability control systems in the class, too, and their handling benefits extend to the safety front – if you need to swerve around a kangaroo, or a child who runs onto the road, the CX-5 and Tiguan are the best equipped to maintain control.

The Mazda CX-5 has a slightly too-firm ride around town, just like the Honda CR-V, which handles well but lacks steering connection.

The Honda isn’t as quiet as the Volkswagen Tiguan, in particular, but it balances a trio of steering, ride and handling well enough to get a bronze medal for dynamics.

The Toyota RAV4 doesn’t quite hit the dynamic highs of the front runners, but it has no major flaws except for an overly intrusive stability control system and steering that is delayed just off the centre position. Crucially, like the Toyota 86 and Corolla, the RAV4 is now a fun car to drive in the bends. It is also smoother than the Mazda, Mitsubishi and Subaru around town.

While the RAV4 has a good blend of abilities, it lacks a standout dynamic virtue.

The Subaru Forester is the most car-like to drive. Occupants don’t feel as though they’re sitting high and ponderous in an SUV – it feels like a small wagon. But the Forester has similar steering issues to the Toyota, proving vacant on centre and slightly notchy in its movements.

The old Forester’s smooth around town suspension has also been stiffened to improve control over larger bumps on country roads. But Subaru hasn’t found the comfort trade off that Mazda, Volkswagen and Toyota have. It now handles all surfaces well, however, and keen drivers will enjoy adjusting the Forester by lifting the throttle during the middle of the corner and feeling its nose tuck in – although it isn’t quite as keen to dance as the superb-handling Mazda in this regard.

The Mitsubishi Outlander lacks a bit of comfort in its natural habitat – around the pot-holed and lumpy urban backstreets. Like the Forester, its suspension has lost its sheen that made the previous model supremely comfortable. But the Outlander now handles far better than before, and is actually enjoyable to drive.

Slow steering, and the fact it can feel top heavy and not particularly sharp in the bends, prevents it from challenging the front runners, however. That ‘slow’ steering essentially means more arm-twirling when trying to manouevre it in a shopping centre carpark.

It’s no surprise the Mitsubishi Outlander feels a bit big and ponderous, though, because it is the largest car here, stretching 4.66 metres long – 100mm and 200mm further than the next-longest Toyota RAV4 and shortest Volkswagen Tiguan, respectively . That translates into a benchmark 330 millimetres of rear legroom in the Outlander, according to our tape measure.

But it doesn’t get rear-seat air vents and, further back, its 477 litres of cargo space rates third after the particularly capacious CR-V and RAV4. It also gets a higher loading lip than those rivals, meaning more effort to lift a pram up and into the boot.

At least a proper, full-size spare wheel lives underfloor, helping avoid the possibility of getting a puncture and limping home on an 80km/h-rated, ultra-skinny tyre of which marketing departments optimistically call ‘space savers’.


Above: Mitsubishi Outlander

The Outlander is also the only car available with seven seats; not in the base model ES we wanted, but the mid-spec LS tested here.

You’ll need $38,990 to get the LS AWD with the extra two kids-only seats, but it’s an option Mitsubishi provides that the the others don’t.

The Outlander also shows off the nicest interior we’ve seen in a Mitsubishi product in years, with soft-touch plastics over the whole dashboard, and a neat blend of piano black and silver trim.


Above: Mitsubishi Outlander

The Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan come within a few millimetres of matching the Outlander’s rear-seat legroom figure.

But the Subaru seat is too low, forcing a knees-up seating position for long-legged rear occupants, and the bench is the skinniest of the lot.

If three passengers are required to fit in the rear, look to the Outlander and RAV4, in particular.


Above: Subaru Forester

The Forester also lacks rear-seat air vents, and its interior in base model trim is … well, very basic. The mish-mash of trim textures, and mis-matched screen colours, contrasts with the monotonous grey tones throughout the cabin.

But the driving position is the lowest and most car-like of the pack, as the styling suggests.

Further back, the Subaru Forester has one of the smallest boots in the class (at 422 litres) plus a high-loading lip – like the Outlander – affecting practicality. At least there’s a full-size spare tyre underneath the floor.


Above: Subaru Forester

The Tiguan wins the rear-seat gold medal because it offers just as much rear legroom as the Outlander and Forester, but has a deeper, more plush rear bench, air conditioning vents, and even a 12-volt outlet standard.

In terms of interior class and perceived quality, the Volkswagen Tiguan feels a cut above all its competitors.

It makes the Forester and RAV4, in particular, seem bland and cheaply finished.


Above: Volkswagen Tiguan

The Volkswagen’s rear seat folding options are also among the most flexible, with a choice of a ‘ski port’ hole in the middle seat, or folding the backrest, which splits 60:40, and both folds and reclines.

But the Tiguan also has the least impressive cargo space. Blame the stubby 4.43 metre-long body, which is 100mm shorter than the Mazda CX-5 and 200mm shorter than the Mitsubishi Outlander.

The 395-litre boot is the smallest here, which affects its pram-swallowing capability significantly. The boot cavity itself is both shallow and not particularly wide, while a space saver spare resides underneath the load cover.


Above: Volkswagen Tiguan

For outright cargo carrying capability, however, the Mazda CX-5 is similarly disappointing. Its 403 litres makes it the second-smallest here, and it gets only a dreaded ‘space saver’ spare wheel.

What the numbers don’t reveal, however, is the useability of the cargo area. It’s easier to load things in the CX-5 than in the Tiguan and Forester, because the loading lip is lower.

The cargo area itself is also reasonably wide and therefore more accessible.


Above: Mazda CX-5

Interior quality and comfort rivals only the Volkswagen Tiguan for outright honours.

The Mazda CX-5 interior is classy, cohesive and thoughtful, with excellent ergonomics, seat comfort and trim textures.

The CX-5, meanwhile, gets the least rear legroom and no air vents, but it is by no means cramped. Only the lanky will notice the 50mm rear legroom deficit compared with the front-running Outlander.


Above: Mazda CX-5

If boot space is an absolute priority, then choose the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V.

The RAV4 gets a class-benchmark 577-litre capacity, although if you tick box for the $300 optional full-size spare wheel that drops to 506L.

Only that ‘space saver’ is standard.


Above: Toyota RAV4

The Toyota lacks rear-seat air vents, but it gets a wide rear seat with plenty of legroom (320mm – or just 10mm adrift of Outlander) and headroom. The rear seat also drops at the pull of a lever mounted in the cargo area, folding neatly into the floor.

Despite having a completely new interior design, the RAV4 misses the soft-touch cabin plastics found in the Outlander, Forester, CX-5 and Tiguan.

The Toyota cabin is more obviously brash and almost retro in its design, but the fake-carbonfibre trim and fake stitching is a bit much. The very basic audio system is also disappointing.


Above: Toyota RAV4

The RAV4, as-tested optioned with a boot-reducing proper spare wheel, allows the CR-V and its 556 litre capacity to steal the boot space win.

The Honda gets a full-size alloy wheel standard, which doesn’t limit boot space.

It also gets a similarly clever rear-seat folding mechanism that flips up the rear seat base onto the back of the front seat, flips the rear headrests down, then folds the backrest neatly into the floor to create a flat load area.


Above: Honda CR-V

The CR-V also presents a much cleaner, more cohesive interior design, though hard plastics dominate and there are some ergonomic irks.

It gets 290mm of legroom, less than the Toyota, but counters with standard air vents.

Still, seat comfort is excellent, and fit and finish superb, as you’d expect from a Honda.


Above: Honda CR-V

These are six very different compact SUV models, and depending on priorities a case could be made for each.

The Subaru Forester, however, fails to preach to a particular buyer and stand out in any single regard. It is functional and competent, but lacks boot space, cabin polish and drivetrain sophistication.

The Mitsubishi Outlander is a standout for its off-road capability and seven-seat availability, so if they’re crucial selling points, it’s a worthy option. But it isn’t as refined or finessed as others contenders.

The Toyota RAV4 also stands out for its excellent cargo carrying capability and strong drivetrain, two big ticks for all compact SUV buyers – not just those who need extra seats or venture off road.

In fact the RAV4 shares the lower step of the winner’s podium with the Honda CR-V because its ultra-cheap servicing helps offset its comparatively high purchase price.

The CR-V is cheap to buy, but more expensive to maintain; offers more handling verve, but lacks the Toyota’s ride quality; it has a sweeter-sounding engine, but the performance isn’t quite as strong as its rival’s. So it goes on.

If cargo carrying capacity is an absolute priority, then choose the Honda or Toyota over the Volkswagen Tiguan. But the Tiguan has many consistent virtues. For its value equation, interior quality, back-seat comfort, performance, and driveability, the Tiguan firmly deserves a silver medal.

The Tiguan’s only other problem besides boot space is the Mazda CX-5, which wraps all its virtues into a blindingly brilliant handling package.

The CX-5 is the most versatile SUV in every sense of the word, and that’s why it wins.

Honda CR-V
Price: $32,790
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 140kW at 7000rpm
Torque: 222Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
0-100km/h: Not supplied
Fuel consumption: 8.7L/100km claimed (11.8L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 201g/km

Mazda CX-5
Price: $32,880
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 138kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 9.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 7.4L/100km claimed (10.8L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 172g/km

Mitsubishi Outlander
Price: $33,990
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 124kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 220Nm at 4200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: Not supplied
Fuel consumption: 7.5L/100km claimed (12.8L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 174g/km

Subaru Forester
Price: $32,990
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 126kW at 5800rpm
Torque: 235Nm at 4100rpm
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission
0-100km/h: 9.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 8.1L/100km claimed (11.4L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 187g/km

Toyota RAV4
Price: $34,490
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol
Power: 132kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 233Nm at 4100rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: Not supplied
Fuel consumption: 8.5L/100km claimed (12.0L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 198g/km

Volkswagen Tiguan
Price: $35,990
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 132kW at 4300rpm
Torque: 280Nm at 1700rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
0-100km/h: Not supplied
Fuel consumption: 8.9L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 209g/km






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