Assembled for this mega-test are 10 models that represent one-third of total SUV volume in Australia – and that’s without including sales for the newest contender here and catalyst for this test, the Jeep Cherokee.
It looks bold, it’s available only with petrol engines (for now), and it’s priced under $40,000 to compete with the mainstream.
We’ve chosen for this test to compare middle-grade medium SUV models with petrol engines, automatic transmissions, all-wheel drive and price tags that start with a ‘3’.
The Nissan X-Trail is also new, and has softened its lines compared with the previous two generations. The most popular car in the class – and our current benchmark – is the Mazda CX-5, and the Maxx Sport is the favourite grade of its range, as selected here.
The Toyota RAV4 is the second most popular SUV in the class, followed by the recently facelifted Hyundai ix35, Subaru Forester, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Kia Sportage and Ford Kuga to round out our 10-strong test. The only SUV not available for this test was the Volkswagen Tiguan.
So, are the most popular medium SUV models the pick for your sub-$40K dollar?
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
The most affordable contender also sets a high watermark for standard equipment.
The $34,790 Kia Sportage SLi includes as standard 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, auto headlights and wipers, auto-dim rear view mirror, part-leather trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto-fold door mirrors, front and rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera and satellite navigation housed on a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen.
Although we’re testing the flagship $38,590 Hyundai ix35 Highlander here, the more natural middle-grade $35,190 ix35 Elite gets everything its fellow South Korean scores except front parking sensors and a colour display between the speedometer and tachometer. It compensates by adding an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, push-button start and keyless auto-entry.
Third-cheapest here is the $35,990 Subaru Forester 2.5i-L, though it is comparatively spartan, lacking all of the Hyundai and Kia features except 17-inch alloys, foglights, dual-zone climate, reverse-view camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel and cruise control.
The Ford Kuga Trend is only $250 more (at $36,240) than the Forester, yet it scores 18-inch alloys, digital radio, push-button start, auto lights/wipers, auto-dim mirror, 10-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat and part leather trim. It’s not a perfect value package, though, picking up rear parking sensors but lacking a reverse-view camera and sat-nav.
Camera and nav return on the $36,290 Honda CR-V VTi-S (though our test car is a $32,790 VTi). The VTi-S keeps rear sensors, too, though it misses ones at the front. It also gets 17s instead of the Kuga’s 18s, and lacks the Ford’s part leather and electrically adjustable driver’s seat.
On the right side of midfield for value, the $36,490 Mitsubishi Outlander LS (although we tested the mechanically-identical $43,790 Outlander Aspire) is identically equipped to the CR-V VTi-S. It is, however, the only model here with a third row of seats (although Nissan offers seven seats in some front-wheel-drive X-Trail grades).
On the wrong side of midfield for value, the $36,620 Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport when compared with the Honda and Mitsubishi loses rear sensors (though it keeps a camera), an auto-dim mirror and auto wipers, though it gains a push-button start.
There’s a jump to the $38,190 Toyota RAV4 Cruiser, yet it shares the bottom place of the equipment leader board with the Forester. There’s no sat-nav or auto wipers, though rear sensors and a reverse-view camera are included.
Just $890 extra buys the $39,080 Nissan X-Trail ST-L and the list of equipment it presents over the Toyota is extensive: there’s a 7.0-inch colour display with nav, digital radio, app connectivity and an around-view monitor, full leather trim, push-button start with keyless auto-entry, and 10-way driver/8-way passenger electrically adjustable front seats with heating.
It places third only to the Kia and Hyundai for value, ahead of the Honda and Mitsubishi.
The most expensive SUV here is the $39,000 Jeep Cherokee Longtitude. It is the only contender to score a power tailgate, and power adjustment for both front seats, though it lacks leather trim with heating. The excellent 8.4-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation fitted to our test car is also a $2500 option – its total $41,500 price tag placing Cherokee ahead of only Forester and RAV4.
INFOTAINMENT AND CONNECTIVITY
If size matters, then that optional touchscreen (a 5.0-inch display is standard) in the Cherokee is unrivalled in breadth.
It is an easy-to-navigate system with a Bluetooth phone and audio player that is simple to connect and make calls with.
The navigation system works well, though (as with the CX-5, below) it blocks out functions when on the move, meaning passengers can’t select or change destinations on the run – the car must be stopped.
You can nav while driving in the Nissan X-Trail, which gets a smaller 7.0 inch screen but one that is similarly high in resolution.
Exclusively among this group, by downloading the NissanConnect app to your smartphone then registering your car’s VIN, you can connect to your X-Trail and manage Pandora internet music streaming, Facebook and Google search apps.
Although the Hyundai ix35 and Kia Sportage (above, bottom) miss app connectivity, their identical 7.0-inch touchscreens are among the easiest to use here.
Functions are grouped like apps, with different colour coding, and the system reacts quickly to a press of the button. Both screens are lined with clearly marked buttons to complement the touchscreen functions.
You also get SUNA traffic updates and speed limit signage for the particular road you’re on.
The Mazda CX-5 (above) displays your actual speed rather than the speed limit of the road, though the aftermarket-looking Tom Tom sat-nav shows up a different digital speedometer reading to the analogue unit in the central dials.
The touchscreen is not only smaller at 5.8 inches, but it is a lower-resolution unit than the aforementined models, although its interface is intuitive.
Our test car suffered a navigation fault where the sensor refused to accurately place the car – something we haven’t experienced in a CX-5 before.
The Mitsubishi (above) sat-nav unit also looks aftermarket. The same goes for the CR-V VTi-S, though we tested the non-nav-equipped VTi (below) here, which is basic but intuitive.
The Outlander's screen is a little larger than the Mazda’s at 7.0 inches, though the system itself isn’t as intuitive, with tiny buttons for the volume control (rather than a knob) an example of its lack of smarts.
The Toyota RAV4 (below) lacks nav, its audio system looks tacked-on, and its screen is lower in resolution.
On the upside its interface is easier to operate than those in the Mitsubishi and Honda – as easy as the Mazda in fact.
The Ford Kuga (below) has only a tiny 4.3-inch display buried deep in its centre console, and the same fiddly Sony sound system found in the Fiesta ST and Focus Titanium and ST.
There’s no touchscreen facility, either, or nav, though the digital radio and SYNC connectivity system is a breeze to operate.
Some of the voice control functions are easily confused, however.
The Subaru Forester (below) has a disappointing infotainment system, with a slimline monochromatic double-DIN stereo making it difficult to scroll through multiple menus.
The high-mounted, 4.3-inch screen doubles the display of most functions except settings.
A voice-activated Bluetooth system is also exceedingly difficult to connect, stumping most testers.
INTERIOR, SEATING AND PRACTICALITY
Whether you prioritise a premium interior or outright space will depend on the order here, though the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail best balance each aspect.
If you want a premium-feeling SUV, then it’s difficult to go past the Cherokee, CX-5, X-Trail, CR-V and Sportage (in that order).
With tactile controls and nice tones/textures, the Jeep (below) feels like it’s a class-above. Finish isn’t quite as good as the Nissan and Honda, however, both of which are clear leaders in that respect with tight shutlines and no brittle edges.
The X-Trail (below) then pushes ahead of the CR-V thanks to consistently matched soft-touch plastics.
The Mazda has great finish, great plastics and nice detailing.
The Kia matches the Mazda with soft-touch plastics and neat details such as rubber-finished door grips, though its fit isn’t as fine – there are a couple of rough edges here and there.
Cabin presentation tail-enders start with the Ford Kuga, which just misses out on a top-half ranking thanks to patchy ergonomics.
The Mitsubishi Outlander has nicer plastics than the Toyota RAV4, but both are bland and cheap in places, while the Hyundai ix35 (below) presents well in its design but is dated in its plastics and shares some rough edges with the Sportage.
The opposite is true for the Subaru Forester - its plastics and finish is fine, but its design looks no better than that of a $21K Impreza.
The front seats of the Cherokee and Kuga are outstanding, with soft yet supportive cushions and an electrically adjustable driver’s seat allowing plenty of tilt adjustment to create great driving positions.
The Forester has soft seats but no electric adjustment, and it’s vice versa for the firmly padded X-Trail.
The RAV4 and CX-5 have firm and supportive pews, while the CR-V, Sportage (below), Outlander and ix35 are noticeably flatter.
The CR-V stands out for storage space, with a huge console storage bin, three cupholders and a bottle holder in each front door.
The Cherokee has less console storage, but the passenger seat uniquely flips up to store a laptop bag or handbag.
The others have standard storage spots, though the CX-5 stands out for the wrong reason, as it has tiny door pockets and only a small tray forward of the transmission lever to put your wallet and the smart key.
Above: Nissan X-Trail (top), Honda CR-V (bottom).
The Honda wins the cupholder count, but the Nissan can cool or heat the space for either of the two beverage spaces up front (two being the optimum number of cupholders up front for the others).
The CR-V and X-Trail join in having twin front 12-volt sockets, where the others only get one.
Those two continue their lead further back.
Above: Subaru Forester (top), Mitsubishi Outlander (bottom).
The Nissan has best-in-class legroom (32cm behind the seating position of a 178cm-tall driver), although the Honda, Subaru and Mitsubishi are only 1cm behind, and the Toyota another 1cm adrift again.
The Ford and Mazda stop the tape measure at 28cm, stretching 2cm further than the Jeep and 4cm/5cm more than the tightest models here, the Kia and Hyundai.
It’s not all about space, though, because only the X-Trail, CR-V, Kuga, Outlander and RAV4 allow passengers to choose their backrest angle.
Above: Toyota RAV4 (top), Ford Kuga (bottom).
You can whittle that best-of list down further because among that lot only the Nissan, Honda and Ford include air vents for rear passengers, while the Jeep wins back some points for sending ventilation to back passengers, too.
It is also one of only three models here to get a sliding bench – the X-Trail and Kuga the others.
For back seat comfort, the Jeep and Subaru lead with soft and supportive rear seats, just ahead of the grippy pews in the Mazda and the flat but nicely padded Honda bench.
Above: Mazda CX-5 (top), Jeep Cherokee (bottom).
The Nissan’s is flat and the leather slippery, and as with the Outlander’s is perched so high they afford among the worst headroom here.
The bases in the Ford, Hyundai and Kia are all a bit short for ultimate comfort, however the Kuga at least affords stacks of footroom.
In short, if you’re carrying big kids, let them stretch out in the CR-V (the Outlander and X-Trail are hurt by headroom, the RAV4 by a lack of vents), while if your kids are smaller, the Cherokee is comfy and well ventilated.
Above: Kia Sportage (top), Hyundai ix35 (bottom).
For boot space, this group can generally divide into two – the big and not so big.
In the former category is the RAV4 (577 litres volume), CR-V (556L) and X-Trail (550L), all of which it’s probably no coincidence have the most rear legroom here too.
The Toyota offers a big square space with a low loading lip, slimline underfloor storage and four cargo hooks.
Above: Toyota RAV4 (top), Honda CR-V (bottom).
The Honda matches that rival in every department, except top tether points for child seats are located awkwardly on the roof rather than on the rear backrest (as with its competitors) and it lacks the RAV4’s cargo net.
The Nissan likewise matches those rivals, though unlike them (and the Jeep, Ford and Mitsubishi) it offers a 12-volt outlet in its boot (as do the Subaru, Kia, Mazda, Hyundai and Ford).
The X-Trail also exclusively offers an adjustable floor that can be set in three positions – all the way down for maximum cargo space, on a second tier to offer underfloor storage, or with one half positioned as a high shelf with a maximum 10kg load (though we’re unsure this is useful as things can just fall off). It has the most practical boot here all told.
Above: Nissan X-Trail (top), Mitsubishi Outlander (bottom).
As is becoming a theme in this test, the Outlander boot (477L) straddles a middle ground, though having a pair of third-row seats restricts its maximum capacity.
It still manages to have a small underfloor storage bin, but its loading lip is high.
Hyundai claims 464L for the ix35, which looks correct, where its near-twin the Sportage has a curious 564L claim (apparently to the same VDA standard).
Above: Kia Sportage (top), Hyundai ix35 (bottom).
The Kia misses a little side pocket and curry hook standard in its native rival.
Both get full-size alloy spare wheels, and although they have a high loading lip, for their size they are among the most useable, square spaces here.
The Forester (422L) doesn’t hide its full-size spare tyre well, its low loading lip affected by a boot floor that rises sharply to create one of the shallowest boots here.
Above: Subaru Forester (top), Jeep Cherokee (bottom).
It’s a more usable space than that in the Cherokee (412L) and Kuga (406L), however, with both claiming their figures with their sliding rear seat base at its most forward offering no rear legroom.
Both suffer from a lack of width in their boots, making bulky items like prams difficult to fit acrossways.
Despite a size deficit, the CX-5 (403L) has a very usable cargo area, and it’s the only SUV here with a 40:20:40 split backrest that makes loading up skis and snowboards a breeze travelling four-up. It also gets a clever luggage cover that rises with the tailgate to keep loads of all sizes covered.
Above: Ford Kuga (top), Mazda CX-5 (bottom).
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
For the price of everyone else’s four-cylinder models, in the Jeep Cherokee you get a 3.2-litre V6 producing 200kW of power at 6500rpm and 316Nm of torque at 4400rpm – class-leading outputs.
Next, there are a quartet of 2.5-litre engines, the Mazda leading with 138kW at 5700rpm, ahead of the Toyota (132kW), and Nissan and Subaru (126kW each), all of which need 6000-6200rpm before their peak power is delivered.
A duo of 2.4-litre engines trump bigger ones for power, though, including the Honda’s second-highest 140kW at a statospheric 7000rpm – no other engine here even revs that high – and the Hyundai’s fourth-highest 136kW at 6000rpm.
Unable to figure in contention is the Mitsubishi (124kW) and the only 2.0-litre of the group, the Kia (122kW), all delivered at the similar revs.
The Ford Kuga, meanwhile, is the only turbocharged model, its tiny 1.6-litre engine boosted to provide 134kW at Mazda-matching low-ish revs.
Power may be everything in foot-to-the-floor traffic light drags, but torque is what makes family-hauling machines feel either frustrating or effortless in everyday conditions. (And each figure is only relative to what each SUV weighs and how the gearbox works – more soon).
The Cherokee again has the most torque (316Nm at 4400rpm) followed by the CX-5 (250Nm coming in 400rpm earlier).
The turbo Kuga trumps both for range, its 240Nm delivered consistently between 1600rpm and 5000rpm. The ix35 makes the same torque as the Ford, but needs 4000rpm showing until it reaches its peak.
Then there’s a cluster – 233Nm RAV4, 226Nm X-Trail, 222Nm CR-V, 220Nm Outlander – followed by a decent drop to the 205Nm Sportage. Those contenders produce their best not before 4000rpm but no higher than 4400rpm.
The Jeep may have the most power and torque, but at 1834kg it is the heaviest contender, with the 1684kg Ford coming in second weightiest.
Most contenders figure (ahem) in the 1500-1600kg range – 1530kg Mitsubishi, 1531kg Kia, 1559kg Mazda, 1580kg Honda, 1586kg Hyundai – but the Toyota goes just beyond (1605kg) and the Subaru falls just below (1479kg).
Not coincidentally, the relatively featherweight Forester is the thriftiest SUV of the field, using 8.7 litres of unleaded per 100 kilometres on our mix of mostly freeway and country road driving.
Subaru's continuously variable transmission (CVT) contributes to lethargic initial response, making the Forester feel heavier than it is. It works intelligently on the move, though, as it seamlessly raises and drops revs independent of the throttle position to get the best out of its boxer four.
The other SUVs with CVTs work in some cases better, some worse, but none prove as efficient.
The Nissan’s has standout response, making the X-Trail feel perky off the line, but its 9.9L/100km on-test placed it fifth for economy.
The Mitsubishi’s CVT has better off-the-line response than Subaru’s, but it lacks intuition, working more like a light switch – if the throttle is pressed, revs go up, if it is released, they fall – and resulting in a fourth-place 9.6L/100km.
Two of the six-speed automatic-equipped models, the Toyota and Mazda, slipped into second and third for economy with 9.0L/100km and 9.3L/100km respectively.
Both autos are slick operators, but the CX-5’s is flawless the way it grabs then holds a lower gear on hills even before the driver has thought it might require a downchange. Despite the lack of a sport mode, its excellent intuition means it gets in the mood for sporty driving as quickly as you do.
The only issues are engine noise – the Mazda can get quite intrusive, even at low revs – and that the workman-like Toyota feels more torquey.
Making do with a five-speed automatic is the Honda, which returned 10.0L/100km to place on the wrong side of midfield, though its auto proved a clever unit and its engine is the sweetest-sounding of the lot and not as highly strung as its power delivery would suggest.
Only when the accelerator is pinned do you notice bigger gaps between gears.
The Kia six-speed auto is transformed compared with earlier iterations of this generation of Sportage. It now gets the best out of the engine, which as with the Honda’s is a sweet unit.
Problem is, the standard milk bottle-sized four-cylinder just isn’t sizeable enough for the weight of the car, meaning this SUV feels both slow and thrashy, slurping a disappointing 11.7L/100km in the process.
The little 1.6-litre Kuga has the same problem. As the second-heaviest car here, it spins its turbocharger hard to the detriment of refinement and fuel efficiency. Its six-speed automatic is ditzy and indecisive, and you can feel the engine working hard even in everyday situations. The resulting 12.8L/100km on-test is the worst of the group.
The Hyundai, meanwhile, has a six-speed auto that works as well as the Kia’s, though the extra 0.4 litres of capacity doesn’t make the ix35 feel as quick as you’d expect.
The 2.4-litre feels peakier than the Honda’s, lacking torque down low, something its auto is all to aware of as it keeps the tachometer needle high and the engine strained, resulting in third-last economy of 12.2L/100km.
Unlike the Kia, Ford and Hyundai, the Jeep at least has decent excuses for its economy of 12.5L/100km, which rates second-last here.
It is the quietest engine of the field, and its performance is generally effortless. The only problem is the nine-speed automatic, which stumbles through its shift pattern and occasionally thumps on downshifts like a Stateside gridiron player brings home a tackle.
Ninth gear can only be accessed above 130km/h, making it unusable unless you’re in the Northern Territory (where the engine would be revving at just 1700rpm).
Despite Cherokee’s power, torque and gearbox ratio advantage, the Mazda and Toyota feel just as responsive (if not as quiet) and are far more economical – they’re the best here.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
For around-town manouevrability, it’s difficult to go past the Mazda and Subaru.
The CX-5’s light, slick steering makes parking a painless experience, and it always feels agile in the backstreets.
The Forester has surprisingly heavy and dull steering when parking (though it gets better on the move), compensated by superb over-the-shoulder visibility – among the best of any new car or SUV currently on sale.
The Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia feel light on their feet, and slip easily between parking spots and traffic gaps, where the Nissan, Ford, Mitsubishi and Jeep feel noticeably more cumbersome and are harder to see out of – worth thinking about if you live in the city.
The Kuga and Cherokee both have delightfully friction-free steering, to make parking as enjoyable as driving down a country road.
The Sportage and RAV4 perhaps surprisingly aren’t far behind them, being a little vague on-centre but weighting up nicely when lock is wound on.
The CR-V has the most disconnected steering on the open road, but it is pleasantly light around town.
By contrast, the Outlander, ix35 and X-Trail have needlessly weighty steering (like the Forester). The Nissan’s and Mitsubishi’s steering is slow, too, meaning plenty of arm twirling in shopping centre carparks. The Hyundai’s is quicker, but along with the Toyota’s they are most prone to needing minor corrections even when travelling in a straight line on the freeway.
On our urban test loop – over speed humps, through potholes and heavily rutted streets – our passengers rated the Kuga by far the smoothest and most comfortable contender here. On country roads it dips slightly by feeling edgier at speed (mainly thanks to its low-profile 18s, the largest here, because the base Ambiente on 16s isn’t affected).
The suspension under the Cherokee and Forester is as soft and comfy as their seats. Only the Subaru remains that nice on a rural road, however, as the Cherokee can turn a bit squidgy and restless. For rear passengers, both are among the quietest on coarse-chip roads.
The CX-5 leads the remaining SUVs characterised by firmer suspension set-ups.
It’s a little bit tighter than the Kuga, Forester and Cherokee, but only marginally so, and it’s enough to help it settle quicker over big speed humps than those softer rivals. It’s in the top-half of the field for quietness, too.
The Sportage and CR-V have a really nice balance between compliance and control, the Kia matching the Mazda for comfort but not quite for reigning in body movement, where it's vice-versa for the sometimes overly buttoned-down Honda.
There’s a decent drop to the X-Trail, Outlander and RAV4, all of which have jittery ride quality and drum up plenty of road roar.
The Toyota is the most annoyingly choppy, while the ix35 is seemingly tuned with a sporty edge, delivering a more fussy, jiggly ride again – even on seemingly smooth surfaces.
For those who like a sporting flavour with their SUV, the Mazda is the only choice. It almost reaches hot-hatch grades of dynamic prowess if not for its low-grip Yokohama Geolandar tyres (though you can choose the CX-5 GT to get grippier 19s).
The Kuga is stable and grippy, with great Continental tyres, the Forester sits low and feels stable, the CR-V is pointy but also lacks grip from its Bridgestone Dueller rubber, and the Sportage is surprisingly balanced and enjoyable.
The other half of the field are different shades of dull – the RAV4, Outlander, and X-Trail being safe but no more, the Cherokee being hilariously soggy (but never unsafe).
The ix35 feels uncohesive, and so stiff that if there were a need for the driver to make a sudden swerve it feels like the SUV here that would rely on its (well tuned) stability control the most to keep it on the straight and narrow.
Although we didn’t head off-road, the X-Trail, Outlander, ix35, Sportage, and RAV4 all have standard 50:50 front-rear lock modes. The Cherokee has it as an option, though experience at the Jeep launch indicates it has the sort of off-road prowess that may justify its weight.
The Forester, CX-5, and CR-V have less surefooted on-demand all-wheel drive systems.
Based on our fuel figures, the 15,000km average Australians drive each year, regular unleaded at $1.50 per litre and premium unleaded at $1.65/L, the Forester will cost $1958 per year to fill – it’s the only SUV here that can keep its annual fuel bill under $2K.
From there, the wallet progressively gets extra pressure from the RAV4 ($2025), CX-5 ($2093), Outlander ($2160), CR-V ($2250) and X-Trail ($2228), before jumping substantially to the Sportage ($2633), ix35 ($2745) and Cherokee ($2813).
The Kuga, as the thirstiest SUV here and the only one that needs premium unleaded, asks a massive $3168 per year based on our figures.
Only Ford, Kia, Hyundai and Mitsubishi list annual or 15,000km servicing intervals, compared with six-monthly check ups for the others (12,000km for Jeep, 12,500km for Subaru, 10,000km for the rest).
To three years, the ix35 costs just $867 to service, followed by the RAV4 at $1020. It’s a dramatic jump to the tail-enders, CX-5 and Cherokee, which ask for $2010 and $2200 respectively.
Packed in a tight group just after the Toyota are the Outlander ($1080), Sportage ($1091) and Kuga ($1095). Then there’s a bit of a jump to the CR-V ($1587), X-Trail ($1719) and Forester ($1935).
Rack up the kilometres before the time schedule, however, and to 60,000km the ix35 asks $1347 where the RAV4 is unchanged – allowing Toyota to snatch first place.
There’s then a jump to the Outlander ($1440), while the Sportage ($1581) nudges Forester ($1595 to 62,500km) and CR-V (unchanged) pricing. The X-Trail and CX-5 also remain with a single price for time or distance, allowing the Cherokee ($1791) to jump between them based on kilometres, and even ahead of the Kuga ($1885), keeping the Mazda in last.
Most contenders will give you a three-year warranty in this company, with Mazda and Subaru offering unlimited-kilometre cover over that period, and Toyota, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Jeep capping mileage at 100,000km. Hyundai and Kia offer stand-out five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranties, while Mitsubishi matches the years but caps cover at 130,000km.
Choosing one from 10 medium SUV models will largely depend on your priorities. If you don’t mind trading space for features, the Hyundai ix35 seems like a good bet on paper. It feels dated, however, and its sibling Kia Sportage matches it in every regard and is a much more resolved and convincing drive.
If you need maximum space, on the other hand, then there are better alternatives to the expensive, spartan and fidgety-riding, but roomy, gutsy and economical Toyota RAV4, such as the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail.
The similarly spacious Mitsubishi Outlander has no major flaw, but nor does it ever rise beyond average. If you can get it cheap, or need seven seats, it is a decent but uninspiring choice.
The midfield is closely packed with the Sportage, Forester and Kuga.
The Sportage wins a ‘most improved’ award as it’s now nice to sit in and drive. Other than being a bit small, its single flaw – engine response – can be solved by choosing the diesel option, which at $37,740 still undercuts competitors here. Choose it, and you have a podium-challenging SUV.
The Subaru Forester is car-like to steer, great to see out of, quiet and comfy in its seats and suspension, and economical, only undone by its low equipment level, poor connectivity and shallow boot.
Ford’s Kuga is even smoother around town, with fantastic steering and a nicer cabin, though it too dips out with average driveability and below par economy (though as with the Sportage there is an affordable, and recommended, diesel option).
Just shy of the podium is the Nissan X-Trail. Its price and equipment equation is outstanding, and is backed by a high-class interior design, great connectivity and a flexible boot. If only it had more rear headroom, rode the bumps more smoothly and felt less ponderous around town, it would be king of the big ’uns.
Our top three all offer buyers different virtues.
The Jeep Cherokee in third place is the only semi-premium offering here, with an ultra-silky and torquey engine, hushed road noise, and great seats and cabin. It even steers and rides well, and is only let down by a shunty transmission, its thirst, and a relatively small boot.
The Honda CR-V is noisier and less classy, but it masterfully combines a big boot and a spacious cabin with convincing driveability and a fine value equation.
Our winner is the Mazda CX-5, because the only areas it dips significantly is with its lack of rear air vents and expensive servicing. If you can trade centimetres of legroom and some boot volume compared with our runner-up, the CX-5 offers the best engine and transmission here, is among the nicest inside and – we can’t overstate this enough – comprehensively the most comfortable and satisfying to drive, whether in or out of town.
Photography by Easton Chang. Click the Photos tab above for more from this shoot.