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They don’t call Australia the big brown land for nothing. Most of us may live near the blue of the ocean and travel on roads that are black, but there is plenty of brown stuff to be found everywhere else.
Country folk who want a medium SUV aren’t necessarily looking at parking prowess or kerb-hopping abilities; rather the ability to cross big distance efficiently and effectively, often on dirt, is the score.
Having tested the petrol-engined crop of popular medium SUV models, it’s now time to turn to the same set powered by the default fuel of choice for beyond the ’burbs: diesel.
The launches of the diesel-powered Jeep Cherokee and Nissan X-Trail were the prompters for this comparison test, while the Volkswagen Tiguan joins because it has been updated with more power and torque.
Our winner of the petrol medium SUV mega-test, the Mazda CX-5, was also this country’s favourite SUV in 2014, and it returns here with one of the most advanced diesel engines available in the class.
Unfortunately neither the Ford Kuga nor Honda CR-V were available to test, while the Subaru Forester is only available as a manual in diesel form.
Since we last tested the mediums in middle-grade specification, we’ve aimed to test the higher-grade models here, which is partially dicated by the fact the Cherokee is only available in a single lavish specification.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, new cars editor Tim, our video and digital media editor Glen, freelancer Andrew and I headed west from the Sydney CBD, and over the NSW Blue Mountains to motorsport mecca Bathurst; not for laps of the Mountain, but as an overnight point for a dirt-road tour to the former mining town of Hill End.
Back in 1870 it had a population of 8000, and the now ghost town has been reduced to barely 150 today … Or 154 tomorrow.
PRICING AND EQUIPMENT
Leaving the city of a weekday afternoon places you in plenty of traffic, typically where SUV models of the suburbs will largely spend their life; so it’s a good starting place to think about what you do and don’t get for your money in each $40,000 to $50,000 contender.
The Volkswagen Tiguan 130TDI is the most affordable diesel SUV here, kicking off at $39,990 (as with all prices quoted, plus on-road costs).
That is, however, because only a single, entry-level specification is available, which happens to make it the least well-equipped model of the quartet.
Instead, Volkswagen provides several ‘luxury’ options to boost the Tiguan’s standing.
While the basics shared with its competitors are covered – included are alloy wheels, foglights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, colour touchscreen with reverse-view camera, rear parking sensors, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror – there are plenty of extra-cost features.
Tick the optional leather seat trim with electrically adjustable driver’s seat ($3500), satellite navigation ($2500) and panoramic sunroof ($2000), and the price tag skyrockets to $47,990 to place the oldest car here (by generation) in the thick of its rivals.
The Nissan X-Trail TL is actually cheaper, then, at $46,280 plus on-road costs.
There is a caveat to its price, though, because if you choose an automatic transmission in the new X-Trail diesel as we have, then it will just power the front wheels. Only less popular manual versions have all-wheel drive … which may have been handy if the weather turns foul as the hill is ending.
Still, you get plenty more equipment in the X-Trail TL even compared with a heavily optioned Tiguan 130TDI: the alloys grow by a size, to 18-inches; there are apps included, via a system dubbed NissanConnect; the rear camera graduates to an around-view monitor; there are LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers; the front seats are heated and the passenger gets electric adjustment; the car key detects when you’re close by and automatically unlocks (or, as you’re leaving, locks) the SUV; the tailgate raises and lowers electrically; and there are active safety technologies such as a blind-spot warning light and lane departure warning.
On the gridlocked M2 and M7 motorways heading west, both of the latter systems were working overtime.
To get those latter active safety features in the Mazda CX-5 you’ll need to buy the $49,420 Akera specification that adds them both in addition to lights that automatically dip the high beams if the system detects on-coming cars.
Even our tested $47,030 GT gets more equipment than the Tiguan 130TDI, and comes close to matching the X-Trail TL.
You get the largest alloys here (19s) and a booming nine-speaker Bose audio system. Although you get only a rear camera, the CX-5 GT picks up front and rear parking sensors that are a rare omission in the X-Trail.
Other than bi-xenon headlights instead of LEDs, no electric adjustment for the passenger seat, and no power tailgate, the Mazda’s a match for the Nissan.
While you can get cheaper diesel grades of both the CX-5 (in the form of the $39,470 Maxx Sport) and X-Trail ($35,380 TS), there is only one Jeep Cherokee Limited specification and it costs a hefty $49,000.
It aligns closely with the CX-5 GT, but not the similarly priced Akera, asking extra for blind-spot and lane departure warnings, and auto high-beam.
In fact, that kit is included in a ($3000) ‘technology group’ package that also adds features not available on any other SUV here, including automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, active cruise control and forward collision alert.
An electric tailgate and nine-speaker Alpine audio system are included, in addition to leather, heated and electrically adjustable front seats, front/rear sensors and a camera, though a panoramic sunroof is another $1900 – and fitted to our test car, perfect for that twilight lap of Mount, errr, Panorama in a few hours time.
INFOTAINMENT AND CONNECTIVITY
Guiding your way to the family holiday (or the CarAdvice family overnighter) is important in the modern SUV, and here the Jeep Cherokee scores.
The big, lovely 8.4-inch colour touchscreen sits proudly in the centre console, and its Uconnect infotainment system is both clear and intuitive.
It is also backed by another 7.0-inch colour screen situated between the speedometer and tachometer, where its rivals use smaller, monochromatic displays.
Above: Jeep Cherokee.
You don’t get apps connectivity as you do in the Nissan X-Trail, which has functions for Facebook, Pandora and Google, using your smartphone’s internet but accessed through the standard 7.0-inch colour display.
It may not be as sizeable as the Cherokee’s display, but it is similarly easy to use and high-resolution.
The X-Trail is also the only SUV here with digital radio, allowing me to effortlessly switch between 90s Pop Radio via Pandora and Mix 90s via the airwaves, as fellow motorists judge away.
Above: Nissan X-Trail.
The Mazda CX-5 is weeks away from being updated with the company’s excellent MZD-Connect infotainment system, the major change of its mild facelift (which unfortunately we couldn’t procure for this test).
So we won’t dwell too much on the tiny 5.0-inch colour touchscreen with its low-resolution interface and finicky sat-nav – it’ll be gone shortly.
The Volkswagen Tiguan also shows its age with a touchscreen from yesterday’s Golf.
Above: Mazda CX-5.
The 6.5-inch unit looks better and operates more intuitively than the Mazda’s, but lacking nav is disappointing and the Bluetooth system is fiddly to operate.
It requires the user to first connect via the steering wheel buttons and trip computer menu, then access the phone through the touchscreen – though to be fair the owner will only have to do this once, then the Bluetooth as with all systems here picks up a synced phone instantly.
It is also the only model here to not accept a standard iPhone USB cable, requiring a VW-branded cable that is optional.
Above: Volkswagen Tiguan.
INTERIOR, SEATING AND PRACTICALITY
The Tiguan does, however, score points inside beyond its dated centre screen. This may be a 2008-era interior, but the perception of quality remains clear and the seats are among the most comfortable here.
You sit lower in the Volkswagen than its competitors, which may not appeal to some for whom a high driving position is central to the decision to choose an SUV. It also perhaps reflects that the German model here is the smallest of the bunch; it is just 4.43 metres long, 1.81m wide and 1.69m tall.
It’s actually a surprise to find on the latter counts these SUVs are quite similar, being within a few millimetres of each other for both width and height. Only in length do the Nissan (4.64m), Jeep (4.62m) and Mazda (4.54m) add some distance over the Volkswagen.
Although that deficit for the Tiguan is most reflected in a smaller boot (more on that shortly), what can’t be denied is that its rear-seat accommodation is excellent, particularly for its size.
A sliding rear seat with reclining backrest, air vents and a deep and supportive bench with great visibility over the front pews are rear comfort highlights.
Meanwhile proper door grabs, a 12-volt outlet in the back and fold down tray tables are class exclusives. Partially due to the lack of a sunroof, the little Tiggy also boasts the most headroom here.
At the other end of the rear-seat spectrum, the Mazda CX-5 has less legroom and a shorter seat base than the others.
Headroom is second best among this lot, while shoe space (or in our resident hipster Tim’s case, thong space) under the front seats is plentiful, disguising the deficit. Speaking of which, the CX-5 is the only contender here without rear air vents.
There is about the same space in the Jeep Cherokee, but a longer, softer cushion makes for greater comfort levels, even if headroom is at a premium. The seat base also slides, unlike the CX-5’s, but doesn’t recline like the Tiguan’s (and X-Trail’s).
No SUV here offers the amount of sheer stretching space as in the Nissan, though.
Long-legged teenagers will especially appreciate the sprawling space afforded by the longest-bodied SUV here. Because the X-Trail is available as a seven-seater in some models (but not the diesels), however, the bench is perched very high, meaning the towering hair of Tim is flattened by the roofline.
The Nissan is also a car that prioritises space before overall comfort. Its front seats are the least supportive here, being very flat and with an electric function that doesn’t tilt the base far enough back for this tester. It’s a similar story at the rear; particularly noticeable with the slippery leather.
On the upside the interior quality is first rate, with really nice materials and a modern design. The X-Trail TL feels like a luxury version of the range, where an optioned Tiguan will just feel like … an optioned Tiguan.
The X-Trail feels big up front, however, as does the Cherokee that (as with the rears) has the softest and most comfortable front seats here. Along with the excellent screen, the design and materials used in the Jeep are of the semi-premium variety.
The Mazda can’t quite match that plush feeling, but the CX-5 feels less bulky than the X-Trail and Cherokee, while it also offers a higher driving position than the Tiguan. From the nuggety little steering wheel to the climate controls, this is an SUV where everything is clean and simple, aided by excellent forward visibility.
Above: Volkswagen Tiguan.
Switch to boot space and the Tiguan’s 395-litre volume is the smallest here. Thanks to that pert rear-end, there simply isn’t enough length to offer competitive boot space, and this in particular will affect families with a double rather than single pram, for example. That said, though, with the sliding rear bench moved all the way forward to 'no legroom' mode, boot space shifts to a much more generous 470L. And chances are if you have a bulky pram, your kids will only need a child seat, not legroom, so sliding the bench all the way forward should be fine.
The Cherokee may claim larger standard boot volume (413L) but it has a higher loading lip than the Tiguan, making loading up items more of a pain, and it includes a cheap-looking and finicky cargo cover.
The Jeep is the only model here not to offer a ski port in addition to the 60:40 split-fold rear-seat practicality of the others.
Above: Jeep Cherokee.
In the Mazda’s case, that’s actually 40:20:40 split-fold because the centre section acts entirely independently of the sides.
The CX-5 also includes the quickest and easiest folding mechanism of the quartet, via simple levers in the boot that drop the rear backrest completely flat.
While the CX-5 seems like it has the second smallest boot volume (403L), its fixed rear-seat base means it still provides plenty of room while offering that capacity; the Cherokee claims its maximum with the seat bench moved entirely forward, limiting rear room, while the Tiguan with its seat forward eclipses both its Mazda and Jeep rivals.
Above: Mazda CX-5.
None is a match for the mega X-Trail, which will fit prams, camping gear, surfboards, or in photographer Glen’s case, every bit of snapper gear. Its 550-litre boot includes three adjustable floor sections so you can either portion off a section of underfloor storage, use the whole cavity as one, or even have a shelf halfway.
Oh, and if you’re unlike our crew and decide to camp rather than grab a last-minute Wotif hotel, then you’ll appreciate the 12-volt outlets in the boots of all but the CX-5.
If you tick the ($900) ‘electronics convenience group’ option in the Cherokee you’ll also score a 230-volt powerpoint in the centre row, perfect for the portable fridge you just managed to squeeze in its boot.
Above: Nissan X-Trail.
PERFORMANCE AND ECONOMY
When we do our first fuel fill on the edge of the Mountains, there are already impressions about how each of these four diesel SUVs will perform.
Freelancer Andrew, who complains jokingly that he only gets the driving call-up for non-performance cars, succinctly expresses his view of the X-Trail.
“You’ve given me some slow cars in your time, mate, but jeez,” the bloke who, for perspective, has a slow 1.8-litre Holden Astra as a daily driver tells.
The Nissan weighs 1562kg, or about what you’d expect an SUV of this size, but it only has a 1.6-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder to move it along.
With 96kW of power and 320Nm of torque, it simply isn’t enough, and you realise it from the moment you touch the accelerator and need to put your foot halfway to the floor just to get it off the line. Every driver will notice that this is an often frustratingly slow SUV; we certainly hope it at least provides good fuel efficiency.
“I know you blokes were saying the Nissan was slow, but I just thought you were exaggerating,” tells Glen later in the trip after he’d removed his right foot from the firewall.
On the upside the X-Trail is very refined, and the ‘stepped’ continuously variable transmission (CVT) that mimics the traits of a regular automatic by refraining from simply holding revs high, means that perception isn’t ruined.
Swap to the Multijet-engined Jeep and you realise it’s a fair bit noisier than the Nissan just off idle, but is immediately more responsive. That feeling fades, however, as more throttle is requested to, for example, overtake slow moving trucks while climbing the mountains. The Cherokee has a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder with a healthier 125kW and 350Nm, and the nine-speed automatic transmission provides enough gears to plug any potential hole in the engine’s delivery.
Yet unlike the X-Trail it offers all-wheel drive. And unlike every other SUV here, it has dual-range 4WD that changes the gearing to high or low, the latter helpful when you’re rock hopping a steep mountain or mud plugging. Such a shot at off-road capability adds weight, and its 1854kg kerb mass is by far the most here.
There are no rocks to climb just yet, but as we almost come to a standstill behind a truck on a steep hill on a one lane road, an overtaking lane appears. A new Camry Altise behind the truck floors it and overtakes comfortably … while I’m left in the Cherokee, right foot flat and going nowhere fast.
No exaggeration required here (promise, Glen): swapping to the Tiguan and CX-5 is like jumping into a sports car and supercar respectively.
The Volkswagen and Mazda don’t have heavy, sturdy off-road hardware, only ‘on demand’ all-wheel-drive systems that typically send drive to the front wheels only unless slip is detected. They’re the smarter option if all you do is drive on sealed roads; but less so if unsealed roads turn muddy.
The Tiguan 130TDI weighs a couple of hundred kilograms less than the Cherokee, at 1642kg, yet it also delivers more power (130kW as the name suggests) and torque (380Nm).
It’s a real smoothie this Volkswagen Group turbo-diesel, being both punchier and more refined than either the Nissan or Jeep. Teamed with a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, this is a drivetrain you simply don’t have to think about; you just waft your foot over the throttle and it purrs along.
The Mazda isn’t as refined on light throttle applications, being slightly growly and intrusive. Its diesel is similarly effortless, but with 2.2-litre capacity and two turbochargers (where the others only have one), its performance advantage is staggering.
The figures say it all: 129kW may be 1kW less than the Tiguan, but the 420Nm destroys all, while the 1685kg kerb weight isn’t enough of a deficit over the VW to note.
It smoothens out as speeds and revs rise, and the six-speed automatic is superbly fluent and intuitive, flicking back one or two gears to prevent over-braking on the steep descent back down Mount Victoria onto the dead-flat western plains.
Out here, overtaking on the wrong side of the road is common, and the Mazda and Volkswagen are in another, altogether safer league to the others.
The sun is falling by the time we get to Bathurst, and over an excellent pizza and brew at Church Bar there is consensus that an early division is forming between these entrants; but will things change when dirt is involved on day two?
Whatever the case, we’re going to skip forward a bit here and report that over close to 1000km, the X-Trail used the least fuel (8.5 litres per 100 kilometres), but the CX-5 barely used any more (8.8L/100km) despite its performance advantage. It left the Tiguan (9.3L/100km) and heavy Chekka (10.0L/100km) forming their own division.
Equally, if you’re towing and perhaps sleeping in a caravan rather than hotel, the Cherokee has the highest towing capacity for a braked trailer (2393kg) but the lowest unbraked (450kg) rating. The other three post 750kg unbraked capacity, with the braked capacity rated at 1800kg for the CX-5, 2155kg for the X-Trail and 2200kg for the Tiguan.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
After overnighting in the Neil Crompton suite at the Bathurst Best Western – as you do when you’re country touring – we continued to get in the vibe by mingling with other tourers at the continental breakfast buffet.
Cold country air, a warm cup of tea, some fresh fruit, and a bowl of cereal while reading the newspaper – this is what forgetting the city is all about.
We had kilometres to do, though, so back on the road and threading through Bathurst peak hour, it soon becomes clear that the Tiguan hasn’t lost anything in the way of driving nous, despite its vintage.
The ride on chubby tyres that look sensible enough for country kays is outstanding. The lack of road roar means you could go for miles without needing a stretch or turning up the audio volume. And the engine just pales into the background, the auto even dropping out of gear when off the throttle sending the engine to idle to save fuel.
Swap to the Mazda and you get more noise and more … sports.
The steering is less relaxed, but beautifully connected and immediate. The ride is a fraction more fidgety, thanks to those low-profile 19s, yet the suspension remains sophisticated enough to be comfortable still. And the handling is simply outstanding, genuinely the hot-hatch of SUVs.
Yet for all this sportiness, it doesn’t affect the tourer who just wants to crush distance because the CX-5 does it all as effortlessly as you could wish, while feeling car-like.
As the morning sun creeps higher, we’re on full kangaroo alert, and you can never underestimate sharp handling having benefits should an inexperienced driver try to swerve then recover the vehicle.
That point is made clear when you move into the Jeep and Nissan.
Before this test, the Cherokee proved surprisingly more abrupt over sharp urban bumps than we remember the petrol V6 version was.
Yet out here at speed it settles quite nicely, though at the same time it isn’t any better than the CX-5 and certainly isn’t as plush as the Tiguan.
The X-Trail is, however, the least comfortable car here on a country road or in town.
Despite squidgy handling characteristics that sit closer to the on-stilts Cherokee than the balanced and cohesive Tiguan and CX-5, the Nissan jitters up and down constantly on coarse chip roads. It is marginally quieter than the Mazda and about on par with the Volkswagen and Jeep, however.
By the time mobile phones show no coverage, the road from Sofala to Hill End is dotted with dirt, dancing over the Turon River.
Here the suspension of the Tiguan again proves the most pliable, but the CX-5 feels the most agile and secure. The X-Trail can feel skittish as the sending drive to the front wheels only can induce scrabble and understeer, and while the Cherokee continues to feel surprisingly stiff, it is at home on a rocky crawl.
We position the SUVs around the old and abandoned places of Hill End as the mercury reaches a temperature worthy of maximum air-conditioning.
Snapper Glen politely asks me to move the CX-5 into position near a sign, then as geese cross the road, less politely requests that I herd them around the Mazda, “because it would make a cool shot”.
As they ran away making a high-pitched shrill of discontent that echoed through the valley, we realised it was time to head back to where we, and these SUVs, would typically belong.
Our thoroughly dusty convoy (and the cars were pretty dirty too) headed back for a late lunch at Lithgow McDonald’s (thankfully editor Jez wasn’t present to condemn our choice of eatery). After almost 1000km in these four diesel medium SUVs, it became clear that none were perfect, but half were more livable than the others.
For those who want maximum space and features for the money, the Nissan X-Trail is unrivalled here.
However, it doesn’t prioritise overall comfort (in terms of seat comfort and ride), while it is drastically underpowered for the size and weight of SUV, particularly as in automatic form it can’t go far off road. We’d recommend the petrol version instead.
If you are headed to do serious off-roading, the Jeep Cherokee is worth its weight (literally) in gold (though we found none at Hill End).
It isn’t well packaged for its size, and is expensive for what you get, however. Curiously, what the Amercian off-road brand now offers with its medium off-roader is a slow but efficient diesel, or fast but thirsty V6 petrol – there doesn’t seem to be a sweet spot.
The Volkswagen Tiguan, meanwhile, hasn’t aged like a fine wine from nearby Orange.
It works best in affordable, front-wheel drive guise, because even in its vintage it still doesn’t offer the value proposition it should, while its boot space doesn’t match its excellent cabin space and comfort. Regardless of model, though, the Tiguan remains supremely effortless, enjoyable to drive, comfy and refined.
In those last two instances, the Mazda CX-5 fractionally trails its rival.
What it loses slightly in rear legroom space, it gains with a bigger, more usable boot. It is superbly economical for the performance it offers, and secure and car-like to drive. Back in town, it remained every tester’s favourite, and an infotainment system update around the corner should only further cement its position at the head of the class.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Glen Sullivan.