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Sun, sand, surf... Australians love nothing more than going to the beach. Unless of course it’s a Saturday afternoon where we drape ourselves in team colours and cheer on our side to either cross the try line or kick through the middle posts.
But our love of on-field sports activities is more than matched by our love for sporty cars, given that the likes of Renault Sport, Mercedes-AMG and BMW M Division record higher sales volumes in this smaller market than most larger ones.
It stands to reason, then, that if you love sports on the weekend as much as sports in your driving, but also have a family and can’t stretch to a Porsche Macan, then this quartet of spruiked-up SUV models may fit the bill.
We have already tested a field of petrol medium SUV models that cost around $40K, then followed it up with four of the newest diesel versions that cost just above that price point. Now we move into the sportiest petrol arena that ask below $50K plus on-road costs.
Running onto the playing field is a model that would have long won the people’s choice award, simply because it has been around for so long.
The Subaru Forester XT has for more than a decade packed a turbocharged punch into its jacked-up, small wagon dimensions, and today it can be had for either $43,490 in standard form or $49,490 for the Premium grade tested here.
There are newcomers being pencilled in for a start, however.
The Ford Kuga has just had its lacklustre 1.6-litre turbo replaced by a far punchier 2.0-litre turbo that matches the Forester for engine size, and can be had in Titanium specification as tested here for $44,990.
The Volkswagen Tiguan is a bit elderly, this first generation of which came out way back in 2008. But the flagship 155TSI, which wears the same pricetag as the Kuga Titanium and also has a 2.0-litre turbo, has clearly been keeping fit in the off-season; it arrives for the new year freshly facelifted with an R-Line sports bodykit and trick adjustable suspension now standard.
Which leaves our existing champion of champions, the Mazda CX-5, which is also newly facelifted and in GT specification arrives as the cheapest car here at $43,490.
On the one hand, the medium SUV from Hiroshima could be seen to start on the back foot in this company, because it is the only model here without a turbocharger; only a larger 2.5-litre capacity.
On the other hand, however, the CX-5 has been comfortably the most agile and dynamic performer in the medium SUV field since its introduction in 2012, so if sports is more than just about running fast in a straight line, the Mazda may well be able to side-step the competition. Or maybe it won’t – let’s see.
PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
First to some pre-match statistics, and you don’t have to be Bruce McAvaney to be sprouting superlatives over what you get for your money in all four contenders.
On the outside, the CX-5 GT and Kuga Titanium have the biggest boots – 19-inch on all corners, with 225mm-wide Toyo Proxes for the former and 235mm-wide Continental ContiSportContact 5 for the latter.
The same width difference exists between the 18-inch alloys on the Forester XT Premium and Tiguan 155TSI R-Line, both of which have Bridgestone Dueller rubber but in the German’s case the racier ‘HP Sport’ variety.
Even when you option that in the Tiguan you still come in with cash to spare compared with the Forester, though completely unavailable is the full suite of safety gear that’s standard on that rival: adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and collision warning with automatic braking should the driver fail to then brake after first being warned.
In fact, you pretty much can’t get any active safety technology in the older Tiguan, not even the semi-automatic reverse parking that was available as an option way back in 2008.
On the CX-5 GT, meanwhile, you option for just $1060 a package that adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and low-speed auto braking; or you can go the whole hog in the $47,410 CX-5 Akera and add adaptive cruise control, swivelling LED headlights, lane departure warning and even a system that will subtly move the steering wheel to keep you centred in your lane … all still for $2K less than the Forester XT Premium.
A similar story unfolds with the Kuga Titanium, which you can option for $1600 a package that incorporates all the same features that are optional in the CX-5 GT, but with the Akera’s lane keeping aid and a class-exclusive automatic high-beam function too. In this instance you’d still save close to $3K compared with the Forester XT Premium.
Families are no doubt as conscious with price and return on investment as NRL club executives who have to pick their players beneath a salary cap are, and the Ford continues to be the most competitive bet.
It is the only SUV here with semi-automatic reverse parking and a digital radio as standard, in addition to an electric opening tailgate that is included only on the more expensive Subaru in this company.
Leather trim with front seat heating is standard in this quartet, but as with the Tiguan the Kuga does however get electric adjustment only for the driver, where the CX-5 and Forester include power movement for the passenger as well.
It should be noted, though, that the base Forester XT that is a price-match for the CX-5 GT only gets manually adjustable cloth seats and no sat-nav, while both the XT and XT Premium miss front and rear parking sensors that are included on all of its competitors. At least a reverse-view camera is included on all four here.
Above: Subaru Forester.
TECHNOLOGY AND CONNECTIVITY
Even with sat-nav on the XT Premium, however, the Subaru runs a clear last for connectivity.
Its fiddly, aftermarket-looking audio and nav system with grainy graphics is simply not befitting of a model that runs into the middle of a five-figure sum.
Although to a lesser degree, the same could be said for the Tiguan 155TSI R-Line.
Above: Volkswagen Tiguan.
Its 6.5-inch colour screen is the same size as the Forester’s but is much easier to use.
The graphics are 2008-era, however, and it’s perplexing that you have to access the Bluetooth menu through buttons on the steering wheel and the small monochromatic screen ahead of the driver rather than a big, bright touchscreen.
Likewise bizarre is optional iPod connectivity for the standard USB input, saved only by a 30Gb music hard drive as standard – the only SUV here with that feature.
Above: Ford Kuga.
The Kuga Titanium screen may be a comparatively small 5.0 inches, buried deep in a cave-like recess, and despite the appearance of buttons that appear to be a homage to a 1990s Sony boom-box, the big surprise is that with time it’s easy to use.
Bluetooth and USB inputs work instantly, the nav is functional, camera graphics good, and that digital radio earns it more points.
Mazda is the connectivity king among mainstream cars these days, though.
Above: Mazda CX-5.
Its popular medium SUV now utilises the company’s fresh MZD-Connect system that uses a rotary dial and shortcut buttons on the console to intuitively access the features of its bright, 7.0-inch colour screen (that doubles as a touchscreen when the car is standing still).
It’s the only contender here with Pandora and Aha internet radio options, both of which work brilliantly.
Clearly the CX-5 is a savvy player… with a savvy audio player.
INTERIOR AND PRACTICALITY
The Mazda’s lead continues in other areas of its cabin.
The plastics quality and general ergonomics are excellent, the front seats supportive and comfortable. The only crosses concern a short rear seat base and non-adjustable rear backrest angle, while as with the Forester XT Premium it lacks rear air vents.
Although there is nothing at all premium about the Subaru’s cabin materials, it is just as comfortable up front and has the most legroom out back, although the standard sunroof eats up what would otherwise be stacks of headroom.
Its big drawcard is superb visibility for all passengers, and particularly in terms of over-the-shoulder vision for the driver. Its interior also seems nicely finished, even if it isn't the last word in clean design.
Headroom hurt comes in the back of the Kuga, too, though its bench sits up notably higher than the others to help feet drop to the floor without legs being splayed.
It has the most comfortable front seats here and among the most cushy rear, too.
The best back seat award goes to the Tiguan, though, even if its interior plastics and quality is starting to date up front.
For such a short car – it’s smallest here with a 4.43-metre length compared with the others that are 4.52m (Kuga), 4.54m (CX-5) and 4.6m (Forester) – its rear room credentials are especially astounding.
It has a tilted, supportive bench that slides forwards and backwards, reclines only like the Ford, plus has a great blend of headroom and legroom, and all-important rear air vents that are matched by flip-down airline-style tray tables (also standard only on Kuga).
But for anyone who has kept tabs on the Tiguan’s career, they’ll know the Volkswagen has an Achilles heel – boot space. At 395 litres it’s barely bigger than a Golf (380L) and has a high loading lip. If you have kids in baby capsules, though, thanks to that sliding bench you can push it all the way forward to enlarge the boot to a more competitive 470L.
The CX-5 and Kuga may seem only marginally behind for boot space, with 403L and 406L volumes respectively, but being slightly wider cars, they have more usable spaces than the Tiguan.
The Ford wins for its lowest-here loading lip and the ability to electrically raise its tail-gate by swiping your foot under the rear bumper on approach. Conversely the Mazda wins for overall practicality with its 40:20:40 split-fold rear backrest that drops into the floor at the swipe of a lever.
Above: Volkswagen Tiguan (top) and Mazda CX-5 (bottom).
Meanwhile the Forester splits the difference between them for volume (405L) but has such a high loading lip that there’s barely any height between the floor and cargo cover relative to the opposition. There’s more depth as you’d expect from the longest SUV here, but as with the Kuga only simple 60:40 split-fold backrest capability (even the Tiguan at least gets a ski port).
To be fair to the Subaru, it’s the only one here that brings a proper spare boot to the field – a full-size 18-incher versus the others’ space savers, the latter of which is a bit like bringing a ballet shoe to play footy in case one of your boots break.
With the crowd cheering, it’s time for some action, then.
Above: Ford Kuga (top) and Subaru Forester (bottom).
PERFORMANCE AND DRIVEABILITY
Starting around town and it’s clear the re-engined Ford Kuga has quite the edge. It has 178kW of power and 345Nm of torque to pull 1732kg of medium SUV.
The new boy goes toe to toe with the Subaru Forester, which makes 177kW and 350Nm but weighs the least here at 1607kg, a substantial 125kg less.
Given that, you’d expect the Japanese player to be faster than the European one, and that is certainly the case when you get stuck into the throttle in a straight line; the Subaru feels whooshy and boosty like an old-school turbo, as though there’s a bit of WRX spirit in its bones.
But from a set of traffic lights or when closing a traffic gap, the combination of an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is a bit slow to respond plus noticeable turbo lag off idle means the Forester can be frustrating.
Switching to sport-sharp (S#) mode gives you eight gear ‘presets’ to act like a regular auto, but it’s all too much for making your way to the footy match, holding onto gears needlessly and feeling a bit ‘springy’ when you release the throttle; it makes you feel like saying ‘oi, settle down fella’.
The Kuga can feel a tad lethargic off the line too – thank its sheer weight – but it very quickly yet progressively becomes strong, smooth, cultured and accessible. Its six-speed automatic flicks between the gears fluently, rather than abruptly.
The Tiguan is a real smoothie, but its engine is older than the newer units in the Golf GTI. It makes 155kW and 280Nm, which makes it a bit yesterday’s hero.
Still, its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is one of the better versions of the breed, and a standard hill holder means it doesn’t roll forward or backward when you release the throttle like some ‘DSG’ systems do.
Despite weighing more and having less, Volkswagen claims a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 7.3 seconds, two-tenths faster than what Subaru claims. The others don’t claim a figure, but the Kuga feels in that ballpark.
Most coaches, meanwhile, would kindly ask the petrol CX-5 to keep the bench warm. Muscle is notable by its absence, with 138kW and 250Nm off the pace compared with rivals.
The Mazda is barely lighter than the Volkswagen – 1627kg versus 1642kg – and its delivery of what it has comes well after the others; peak torque is made at 4000rpm compared with 1700rpm for the Tiguan, between 2000-4500rpm for Kuga, and 2400-3600rpm for Forester.
Then the CX-5 gets a run, and proves to be the most enthusiastic, if not effortless performer here. Its six-speed automatic is the finest transmission of the group, with superb intuition to keep the engine on the ball without the driver even noticing.
Amazingly, from a set of traffic lights the Mazda feels perkier than the Subaru and Ford, though it does quickly fall away.
Likewise it sustains freeway pace just as well, but is heard revving harder on hills. Even then, though, there’s a performance gap to the others but not a gulf.
A lot is forgiven even before the serious cornering tackle-work arrives.
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
In many ways around town the CX-5 and Kuga are virtually inseparable. Both steering systems are light-to-medium weighted and a joy to twirl, and the ride on 19s is firm but settled enough with the ability to soak up enough big hits to mark both suspension set-ups as truly sophisticated. The Mazda feels more nimble and fleet footed, but the Ford has better visibility and a tighter turning circle.
The Tiguan R-Line has heavier steering than regular versions, in a similar fashion to the Forester, which is a bit dull and needless for parking. But the two could not be any more different when it comes to urban comfort levels.
The Volkswagen’s adaptive suspension, in the softer two of its three modes – Comfort, Normal, Sport – is simply superb. Despite being on larger wheels than cheaper Tiguans, the R-Line rides better than any of them, with a truly lush disposition across even the worst roads.
The Subaru, by comparison, verges on being uncomfortable. It has a brittle, sharp ride that feels clumsy and – like the power delivery – more than a bit uncouth. It is quiet on coarse-chip roads, however, more so than the Kuga and CX-5, while on the freeway the CVT barely needs to rev the engine on hills, unlike the Mazda.
That being said, though, the facelifted CX-5 is quieter than before, and is about the same as Tiguan and Kuga for road noise – not quiet but not intrusive.
These are very different players when it comes to the cornering on a twisty road, the automotive equivalent of darting left and right through an opposing team that’s trying to pin you down.
As you may expect by now, the Subaru is the brash performer.
Despite its hard ride, it rolls and pitches the most, with the most squeal-prone tyres. Yet the Forester forces you to dig in deep and commit, to use the paddleshifters and keep the engine in its boosty mid-range and deploy its force once the front end finally bites. There’s a mechanicity to the all-wheel-drive system that sees it being the only SUV here to leap from corners in slight oversteer.
It has clearly been engineered for those who love the WRX but now have a family.
The Volkswagen will not be bullied around in such a fashion. It keeps its eye on the ball at all times, with the most stable cornering attitude, the most grip, and the tightest control of its body in the suspension’s Sport mode over bumps. It is fast and composed, but also fun in a less overt way.
Fun is what the Mazda is all about.
As ever the CX-5 is a hot hatchback masquerading as an SUV, but it takes the extra grip of the 19s, compared with the under-tyred Maxx and Maxx Sport lesser grades on 17s, to completely exploit its talent. It feels the lightest on its feet, it changes direction with the greatest agility, and it has the best sense of front-to-rear balance.
New to the CX-5 is a Sport mode for its auto, and it makes the best transmission here better. It flicks back gears under brakes and holds lower gears prudently, but not needlessly.
Swap into the Kuga and it simply doesn’t feel faster than the CX-5. Its auto is less intuitive and its clacky +/- manual mode buttons on the shifter are basically unusable such is their ergonomic awfulness. As with the Subaru it feels like you’re cornering on stilts.
There’s grip and balance there, but it isn’t as planted as the Tiguan, nor as fun as the CX-5, and doesn’t allow you to grab it by the scuff of its neck like the Forester.
It is fitting that we spend the afternoon at the beach.
It’s also little wonder the Ford and Subaru feel top heavy when you note their 197mm and 220mm ground clearance, respectively. The CX-5 gives you only 150mm before its belly scrapes, where the Tiguan affords 192mm.
The drive systems of each vary torque front to rear automatically, but the Mazda and Ford prove to dig the front wheels in more first. The Subaru is the only one with a dedicated X-Mode button that prioritises off-road driving, and not coincidentally it is the most effortless on the sand.
ECONOMY AND SERVICING
With final time approaching, the economy order ends with Kuga first (9.4 litres per 100 kilometres, only slightly up on its 8.8L/100km claim), the hard working CX-5 second (10.8L/100km, well up on its 7.4L/100km claim), with the remaining models inseparable at 11.6L/100km (up from Tiguan’s 8.8L/100km and Forester’s 8.5L/100km claims).
For long-term running costs, the Kuga and Tiguan have convenient annual or 15,000km servcing, but the Ford costs just $930 over three years or 45,000km versus $1451, and $1750 over five years or 75,000km compared with $2982.
The Forester demands six-month servicing every 12,500km, the CX-5 annual servicing or every 10,000km, with Subaru asking $2214 over three years or 75,000km; Mazda demands $986 to three years or $2813 if 80,000km comes up first.
As ever with this particular Japanese brand, there are charms to be had in the Subaru Forester XT Premium. It sends a very specific message to a very specific type of buyer who enjoys hardcore, WRX-style cornering and proper off-roading, even if it lacks the engine refinement, suspension comfort levels and effortless urban driveability of its rivals. Its price and inconsistency ultimately affects its chances here.
It is a similar story for the Volkswagen Tiguan, which really needs a connectivity upgrade and more features for the price to help hide its age. There is nothing that can be done about the small boot until the next generation model arrives in a couple of years, but until then, if your family is small, you’ll still be scoring a terrific blend of cabin comfort, performance, ride and handling in the 155TSI R-Line for the price.
To think that Ford and Mazda once shared an SUV in this category, in the form of the badge-engineered Escape and Tribute respectively. The latest Kuga and CX-5 share nothing, and it feels that way, yet they are virtually inseparable for completely different reasons as the whistle is blown. Time to call in extra time to find a golden point…
If you want extra performance around town, more features and technology for the money, and cheap servicing, then choose the good looking, well specified, and solid-to-steer Ford Kuga Titanium.
But if the brief is sports with an overlay of family focused priorities, then the Mazda CX-5 GT simply outshines that rival for driver enjoyment, while being just as roomy and comfortable, with a classier interior and benchmark connectivity – sports and sensibilities combined. Best of all, you can also performance-match its rivals if you choose diesel power ($3000 extra) thanks to Mazda’s superb twin-turbo diesel that would be hard to pass up for the price.
By the slimmest of margins it gets to keep its medium SUV competition trophy.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Glen Sullivan.