The medium-SUV segment is now, along with dual-cabs, the 'real Australia' battleground for buyers down under. A well-worn cliché, sure ('real Australia' I mean), but with the demise of the large sedan as the go-to vehicle of choice for Aussies, it's now medium SUVs that serve duty as family transport in suburbs across our wide brown land.
The segment is, of course, bursting at the seams with options, and every manufacturer wants a piece of it. You know things are getting serious when brands historically associated with luxury cars and sports cars are rushing to get into the fight in a segment they have never previously been involved in. Think Porsche and Jaguar for starters.
Two of the enduring standouts in the segment are the 2018 Mazda CX-5 Touring and the 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan 132TSI Comfortline. Here, we've selected AWD and petrol power across both brands as a solid indicator of what punters are buying for real-world urban commuting.
The CX-5 has long been the sales favourite, and the Tiguan long been the entree into premium ownership. In the real world, though, it’s not about Nürburgring lap times and at-the-limit cornering. The real world is far more serious than that kind of bragging-rights frivolity.
You could say that this comparison is less dynamic driving capability and more real-world, real-buyer ability. Medium SUVs have to serve duty in traffic to and from work, running the kids to and from school or weekend sport, lugging a flat-pack wardrobe home from that Swedish melamine jungle, and running into and out of the shopping centre regularly. Jack-of-all-trades is the term that comes to mind when you're assessing a medium SUV in 2018.
You could argue that dynamic driving ability matters to some, but I'd counter that ride quality, value for money and running costs matter to a lot more. Further, you're not going to strap your kids into the second row, and your partner into the passenger seat, and then head for the nearest twisty country road to see how quickly you can make them all carsick. The real world doesn't quite work like that, even though plenty of Lewis Hamilton wannabes wish it did.
As such, we've assessed this twin test around town, in the urban environment and over the gnarliest urban roads we could find, with a critical eye on inclusions, space and second-row comfort. They might not be as sexy as performance SUVs, but affordable options in the medium-SUV segment are absolutely vital in the current climate.
Pricing and equipment
The Mazda CX-5 Touring AWD petrol starts from $38,590 with the automatic transmission before on-road costs. The AWD petrol range kicks off from $33,690 and tops out at $46,190 before on-road costs, so this Touring sits smack bang in the middle of that range.
Standard equipment highlights include: auto LED headlights, 7.0-inch screen with MZD Connect, DAB+, Bluetooth/USB connectivity, satellite navigation, proximity key and push-button start, front and rear parking sensors, rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, forward and reverse AEB, rear seat USB connection, rear seat armrest, 17-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors, head-up display, faux suede/leather seats and traffic sign recognition.
The Volkswagen Tiguan 132TSI Comfortline AWD petrol starts from $41,490.
Standard equipment highlights include: Front Assist with City Emergency Brake, Lane Assist, 17-inch alloy wheels, park assist, rear-view camera, tyre pressure indicator, LED tail-lights, 8.0-inch infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite navigation, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, three-zone climate control, folding tables on the front seatbacks, and fog lights.
Under the CX-5’s bonnet, you’ll find a 2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder with an ADR fuel-use claim of 7.4L/100km. It offers up 140kW and 252Nm and improves on fuel efficiency from the old model thanks to cylinder deactivation. It's mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
We found that in this specification, the Mazda’s engine and gearbox are not well matched – certainly not ideally anyway. Whereas most Mazdas feel spritely and effortless, this CX-5’s engine sounds like it’s working hard even at low speed. It’s not fast either, certainly not in terms of road speed relative to the fuss coming from under the bonnet, or how hard you’re prodding the accelerator pedal.
So, why all the noise then? It’s a harsh noise too, which makes the engine sound like it’s working way harder than it needs to be. Further, the transmission can be random in its selection of gears, firing up and down through the ratios when you don’t feel like it needs to. The shifts can be slow or jerky too, and in short, the combination is not as refined as we’ve come to expect from Mazda.
The end result in the real world is that the engine doesn’t sound or feel premium, either from outside the CX-5 or in the cabin. It also lacks the mid-range punch you might expect given the enthusiastic soundtrack. Our week-long indicated fuel-usage average of 11.8L/100km (against the ADR claim of 7.4L/100km) backs up our feeling that the engine was working harder than we’d have liked.
Will the average buyer have an issue with the points we’ve noted above? Perhaps not, but the fact that Mazda has traded on a perception of affordable premium for some time is worth mentioning here. And if you test-drive this CX-5 back to back with another option – as we did of course – you will notice it.
The Tiguan is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with an ADR fuel claim of 7.5L/100km. It’s backed by a seven-speed DSG and generates a healthy 132kW and 320Nm. While it makes slightly less power than the Mazda, it outworks the bigger 2.5-litre engine in the torque stakes.
Stepping straight out of the CX-5 and into the Tiguan and tackling the same urban loop, the difference in the two drivelines is both stark and appreciable. The Tiguan’s engine and gearbox are both effortless and smooth.
In fact, the word smooth comes to mind with regard to any part of the Tiguan drive experience. The turbo petrol is quiet at idle or under load, the VW’s stop/start system is punchy enough and not slow to act, and the engine never feels like it’s revving too hard for the given road speed.
The Tiguan also has a nice solid shove through the mid-range when you need it for roll-on overtaking on the highway, for example. It gets off the mark sharply too, and keeps accelerating solidly through that mid-range. Rob Margeit and I both reckon the Tiguan is more than fast and sharp enough for daily driving duties. The gearbox shifts cleanly and crisply too, regardless of the load you’re placing upon it.
The engine noise that is transmitted into the Mazda’s cabin is absent behind the wheel of the Tiguan, and as such, that sense of calm and quiet makes the VW feel more refined.
Our fuel-use average of 10.8L/100km over the course of a week betters that of the Mazda by a full litre per hundred, and gives a real-world indicator of just how effortless the Volkswagen is over the same roads and driving conditions.
Our test Mazda was shod with 225/65R17 Yokohama tyres, straight up indicating a sharper road focus than the rubber fitted to the Volkswagen. We headed over the same road loop, two up, with feedback offered by both driver and passenger.
Tilt- and reach-adjustable steering means you can get into exactly the right position to tackle your urban commute in the Mazda, and that’s a factor for any family that splits the driving duties. No two ‘ideal’ driving positions are the same after all.
The steering wheel itself feels like it's transmitting the same weight to the driver as the Tiguan – light around town at low speed, solid and reassuring at highway speed. As we’ve come to expect from Mazda, the steering is direct and connected too; something that not all SUVs can deliver.
The ride is a genuine point of difference between the two on test, though. The Mazda simply isn’t as consummate in the way it tackles pockmarked inner urban roads and coarse chip. It crashes through and over bumps more, feels like it is sharper in the way it soaks up those bumps, doesn’t settle as quickly, and is noisier in the cabin over those coarse-chip surfaces.
It’s worth noting here that the Mazda isn’t uncomfortable or nasty at any point, but it does transmit more road noise into the cabin, feels more fussy and jiggly over repetitive corrugations, and you therefore feel the road surface underneath you more.
The CX-5 may hook harder into a corner on a country B-road, or might power out of a corner more assuredly, but we didn’t test that here. On our test criteria then, the Mazda is a little too firm and fidgety around town.
Interestingly, the Tiguan has less sporty 215/65R17 Bridgestone Dueler tyres, and as such we expected a little less tyre noise from the outset. Tilt and reach adjustment in the Tiguan also allows any driver to quickly get comfortable behind the wheel.
Like the Mazda, the Tiguan’s steering is a near-perfect blend of lightness around town and reassuring weight as speed increases. We really liked the way the Tiguan settled down to business on the freeway, and the steering is a highlight of an excellent chassis package.
The VW’s bump absorption is excellent, with only a small thud evident over really sharp potholes. We tried to fire both SUVs into potholes we’d normally avoid, and the Tiguan dealt with them more comprehensively for both driver and passenger.
It’s not all perfection for the Tiguan, though. It can be a tiny bit fussy over repeated inconsistencies in the road surface, but it counters by settling quickly and it feels solid on the road regardless of what is going on underneath the tyres. There’s almost no tyre noise that enters the cabin, and the way in which the Tiguan rides around town makes it feel more premium at all times.
This category is a crucial area for buyers in this segment. If you’re commuting to and from work every day in your SUV, tackling the Monday-Friday school or weekend sport run, or taking your medium SUV on weekend road trips, the cabin is the real interface between driver/passenger and vehicle. It’s vital manufacturers get this one right to appeal to buyers.
The Mazda’s infotainment is decent, and the native mapping display is better than the VW’s. However, MZD feels old now and needs an update to catch the competition. It was standard-setting in its time, but the rest of the segment has well and truly caught up now. CarPlay is now an update that Mazda can add, and there is standard DAB+ that the Tiguan doesn’t get.
The MZD system itself does work well – it’s fast and responsive. Bluetooth is solid too, easy enough to use and work out on the move, and reliable once paired. We found the rear-view camera to display a fish-eye image but it is still decent. The steering wheel buttons are clear enough, but still retain that slightly ‘plastic’ feel, and they look a little cheap too. We loved the head-up display, which works well and is clear enough at all times to always be useful and safe.
The Mazda’s cabin is darker, not as touchy-feely in terms of the ambience, and certainly doesn’t look as premium as the cabin of the Tiguan. The plastics look and feel a little cheaper and it’s clearly an attempt at premium, but not really the complete execution.
The seats are comfortable, but we found they weren’t as sculpted – especially the front two – as the VW. There is storage for sunglasses overhead up front, but no door bin lining like the felt used in the VW.
There’s a 12-volt socket and phone storage ahead of the shifter, two USB sockets and another 12-volt socket in the centre console bin, as well as a clever lined shelf for your smartphone. Two bottle holders take residence in the centre and there’s one in each door.
Into the second row, there’s not as much knee room – approximately four inches less with the front seat set for the same driver – and less toe room under the seat than the Tiguan. The head room is the same, but the second-row seats have no adjustment, which might be a negative for some buyers.
There are only vents with no controls, but there is a fold-down armrest with two cupholders and two USB sockets. The rear door pockets are tiny, and like the front, they are unlined.
The CX-5 gets two ISOFIX positions on the outer locations, along with three top tether points. In short, it is significantly more cramped than the Tiguan, with a darker cabin and less visibility for passengers.
The Mazda’s luggage space crucially delivers a flat floor, but there is a small lip to consider. It’s not an issue for most situations, though. We loved the clever luggage cover that expands and retracts as you open and close the hatch, which is a brilliant solution and one less likely to break or be damaged.
The seats fold almost flat from the boot, making that exercise as easy as possible, and there’s no darting back to the rear doors if you’re halfway through loading something that requires the seats be laid down. There’s strangely no light in the luggage space, despite the provision of a 12-volt socket. Buyers get a space-saver spare and the lid doesn’t lift up quite as high as the VW; something to note for taller owners.
The Tiguan’s infotainment system is excellent, with native satellite navigation that works well all the time. CarPlay is quick and clear, fast to respond, and never annoying or glitchy like some systems can be once paired. There’s phone storage ahead of the shifter near the USB interface.
The steering wheel controls are excellent, and while it’s hard to describe without using them, there’s a premium, damped kind of feel to them when you do use them. The infotainment screen is shiny and does show a propensity for fingerprints and smudges. That annoys me, and I found myself constantly cleaning it. No matter how clean our hands were, we could not stop the fingerprints and dust from showing up.
Like many premium vehicles, the Tiguan misses out on DAB+; something I find strange, and even more so given the Mazda has it. There is, however, a much broader screen and rear-view camera image. It’s not fish-eye either.
Overall, the cabin rewards for its lack of dust-collecting, piano-black finishes. Further, there are quality soft-touch surfaces everywhere you look. A twin overhead bin swallows two pairs of glasses, there are two bottle holders in the console, and a decently sized console bin.
The big, lined door pockets are a recurring VW highlight, meaning that whatever you store in there tends not to slide around and make noise. The glovebox is also useful for storing more than a pen and notepad if you need to.
VW’s front seats are excellent, with quality material raising the question among the CA editorial team of whether you even need leather, and they are nicely contoured. We found they offered more than enough adjustment fore and aft, up and down.
Into the second row, there’s a big overhead bin for sunglasses, which is rubber-lined. The fold-down, aircraft-style tables with extendable cupholders will be a hit with the kids on long road trips, not to mention useful in this day and age of multiple devices.
There are a further two cupholders in the centre armrest, plenty of knee, toe and head room, and good visibility for passengers, whether they are children or taller adults.
Second-row occupants get temperature control, a 12-volt socket, but no USB interface, which counts against the Tiguan. The second-row back rest slides and tilts, meaning you get more flexibility back there than you do in the Mazda.
Like the CX-5, the Tiguan gets ISOFIX on the outboard locations and three top tethers as well. Like the front, the back door pockets are also lined, and there are LED reading lights.
The luggage space is genuinely flexible, with seats that fold basically flat into a 40/20/40 arrangement and can be lowered remotely from the boot. There’s also a handy cargo net with zipper and pocket, as well as take-away bag hooks and a light. There’s also a 12-volt socket as well as a sturdy, more traditional cover than the Mazda’s innovative solution.
There’s a space-saver spare tyre and the luggage space itself is effectively flat, with a hatch lid that lifts up nice and tall, suiting taller owners better than the Mazda. While it’s a close call, the Tiguan has the better, more flexible load space.
The CX-5 is covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and gets a five-year, capped-price servicing plan. Services need to be undertaken every 12 months or 10,000km. Over those first five services, the average price is $320, which is very competitive.
The Tiguan is covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty and gets a five-year, capped-price servicing plan. Services are required every 12 months or 15,000km. Services will cost an average of $649 per visit over that period, which is highish price-wise in the segment.
While there are numerous elements of this test that are extremely close to call, for us, it’s the Tiguan that wins this comparison. Its slight price hike above that of the CX-5 is entirely justifiable the way we see it, given the more premium cabin and driving feel.
If you’re shopping in this segment, you want as much bang for your buck and feelgood factor that a manufacturer can deliver, and in this instance it is VW that has done the best job. That’s not to say the Mazda is an underachiever – it isn’t – but the Tiguan delivers a compelling blend of value, quality, driving enjoyment, and that hard-to-define premium experience in a segment that doesn’t always deliver that to a cost.
As we always say in these comparisons, test-drive them both over roads that are familiar to you, but if it were our money, the Tiguan gets the win.