Holden Equinox 2019 ltz (awd) (5yr), Honda CR-V 2019 vti-lx (awd), Hyundai Tucson 2019 highlander (awd), Kia Sportage 2019 gt-line (awd), Mazda CX-5 2019 akera (4x4), Nissan X-Trail 2019 ti (4wd) (5yr), Renault Koleos 2019 intens x-tronic (4x4), Subaru Forester 2019 2.5i-s (awd), Toyota RAV4 2019 cruiser awd hybrid, Volkswagen Tiguan 2019 162 tsi highline

Best medium family SUV 2019: Holden Equinox v Honda CR-V v Hyundai Tucson v Kia Sportage v Mazda CX-5 v Nissan X-Trail v Renault Koleos v Subaru Forester v Toyota RAV4 v Volkswagen Tiguan

10 of the best go head-to-head

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Ten of the best and most popular mid-sized SUVs go head-to-head, but there can only be one winner.

Mid-size SUVs are now the most popular type of vehicle in Australia, making up almost one in every five new vehicles sold this year. The cluster of 10 tested here make up about 85 per cent of sales in this segment, so we’ve done our level best to cover the market with a few exceptions.

The real catalyst is the new-generation Toyota RAV4 that’s just hit showrooms and is promising improvements across the board. Toyota is the market leader for a reason, so every rival should be on high alert.

The other competitors are all signature nameplates. They are the Holden Equinox, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Nissan X-Trail, Renault Koleos, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan.

The main cars missing are the Ford Escape and Mitsubishi Outlander. The former is due for replacement soon, while the latter was not available for this test.

We’re testing them in top-of-the-range forms (or near to it) to show you the full gamut of features on offer, though pricing varies a fair bit. The cheapest car here is around $42,000 and the priciest pair north of $50K – before options and on-road costs.

Obviously the main consideration points have to take into account the target buyers. Families are first, meaning safety and space are paramount, but they’re also bought by singles and couples who want something that rides high, has road presence, and ticks the right emotional boxes.

We make no bones here, then, that we’re prioritising driver-assistance features, value for money, cabin practicality, ride comfort and running costs, with extra things like pokey engine performance or dynamic handling the garnish – nice to have, but not as essential to winning.

If our findings diverge from smaller-field previous CarAdvice comparisons in the running order, keep this angle firmly in mind. On a side note, we’ve also driven these cars off-road, but will publish that piece separately. We don’t want this becoming War and Peace. Let’s go.

The format of this story has been designed to be a little more digestible. So, it comprises 10 standalone reviews bookended by copy linking them together. The running order goes from cheapest to most expensive.

MORE IN THIS SERIES: 2019 MEDIUM SUV OFF-ROAD COMPARISON


COMMON FEATURES

Every car tested here has a petrol engine, though many come with a diesel option. The reason we did this was the fact that petrol is the dominant fuel type in the segment. Each also uses all-wheel drive in one form or another.

Standard equipment common to every single vehicle here includes five-star crash safety, autonomous emergency braking, a blind-spot monitor and lane-keep assist, plus the full suite of cabin airbags and child seat attachment points (both ISOFIX x 2 and top-tether x 3).

All have electric tailgates, leather seat trim, alloy wheels, reversing cameras, satellite navigation, a proximity key, LED headlights and roof rails. Each is also available with a sunroof.

We’ve published a comparative table below showing you what you get on each car. Simply scroll across to see all 10

How each of them sell:

The most popular car here is the Mazda CX-5, racking up 13,956 units this year for 15.8 per cent market share. It’s the nation’s favourite SUV.

Next in order are the RAV4 – a mixture of the new model and runout versions of the old (11,459 sales, 13 per cent share) – the X-Trail (9692, 11 per cent share), Tucson (9373, 10.6 per cent share), CR-V (7528, 8.5 per cent share), Sportage (7208, 8.2 per cent share), Forester (7206, 8.2 per cent share), Tiguan (3704, 4.2 per cent share), Equinox (3011, 3.4 per cent share) and Koleos (1040, 1.2 per cent share).

That means the 10 cars here make up 84 per cent of the segment’s total sales.


Subaru Forester 2.5i-S

The Forester has one advantage over its competitors – price. At $41,490 before on-road costs, it’s the most affordable vehicle here. Despite this, it’s not exactly lacking for features. Indeed, the only creature comforts it lacks compared to rivals are heated seats and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. Hardly deal-breakers.

On first impression, the cabin presents something best described as information overload. There are no fewer than 17 buttons on the wheel and two paddles, plus two separate centre screen readouts.

However, the tech is made to a high level. There’s a particularly high-resolution 8.0-inch screen with sat-nav and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a neat kerbside camera display shown on the small screen atop the dash, alongside a myriad of information such as vehicle pitch and torque flow. The audio system is supplied by Harman Kardon.

The materials used include soft dimpled padding for your knees and hands, and good quality perforated leather seats. The silver and glossy black plastics, and alloy pedals, add sheen. More than one person looking through the cars felt the interior presented particularly well.

One selling point in both the front and back rows is the outward visibility, with those huge side windows and narrow pillars giving you a big glasshouse. It creates a welcoming and airy ambience. The back two doors open almost 90 degrees and welcome you into a spacious back seat row with enough headroom and legroom for 1.9m-tall occupants in the outboard seats.

Amenities in the second row include air vents, two 2.1A USB points, and ample storage including dual seat-back pockets for your paraphernalia. It’s worth noting that the sunroof doesn’t open as far as some rivals’ sunroofs, and the back windows don’t go all the way down.

Unlike the old Forester, the new one’s boot is big without a raised loading floor. The surface area is 900mm from door sill to back seat, 1100mm between the wheel arch humps, and 460mm tall between the floor and sliding cargo shelf. You can drop the back seats flat via levers in the boot walls, and you get a proper full-size spare wheel. Subaru has also fitted a particularly quick-to-operate electric tailgate.

The MY18 Forester is a smidgen larger than before, stiffer and stronger. This explains why it is quieter on the road. The steering has a slightly unusual weighting and the ride is occasionally too sharp over big hits (likely down to slightly ‘off’ damper control), but it’s generally a comfortable and compliant vehicle to drive, and fitted with decent Bridgestone tyres.

With a claimed weight of 1577kg, it’s among the lightest here. That offsets the middling outputs from its overhauled 2.5-litre boxer (horizontally mounted) four-cylinder engine, claimed to be 136kW at 5800rpm and 239Nm at 4400rpm. In fairness it's a little peppier than before – we dashed from 0–100km/h in 9.4 seconds – though we regret the discontinuation of the old model’s 177kW turbo option.

The engine is matched as standard to a CVT with a manual mode and a sportier auto mode, and it’s a pretty refined version that mimics stepped gear changes quite convincingly. Its fuel-use claim of 7.4L/100km is more economical than most, and we regularly found it to be among the most efficient cars here despite full-time AWD.

This signature symmetrical all-wheel drive usually biases the front wheels with 60 per cent of the engine’s outputs, versus 40 per cent to the rear, but it can shuffle this balance depending on surface traction. There are two separate modes that adjust throttle response and stability control tune based on your surface type.

In terms of tech, every version has Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system, which is camera-based rather than radar-based. Features include autonomous emergency braking in drive and reverse, and front- and side-view monitors. You also get active cruise control – a system that steers you away from road margin lines if you drift, and a function that beeps at you if you don’t take off from a red light or stoppage promptly.

The Driver Monitoring System uses a facial-recognition camera like many smartphones. When you hop behind the wheel, it’ll recognise you and put the cabin temperature, memory seat position and exterior mirror height to your presets.

While the value for money is outstanding, it remains above-average for servicing costs. The visits are either annual or 12,500km, and the first three services combined will cost $1277.23 at current rates. That’s double the Toyota’s service costs. Subaru now offers a five-year warranty.

In short, the Forester is excellent value, highly practical, tech-laden, generally comfortable, and more off-road-capable than most. The range has become less exciting in this generation, but overall it’s a very impressive SUV aimed at the mass market.

Honda CR-V VTi-LX

The Honda CR-V flagship costs $44,290 before on-road costs, second-cheapest on test. Yet, aside from having among the smallest touchscreens on test and lacking a 360-degree camera view, it offers all the requisite creature comforts that the others do.

Looks are subjective, but the new CR-V is in this writer's opinion the best-looking (non-NSX) Honda in some time. Whereas the Civic and HR-V are needlessly fussy, this is clean, contemporary and handsome. It has presence, a squat stance and good proportions.

The interior truly embodies function over form. It’s so very practical inside, from the centre console that’s twice the size of the others’ consoles and big enough for a large handbag, vast door bins and glovebox, and other assorted cubbies scattered about.

The instrument layout doesn’t have a lot of frills, but the modestly sized screen has user-friendly infotainment, high-quality mapping, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The digital instruments also prioritise legibility first and foremost. However, the rear-view camera is low-resolution.

The front seats look great, are leather-wrapped, and have electric adjustment and heating for both occupants. The fascia’s silver plastic inserts and black dash padding also add a little bit of ambience, though the tinny door handles can’t be said to do the same.

But the part of this Honda that really shines is the back seat area, which is without peer when it comes to space or accessibility through 90-degree-opening back doors. Two large people can sit front-to-rear with ample air to spare, reminiscent of much larger SUVs. Note: in the seven-seat version not tested here, the CR-V’s second-row seats are mounted higher up and cause headroom problems.

Even with the sunroof there’s acres of headroom in the five-seater here, though, plus amenities such as two 2.5A USBs, reading lights and vents. Parents will like the presence of a convex mirror that flips down from the roof and gives you a wide view of the back seats from the driver’s seat.

It also has a big, deep boot measuring 950mm from loading lip to back seat, 1050mm between the arches, and 520mm floor to cargo shelf. Underneath said boot floor is a full-size spare wheel. Better again, the levers in the cargo space flip-fold the back seats really low into the floor, making the boot area extra-capacious.

Powering the CR-V is a 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine. It may have the smallest displacement here, but its outputs – 140kW of power at 5600rpm and 240Nm of torque between 2000 and 5000rpm – were solid enough for a 8.7-second 0–100km/h dash, and it offers ample rolling response and superior fuel economy to most (a claim of 7.4L/100km like the Forester, third-best on test).

I don’t love its CVT transmission, though, which might preserve fuel but also lacks responsiveness and allows the engine to become a little unrefined. For urban commuting there’s little problem, it’s only when tackling hills or driving aggressively.

Honda has done a good job in terms of dynamic balance: there’s a bit of a propensity for the Michelin tyres up front to scrub/push understeer, but the steering is light (only 2.2 turns lock-to-lock) and low-resistance enough to be suited to urban driving, the handling is neutral enough, and the ride quality compliant over corrugated roads and speed bumps.

It’s comfortable and quiet. Side note: you also get an Active Noise Control system – sort of like noise-cancelling headphones – which keeps out road and wind noise.

In terms of safety features you get lane-keeping assist, AEB (which I actually experienced when a nuffy driver pulled out ahead of me from a blind driveway) and active cruise control. One letdown is the lack of a conventional blind-spot monitoring system, since the passenger-side LaneWatch camera doesn’t really do the same amount of work.

The AWD system is quite clever. Uncommonly, the car can take off from the line in all-paw mode to maximise initial traction. It's only at speed in nice conditions where the car reverts to FWD. The sensors on board resend torque rearward (up to 40 per cent total) when slip up front is detected.

While still firmly in the 'soft-roader' mould suited to snowy trails or gravel, it's also worth pointing out that the CR-V's ground clearance is up substantially to 208mm this time.

From an ownership perspective, Honda offers the de rigueur five-year warranty, while from a servicing perspective it offers lowish servicing prices ($870 for three visits) offset by intervals of 12 months or a low 10,000km.

It’s clear that the CR-V is another highly fancied contender like the Forester. It’s great value, comfortable to drive, and best of all it’s got the most capacious back seats and a vast boot. For the practicality minded it’s a winner, and will give the title here a nudge.

Holden Equinox LTZ

The Holden (nee Chevrolet) Equinox is a bit of an underachiever in the sales race, which has a lot to do with the fact that Holden as a brand is clearly a bit on the nose lately. But that means the scope for deals is high.

We’ve got the LTZ here, which sits one rung below the LTZ-V (which adds extras like a sunroof and ventilated seats). This LTZ is a member of our long-term loan fleet, so it made sense to throw it into the mix.

The list price is $44,290, matching the Honda. It’s the third-longest car on test at 4652mm and the third-heaviest at 1688kg.

It boasts a large and flexible interior with a big console and glovebox, albeit one with a surplus of cheap-feeling plastics along the doors and centre tunnel and a lack of design cohesion. The seats are trimmed in fairly hard-wearing leather that will stand up to abuse, though.

The 8.0-inch centre screen is running an older infotainment system than the new Acadia, but still offers good-quality mapping and a crisp-resolution rear-view camera. You also get Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, a decent Bose audio system, and a wireless Qi-standard charging pad.

Those back seats are excellent, with Paul having about 100mm of excess knee room behind my driving position. Back occupants also get a 240V power point, two USB inputs, heated rear seats and vents, plus cupholders and reading lights.

The boot is large, measuring 880mm sill to back seat, 1030mm between the arches, and 420mm floor to removable parcel shelf, and there’s just a temporary space-saver spare wheel under the floor. There is, however, a 120mm-deep tub under the main loading floor, plus nifty levers to flip-fold the back seat row down into the floor.

The Equinox’s road manners are good. It’s the most powerful car on test, packing a 2.0-litre turbo engine shared with the ZB Commodore, making 188kW of power and 353Nm of peak torque available from 2500rpm.

It proved to be the fastest car here, with a first 0–100km/h run of 7.1 seconds… That’s almost hot-hatch pace. That said, its lab-tested fuel use of 8.4L/100km is the second-highest here, and in our testing it was in the upper quartile.

The transmission is interesting, being a torque converter automatic with nine speeds. It feels sharp off the line, and naturally offers a big ratio spread.

This engine can be had with front-wheel drive, or an all-wheel-drive system as found here that’s a hefty $4300 pricier. It’s your familiar on-demand set-up that’s default FWD, but shuffles up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the rear when slip is detected, complemented by a hill-descent-control system for soft-roading.

It also has a button on the transmission tunnel that lets you completely decouple the rear wheels from the AWD system to let them just roll, thereby saving fuel. In this mode that power does overcome the front tyres, causing wheel spin on wet roads at take-off. Thus, we suggest leaving the car in AWD.

As with most Holden product, the Equinox’s suspension was tuned by Australian engineers based at the regional Victorian proving ground of Lang Lang (MacPherson strut front, four-link rear), and it proved surprisingly agile in corners, with good steering feel and flat body control.

At the same time, the 19-inch wheels on Hankook tyres with slim sidewalls might look the part, but they do make the ride quality over corrugations a little jittery.

In terms of driver-assistance tech, you get a full suite including lane-keeping assistance, AEB, rear cross-traffic alert, active cruise control, blind-spot alert and a forward-collision warning. You also get auto parking assist and the ability to start the car remotely.

One other intriguing addition is the fitment of a vibrating haptic driver’s seat. Basically, whenever the forward-collision alert, proximity sensors or lane-departure warnings activate, they send vibrations into your bum, which certainly notifies you snappily…

Commendably, the Equinox is also very affordable to maintain, though we’re less confident in the residuals given the discounts that are available. The warranty is five years, the service intervals are annual or 15,000km, and the total outlay over the first three years at present rates is just $817, second only to Toyota.

All up, the Equinox is a bit of a quiet achiever. Dig beneath the uninspiring surface and you find a fairly practical, affordable, and punchy family SUV that probably should be on more people’s radar.

Toyota RAV4 Cruiser

The latest RAV4 might be the newest car here, but its pricing is sharp at $44,640 before on-roads. And it lacks for little equipment-wise beneath that boxy new exterior. It also has some extra tech in the driveline department, being the sole petrol-electric hybrid car on test.

The interior design is what Jeep aspires to. The rubber ventilation dials and door handle inserts are a statement of intent, the touchpoints are soft, but the cabin nevertheless feels robust.

The driver’s leather seat gets two stages of heating and memory plus electric adjustment, though the front passenger’s set-up is manual. The glovebox and console are big, there are clever little hidey-holes scattered about elsewhere, and the storage area under the fascia is fitted with a Qi wireless smartphone charger.

Infotainment is projected on an 8.0-inch screen with satellite navigation and live updates, though neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto will be available until the end of 2019. Connected types will note that there are no fewer than five USB points, the most of any car here. Props go to the JBL audio system and the snazzy surround-view camera as well.

The driver also has a lovely steering wheel with a nice rim and ergonomic buttons, behind which sits a large configurable digital information readout. But where has the head-up display that’s found on a cheaper Corolla gone? That's a disappointing omission.

Back seat occupants get reclining seats, a folding armrest with cupholders, air vents, two USB points and grab handles, though the reading light is a yellow halogen. The doors also have the worst opening angle here.

Space is good, though, with outboard seats offering sufficient headroom, legroom and knee room for two tall adults. The back seats are plonked above the battery but not overly firm or uncomfortable. It would be nice if that sunroof were a little wider, though.

The clever packaging of the batteries means the boot is massive, measuring 1020mm door sill to seat, 1130mm between the arches, and 500mm floor to parcel shelf, while the floor can be lowered a further 60mm for extra big items. I put a front-loading washing machine in there, for context.

This new RAV sits upon a version of Toyota’s feted new architecture that’s also used beneath the Camry. It sits middle-of-the-pack dimensionally at 4600mm long, and remarkably enough considering its driveline it is not the heaviest car here. At 1710kg, it’s the second-heaviest instead.

It drives quite well, with a really cushy ride quality on 18-inch wheels (shod with Bridgestone tyres) that eats speed humps for breakfast, a pleasant steering tune, and even a hint of dynamic nous through corners. Like the new Corolla it’s surprisingly agile, very unlike the old model.

That hybrid system is great. It pairs a 2.5-litre petrol engine with electric motors on both axles (thus, electric AWD without a bulky longitudinal driveshaft needed) making a total of 163kW.

It will happily run on 91RON fuel, and its fuel-use claim of 4.8L per 100km is by far the best here. Moreover, my return of 5.3L/100km in the real world was more than 50 per cent better than the worst offerings here. You can also tow a 1500kg braked trailer, unlike older hybrids.

The engine does the bulk of the front-wheel driving, with help from the motor. This engine can also team up with a regenerative-brake-energy capturing system to send charge back into the battery. The back wheels drive when slip is detected. It all works through an e-CVT transmission.

Impressively, it’s much more refined under heavy throttle than before, and rather punchy off the line thanks to the motor’s instantaneous torque delivery, especially in sports mode whereby the throttle pickup point is changed. The brakes do feel a little wooden, however, and there’s no B-mode in the gearbox to capture more wasted kinetic energy.

There’s a full gamut of active safety features including lane-trace assist, auto high-beam, AEB, cross-traffic alert, side-view cameras and a blind-spot monitor, plus seven airbags. The speed sign warning system works off a camera rather than navigation data, so it can detect roadworks and school zones.

Despite the array of tech, it’s also the cheapest car here to service, with each of its first three services (intervals now a good 12 months or 15,000km) pegged at $210, or $630 for the first three visits. Plus, the warranty is now a class-average five years.

So, it’s among the roomiest and best to drive, nowhere near the priciest to buy, easily the most fuel-efficient, cheapest to maintain, and brimming with the latest tech. It’s pretty clear that the Toyota is going to be very hard to beat.

Kia Sportage GT-Line

At 4485mm, the Kia is the smallest car here alongside the related Hyundai Tucson. It also has a car-like design, with a large C-pillar, slim side windows and a sporty stance. It’s clearly designed to offer something with a little more edge than your classic soccer-mum-mobile.

Its list price of $44,790 places it mid-pack, yet as you’ll see in the table at the bottom of the story, it wants for nothing features-wise.

Subjectively, I like the interior design of the Kia. It rocks a high-quality wheel and shifter, plentiful storage including a big console and an under-fascia area with a wireless smartphone charger, and nice touches like alloy pedals and the optional two-tone colour palette.

The driver orientation of the fascia and the premium materials shout ‘European’, and my personal take towards the plethora of hard buttons below the screen is that they’re helpful more often than a hindrance. It’s just a well-considered set-up with a nice feel about it. The cream leather seats (black available) get heating and ventilation, and electric adjustment for both front occupants.

The 8.0-inch screen is slick and has good processing times – indeed, it’s one of the best systems here (it’s the same as the Hyundai’s). You have satellite navigation plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a good JBL audio system, though a 360-degree camera is missing. The panoramic sunroof is also massive and has a solid black fabric cover.

Being one of the more compact cars here means it’ll appeal to those battling congestion, though it also means the back seats offer a smidgen less knee room than the best on test. Likewise, headroom and outward visibility through the small windows is lower-percentile: fine for kids and smaller adults, but anyone over 190cm will feel the pinch ever so slightly. Co-tester Paul had 60mm of spare knee room behind my seat.

Rear occupants get a USB and 12V socket, vents, a flip-down cup holder armrest set-up and reading lights. Those back seats also recline via little levers near the seat bases.

The boot measures 880mm sill to seat, 1030mm between the arches, and 440mm floor to cargo cover, and under the floor is a commendable full-sized spare wheel. There’s also a place to slot the cargo shelf when it’s not in use.

While the hero engine is a 2.0-litre diesel, the engine we’re using here is a smidgen less inspiring but more affordable: a 2.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol with middling outputs of 135kW of power and 237Nm of torque at 4000rpm, mated to a six-speed torque-converter automatic and an on-demand AWD system with a locking mode. There’s also a sports mode that sharpens up the throttle response.

Not that it’s ever particularly punchy, with its peak outputs coming higher up the rev band, meaning you need to push it hard up hills, and a 0–100km/h time of 9.7 seconds on testing that was at the tail end of the field alongside the X-Trail/Koleos. On the plus side, the gearbox is really well sorted and more engaging than most CVTs, without any dual-clutch-transmission-style hesitations around town.

Despite being neither the heaviest nor most powerful car on test, its claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption of 8.5L/100km is the worst here (albeit by a tiny 0.1L/100km), and indeed in testing on our urban loop it used the most fuel.

Its ride and handling are very well sorted, though. It uses its small dimensions to its advantage, feeling decidedly nimble and agile, while it actually rides over choppy surfaces really well considering the small-sidewall Hankook tyres mounted on the sexy 19-inch wheels at each corner. The steering tune is also well judged.

The credit for this agility goes to Kia’s Australian engineers, who’ve tweaked the springs, dampers, bushes and bars for our market.

Likewise, the driver-assist features are good. It has AEB, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot alerts, and a lane-keeping aid that keeps you between road lines particularly well. The active cruise control likewise.

There’s one area where the Kia is a clear number-one: warranty. Its seven-year coverage is market-topping, though Honda and Holden have been known to offer similar coverage on a temporary basis as a special offer. The servicing intervals are annual or 15,000km, with the first three visits capped at $1034 (seventh in order, cheapest to most expensive).

The Kia offers a real point of difference to its rivals stylistically, appearing more like a jacked-up hatch than school-run SUV. Its long list of features, great cabin design, excellent road manners and segment-best warranty offset its smallish cabin space and average engine to make it an upper-level player every day of the week.

Nissan X-Trail Ti

The Nissan is among the world’s – and Australia’s – top-sellers, and has developed a solid reputation. This current-generation model is getting a little long in the tooth, but that means its mid-range list price of $45,040 before on-road costs should be offset by a discount. Hit those classifieds for a deal.

At 4690mm it’s the longest vehicle here, and sports an eye-catching design that makes it seem even larger again. The fact it comes with a seven-seat option in lower grades (as does the Honda) shows how roomy it is.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Nissan X-Trail’s cabin is looking and feeling its age a bit. At base level it’s fine and that new steering wheel design adds something, but there are competitors here with more flair and panache inside.

The 7.0-inch centre screen with satellite navigation is small and the user interface is a little confusing and slow to process inputs, while neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto feature. The 360-degree camera is a great thing on paper, though its resolution is pretty grainy, but the Bose audio system seemed pretty punchy.

The materials used are a bit of a mixed bag. Though there are soft padded contact points and glossy inlays, it looks a little dated. It’s clearly built to last, though, and will handle an army of kids doing their level best to destroy it.

The front seats are both electric and have two stages of heating, though I found the driving position to be a touch too high-riding. On the topic of ergonomics, the presence of a foot-operated parking brake, whereas the rest have electric parking brakes with anti-creep modes, is a bit naff.

The back seats sit up very high, no doubt to keep kids engaged, and the big side windows and large sunroof enhance this. However, such a seat set-up does impact headroom for taller adults. Legroom is middle of the pack.

Cleverly enough, the back seats both slide on rails (to increase the cargo space or pull a baby seat closer to you up front) and recline, and also drop 40:20:40, giving you a ready-made ski port. You get air vents and map lights, too, but nothing to plug your phone into. It’s one of very few cars here with heated rear seats.

The boot has a dual floor, and a hose-out hard plastic liner inside. The boot measures 870mm sill to seatback, 1100mm between the arches, and 440mm from the highest floor level to the cargo cover. It lacks a full-size spare wheel, making use of a temporary one.

The X-Trail’s engine is nothing special. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder makes 126kW of power at 6000rpm and 226Nm of torque at 4400rpm, though its 1562kg weight is below-average for the group. Its 8.3L/100km fuel consumption claim is about middle of the pack, and it indeed sat at the mean point in our testing.

Our quick 0–100km/h testing yielded a return of 9.8 seconds, equal-slowest here, though it’s not designed as a dragstrip warrior. The engine is right at home in urban commuting, though it can get a little unrefined under heavy throttle. The CVT is relatively well calibrated, with artificial stepped ratios programmed in.

The AWD system operates on demand, meaning the car’s brain sends drive to all four Bridgestone Eco-shod wheels variably. It also has a locking mode to limit wheelspin in low-grip conditions, and hill-descent control. Alongside the Forester, the Nissan is the most capable SUV here in light-duty off-roading.

On the road, the X-Trail’s light steering and good outward visibility make it easy to drive, though the ride quality on those 19-inch wheels felt a touch fidgety and firm over any imperfect roads. It lacks the dynamism of rivals like the Tucson and Tiguan, though it’s never offensive.

From an ownership perspective, Nissan Australia now offers a five-year warranty, while the cost of the first three services is a reasonably low (third-lowest, actually) $826. Note, though, the short 10,000km servicing intervals.

If you’re interested in buying an X-Trail, and we understand why the tough looks, reputation for reliability and spacious cabin would appeal, then we’d encourage you to shop around and seek a deal. This car isn’t all that far away from replacement, so bargains are out there.

Renault Koleos Intens

If you like to stand apart from the masses, the Renault is the pick. It’s the least popular and lowest-profile car, mostly because the Renault brand is nowhere near as big here as it is in Europe.

Reassuringly, it shares a platform and running gear with the Nissan X-Trail, since the two companies are joined at the hip as part of a complex alliance agreement, so it should prove reliable.

At $45,990 before on-road costs, it’s $950 more expensive than the X-Trail TI, and unfortunately lacks a few features such as steering assist and active cruise control (though it does at least have ‘normal’ cruise control). At least it offers a lane-departure warning system, with an audible hum should you stray over the lines.

Yet, it certainly at the very least matches the Nissan for visual impact. Its proportions are the same, but every panel bar the roof is different, with chic slimline tail-lights, a brash nose and bulging haunches giving it character to burn. It’ll sell on design alone, I think.

The interior is likewise very different to its X-Trail twin under the skin. Credit to the company for making such an effort to add some real design nous. There’s changeable ambient lighting inside like a Mercedes, and an unusual portrait-oriented centre screen with configurable tiles like a Volvo. Indeed, the only obvious Nissan bits are the window switches and an apparent shared audio supply deal with Bose.

The leather seats are well padded and supportive, and are heated, ventilated and electric for both front occupants. There is a good amount of cabin storage and a material quality and tactility above the Nissan. It also has a larger digital readout and an electric parking brake.

The navigation system is crisp and simple to use, while there’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. However, there’s no 360-degree camera and the processing times of the infotainment system could be snappier. Paul also had a few Bluetooth glitches to report.

The back seats offer ample legroom as the Renault’s long wheelbase suggests (on a par with the X-Trail), though the high-mounted back seats do impact headroom slightly with the sunroof fitted. Not that your kids will mind. Amenities include two USB points and a 12V, vents, LED reading lights, and a low centre driveline hump, plus plentiful storage.

The boot is slightly different dimensionally to the X-Trail but still among the larger, and there’s a full-size steel spare underneath. It may not match the others, but it should be a sturdy stopgap.

If you want to know about the engine, transmission and AWD system, then scroll up to the Nissan X-Trail section, since everything is the same. It’s all quite vanilla and inoffensive. There’s also a 130kW/380Nm diesel option, but this costs more to purchase.

One important distinction to note is that our test car was fitted with 18-inch wheels on Nexen tyres, but the Koleos Intens now comes on 19s instead. We had one built before a recent running change, and we thank Renault for making an effort to provide us with an available car despite this challenge. We imagine these slimmer-sidewall tyres may take the edge off the ride quality.

The Koleos is the third-most-expensive to service here, with the first three visits costing $1047 all up ($13 more than the Kia, big whoop), but the intervals are huge, at either 12 months or 30,000km. How come the exact same engine in the Nissan has 10,000km intervals? Doesn’t smell right to me. Renault also offers a five-year warranty.

To conclude, there’s nothing overly exciting about the way this Renault drives, but its brand cachet, dynamic design and spacious modern cabin mean it will keep attracting attention. A solid offering that doesn’t have enough to win, but I’m glad it was here.

Hyundai Tucson Highlander

The Tucson is a regular top-seller that doesn’t do a whole lot wrong. It shares much with the Kia, including a potent diesel option, though here it uses an exclusive turbocharged petrol engine and dual-clutch transmission, and a very different design language to the funky Sportage. At $46,400, it’s also the best part of two-grand dearer.

Hyundai’s recent interior-focused Tucson update was welcome principally because of the new tablet touchscreen sitting above a padded dash section. It runs sat-nav and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The new look contemporised an otherwise austere design. Additional tech includes a wireless smartphone charging pad, Infinity audio system, and Hyundai’s great Auto Link Premium smartphone app service.

Nice small touches include a heated steering wheel and a particularly big panoramic roof, albeit one with a flimsy sunshade.

Externally, that update included a new cascade-style grille complete with chrome-look vanes and a new LED headlight design up front, along with a slightly fresher tailgate treatment and new-look wheels.

The rest of the Tucson’s cabin is all solidly made. The leather seats are tough and hard wearing, and both front occupants’ pews have heating, ventilation and electric adjustment. Storage includes a big console, a large cooled glovebox, big door bins and a sunglasses bin in the roof.

The back seats aren’t the most spacious for knee room, just like the Kia (60mm of spare knee space for Paul), but headroom is great despite the huge panoramic roof. Back seat occupants also get their own LED reading lights, vents, a single USB point and a flip-down armrest. The back of the front seats is finished in hard plastic that kids can’t easily wreck.

The boot is about the same dimensionally as the Kia, meaning below-average but still big enough for a stroller or some suitcases, and there’s a proper full-size spare wheel and tyre under the floor. Tick.

As with the Kia, the Tucson comes with localised suspension tuning, this time done by Hyundai’s separate team of engineers working alongside consultant David Potter (once a race engineer for the great WRC champion Colin McRae). It still shows outstanding composure over bad surfaces even on 19-inch wheels, and handles cornering forces dynamically. However, the steering tune is quite weighty.

The engine is interesting. It’s a 1.6 turbo petrol making 130kW of peak power and 265Nm of torque, but the key is the fact said torque is on tap from just 1500rpm, meaning it feels deceptively muscular and sharp at rolling response. It was a full second quicker to 100km/h than the Kia, and matches the Honda CR-V's time of 8.7 seconds. Its fuel economy on 91RON (which it happily uses) is 7.7L/100km, and in the real world we found it to be middle of the pack.

The one potential downside of the drivetrain is the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, which promises rapid shifts once you’re rolling, but which is occasionally a little unsettled and hesitant around town unless you modulate your throttle inputs. It’s a small adjustment. Also, I managed to temporarily overheat the transmission fluid after a few minutes of hard stop-start driving, which is a poor outcome. This isn’t a breakdown situation; I just had to ease off for a minute.

The 4WD system is an active on-demand set-up like most of the range here, with a 50:50 locking mode for more challenging terrain.

Like every brand here (except Kia), the Hyundai comes with a five-year warranty, and its servicing costs are capped at $885 upfront (if you choose to go for the pre-paid plan) for three visits. That’s middle of the pack, though its short 10,000km intervals are not.

As with the Kia Sportage, it’s likely that the diesel is more suited to many people, given its punchier and more frugal ways offset the cost premium. But, the same could also be said for the X-Trail and Koleos, and we had to draw the line somewhere…

The Hyundai is still beautiful to steer and has a great loping ride quality, and doesn’t trail the pack in any way. It’s no longer the newest and shiniest contender, but remains a solid offering. Again, though, it lacks the requisite knockout elements to be a top-three player.

Mazda CX-5 Akera

Reflecting Mazda’s premium market positioning, the CX-5 flagship is one of only two cars here priced at above $50K (list price), at $50,130 before on-road costs. Yet, the popularity of this offering gives validity to the company’s pitch.

At 4550mm long, it’s not a particularly large vehicle, though its 1720kg kerb weight is the heaviest here. It’s sporting a pretty slick design language, no doubt enhanced by the glorious (albeit hard to polish) metallic red paint.

The cabin is pretty sumptuous for the most part. The seats are trimmed in soft leather with heating, cooling and electric adjustment for both front occupants, the steering wheel and shifter are delightful, the padded dash and tunnel equally so, and the real wood inserts are a worthy touch. That said, one panel gap directly ahead of the passenger was not quite consistent on our test car.

There’s also the unique inclusion of a projecting head-up display on the windscreen showing you a digital speed readout, speed limit and navigation details. It also has a 360-degree camera, albeit one with grainy resolution, and an outstanding Bose sound system.

At the same time, there are some areas where it falls over a bit. Its 7.0-inch screen looks pretty small and runs Mazda’s now previous-generation operating system controlled by touch or the rotary dial located between the gear shifter and cup holders, plus its sunroof is comparatively tiny. The new Mazda 3’s interior makes the CX-5 feel a touch aged: it has better materials, and a larger screen running a quicker and more versatile operating system.

The back seats are again beautifully soft and high quality, though the actual legroom is at the lower end. Foot room and headroom are great, however. Amenities include rear vents and reading lights, plus rear USBs and heated rear seats, with controls tucked away in the quality opening centre armrest.

The electric tailgate opens to reveal a modest 442L boot measuring 950mm door sill to seat, 1040mm between the arches, and 480mm from the floor to the cargo cover, which by the way attaches to the tailgate so it never gets in the way. Genius. It’s acceptable for a pram or a few cases, but not as massive as the best in class. There’s also only a temporary spare wheel. There is a clever system that allows you to fold the novel 40:20:40 back seat row flat really easily, however.

What about the engine? It’s potent: a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo making very healthy outputs of 170kW and 420Nm, the most torque here by a fair margin. That offsets the weight impost, and as you’d expect it proved upper-percentile for pace, clocking a 0–100km/h time of 7.2 seconds, making it the second-fastest here.

It would be better described as muscular and relaxed than ‘peaky’ and high strung like a hot hatch, with greater levels of refinement than the other engine options and good rolling response from low speeds, helped by the fact the peak torque arrives at 2000rpm.

The engine is mated as standard to a familiar six-speed automatic transmission with torque converter, with a sports mode that tells it to hold lower gears through corners to improve your exit response, and aggressively downshifts under braking. The fact that seven-, eight- or nine-speed gearboxes are beginning to proliferate means the 6AT has wide ratio gaps, but the engine’s broad slab of torque largely papers over this.

The Akera is all-wheel drive (AWD). The on-demand AWD system uses 27 sensors to allocate torque to whichever end has surface purchase. However, we did notice some torque steer under heavy throttle.

One of the things Mazda pins its messaging on is driving dynamics. There’s a system called G-Vectoring that reduces engine outputs in response to steering inputs to harness weight transfer, and lightly brakes the outer wheels as the driver returns the steering wheel to centre, post-turn. Mazda also recently fitted a wider front and slimmer rear stabiliser set-up, softer front bushings, urethane rear damper top mounts to kill vibrations, and changed the damper valves to add some refinement to the ride quality.

The CX-5 remains a pleasant, competent and able handler, though as with almost any SUV, the motor-driven steering is a little vague and the higher roll axis means some body movement in corners. Despite riding on 19-inch wheels, necessitating tyres with slim sidewalls, the ride quality over ungraded gravel or potholes is actually good, and the noise (tyre and wind roar) suppression is much better than older Mazdas. There is a hint of brittleness or stiffness from the front wheels at times, resulting in mild kickback through the steering column.

The warranty is a standard five years, while the servicing intervals are a measily 10,000km/annual. It’s middle-of-the-pack for capped prices, with the first three visits totalling $1001, between the Hyundai and Kia.

If sexy design and engine punch were the key criteria, the Mazda would be up there, though its tiring cabin, occasionally undisciplined road manners and price premium do hurt it a little. Not that any of these things will dent sales, given how good Mazda’s dealers are at making and retaining customers.

Volkswagen Tiguan Highline 162TSI

The Tiguan is a slight outlier here, in that it’s positioned between the other nine cars on test and higher-grade luxury offerings like the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC. Its starting price of $50,150 is only slightly more expensive than the others, but as tested this car costs $58,150.

That’s because of the $3000 R-Line package that adds stuff like those awesome 20-inch wheels, a $3000 Sound and Vision package that gives you a large digital instrument array, a bigger centre screen, a 360-degree camera and a thumping 16-speaker audio system, plus a $2000 sunroof. Some of these features are found on the others as standard.

Right off the bat, the Tiguan has the most quantifiably nice interior. The textures and materials are high end, the switchgear Audi-esque, and the general layout and choice of materials feel a cut above.

You also get copious storage spots such as large felt-lined door bins, a big glovebox and two cubbies along the driveline tunnel. The seats are comfortable and supportive, with heating and electric adjustment, plus three memory modes for the driver. And the door thunk remains the meatiest-sounding in the business.

The tech is great, too. There’s a massive centre screen with crisp maps, smartphone mirroring, and a similar phone-like user interface that allows pinches, swipes and even reads hand gestures, and which subsequently is the most satisfying to use. You get satellite navigation, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are also large digital instruments, though no Qi charging pad.

The back seats are very clever, given they slide on rails and recline, and offer excellent amounts of space and clear outward vision. Amenities include separate temperature controls (the only car here fitted with three-zone climate control), plus a USB and 12V port each, and even nifty airplane style flip-up tables stuck to the back of each front seat. The boot measures 850mm sill to seatback, 1000mm between the arches, and 440mm floor to cargo shelf, and the boxy body allows a large 615L capacity.

In typical Volkswagen platform-sharing fashion, the Tiguan uses the same MQB architecture as the Golf (and Skoda Octavia), and the 162TSI version seen here borrows its engine from the Mk7 Golf GTI. It's a 2.0-litre turbo petrol with 162kW of power at 6200rpm and 350Nm of torque between 1500 and 4400rpm, sufficient indeed for the 1637kg kerb weight. It's matched standard to a seven-speed DSG auto with paddle shifters that’s much smoother and snappier than old iterations, but which makes clunking noises at low speeds.

We're well familiar with this engine, and it remains a sonorous ripper, with muscularity through the mid-range reminiscent of a larger-capacity unit. With the sportiest drive mode selected, the re-mapped throttle and gearbox give the Tiguan impressive punch. It proved to be the third-fastest on our test at 7.3 seconds 0–100km/h, though its claim of 6.5sec is the best. The fuel-use claim is 8.1L/100km, but it needs premium petrol.

Outputs are sent to the road through a 4Motion on-demand all-wheel-drive system with a front-wheel bias that can send torque rearward when slip is detected, or the appropriate terrain mode selected, via an electronically activated multi-plate clutch. It also gets VW's XDL system, which brakes the inside front wheel to sharpen turn-in. The Tiguan has a number of off-road modes that adjust torque delivery and ESC parameters to suit various surfaces.

The suspension and damper tune is unsurprisingly firm, meaning the body control is excellent, but you're marginally less isolated from corrugations than you are in a cushier Tucson. Unlike the Golf GTI, adjustable dampers are not standard. Typical of Volkswagen, the suppression of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) is outstanding at freeway speeds.

While the Tiguan’s charms are high, its price as tested is too. Moreover, so are the servicing costs. The first three visits, at intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, are $1758 all up, almost triple the RAV4’s. At least VW now offers a five-year warranty.

It’s easy to see why so many people fall for the Tiguan’s charms, and it’s clearly among the very best cars here. But its value-for-money equation undoes its chance of winning overall. We’d happily recommend one, so long as you’re aware of this reality.


VERDICT

To be blunt, each contender performs its required functions to an acceptable standard. They’re all safe, practical and comfortable, and well furnished with modern tech. All of which is reassuring for the thousands of buyers favouring every option here.

But that doesn’t make them equals.

The X-Trail is a good quality and family-friendly offering with runs on the board, but makes more sense as a base model. The Equinox belies its uninspired design with pokey performance and lots of fruit. The Koleos marries design flair and outsider appeal to a proven platform. The Tucson juggles ride comfort and sharp handling outstandingly well. And, the top-selling Mazda offers a premium veneer and a powerful engine. Yet, still, they fall just short here in such company.

That the Volkswagen Tiguan is the most impressive car here in numerous ways justifies its positioning as a rival to real luxury brands, but also means it sits beyond the bell curve’s centre in crucial areas of value for money and running costs.

The Kia Sportage offers genuinely different design and proportions to the masses, a pleasingly agile driving demeanour, a well built and designed interior and a great warranty, but it’s also not the most practical offering, and the diesel option is a better bet. Subjectively, I really admire the car.

The Honda CR-V’s interior is outstandingly suited to practical buyers, and features like the flattest-folding seats, 90-degree doors and limo-like legroom should all make it a family favourite, though its middling cabin tech and dull CVT take the edge off what remains a pretty compelling package.

The tech-laden Subaru Forester is a surprise packet. Its ride quality is a little more firm at times than we’d like, and it remains expensive to service, but the proper bargain pricing offsets this latter point, and its superbly spacious and airy interior and genuine soft-roading chops make it a real (almost) winner in many important areas. I must say the company’s cost-cutting move to ditch the XT turbo performance version offered on the inferior old model really rankles with this in mind – what could have been!

But the RAV4 hybrid makes an irresistible case, and the supply issues causing wait times on delivery all the more frustrating. It’s the most fuel-efficient and cheapest car here to service, smooth and quiet to drive, surprisingly responsive in corners, impressively roomy and versatile, and well specified, with the belated addition of Apple and Android phone mirroring around the corner.

Well done to Toyota’s engineers and product planners for making something that will remain a real benchmark for some time to come.

Note: The RAV4 hybrid is presently subject to a several-month waiting list due to demand, and certain hybrid versions within a particular VIN range are on temporary stop-sale as a regenerative braking issue is sorted out. This broke after we'd done the testing, but given a fix is imminent we did not deem it appropriate to take the win from Toyota.


Running costs

Toyota
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/15,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $210, $210, $210 ($630)

Holden
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/12,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $259, $299, $259 ($817)

Nissan
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/10,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $234, $348, $244 ($826)

Honda
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/10,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $295, $295, $295 ($870)

Hyundai
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/10,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $885 upfront

Mazda
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/10,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $324, $353, $324 ($1001)

Kia
Warranty: Seven years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/15,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $261, $461, $312 ($1034)

Renault
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/30,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $349, $349, $349 ($1047)

Subaru
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/12,500km
Cost of base services, first three: $346.39, $584.45, $346.39 ($1277.23)

Volkswagen
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Service intervals: Annual/15,000km
Cost of base services, first three: $435, $634, $689 ($1758)

Subaru ForesterHonda CR-VHolden EquinoxToyota RAV4Kia SportageNissan X-TrailRenault KoleosHyundai TucsonMazda CX-5VW Tiguan
List price$41,940$44,290$44,290$44,640$44,790$45,040$45,990$46,500$50,130$50,150
Options$550: Prestige paint$600: Metallic paint$520: Metallic paint$800: Metallic paint$595: Metallic paint$495: Metallic paint$3000: R-Line Package$3000: Sound & Vision$2000: Sunroof
Total$41,940$44,290$44,940$45,240$45,310$45,040$46,790$47,095$50,625$58,150
Engine2.5 petrol136kW/239Nm1.5 turbo-petrol140kW/240Nm2.0 turbo-petrol188kW/353NmPetrol-electric 163kW combined2.4 petrol135kW/237Nm2.5 petrol126kW/226Nm2.5 petrol126kW/226Nm1.6 turbo-petrol130kW/265Nm2.5 turbo-petrol170kW/420Nm2.0 turbo-petrol162kW/350Nm
Trans/driveCVT, full-time AWDCVT, on-demand AWD9AT, on-demand AWDCVT, twin-motor AWD6AT, on-demand AWDCVT, on-demand AWDCVT, on-demand AWD7-DCT, on-demand AWD6AT, on-demand AWD7-DCT, on-demand AWD
Fuel use7.4L/100km7.4L/100km8.4L/100km4.8L/100km8.5L/100km8.3L/100km8.3L/100km7.7L/100km8.2L/100km8.1L/100km
Towing1500kg1500kg2000kg1500kg1500kg1500kg2000kg1600kg2000kg2500kg
Length4625mm4596mm4652mm4600mm4485mm4690mm4672mm4480mm4550mm4486mm
Weight1577kg1630kg1688kg1710kg1642kg1562kg1608kg1627kg1720kg1637kg
Boot litres VDA498L522LNA580L466L565L458L488L442L615L
Safety/assist
Airbags7667666667
AEB forwardYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Rear AEB/alertYesNoYesYesYesYesNoYesNoYes
Collision alertYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Blind-spot warningYesLaneWatchYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Lane-keep aidYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Steering assistYesYesYesYesYesNoNoYesYesYes
Active cruise controlYesYesYesYesYesYesNoYesYesYes
Auto parkingNoNoYesNoYesNoYesNoYesYes
Camera view360RearRear360Rear360RearRear360Rear
Exterior
Wheels18-inch18-inch19-inch18-inch19-inch19-inch19-inch (18-inch tested)19-inch19-inch20-inch
Auto-fold mirrorsYesYesYesYesYesNoYesYesYesYes
Electric tailgateYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
SunroofYesYesOptionYesYesYesYesYesYesOption
Roof railsYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
HeadlightsLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLED
Dusk sensorsYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Tail-lightsLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLEDLED
Proximity keyYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Interior
Seat trimLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeatherLeather
Centre screen8.0-inch7.0-inch8.0-inch8.0-inch8.0-inch7.0-inch8.7-inch8.0-inch7.0-inch9.2-inch
Sat navYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Apple CarPlayYesYesYesNo (soon)YesNoYesYesYesYes
Android AutoYesYesYesNo (soon)YesNoYesYesYesYes

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