Compared: High-riding, spacious wagons for school runs and getaways
SUVs are on track to overtake sales of passenger cars for the first time in Australian automotive history.
Sales for SUVs grew by an astonishing 19.5 per cent in January, while passenger vehicle deliveries dropped by 11.5 per cent.
Taller driving positions, greater comfort, more cargo room and easier access are all factors in the SUV fad.
The majority of sales are of the more affordable frontwheel-drive versions — indistinguishable apart from the badges, they are used mostly as high-riding hatchbacks.
But we’ve chosen the more expensive all-wheel-drive versions of the all-new Kia Sportage and the recently facelifted Toyota RAV4 , lining them up against the benchmark and class leader, Mazda’s CX-5.
We selected the petrol variants, because in this class and with the new levels of petrol engine efficiency, the diesel option doesn’t make as much sense as it does in the bigger SUV categories.
The starting price for an AWD Kia Sportage has climbed by $9000 on the just-released new model. The top-of-the-line Platinum petrol starts at $43,490 plus on-road costs. Metallic paint adds $520.
Kia has rationalised its range, adding more affordable front-drive petrol models (see breakout), which is why the Kia is $8200 dearer than the CX-5 and $6500 dearer than the RAV4 tested.
For that outlay, you get the works. The Platinum spec brings satnav, panoramic glass sunroof, leather seats with electric adjustment for driver and front passenger, sports steering wheel, wireless phone charging, larger alloy wheels, full-size spare, brighter headlights, LED fog lights and rear privacy glass.
The Platinum also gains the full suite of Kia safety technology, including blind spot warning, lane departure warning, automated parking and automatic emergency braking.
Then there is Kia’s formidable and industryleading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
Downsides? The price of capped price servicing climbs dramatically after three years (the fourth year service alone is $747), and the safety tech is not available on lesser grades, as it is on the Toyota and Mazda.
The quality of the materials is excellent, the instrument display (with a digital speedo in the middle, the only one here with such a driver aid) is bright and clear, and comfort in general is excellent.
As with all these SUVs, the Kia has ample oddment storage in the doors, centre console and glovebox. But it has the smallest cargo area of this trio, in part due to its sloping roofline.
The Kia felt slightly more sure-footed than the others on the dirt but around town and on freeways was on par.
Overall, the Platinum is another step forward for the brand, even if it is slightly less of a revelation than the stablemate Sorento sevenseater, the reigning Carsguide Car of the Year.
It’s Australia’s top-selling SUV of all time — there are more than 250,000 RAV4s on Australian roads. The facelifted model with sharp new looks arrived in late 2015 and it currently ranks third on the sales charts.
Toyota, the king of off-road, has dramatically increased the number of models and options within the RAV4 range. If this particular one is not for you, then there is bound to be another to suit.
We have the $36,990 GXL, the second model up in the AWD petrol range, distinguished by fancy-looking 18-inch alloy wheels that we thought were optional at first.
Th RAV4’s new nose is a conspicuous part of the facelift but the changes to the interior are more subtle.
Standard equipment is fairly basic, including dual zone aircon, rear privacy glass, sensor key, rain sensing wipers and fog lights. A rear-view camera is standard but navigation is optional on the GXL.
Toyota spent some time and money fettling the suspension to make it handle bumps and bends a little better. It’s a shame more wasn’t done to keep tyre noise out of the cabin.
On the plus side the RAV4 is by far the roomiest here and has the biggest cargo area, the cheapest capped price servicing (although visits are 6 months/10,000km, whichever comes first), and has the highest ground clearance of this trio, should you venture beyond a fire trail.
The lack of a full-size spare wheel is the only significant downside to the RAV4. But it’s not alone in this regard.
This has been Australia’s favourite compact SUV for the past three years in a row. Mazda gave the CX-5 a minor makeover in January last year, with a nip and tuck on the nose and a slightly revised interior.
As the saying goes, if it ain't broke don’t fix it. The Mazda needed little to keep it ahead of the pack. But 12 months on and the Mazda’s rivals have started to close the gap. The CX-5 is still an excellent proposition but it doesn’t have the lead it once did.
Standard fare on the $35,790 CX-5 Maxx Sport tested includes the same equipment as the RAV4 GXL but navigation is standard. A $1230 optional safety pack includes blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and automatic emergency braking.
The Mazda was the perkiest of the three SUVs in our uphill 0-100km/h test (ahead of the RAV4, then the Sportage) but the others are now close to having the measure of the Mazda in twists and turns.
The steering in the Mazda feels marginally better and the car feels slightly more planted on the road, but it’s a fair bet few will pick the difference between the three in a test drive around the block.
On the open road, the Mazda was a little firmer over bumps than the Toyota and Kia, and tyre noise was slightly louder than the others on coarse surfaces.
But the CX-5 is still a class act, with a roomy cargo area and user-friendly interior with ample oddment storage.
Downsides? Capped price servicing is done at 10,000km intervals (on average that works out to be every nine months) and there is only a space-saver spare in the boot.
The Kia Sportage Platinum was the car the judges would have preferred to drive away. It’s another step forward for the brand and the pioneering seven-year warranty sweetens the deal.
But once price is taken into consideration, it’s a different result. If Kia had an all-wheeldrive offering at the price of the others, it may have been a different outcome.
That leaves the two titans of the compact SUV class: the Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4.
Toyota has made marked improvements to the facelifted RAV4, and it’s the roomiest here and the cheapest to run.
But the Mazda has more equipment for less money and has the edge when it comes to driving enjoyment.