STAND TALL

CAR OF THE YEAR: PICK OF THE FAM­ILY SUVS

Mercury (Hobart) - - MOTORING - DAVID McCOWEN

Tackle the peaks or ride high stylishly — this trio meets the brief

High-rid­ing SUVs com­bine space with su­pe­rior vi­sion and the prom­ise — or il­lu­sion — of ad­ven­ture. They are more pop­u­lar than pas­sen­ger cars and buy­ers are spoiled for choice.

This year was rel­a­tively quiet for fam­ily SUVs, but for the ar­rival of Toy­ota’s best-sell­ing RAV4. Now avail­able in hy­brid form, the RAV4 brings fuel sav­ings in a more de­sir­able pack­age than the Camry sedan — and it’s sell­ing like hot­cakes.

At the other end of the spec­trum is the new Citroen C5 Air­cross, a niche ve­hi­cle that sells on style and in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Our third com­bat­ant is the up­dated Land Rover Dis­cov­ery Sport with seven seats, Range Rover-in­spired looks and all-wheel drive.

We com­pared them us­ing our Car of the Year cri­te­ria — value for money, per­for­mance, de­sign, tech­nol­ogy and safety — to come up with a Car of the Year cat­e­gory win­ner and fi­nal­ist.

LAND ROVER DIS­COV­ERY

If you’re go­ing to do the SUV thing, you might as well do it prop­erly. That’s the pitch from Land Rover, which equips ev­ery model with all-wheel drive as well as mul­ti­ple driv­ing modes tuned to suit vary­ing ter­rain, and driver aids such as hill de­scent con­trol.

The Disco Sport looks smart in­side and out with fresh lights, bumpers and a re­worked cabin with 10-inch widescreen dis­play. Priced from $60,500 plus on-roads — about $68,500 drive­away — the en­try-level Land Rover tested is avail­able with clever tech such as the widescreen dash and head-up dis­play, wear­able Fit­Bit-like “ac­tiv­ity key”, 360-de­gree cam­era, wire­less charg­ing and dual-zone cli­mate con­trol. Build­ing on a fairly ba­sic spec sheet, all these are op­tions from a long and ex­pen­sive list.

You get au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing, smart keys and a re­vers­ing cam­era with front and rear sen­sors.

It wins points with three rows of seats in a cabin stocked with a to­tal of nine USB and 12V out­lets to keep gad­gets on the go. In­te­rior ma­te­ri­als feel a cut above what you’ll find in cheaper cars, though our test model had a squeaky sun­roof and loose stitch­ing on the steer­ing wheel.

The most af­ford­able Disco is pow­ered by a 2.0-litre turbo (147kW/320Nm). Claimed 8.1L/100km fuel econ­omy is made pos­si­ble by the frus­trat­ingly laggy idle-stop set-up.

It’s a quiet en­gine with ad­e­quate if not im­pres­sive grunt and it isn’t helped by the nine­speed auto, which can be in­de­ci­sive.

Sim­i­lar in size to pop­u­lar main­stream mod­els such as the RAV4, the Disco is no­tice­ably heav­ier on the road and that weight results in a planted though some­what firm ride.

It leans in the bends and asks a lot of its tyres

when cor­ner­ing. The com­par­a­tively gen­er­ous ground clear­ance will be use­ful off-road.

CITROEN C5 AIR­CROSS

Citroen has been known for plush sus­pen­sion for decades and noth­ing has changed with the C5 Air­cross. This medium SUV has “pro­gres­sive hy­draulic cush­ions sus­pen­sion”, rally-bred tech­nol­ogy that trans­lates to a sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able ride.

Weigh­ing in 465kg lighter than the Dis­cov­ery and 250kg less than the Toy­ota, the Citroen has physics on its side. Light steer­ing adds to the walk­ing-on-air sen­sa­tion and keen driv­ers will be im­pressed with its dy­nam­ics away from the school run.

It also has to make do with the least pow­er­ful en­gine here, a 1.6-litre turbo with 121kW/240Nm peak out­puts and 7.9L/100km claimed thirst.

Just as it has the most com­fort­able sus­pen­sion and least pow­er­ful en­gine, there are sweet and sour points to the Citroen ex­pe­ri­ence.

Its dig­i­tal screen in front of the driver is both leg­i­ble and fu­tur­is­tic, which is a high point. You have to use the cen­tral in­fo­tain­ment screen for ba­sic tasks such as tem­per­a­ture ad­just­ment, which an­noys.

The seats look great but give min­i­mal sup­port through corners. The rear seat is com­fort­able but has only one power out­let.

It has a five-year war­ranty but nearly dou­bles the Toy­ota’s ser­vic­ing costs (there is a cur­rent deal with three years’ free main­te­nance, worth $1728).

It presents as good value at $39,990 plus on­roads (about $44,200 drive-away) but cru­cially misses out on a five-star ANCAP safety rat­ing due to a lack of vul­ner­a­ble road-user pro­tec­tion.

We also took is­sue with the six-speed au­to­matic, which proved lumpy around town. The hy­per­ac­tive trac­tion con­trol scup­pered swift get­aways.

TOY­OTA RAV4

Rapid es­capes are a strong point for the RAV4 Hy­brid, thanks to 160kW of com­bined power from the 2.5-litre four-cylin­der en­gine mated to an elec­tric mo­tor.

You’ll also go fur­ther be­fore hav­ing to stop for fuel, thanks to the im­pres­sive 4.7L/100km claimed fuel econ­omy — which you can match in the real world.

The Toy­ota ticks a lot of boxes. It’s the cheap­est to ser­vice, has the most spa­cious rear seat (with twin USB ports) and a huge boot that matches the Citroen’s.

It gets full marks from the safety po­lice, build­ing on mod­ern ba­sics such as au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing and blind spot mon­i­tor­ing with ac­tive cruise con­trol, rear cross-traf­fic alert and lane de­par­ture warn­ing — gear that’s ei­ther un­avail­able or op­tional in the Land Rover and Citroen.

So what’s not to love?

The cabin is some­what plain, lack­ing the de­sign flair or lux­ury fin­ish of the ri­vals. It’s nois­ier on the road de­spite hav­ing a quiet hy­brid en­gine and the ride is a lit­tle firm.

Wheel­spin un­der heavy throt­tle in­puts can make the two-wheel drive ver­sion tested here feel rowdy but you can fix that by pay­ing more for an all-paw vari­ant.

The RAV4 missed out on Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid auto at launch but, as with the Land Rover and Citroen, the tech is stan­dard now.

It’s priced from $38,140 plus on-roads, or about $42,500 drive-away.

That’s if you can get one. Another mark against the RAV4 GXL Hy­brid is that Toy­ota has strug­gled to se­cure suf­fi­cient sup­ply.

You can col­lect a Disco Sport or Citroen this week­end but you might have to wait a while be­fore tak­ing home a Toy­ota.

THE LOW­DOWN

Pick the Land Rover if you want to use an SUV for more than the school run and try the Citroen if you want to stand out from the crowd. The RAV4 works if you want to play it safe. We’ll re­veal our win­ner next week, when the best cars in each class come to­gether for the final test.

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