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2013 Medium SUV Comparison Review: Kuga, CR-V, CX-5, Forester, RAV4 Photo:
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Haitham Razagui | Jul, 04 2013 | 27 Comments

2013 TMR MEDIUM SUV COMPARISON REVIEW

Models Tested: Ford Kuga Trend, Honda CR-V VTi-S, Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport, Subaru Forester 2.5i, Toyota RAV4 GXL.

Photos: John Wilson and Rene Mitchell-Pitman.

 

OVERVIEW

The boom in sales of mid-sized SUVs continues. Family buyers seem sold on the combination of image, practicality and the promise of adventure that these jacked-up wagons offer.

Since our last family SUV comparison a year ago, three of the top sellers – the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 – have been replaced with new-gen models.

Mazda has also fitted a larger, more powerful petrol engine to the CX-5 (which won our comparo last year in diesel form), and Ford hopes to shake up the segment with its all-new European-built Kuga.

We joined Motoring.com.au to pit the three refreshed members of Australia’s medium SUV establishment head-to-head against the newcomer Kuga and bigger-engined CX-5.

All models tested were priced in the $33-38,000 bracket, which meant petrol engines, all-wheel drive, automatic transmissions and respectable levels of equipment.

 

The Formula

This type of light-duty SUV is unlikely to venture far off the beaten track, so bitumen and gravel/dirt road performance were taken into account, including how the cars accelerated, braked and cornered when faced with both conditions.

Safety is high on the agenda for family car buyers, so features that prevent accidents and reduce harm in a collision were considered.

We also assessed each model’s level of equipment, quality of fit and finish and value for money.

In alphabetical order, here is the wrap-up on each contender.

 

2013 Ford Kuga Trend

Price: $36,240 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 134kW/240Nm 1.6 turbocharged 4cyl | 6spd SelectShift auto
Fuel/CO2: 7.7 l/100km / 179g/km
ANCAP rating: 5 Stars
Boot capacity: 406 litres/1603 litres

Quality and Features

The Kuga’s interior feels loaded with equipment, ultra-modern and sporty – if not especially classy – with its multitude of buttons, intersecting angles, two colour screens and sculpted, funky-looking part-leather upholstery.

Its steering wheel looks leather but feels more like rubber and the angular, and the cruise control toggles are wobbly – but at least the indicator stalk is on the right, unusual for European-sourced Fords.

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The front seats are more comfortable than the Mazda’s but not up to the standard of the Toyota, though the electric driver’s seat adjustment is a welcome premium feature.

Along with the CX-5, the Kuga offers the least rear-legroom of the cars tested but interior storage options are large and numerous.

The rear seats are quite hard, especially the central position, but visibility is good, there are air-vents and a 12v socket in the back and the central arm-rest is kitted out with cup-holders.

Of the cars tested, the Kuga had the most interior rattles and creaks, which detracted from an otherwise solid-feeling cabin.

A plus though is the Kuga’s emergency assist system which automatically contacts emergency services through a Bluetooth-paired phone in the event of a crash (just as well pairing a phone is simple).

While the Ford was the only car here with DAB+ digital radio, it was also alone in coming without a reversing camera, with an audible and visual parking sensor system instead.

Performance and Handling

Given how well Ford’s 2.0-litre EcoBoost engine works in the Falcon and Mondeo sedans, the 1.6-litre unit in the Kuga disappoints with turbo lag and an underpowered feel.

The six-speed torque-converter SelectShift automatic transmission does little to help, and its rocker button on the side of the selector knob is one of the daftest manual override methods we have seen.

For freeway cruising and around-town work, the engine is quiet and refined once it warms up, but vibrates when cold.

Despite having the smallest engine, the 1675kg Kuga was the heaviest car in the group and by far the least fuel-efficient during testing.

On the plus side, incredibly sharp steering for an SUV gives the Kuga the fluid and natural feel of a driver’s car. It grips well, body roll is minimal and the well-judged steering provides ample feedback.

That said, there is a twitchiness about the Kuga that makes it more difficult to drive smoothly around fast corners than the CX-5, not helped by the laggy engine and dozy transmission.

On dirt and gravel the Kuga feels balanced but when the tail starts to slide the abrupt intervention of the stability control unceremoniously snatches the vehicle back into line. The CX-5 and Forester work more subtly with the driver to correct slides.

Ford has engineered the Kuga with a firm ride and it was the tautest of the pack, partly due to wearing the widest, lowest-profile tyres of the cars on test, causing lots of road noise on coarse-chip surfaces.

It has a well-damped feel over larger bumps, in a similar way to the CX-5 in this regard, but the Mazda delivers great handling without such compromised comfort.

Safety

Rated 5-Stars in ANCAP crash testing with a class-leadng 36.33 points out of a possible 37, the Kuga comes with seven airbags, including full-length side curtains and one for the driver’s knee.

Anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control help keep it out of harm’s way and Ford’s in-built automatic emergency assistance system is a peace of mind bonus.

  • Related News & Reviews at TMR
  • Kuga | Ford
 

2013 Honda CR-V VTi-S

Price: $36,290 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 140kW/222Nm 2.4 4cyl | 5spd auto with paddles
Fuel/CO2: 8.7 l/100km / 201g/km
ANCAP rating: 5 Stars
Boot capacity: 556 litres/1648 litres

Quality and Features

There is something amiss with the driving position in the CR-V: get the wheel into a comfortable position and the backrest angle feels wrong; move the seat forward and the knees collide with the centre console.

Also, the Honda’s cabin is full of scratchy, hard, grey plastics, with a questionable attempt at breaking the monotony in the form of a trim-strip said to be inspired by the marbled pattern of Kobe beef.

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However the overall layout is attractive enough and Honda’s audio and sat-nav system is the best-integrated of the cars tested.

Practicality is a plus, with a big bin beneath the central armrest, three cupholders up front, small recesses on the centre console and large dual-tier door bins, with smaller ones for rear passengers.

The rear bench is flat and unsupportive but there’s plenty of leg and shoulder room, a reclining backrest, flat floor, a bright and airy environment, rear air-vents and a wide central armrest with built-in cupholders.

The second-biggest boot on test after the RAV4 had an easy-to-use luggage blind, two bag hooks, four tie-down points and a 12v outlet.

Performance and Handling

Honda lags the pack with its dated five-speed automatic, which has a short first gear and very tall second.

This makes driving on twisty, hilly roads a chore as the engine struggles in second gear while first is simply too low to be useful.

When in its sweet spot however, the CR-V’s engine feels the most responsive of the five cars tested, with a real point-and-squirt feel and instant urge.

In typical Honda fashion, the engine revs sweetly, has a noticeable step-up in power around 4000rpm, and is quiet and smooth in operation.

That said, it lacks low-down torque. At 222Nm, it offers the least grunt of the group, although its 140kW is the most powerful.

The CR-V has the lightest steering of the cars tested and initial response is slow. Thankfully, this sharpens up nicely in tighter corners, if lacking feel and feedback.

It also has the least grip on bitumen – the Bridgestone Dueler tyres are quick to squeal in protest – and the most body-roll of this group. Noticeable too is that the seats lack lateral support when cornering quickly.

However, while it is the least dynamically pleasing from the wheel, the CR-V’s soft compliant ride makes it the most settled and stable of this pack on gravel and dirt roads.

The comfortable ride will also be appreciated by passengers.

Safety

The CR-V comes with six airbags, including front-side and full-length curtains, and has 5-Star ANCAP crash-test rating, scoring 35.91 out of 37 overall.

A reversing camera, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control are standard.

  • Related News & Reviews at TMR
  • CR-V | Honda
 

2013 Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport

Price: $36,620 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 138kW/250Nm 2.5 4cyl | 6spd auto
Fuel/CO2: 7.4 l/100km / 172g/km
ANCAP rating: 5 Stars
Boot capacity: 403 litres/1560 litres

Quality and Features

The CX-5’s solid cabin, simple presentation and great-feeling switchgear adds up to a premium quality feel that belies its price point.

Compared with the RAV4, the Mazda’s steering wheel is not as pleasant to hold however and the Toyota also pips the Mazda for upholstery quality, driving position and seat comfort.

In addition to an all-round lack of thigh support and the unusual front seat squab angle, the CX-5 is one of the least spacious in the back, especially for headroom, and there are no reclining seats nor vents for rear passengers.

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Legroom in the back is slightly better than the cramped Kuga, but the rear-seat experience is rather claustrophobic.

Also, the rear door trims are of significantly lower quality than those in the front and the Mazda has the smallest boot in this set.

Further harming practicality are the smallest door bins on test, with all four suitable for drinks bottles only. Overall the CX-5 offers the least interior storage options.

Otherwise, instruments are clear and clean, and, despite lacking a digital speed readout, the multi-function trip computer display would not look out of place in a European luxury car.

Standard sat-nav and a generously-sized, easy-to-use touch-screen audio system with great sound quality, add to the high-end ambience.

Performance and Handling

With its new 2.5-litre petrol engine, the CX-5 has the strongest, most flexible drivetrain combination of the group – and the most economical under testing by a clear margin.

The engine is grunty, revs cleanly and remains quiet until high revs, at which point it becomes quite sonorous, while the six-speed automatic transmission is quick and slick with well-spaced ratios.

Preferring to use the engine’s torque, the transmission is not as keen to kick down as the others and quickly gets into the highest gear possible to keep revs and fuel consumption low.

Steering weight, feel and feedback are the best of this test.

When cornering, the CX-5 provides plenty of grip and stability, resists body-roll and has a neutral feel that boosts confidence.

On dirt and gravel the CX-5 is not as benign as the CR-V but less twitchy than the Kuga and with the stability control calibrated to work progressively (rather than being snatchy like the Ford or in the heavy-handed way of the Toyota).

Compared with the edgier and more sporting Kuga, the CX-5 is more linear and measured in the way it handles. The best handler of this bunch, it can be thrown around in a way few SUVs can, making it more fun to drive than most small hatchbacks.

Paybacks are high levels of tyre noise (similar to the Kuga) and on gravel roads a lot of pinging of stones on the undercarriage can be heard.

While the ride is firm, it is extremely well damped.

Safety

Apart from the benefits of excellent handling and grip, the CX-5 comes with front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags plus standard anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control and a reversing camera.

With an overall score of 35.1 out of 37, ANCAP awarded the Mazda a maximum 5-Stars for safety.

  • Related News & Reviews at TMR
  • CX-5 | Mazda
 

2013 Subaru Forester 2.5i

Price: $32,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 126kW/235Nm 2.5 4cyl | CVT auto with paddles
Fuel/CO2: 8.1 l/100km / 187g/km
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars
Boot capacity: 405 litres/1457 litres

Quality and Features

On first glance the Forester’s conservative cabin, with its large swathe of soft-touch dashboard covering, has more premium feel than the plasticy CR-V.

But closer inspection reveals some poorly finished edges in its interior plastics, while much of the switchgear lacks a satisfying action or chunky feeling.

The driving position is high but comfortable, supportive front seats are plus points.

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Also a plus is the most spacious and comfortable rear accommodation in this test (with a reclining backrest and the biggest rear door bins of the group).

Like the CR-V, the Subaru’s large windows and high ceiling add to the sense of space, which is just as well given the lack of rear air-vents.

Of the cars tested, the Forester makes it hardest to pair a phone using Bluetooth, with an illogical menu system on the tiny dash-top screen using a combination of steering wheel buttons and audio unit rotary controls.

The screen has a bewildering number of ways to display fuel consumption data whereas a decent multi-function trip computer in the instrument panel like the CX-5 would be better.

Considering it is $3250 less expensive than the next sharpest priced contender (Kuga), the Subaru’s steel (but reasonably attractive) wheels and single-zone climate control are forgivable downgrades in an otherwise competitive feature list that includes a reversing camera.

Performance and Handling

As the only car in this test with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Forester’s engine is able to work in its power and torque ‘sweet spot’ for more of the time.

This masks a low-rev torque deficiency while also improving responsiveness.

Unlike some CVTs that allow the revs to flare wildly or make a whining sound, the Forester’s keeps things in check – but its engine was among the loudest when pushed.

Like the CR-V, the Forester comes with paddle-shifters, which on the CVT simulate stepped gear ratios – but apart from gaining a little engine-braking for descents, we found the CVT is best left to its own devices.

While testing on hilly terrain, the Forester performed best: the conventional automatics of the other contenders were slower to kick-down to find the right gear or simply lacked the ratios to keep their engines in the ideal rev-range.

On bitumen the Forester has a natural feel to its steering, brakes and accelerator. The steering feels the most linear of this bunch, transmitting more feel and feedback to the driver than the Honda and feeling less vague than the Toyota.

That said, it’s not up to the standards of the Ford and Mazda.

The Forester tends to understeer and lose composure if pushed hard on bitumen, while on dirt and gravel it becomes a tail-happy hooligan, with the stability control allowing a disconcerting amount of slide.

A concern for us when descending Victoria’s Mount Baw Baw at a brisk pace was that we managed to cook the brakes to the point of blue-tinged front discs and smoking pads with just the driver on-board.

The soft suspension set-up and tall stance meant the Forester leans into corners but grips respectably and is dynamically more pleasing than the CR-V.

Its supple superior ride also provides the most comfort for rear passengers in this comparison.

Apart from a gruff engine note when revved, little noise makes its way into the rear of the cabin.

Safety

The Forester scores a 5-Star ANCAP crash-test rating, scoring 35.64 out of 37.

It joins the Kuga and RAV4 in having a driver’s knee-airbag on top of the dual front, front-side and side curtain-airbags.

Anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control are all standard, as is a reversing camera, but we were concerned by the apparent inability of the brakes to deal with heat build-up on long, steep descents.

 

2013 Toyota RAV4 GXL

Price: $37,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 132kW/233Nm 2.5 4cyl | 6spd auto
Fuel/CO2: 8.5 l/100km / 198g/km
ANCAP rating: 5 Stars
Boot capacity: 577 litres / 1866 litres (506/1738 with full-size spare)

Quality and Features

Apart from a creak from the windscreen pillar of our test car, the RAV4 upholds Toyota’s reputation for quality.

Its comfortable seats are trimmed in plush, pleasant-feeling fabric; carpets are top-notch and it also sports this comparo’s best-feeling steering wheel.

It also has the best driving position of the five cars tested.

The RAV4 cabin however appears to have been designed by committee. There are too many colours, shapes and textures, and the lack of soft-touch surfaces is made up for by a contrast-stitched leather-like covering running across the dashboard’s width.

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In typical Toyota style, switchgear is dotted seemingly at random, some of it hidden low down beneath the protruding ventilation control panel or by the driver's knees.

As the most expensive vehicle tested, it is disappointing that the RAV4 has no sat-nav built into the large touch-screen audio system.

The RAV4 has the most interior storage of this set, with a big bin style glovebox (with secondary recess above), a huge compartment beneath the central armrest, three recesses and a cupholder in the centre console plus long front door bins with bottle-holders.

An almost flat floor and among the best rear legroom on test are let down by a lack of rear-vents and a feeling of darkness in the back seat caused by the privacy glass and small windows.

Controls at the sides of the reclining rear bench reduce its width by almost 10 centimetres, meaning shoulder and hip room is tight when travelling three abreast (despite the RAV4 being the widest car tested).

For this reason the RAV4 is in reality only a four-seater when carrying adults.

What would otherwise have been the biggest boot capacity on test is reduced by 71 litres on our test vehicle by a hump in the floor to accommodate the optional full-size spare wheel, which also blocked some lower attachment points for the cargo net.

Performance and Handling

The Toyota’s engine is strong, smooth, refined and quiet and its six-speed automatic transmission is quick to shuffle through the gears.

A slight lag in the transmission prevents the RAV4 from matching the CR-V’s responsive acceleration and the engine is not quite as hushed as the CX-5.

Though the RAV4 copes well with hills, like the Mazda, its transmission tries to rely on the engine’s torquey nature and resists downshifts.

Even in higher-revving Sport mode, it cannot match the Forester’s CVT for flexibility on ascents.

With a firmer ride than the model it replaces, the RAV4 resists body-roll. However, minor bumps are more noticeable than in the soft-riding CR-V and Forester, and it can’t match the sharp handling of the Kuga or CX-5.

The Toyota’s well-weighted steering is preferable to the over-assisted, numb Honda but marred by a vague feel and a tendency to load up under cornering.

Understeer is pronounced when pushing hard and the RAV4 is less grippy and surefooted than the more-neutral CX-5.

The stability control works well on bitumen, but on gravel and dirt – where the RAV4 tends to oversteer – its corrective action can have an over-compensating effect.

Safety

The RAV4 scored 34.56 out of 37 in ANCAP crash testing, earning it 5-Stars.

It comes with a reversing camera, anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control and seven airbags including front-side, full-length curtains and one for the driver’s knee.


 

Medium SUV Comparo Verdict

All the SUVs tested demonstrated impressive all-round abilities, with those most geared toward driving enjoyment – the Mazda CX-5 and Ford Kuga – offering the least interior space.

This makes sense, as younger families are perhaps more likely to value on-road dynamics over practicality, while those with older children may be drawn to the extra legroom of the other contenders.

All models come with respectable levels of equipment and each one comes with the peace of mind of a maximum 5-Star ANCAP safety rating.

And so, in the final analysis, the running order looks like this:

FIRST PLACE: Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport

Mazda has engineered a feel-good factor into the CX-5, and, now with a more powerful petrol engine, has maintained its lead over strong new competition.

It is the most engaging to drive, scores highly for quality, was by far the most fuel-efficient during testing and is good value for money.

Apart from interior and boot space, the Mazda outguns the opposition with a tangible depth of engineering usually reserved for premium brands.


2. Toyota RAV4 GXL: The award for ‘most improved’ over its predecessor goes to the RAV4, which is now far more enjoyable to drive, has a quality feel and offers great practicality.

Toyota manages to keep the whole family happy with a great driving position, decent handling, a strong engine and transmission combination, lots of interior storage, plenty of rear legroom and a big boot.

But it is the most expensive car here and not the best equipped, while the narrow rear bench makes it cramped with three in the back.


3. Ford Kuga Trend: Although Ford was clearly gunning for the CX-5’s mix of premium feel and sharp dynamics, the Kuga is let down by a fussy interior and sporty handling that compromised too much on comfort.

It was also the most cramped in the back, and, although its hi-tech engine matches the others for power and torque on paper, it struggled in the real world. It also used most fuel on this test.

However the Ford redeems itself with good value-for-money and its fun-to-drive nature.


4. Subaru Forester 2.5i: The Forester is the least expensive of the cars tested by a considerable margin, so we forgave its disappointing interior, confusing audio system and apparently weak brakes.

Despite delivering the most comfortable ride, the Forester comes close to the RAV4 in terms of driving pleasure and its transmission covered the engine’s deficiencies well.

The Subaru provides plenty of passenger space in its bright, airy cabin, but despite being the longest car tested, it has the second-smallest boot.


5. Honda CR-V VTi-S: For those who just want spacious family transport, the CR-V does the job well.

However, against these contenders, its driving dynamics, plasticky interior and dreary drivetrain let it down.

A big boot, broad rear seats, comfortable ride and airy cabin will keep passengers happy.

But the poor driving position and a dated automatic transmission that does little to keep the revvy engine in its sweet-spot compromise its driving dynamics.

 
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