TMR 'Family SUV' Comparison Test Photo:
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Tony O'Kane | Jul, 29 2012 | 35 Comments


Once the preserve of off-road enthusiasts, the SUV - softer types in the main - has become the vehicle of choice for families.

And, if you believe the images in the ads, the pitch is as much to city buyers and narrow lanes into nightspots, as it is to sand-dunes, abseiling and the great outdoors.

But, whichever, the focus is on fun and lifestyle.

And whether the need is to tow the jet ski or haul the family to and from the school gates (or both), SUV buyers have an abundance of models to choose from in this booming segment.

Including prestige models, there’s a whopping 73 distinct model lines across all SUV categories, in a range of sizes and off-road capabilities.

Factor in the multitude of trim grades, drivetrain configurations and engine choices available for each, and there are literally hundreds of SUVs to choose from.

We joined Motoring.com.au to put six light-duty AWD models through their paces - two small SUVs and four mid-sizers. These two categories together account for a large proportion of SUV sales (although the large category still outsells both).

The cars we selected vary widely in their abilities, both on and off road. But, to keep the fight fair, we selected models with all-wheel drive, an automatic transmission and a turbodiesel four-cylinder engine.

As we did in our Small Car Comparo, we’ve placed the cars in descending order of popularity according to year-to-date sales figures.

However, unlike the Small Car category, we found that that there was a much closer correlation between sales numbers and vehicle quality in the SUV segment.


Model Tested: Nissan X-Trail TS

  • Price: $37,990
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo diesel I4
  • Output: 110kW/320Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic
  • Fuel/CO2: 7.4L/100km / 196g/km

Nissan’s X-Trail has been the dominant player in the medium SUV market for 2012, outselling its closest rival (the petrol-only Toyota RAV4) by nearly 800 units.

It’s not hard to see why. Besides the appeal of its boxy exterior styling, the X-Trail also enjoys a big, family-friendly boot and healthy levels of standard equipment.

Its 2.0 litre turbo diesel may not be the most powerful or most torquey engine here, but it has ample grunt when out on the road.

It’s comfortable too. The suspension tune is soft enough to iron out potholes and deep corrugations, and the tall ground clearance (209mm) saw the X-Trail dispatch the off-road portion of the test without ever having parts of its undercarriage contact the dirt.

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On-road performance is hampered by excessive body roll and heavy pitching under braking, but the X-Trail really comes into its own once the tarmac runs out.

LIke others in this group, the X-Trail is not for the fire trail or sand dune.

But it can comfortably go some way off road. Traction on mud and loose gravel was best in this group, and we rarely felt the need to lock the drivetrain in 4x4 mode.

First gear is also low enough to provide meaningful engine braking on steep descents.

Build quality is excellent, with tough, high-quality plastics throughout the cabin. The boot floor is hard plastic too, though, which allows cargo to slide around easily.

Cabin comfort is a mixed bag. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and outward vision is excellent thanks to the generous glasshouse and high seating position.

The back seats aren’t so spacious, with limited knee room for bigger adults. Headroom is outstanding though, thanks to that big boxy shape.

The velour upholstery appears hard-wearing and the face-level rear air vents are a big plus for a family vehicle.

Families will also appreciate the X-Trail’s large boot, which measures 433 litres with the seats up. It also boasts the widest hatch opening and greatest depth in this line-up.

Alongside the fold-out shopping bag hooks, 12 volt power outlet and tie-down points, the X-Trail’s nifty under-floor storage drawer is also a handy feature - unless you need to dig out the space-saver spare that lives beneath it.

It’s noisy though, diesel clatter penetrates the cabin at all engine speeds.

All up, the X-Trail feels a lot more utilitarian than its competitors - especially the profoundly car-like Mazda CX-5.

TMR Star-rating: 4/5


Model Tested: Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport

  • Price: $39,040
  • Engine: 2.2-litre turbo diesel I4
  • Output: 129kW/420Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic
  • Fuel/CO2: 5.7L/100km / 149g/km

Mazda has built a reputation for the handling of its cars, and the CX-5 is proof of this.

On the road, the CX-5 impressed us with its grip, steering feel and turn-in response. Nissan might think soggy on-road handling is okay for an SUV, but Mazda shows the way with its delightfully sharp CX-5.

Performance from its 2.2 litre SkyActiv diesel also pleased us. With the highest torque output in this group, the CX-5 leaps forward with gusto whenever the accelerator is prodded, and it has no problem dispatching steep hills.

Its six-speed automatic is also well-matched to this powertrain, with a good spread of ratios and shift mapping that pretty much negates the need to ever use the manual shift feature.

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Off road, the firmer suspension set-up of the Mazda gave it a slightly jittery ride over corrugations, yet it had no trouble maintaining traction on slipperier sections of the track - largely due to its finely-calibrated stability control.

Ground clearance is on the low side at 150mm, and a low-hanging front lip means the CX-5 is best kept away from rougher terrain.

Fuel economy is a strong suit of the Mazda. Start-stop is standard on the CX-5, and Mazda’s SkyActiv diesel engine employs a host of fuel-saving features to reduce its thirst. It excels in refinement too, with buttery smoothness through its rev range and very little noise.

The cabin’s black-on-black colour scheme is pretty bleak, however high-quality materials lift the ambience somewhat. We had no complaints about the driving position, and the back seat was one of the more spacious in this test.

There’s no rear ventilation though, and the high beltline means smaller children may struggle to see outside.

Equipment levels are generous, and the CX-5 gets big points for value-for-money. Sat nav, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera, smart key entry and ignition are all standard, as is the Bluetooth audio and phone integration.

A USB input is also provided for external media players, and a 12-volt power outlet in the boot means a portable fridge can be carried. Measuring in at 403 litres, the CX-5’s got enough boot space for family use.

TMR Star-rating: 4.5/5


Model Tested: Holden Captiva 5

  • Price: $33,990
  • Engine: 2.2 litre turbo diesel I4
  • Output: 135kW/400Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic
  • Fuel/CO2: 8.5L/100km / 224g/km

The Holden Captiva is a real mixed bag. On the one hand, its build quality is so behind the rest of its competitors that it feels every bit as cheap as its price tag suggests. On the other, it actually rides quite well on the road and has a powerful, willing turbodiesel.

But overall the Captiva 5 has too many negatives and not enough positives.

The front seats are wide, comfortable pews that give decent comfort, but the steering column is adjustable for tilt only - something that’s hard to forgive in a non-commercial vehicle.

Switchgear and cabin plastics are also sub-par for quality, and the centre stack’s button layout is fiddly and confusing.

There’s no Bluetooth phone integration, nor USB audio inputs - another negative when most SUVs now bristle with connectivity options.

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The rear seat squab is also quite short, and kneeroom is very limited. Rear headroom is at least decent, and the rear backrest adjusts for recline.

Boot space is generous, and at 430 litres only slightly smaller than the X-Trail.

Two cubby holes either side of the floor help secure smaller items, and a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo area is standard.

On the road, the Captiva 5 has solid, predictable handling and good resistance to body roll, as well as strong brakes and good steering feel.

Off road, however, the Holden’s drivetrain falls flat.

There’s no means of locking the drivetrain in AWD mode and little in the way of engine braking when descending steep grades in low gear.

The Captiva’s drivetrain normally operates in front wheel-drive mode until slip is detected, but during the off-road component of our test it lost all traction the instant a wheel was cocked in the air.

If you’re looking for adventure, the Captiva is bettered in this group.

TMR Star-rating: 2/5


Model Tested: Kia Sportage SLi

  • Price: $35,720
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo diesel I4
  • Output: 135kW/392Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic
  • Fuel/CO2: 7.5L/100km / 198g/km

Kia's Sportage is a solid all-rounder. Power and torque outputs from its turbo diesel engine are the highest out of the 2.0 litre motors in this group, and the engine is smooth and relatively quiet throughout its rev range.

On-road handling is also quite crisp, with good roll resistance and a firm, sportyish ride that generates plenty of grip. The Sportage’s electric power steering has a very vague on-centre feel, but weights up nicely the more you turn it.

Off road the Sportage is a little harder to live with. Chalk that down to a very sharp ride that telegraphs every bump, rock and twig straight to your backside and a ground clearance of 172mm (more than the CX-5’s though)

On loose surfaces, we also found the Sportage’s stability control program to be more intrusive than desirable, cutting power the instant slip was detected. Clearly, Kia doesn’t expect many Sportage owners to stray from sealed roads.

If you get really stuck though, it’s possible to lock the Sportage’s drivetrain in AWD mode - a feature that many in this match-up lacked.

Inside, you’re greeted by an interior that looks remarkably upmarket. There’s fine-grained plastics aplenty (although not too many soft-touch plastics), and the leather-upholstered steering wheel is comfortable to hold.

The backlit instrument panel is clear and easy to read, and every button falls easily to the driver’s hand.

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The cloth upholstery also feels durable, although we have some doubts about how long those grey plastic ovals will stay attached to the fabric.

Comfort-wise, the Sportage is around the middle of the pack. The front seats are commodious and nicely sculpted, and the back seats get excellent legroom, headroom and acceptable shoulder room.

However, there’s no rear seat backrest adjustment, nor are there air-vents for backseaters. The Sportage’s rising beltline also means small kids won’t be able to see much out of the rear windows.

Equipment levels are good, and you get plenty of features for the SLi’s $35,720 asking price. Standard fare is cruise control, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio integration, a USB audio input, keyless entry and ignition and heated wing-mirrors.

There’s also three 12-volt power outlets, as well as a trip computer and multi-function buttons on the steering wheel.

The load area has a wide hatch opening to facilitate the loading of large cargo, but the 60/40 split rear seat doesn’t fold flat.

There is, however, a full-size 17-inch alloy spare under the boot floor - a valuable feature for those who spend a lot of time on the road.

TMR Star-rating: 3.5/5

  • Related News & Reviews at TMR
  • Sportage news and reviews | Kia news and reviews

Model Tested: Volkswagen Tiguan 103TDI

Price: $38,490
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Output: 103kW/320Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed twin clutch automatic
Fuel/CO2: 6.2L/100km / 164g/km

For overall refinement, the Tiguan is hard to beat. It has the best NVH suppression, the quietest engine and much improved low-speed drivability from its wet-clutch seven speed DSG transmission.

It also has the best balance between handling and comfort, and its 4Motion AWD drivetrain delivers good grip on slippery stuff - even despite the shallow tread of the Tiguan’s road-biased rubber.

Performance from the Tiguan’s 2.0 litre turbodiesel is strong, but not as grunty as the Sportage, Captiva or CX-5. It’s fine for motoring around town, but tackling steeper grades with a bit of weight aboard can leave the VW feeling a little breathless.

Steering feel is superb, and the Tiguan’s brakes inspire confidence both on road and off.

Its odd proportions and ultra-conservative styling make it look a little awkward from the outside, but inside you’ll find a very nicely presented interior.

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Material quality is excellent, and the tasteful application of chrome highlights helps offset the blackness of the interior.

Standard upholstery is cloth, but there’s high quality leather on the steering wheel and handbrake lever. Soft-touch plastics are everywhere, and give the Tiguan a more upmarket feel than many of its competitors.

We had no complaints about the Tiguan’s supportive front seats and excellent outward visibility. The back seat, however, is really only for two people. The Tiguan, being a small SUV, lacks the cabin width to comfortably carry three adults across the rear bench.

Still, it’s a comfortable place to be for backseaters, with face-level air vents, good leg room, sizable door bins, a fold-down centre armrest, reclinable backrest and sliding squab.

Even though it’s strictly for two, we rated the Tiguan’s back seat to be the most comfortable and well-featured in this group.

Boot space isn’t the Tiguan’s forte, again because of its smaller footprint. Measuring 395 litres, the Tiguan’s boot would prove a tight squeeze for the average modern pram, although under-floor storage does help its cause a bit.

TMR Star-rating: 3.5/5


Model Tested: Skoda Yeti 103TDI

  • Price: $37,990
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo diesel I4
  • Output: 103kW/320Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed twin clutch automatic
  • Fuel/CO2: 6.7L/100km / 174g/km

Skoda’s character-filled Yeti doesn’t get much love from new car buyers, but that’s not because it’s a terrible product. Indeed, its 2.0 litre turbo diesel (shared with the Tiguan) is near the front of the pack for refinement, and it has solid on-road dynamics.

It’s not too shabby off road either, thanks to its intelligent stability control calibration and grippy Haldex AWD drivetrain with electronic differential lock. It’s a little hamstrung by a shortage of ground clearance, but it’s capable enough to deal with mild off-road tracks.

Yeti’s six-speed twin clutch automatic is borrowed from the previous-generation Tiguan and can bang out lightning-fast shift shifts.

However, its low-speed engagement can be a bit jerky at times, which can be a liability when the going gets slow on tricky bush trails.

On the tarmac it delivers good performance, but ultimately the new seven-speed DSG in the Tiguan has far better low-speed driveability.

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The Yeti, like the Tiguan, is rather compact inside. While front seat space is adequate, the rear bench lacks the width to fit three people across it with any degree of comfort.

Headroom is excellent however, and the inclusion of rear air vents is a welcome one.

The back seats can also be removed to boost cargo capacity, which helps offset its very small 322 litre seats-up boot volume. A boot-mounted 12-volt outlet is also standard in the Yeti.

Interior quality is good, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, gear shifter and handbrake, as well as soft-touch surfaces on most key touch points. There’s a lot of black plastics, but it’s neatly broken up by silver-painted trim and chrome highlights.

Mazda could definitely learn a lesson from Skoda on how to brighten up a drab interior.

Dual-zone climate control, cruise control, auto-on headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and Bluetooth integration are alls standard features, however a USB audio input is notably absent. Rear parking sensors would be a welcome addition too, given the Yeti’s limited over-the-shoulder vision.

TMR Star-rating: 3/5


SUV Comparo Verdict

Its commendable off-road abilities makes the X-Trail the best choice for those chasing the outdoors.

It’s nowhere near as civilised as the other contenders, but with so many buyers now parking a new X-Trail in their garage, we’re willing to bet that doesn’t hurt its appeal.

But if things like cabin comfort, refinement and on-road performance are more important than towing capacity or ground clearance, then we’d recommend the CX-5 Maxx Sport as the best buy of this group.

It’s the most expensive vehicle here, but it’s also the best value considering its fat standard equipment list, outstanding handling, grunty turbodiesel and overall refinement.

The CX-5’s cabin is both comfortable and spacious, with only the lack of rear passenger air vents being irksome. It’s not too shabby off the beaten track either, but with the lowest ground clearance in this group, off-road forays are best limited to well groomed trails.

The Sportage and Tiguan are also solid choices, although with the Sportage’s substantial price advantage we have to put it slightly ahead of the VW.

The Kia also has a far more commodious boot, however if you’ve got a couple of kids we’d have to say that they’d be a lot more comfortable in the back of a Tiguan.

The Skoda Yeti is a fine product in its own right, but it needs to be substantially cheaper than the Tiguan if it’s to have any hope of getting meaningful sales volume.

As with the Tiguan, it’s a comfortable car for all of its occupants (as long as there’s no more than four), but its small boot is a bit of a liability.

That leaves the Holden Captiva 5 at the back of the pack. It’s got a strong engine, decent on-road handling and a very sharp price point, but it lacks modern features like Bluetooth, lacks refinement and suffers from an interior that feels overwhelmingly cheap.

There might be over $5000 difference between the asking price for the Captiva and the CX-5, but really it’s no contest. The CX-5 is well worth the expense; the old adage rings true here: you get what you pay for.


Our ranking

  1. Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport
  2. Nissan X-Trail TS
  3. Kia Sportage SLi
  4. Volkswagen Tiguan 103 TDI
  5. Skoda Yeti 103 TDI
  6. Holden Captiva 5

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