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Sales losers we love! Mazda CX-5, Hyundai i30, Mitsubishi ASX and Mercedes-Benz C-Class alternatives that deserve more attention

Sales success isn't always a surefire sign that the car in question is best-in-class, as many great alternatives remain ignored.

Welcome to another instalment of ‘Sales losers we love!’ – our occasional look at the cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks we, as professional road-testers, appreciate more than what their meagre sales figures suggest.

This time around, we take a look at an underrated alternative each to the highly regarded and very popular Hyundai i30, Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-5 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

While they may not have made your initial ‘Plan A’ list of models to check out, our ‘Plan Bs’ might even come with a few extra benefits – like ready availability, keener pricing and more equipment for the money – as a result of being overlooked.

It’s a win-win situation, so try these unexpected gems before you buy anything else.

1. PLAN A: Mazda CX-5 Touring AWD (from $40,980 + ORCs) vs PLAN B: Ford Escape ST-Line AWD (from $40,990 + ORCs)

The recently launch new-generation Ford Escape impressed on debut. The recently launch new-generation Ford Escape impressed on debut.

Here’s a fun fact: two decades ago, Mazda’s pre-CX-5 Tribute and the original Ford Escape were fraternal twins, even coming from the same production line in Japan.

Nowadays, they’re fierce rivals, with the CX-5 a perennial favourite, while the Escape languishes as an also-ran. But that’s also one of motoring’s great modern mysteries, because the German-engineered, Spanish-built Ford has long impressed us with its sporty and involving car-like handling, exceptional packaging and high safety levels.

The latest version released in October 2020 builds on these with class-leading performance – it’s a veritable hot-rod among mid-size SUVs thanks to a terrific 2.0-litre turbo powerhouse – as well as striking styling (like a cross between a Porsche Macan and Aston Martin DBX), a thoughtfully presented cabin and heaps of standard features. The athletic ST-Line, meanwhile, sits in as the series’ sweet spot.

Like the divisively named Kuga before it, the Escape is aimed at keener drivers with a taste for premium European engineering but on a mainstream SUV budget. Even when stacked up against rivals with Volkswagen and Mercedes badges, it deserves to be in high contention.

2. PLAN A: Mercedes-Benz C300 (from $74,700 + ORCs) vs PLAN B: Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce (from $71,450 + ORCs)

The Alfa Romeo Giulia played the value card when it introduced its first big update recently. The Alfa Romeo Giulia played the value card when it introduced its first big update recently.

In the past, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class was often the second most popular mid-size sedan in Australia after the Toyota Camry. It also outsells the Alfa Romeo Giulia by more than 20 times over.

Yet for less than the price of the high-flying C300, the Giulia Sport is something very special indeed.

Beneath that voluptuous yet muscular styling is a unique rear-drive platform co-developed with Ferrari to reconnect Alfa Romeo with its true sports-sedan heritage. The resulting performance, steering, handling and roadholding finesse are exquisite, backed up by an immersive tactile experience that brings real joy to driving.

We admit that early Giulias from 2017 disappointed, with frustrating quality issues, an amateurish multimedia system and some missing features undermining what was otherwise Alfa’s best car in decades. But the recently released MY21 Series II facelift addresses these and adds more value, finally providing a reason to take a chance on one of the most exciting sedans available at any price.

If the C-Class is a sedan for the head, then the Giulia is truly for the heart. The Ferrari DNA is all over this immensely special car.

3. PLAN A: Hyundai i30 Active (from $26,920 + ORCs) vs PLAN B: Subaru Impreza 2.0i-L (from $26,190 + ORCs)

The Subaru Impreza has been flying under the radar in its most recent generations. The Subaru Impreza has been flying under the radar in its most recent generations.

Hyundai’s i30 is a sensible and dependable buy, and a towering example of its maker’s global domination ambitions, both in capability as well as market share.

In contrast, the Impreza from minnow Subaru sits on the sidelines, a little lost since the era-defining WRX broke away as a standalone hot-hatch model in the late 2000s.

But the current, fifth-generation iteration launched in late 2016 has quietly stood apart from most rivals, with a sophisticated all-wheel-drive platform bringing advanced safety systems, exceptional strength and brilliant road-holding security across an array of varying weather and driving conditions.

There’s also a sophisticated interior offering plenty of comfort and practicality, excellent build quality and great value for money given the Impreza’s surprisingly low price point. And while the 115kW/196Nm 2.0-litre ‘boxer’ engine powertrain’s initial acceleration isn’t exactly startling, it does provide reassuring economy and easy drivability.

One drawback is the 12-month/12,500km service intervals, which trails the 15,000km-plus suggested by most competitors. Still, the unique and reliable engineering benefits that the Subaru grants makes up for that. Affordable and likeable, today’s Impreza is a most-underrated small car.

4. PLAN A: Mitsubishi ASX ES ADAS (from $27,990 + ORCs) vs PLAN B: Skoda Kamiq 85TSI DSG (from $27,990 + ORCs)

The Skoda Kamiq has proven to be a compelling package since it arrived. The Skoda Kamiq has proven to be a compelling package since it arrived.

Though new to Australia, the Skoda Kamiq has the makings of a class champion – but will consumers see past its silly name?

Based on the same underpinnings as the Volkswagen Polo-derived T-Cross, the related but reimagined Czech version looks and feels altogether different, larger and (some say), better, with a crisply-styled body that offers heaps of space inside for something so compact. That’s a similar formula followed with astounding success by the Mitsubishi ASX, by the way.

But the real shock is just how well equipped the entry-level 85TSI is, with unexpected items like adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, a powered tailgate, wireless smartphone charging, full digitised dashboard and electrically folding mirrors, making the cheapest Kamiq exceptional value for money. A stylishly presented cabin, firm but supportive seats, top-level safety systems and keen handling nicely round things out, while a sweet-shifting six-speed manual will save you a grand.

Even the diminutive 85kW/200Nm 1.0-litre three-pot turbo punches above its weight for both performance and parsimony, even though it requires premium unleaded. And the ride is a tad on the firm side around town.

But otherwise, the Kamiq underlines Skoda’s ultra-competitive intent.