Flexibility the key to success for Mazda's popular SUV.

Of all the cars in all the SUV categories in Australia today, we recommend the Mazda CX-5 the most.

The sales numbers back us up, as it's still the country's favourite SUV despite the recent arrival of the smaller CX-3 that is more suitable for younger buyers and nibbling at the edges of the CX-5's appeal, eroding some of its monthly sales results.

What makes the CX-5 so good is that it is designed as a modern family car, with smart pricing from $27,190 and a back-up plan that leverages Mazda's quality reputation in Australia with capped-price servicing and a three-year warranty. It also gets everything from a standard reversing camera to a choice of three engines and either front- or all-wheel drive.

The CX-5 was given a minor facelift and tweak at the start of the year, just to keep it fresh and combat more recent opponents including the all-new Hyundai Tucson.

It's the arrival of the Tucson that drives a CX-5 back into The Tick assessment, to check that the Mazda has not been overrun or overdone by the impressive Hyundai or other long-term rivals including the Ford Kuga, Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail or even the completely revised BMW X1 that's now bigger and more suitable for proper SUV family work than the original with the same name.

The bottom line is simple: the CX-5 still rules.

Mazda could learn some important lessons if it matched the local tuning work by Hyundai and Kia

Lined up head-to-head with the Hyundai it only loses on two fronts, suspension tuning and interior space. I can feel the difference that local suspension tuning makes to the Tucson at any time on any surface, while the South Korean cabin looks and feels a bit more roomy than the Mazda.

Mazda could learn some important lessons if it matched the local tuning work by Hyundai and Kia, which set the import benchmark on things like body control, cornering grip, steering feedback and noise isolation. They build cars which are enjoyable to drive as well as comfortable for long-haul trips along the worst of Australia's roads. But enough about Kia and Hyundai, because the CX-5 is the car we have and the car to have.

This one is a Maxx Sport with all-wheel drive and a 2.5-litre petrol engine. That means the price runs way up to $35,790, but I can see a lot of people — including defectors from the all-wheel drive world at Subaru — ticking the boxes to lift the specification and price to $40,000 on the road.

The basics are as good as I remember, and it's good to get into the 2.5-litre engine. It's not as perky as I expect and there are no paddle-shifters for sports shifts, but once I tweak the Sport button on the centre console it comes alive.

So the baseline setting is all about fuel economy and low emissions, which also means a stop-start system that helps drop my short-haul result to about 9.0L/100km. It could be better, I'm sure, without resorting to some Sports running to make time in the morning commute.

The CX-5 sits easily at suburban speeds and is just as good on the freeway, where it's quiet and comfy.

As I've said, the ride is not as plush or controlled as a Tucson or Sportage but it rides well enough, even on 18-inch alloys.

I'd like some extra support in the shaping of the seats, but the leather-wrapped wheel is great and reminds me of the in-built quality. That's obvious in the sound insulation but also the soft-touch plastics and even the finishing of the seat trims, which is a cut above a South Korean car.

The multimedia screen could be bigger, but it's an "old school" installation that sits in the dash instead of being supported, tablet-style, to allow for a bigger screen and easier updating. The CX-3 and even the new MX-5 show the latest Mazda thinking on that front.

Loading the CX-5 with kids and toys, I'm liking the luggage space and the flexibility and the available space. The six-year old and his mate are not cramped and we have lots of stuff on board.

It is the car for today and beyond

But there's a space-saver spare that cannot be upgraded to a full-sized unit because of the boot design and the maximum tow rating is only 1800kg. That probably means it's restricted to jetskis, a pop-up trailer or a couple of motorcycles.

Still, those are minor things and most people are using their CX-5 for the sort of jobs which used to be the stock-in-trade of a Commodore or Falcon. With a new Holden also in the driveway this week I can see and feel the advantages of the Commodore in cabin space and ride comfort, but the Mazda is the pick for flexibility thanks to the SUV back end.