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Matt Campbell
Reviewed & driven by
CarsGuide

25 Jun 2019

Midsize SUVs are a go-to choice for so many Australian new car shoppers out there, and what better way to help you decide which is the best family SUV for you than to go through four of the most important players in the market.

These four medium SUVs all offer the promise of moving you and your family in comfort and safety, with a lashing of luxury and more than a pinch of practicality, too. But which one is the best all-rounder for around $45,000? This comparison test will help you figure it out. 

If you’ve seen our previous mid-sized SUV comparison you’ll know we’ve got back two models again because they came equal first in our last test - the CR-V and CX-5 - but that was in more affordable model grades, and the ones we have for this test are higher up the pecking order.

But this time around we've got the top-spec Honda CR-V VTi-LX, which addresses most of our safety concerns with some of the more affordable models in that range.

And we’ve opted for the higher spec CX-5 GT with the new turbo petrol engine - and this model is still the sales leader in the class.

Third in the mix is the all-new Subaru Forester - it’s our first chance to put this new, fifth-generation model up against its peers, and we’ve got the flagship 2.5i-S model.

And last - but certainly not least - we’ve included the all-new (also fifth-generation) Toyota RAV4 in Cruiser Hybrid guise. It is the only petrol-electric SUV you can get at this price point, and indeed there are models almost ten grand cheaper with the same powertrain.

You'll see by watching our video that myself and CarsGuide family reviewer Nedahl Stelio were the two main critics for this test, but our extensive crew also included CarsGuide editor Malcolm Flynn and a number of other members of the team - Jarryd Sullivan, Mitch Tulk, Matt Pritchard and Rosie Niven.

It was comprehensive - and it was close.

Design

Design is either going to matter to you, or it won’t. If you’re a pragmatist, exterior styling will be of no consequence to the practicality you need in a mid-size SUV. But if the sales figures are anything to go buy, styling is important.

That’s because the Mazda CX-5 has been the country’s best-selling model in this segment for some time now, and it does so well because it looks gorgeous. There is no rugged pretence here (it doesn’t even get roof rails!), but it’s a sleek and pretty vehicle, with beautiful sculpting and maybe-slightly-too-small lighting elements that give it a level of kerb appeal that the others here can’t match.

But, that said, the Honda is also pretty good looking. Its front end is undeniably better than its rear, but for the size of the CR-V, we think it still cuts a pretty neat profile… again, with barely a sniff of ‘off-roader’ to its look.

  • If you want a rugged and tough looking SUV the Toyota RAV4 is the one for you. (image credit: Dean Johnson) If you want a rugged and tough looking SUV the Toyota RAV4 is the one for you. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The RAV4  is an SUV for people want to show off the fact they bought an SUV. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The RAV4 is an SUV for people want to show off the fact they bought an SUV. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The CR-V's front end is undeniably better than its rear. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The CR-V's front end is undeniably better than its rear. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • We think the CR-V still cuts a pretty neat profile. (image credit: Dean Johnson) We think the CR-V still cuts a pretty neat profile. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Mazda CX-5 looks gorgeous. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Mazda CX-5 looks gorgeous. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • There is no rugged pretence here, but it’s a sleek and pretty vehicle. (image credit: Dean Johnson) There is no rugged pretence here, but it’s a sleek and pretty vehicle. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Despite a narrower focus than before, Forester stays true to the capability of its past. Despite a narrower focus than before, Forester stays true to the capability of its past.
  • The latest Forester isn’t as outright extroverted as it was in times gone by. (image credit:  Dean Johnson) The latest Forester isn’t as outright extroverted as it was in times gone by. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

If you want that rugged, tough guy stance, the Toyota RAV4 is the one for you. From its preeminent creases that gleam in the right light, to its chunky truck front end that mimics what you see on some of the bigger Yank Tanks in the company’s range, this is an SUV for people want to show off the fact they bought an SUV.

And that used to be the realm of the Subaru Forester, but in this latest generation it isn’t as outright extroverted as it was in times gone by. It’s a bit slab-sided, and we truly the chrome-coated plastic exterior elements will be done away with when the mid-life update eventuates. It isn’t ugly, but it’s certainly the least pretty of this mix.

What about size? Here’s a table to help you discern how these four models stack up against each other in terms of dimensions.

 

Honda CR-V
VTi-LX

Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
Length4596mm4550mm4600mm4625mm
Wheelbase2660mm2700mm2690mm2670mm
Width1855mm1840mm1855mm1815mm
Height1679mm1680mm1685mm1730mm

All four of these SUVs are five-seaters, but one has the option of seven seats if you need it - that’s the CR-V.

As for interior styling, we’ll let you take a look at the interior photos to see which is your favourite, and in the next section we’ll touch on cabin features and practicality, including rear seat space and boot capacity - size isn’t everything, you know.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX 9
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo8
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid8
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S7

Practicality

We put these four SUVs through their paces with luggage, a pram, baby seats, adults, cups and bottles and more - and there were two models that stood out for outright practicality.

All four models featuring the expected standard inclusions of a touchscreen media system with smartphone mirroring (remember, Toyota says Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be offered on the RAV later in 2019, and people who buy one before then will be able to retrofit the tech at no cost).

The usability of the systems varies, though. The Honda’s screen doesn’t only control media, it also manages the climate control - temperature and fan speed can be adjusted using the knobs, but the mode and air direction are done through the screen. Weird. Also, the sat nav maps are childish, and the screens take a long time to load.

The Mazda’s screen has the option of touch capacity at a standstill, or rotary dial at speed. Everyone on test liked the addition of a rotary controller, though the Mazda’s screen can be slow to get going, too.

  • The Honda's sat nav maps are childish, and the screens take a long time to load. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Honda's sat nav maps are childish, and the screens take a long time to load. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Mazda’s screen has the option of touch capacity at a standstill, or rotary dial at speed. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Mazda’s screen has the option of touch capacity at a standstill, or rotary dial at speed. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Toyota’s screen is easier to navigate through than we’ve seen from the brand in the past. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Toyota’s screen is easier to navigate through than we’ve seen from the brand in the past. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Subaru's screen offers the best responsiveness, the best clarity, the best resolution and the most logical menus and controls. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Subaru's screen offers the best responsiveness, the best clarity, the best resolution and the most logical menus and controls. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

The Toyota’s screen is easier to navigate through than we’ve seen from the brand in the past - and quicker to load, too. But there are still some buttons that are smaller than they should be, though it’s second best overall here.

But the best screen of this mix is the Subaru - it offers the best responsiveness, the best clarity, the best resolution and the most logical menus and controls. It’s almost the best in the entire class (we’d say the VW Tiguan’s system just beats the Forester).

As for cabin design, we liked the rugged elements of the RAV4 (those awesome rubberised knobs, dials and handles) and Forester (with its chunky, purposeful design), while the CR-V’s simple yet elegant look helped it feel a touch more upmarket than those two. But the best for perceived quality and presentation is the CX-5, which was the most expensive feeling inside. And, well, it is the most expensive, so I guess it should.

  • Like its exterior, the interior of the RAV4 has rugged elements. (image credit: Dean Johnson) Like its exterior, the interior of the RAV4 has rugged elements. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Three adults can fit in the back of the RAV4, which is third best for comfort. (image credit: Dean Johnson) Three adults can fit in the back of the RAV4, which is third best for comfort. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The  Forester also has a rugged interior. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Forester also has a rugged interior. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The best application of a large sunroof here is the Subaru, because it barely eats into headroom because of the car’s high ceiling. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The best application of a large sunroof here is the Subaru, because it barely eats into headroom because of the car’s high ceiling. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The CR-V’s simple yet elegant design helped it feel a touch more upmarket. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The CR-V’s simple yet elegant design helped it feel a touch more upmarket. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Honda was by far the most comfortable across the cabin. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Honda was by far the most comfortable across the cabin. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The CX-5 feels the most expensive inside. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The CX-5 feels the most expensive inside. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Mazda offered the worst rear seat comfort. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Mazda offered the worst rear seat comfort. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

All four have cup holders in the centre console and in the backseat armrest, and all have bottle holders in their doors. But for cabin storage, the CR-V’s enormous and configurable centre console bin is a treat, and the Forester’s double map pockets are great, too. The Toyota only has one map pocket in the back, which is weird and inconvenient.

All four have rear USB ports to keep the kids quiet on trips - but the Mazda’s are mounted in the centre armrest, which could deem them useless depending on how full the car is. The others have USBs mounted in back of the centre console section, where you’ll find air vents in all of these models.

Resident dad, Mal Flynn, fitted a rear-facing 0-4 child seat to the back left position of each car - you know, the configuration used for about the first 12 months of driving around with bub - and measured the maximum allowable distance from the front seat (at a comfortable recline angle) to the leading edge of the dashboard. This gives you an indication of how much adult space remains up front, which no doubt surprises many when fitting a child seat for the first time. 

Despite being similar in overall size, there was a full 10cm of space between the space allowed in the CR-V (best) and CX-5 (worst). This was the difference between being very uncomfortable with my knees pressed up against the dash (for my 182cm frame), and comfortable space with room to spare. 

  • A rear-facing 0-4 child seat was fitted to the back left position of each car. (image credit: Dean Johnson) A rear-facing 0-4 child seat was fitted to the back left position of each car. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The RAV4 has rear doors that don’t open up to 90 degrees - meaning loading children or baby seats in the second row is difficult. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The RAV4 has rear doors that don’t open up to 90 degrees - meaning loading children or baby seats in the second row is difficult. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Mal measured the maximum allowable distance from the front seat to the dashboard. (image credit: Dean Johnson) Mal measured the maximum allowable distance from the front seat to the dashboard. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The CR-V is very family friendly. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The CR-V is very family friendly. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • With a baby seat fitted, the Mazda once again offered the worst space. (image credit: Dean McCartney) With a baby seat fitted, the Mazda once again offered the worst space. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • The CX-5 is letdown by its chunky doors. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The CX-5 is letdown by its chunky doors. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Forester was 5cm shorter than the CR-V, placing it third in the group. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Forester was 5cm shorter than the CR-V, placing it third in the group. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Forester has wide opening rear doors. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Forester has wide opening rear doors. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

The RAV4 was second best in this regard, giving up just 2cm to the CR-V, with the Forester in third at 5cm shorter, but both were sufficient compared to the CX-5. 

All four of these SUVs will fit three adults - or two child seats and a baby seat - across the back pew, but the levels of comfort varies. Our width testing trio - myself, Jarryd Sullivan and Mal Flynn - found the Honda was by far the most comfortable across the cabin, with the Subaru again close behind. The Toyota was third best, and - you guessed it - the Mazda was worst, let down by its chunky doors. The legroom was also worst in the Mazda, and in the Honda the rear seating position was a bit too 'knees-up' for taller adults. The Toyota and Subaru were about equal for leg room, with enough for someone my height (182cm) to sit comfortably behind an identical size person. 

The best application of a large sunroof here is the Subaru, because it barely eats into headroom because of the car’s high ceiling.

The Mazda’s sunroof is small, and therefore doesn’t interrupt the space much - but it’s also the worst for overall space, so it does feel like it’s impinging on the cabin more than it actually does.

The Toyota’s sunroof is on the small side, too (you can get a bigger panoramic roof, but only in the range-topping Edge non-hybrid model), but it doesn’t impact the space too much.

Boot space details are below:

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S

Boot capacity -
five seats up

522 litres VDA442 litres VDA

580 litres VDA (low
floor height)

498 litres VDA
Boot capacity - 
​two seats up
1084 litres VDA (to window)1342 litres VDA (to roof)N/A1768 litres VDA (to roof)
Rear seat folding
mechanism
Boot and seat-mount leversBoot and seat-mount leversSeat-mount levers onlyElectric boot triggers and seat-mount levers
Rear seat folding
ratio
60:4040:20:4060:4060:40

For interior and practicality, the Honda and Subaru come out on top. They offered the best levels of medium SUV pragmatism and thoughtfulness, with the RAV4 just behind. The Mazda is smaller inside, and suffers a little in this section of the test as a result - despite having the most premium cabin look and feel.

Check out the images of the boot space to see the differences between each of the cargo zones - we got images of the pram and the suitcases in each of these cars to give you a good idea of how they really stack up.

  • With the rear seats in place, the RAV4 has 580 litres of cargo space. (image credit: Dean McCartney) With the rear seats in place, the RAV4 has 580 litres of cargo space. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Even with a pram in the back, the RAV4 has space to spare. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Even with a pram in the back, the RAV4 has space to spare. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Holding three suitcases isn't a problem for the RAV4. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Holding three suitcases isn't a problem for the RAV4. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • With the rear seats in place, the CR-V has 522 litres (VDA) of boot space. (image credit: Dean McCartney) With the rear seats in place, the CR-V has 522 litres (VDA) of boot space. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • The CR-V easily swallowed our three suitcases. (image credit: Dean McCartney) The CR-V easily swallowed our three suitcases. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Fitting a pram in the back of the CR-V wasn't a problem. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Fitting a pram in the back of the CR-V wasn't a problem. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Cargo space in the CX-5 is rated at 442 litres VDA. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Cargo space in the CX-5 is rated at 442 litres VDA. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • While the pram fits in the back, it takes up the majority of space. (image credit: Dean McCartney) While the pram fits in the back, it takes up the majority of space. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • The Mazda offers the least among of rear storage. (image credit: Dean McCartney) The Mazda offers the least among of rear storage. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Boot space in the Forester is rated at 1768 litres VDA. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Boot space in the Forester is rated at 1768 litres VDA. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • The Forester has one of the bigger boots in this group. (image credit: Dean McCartney) The Forester has one of the bigger boots in this group. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
  • Even with three suitcases on board, the Forester still has boot space for other things. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Even with three suitcases on board, the Forester still has boot space for other things. (image credit: Dean McCartney)
ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX9
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo7
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid8
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S9

Value

All of these SUVs are priced pretty close to one another - yep, there’s a mix of grades represented, and the standard inclusions vary pretty greatly, too.

It’s clear from the outset, though, that there’s more to a great SUV than simply how much it costs. You can read the full written review for a comprehensive breakdown on equipment levels across these models.

The most affordable model of this mix is the Subaru Forester 2.5i-S, which has a list price of $41,940 plus on-road costs. It’s the range-topping model of the new Forester range… for now. We suspect a top-end turbo could come, and there’s a hybrid range-topping model due in 2020. But for now, this is the big end of town in the Forester range.

Next up the pricing tree is the Honda CR-V VTi-LX. With a list price of $44,290 plus on-road costs, this model is also a flagship variant. It gets a lot of gear, and if you remember our previous midsize SUV comparison test, this version of the CR-V gets all the safety gear it should… or does it? See the safety section below to find out.

The Forester 2.5i-S lists at $41,940, the CR-V VTi-LX comes in at $44,290, followed by the $44,640 RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid model while the CX-5 GT is the most expensive at $47,890. (image credit: Dean McCartney) The Forester 2.5i-S lists at $41,940, the CR-V VTi-LX comes in at $44,290, followed by the $44,640 RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid model while the CX-5 GT is the most expensive at $47,890. (image credit: Dean McCartney)

The third-most expensive model in this test is the Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid model, which has a list price of $44,640 plus on-road costs. It’s the most expensive petrol-electric RAV4 you can get, but there’s a rugged looking petrol-only AWD model above it, if that floats your boat.

The most expensive model in this test is the Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 turbo, which lists at $47,890 plus on-road costs. We’ve got it here because it’s the most affordable way in to the best engine in the CX-5 range - you can spend more if you want to, as there’s an Akera model that tops $50K.

Now we know the prices, let’s look at how they stack up for standard equipment. We’ll use a table - it’ll be easier for everyone!

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
Alloy wheels18-inch19-inch18-inch18-inch
Spare tyreFull size spareSpace saver spareSpace saver spareFull size spare
HeadlightsLEDLEDLEDLED
Daytime running lightsLEDLEDLEDLED
Leather trimYesYesPart-leatherYes
Electric driver's seat adjustmentYesYesYesYes
Memory settingsYesYesYesYes
Electric passenger's seat adjustmentYesYesNoYes
Seat heatingYesYesYesNo
Dual zone climateYesYesYesYes
Auto-dimming rearview mirrorYesYesYesNo
Keyless entryYesYesYesYes
Push-button startYesYesYesYes
SunroofYesYesYesYes
USB ports4454
Wireless phone charging (Qi)NoNoYesNo
Touch screen media7.0-inch7.0-inch8.0-inch8.0-inch
Sat navYesYesYesYes
Apple CarPlay / Android AutoYesYesComing late 2019 - will be free to retrofitYes

Now, there’s also a lot to be said for the safety levels offered in each of these models - including the technology and equipment the brands have in each of their models. We’ll score that separately, so the scores for this section don’t factor in safety gear.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX8
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo7
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid8
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S9

 

Engine and transmission

They’re all petrol powered, automatic, and each has all-wheel drive. But there are some differences here.

The Honda CR-V VTi-LX has the smallest engine of these four - a 1.5 litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder, which has comparatively low power outputs for the class. But it is a tiny little engine.

The Mazda CX-5 GT’s 2.5-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder has been improved by a new punchy turbo petrol engine, and it has big outputs for this segment. Just have a look - it has almost 200Nm more than the Honda!

  • Under the bonnet of the CR-V is a 1.5-litre turbo engine making 140kW/240Nm. (image credit:  Dean Johnson) Under the bonnet of the CR-V is a 1.5-litre turbo engine making 140kW/240Nm. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Powering the CX-5 is a 2.5-litre turbo four cylinder with 170kW/420Nm. (image credit:  Dean Johnson) Powering the CX-5 is a 2.5-litre turbo four cylinder with 170kW/420Nm. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The Forester has a 2.5-litre four cylinder producing 136kW/239Nm. (image credit:  Dean Johnson) The Forester has a 2.5-litre four cylinder producing 136kW/239Nm. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The RAV4's hybrid 2.5-litre engine has a combined output of 163kW. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The RAV4's hybrid 2.5-litre engine has a combined output of 163kW. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

The Subaru Forester 2.5i-S runs - you guessed it - a 2.5-litre four-cylinder, and yep, it’s a ‘boxer’ in the traditional Subaru horizontally opposed design. It doesn’t have a turbocharged boost, so its outputs are somewhat modest. In fact, they’re pretty meagre, and it has the least grunt of this quartet.

The Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine too, but it adds electricity to the mix in the form of a for surprisingly decent power outputs. There is no combined torque figure offered by Toyota. Being the only one with electric assistance by way of two electric motors and a battery pack, the RAV4 is punchier in terms of performance than its numbers suggest. It has the ability to run on electricity alone in certain conditions, like when you’re taking off from a standstill or if you’re light on the throttle. And it captures energy when braking or coasting, too.

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
Engine size1.5-litre2.5-litre2.5-litre2.5-litre
CylindersFourFourFourFour
TurbochargedYesYesNoNo
HybridNoNoYesYes
Power140kW170kW163kW136kW
Torque240Nm420NmNot stated239Nm

The scores below reflect how these powertrains stack up on paper, and in terms of performance - but you can read more about the drive experience in the driving section below.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX7
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo9
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid9
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S7

Fuel consumption

Over our testing we kept a tally of how these SUVs performed when it came to fuel consumption. Not just combined cycle claims, but actual, real world pump-to-pump numbers.

Our test involved a mix of urban driving through roundabouts and traffic lights, plus stints of highway driving, and also a spirited stint of mountain road driving for a handling test. It was a mix of driving alone, or driving with four adults on board.

It might seem like a stacked contest, given the claimed fuel use numbers of the RAV4 are so low. But the fact of the matter is that if you like saving money of petrol, there’s a clear pick here - though we will stress that the RAV4 is better around town then it is on the open road, because as with all hybrids, that’s where it takes best advantage of its battery tech.

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
Claimed fuel consumption7.4L/100km8.2L/100km4.8L/100km7.4L/100km
Actual fuel use test8.7L/100km10.4L/100km7.1L/100km11.3L/100km
Variance over claim18 per cent27 per cent48 per cent53 per cent
Fuel tank capacity57 litres58 litres55 litres63 litres
Estimated real world range655km557km775km557km
Fuel type (minimum acceptable)91RON unleaded91RON unleaded91RON unleaded91RON unleaded

We were surprised by how little fuel the Honda used, given its compact engine and its sizeable body. The little turbo mill clearly works a treat for consumption, if not being a fire starter on the performance front.

The Mazda’s big grunt numbers also translated to a high figure for fuel use, but it wasn’t the thirstiest on test - and that surprised us a bit.

That honour went to the Subaru - with the least power and torque of this mix, it seems the Subie has to work its 2.5L engine pretty hard to keep momentum up, and that resulted in a poor showing for fuel consumption.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX8
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo7
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid9
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S6

Driving

Our drive loop was fashioned to replicate what the average family SUV owner might encounter on any given weekend. A long and windy coastal road to a quiet beach. A stretch of boring highway to get most of the way there. And a jaunt into town - through roundabouts and over speed humps - when its time to get some grub to the keep the family happy.

And across that testing route, it came to us that there were elements of each of these cars that were enjoyable, and parts that could have been better. None of them completely nail it, but there’s one model that was picked by everyone who drove it as the best all-rounder - and you might be surprised as to which one it was…

The Subaru Forester 2.5i-S was mostly very predictable - and indeed, it felt better with four people on board than with just one occupant. The ride is a little bouncier due to its softer suspension tune, and on your own you might find the suspension a little cumbersome if you’re driving on less-than-perfect roads. It all settles down with a whole family in the seats, and if you do a lot of driving with four on board, then the springy suspension mightn’t be of concern. It did handle corners pretty well, though - there is a bit of body roll, but mostly it pulled through bends with ease, and the Subie’s all-wheel-drive system held on great in those instances, too.

The Forester’s steering is mostly predictable at speed, and also it’s nice and light at lower speed - it was judged to be the easiest of these four to park, with the best visibility and the most city-friendly steering for those tight reverse parallel moves. The Suby’s drivetrain was a little lethargic, though the CVT auto with stepped ‘ratios’ did a good job of keeping things moving.

  • Fifth-generation Toyota RAV4 brings more promise and tech than ever to such an important class. Fifth-generation Toyota RAV4 brings more promise and tech than ever to such an important class.
  • The Toyota offered a slightly firmer ride than its competitors. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Toyota offered a slightly firmer ride than its competitors. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Across our mix of urban, highway and twisty road driving, the CR-V was a surprise favourite. (image credit: Dean Johnson) Across our mix of urban, highway and twisty road driving, the CR-V was a surprise favourite. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • The drivetrain used in the CR-V could do with a little bit more grunt. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The drivetrain used in the CR-V could do with a little bit more grunt. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • In our hill climb test, the CX-5 fell short for grip - the tyres simply didn’t hang on very well. (image credit: Dean Johnson) In our hill climb test, the CX-5 fell short for grip - the tyres simply didn’t hang on very well. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Mazda has built a reputation for offering vehicles that are fun to drive, but sadly the CX-5 GT fell a bit short of our expectations. (image credit: Dean Johnson) Mazda has built a reputation for offering vehicles that are fun to drive, but sadly the CX-5 GT fell a bit short of our expectations. (image credit: Dean Johnson)
  • Laden with safety and clever practicality across the range, the Subaru Forester lives up to its legend. Laden with safety and clever practicality across the range, the Subaru Forester lives up to its legend.
  • The Forester handle corners pretty well. (image credit: Dean Johnson) The Forester handle corners pretty well. (image credit: Dean Johnson)

The Toyota offered a slightly firmer ride than its competitors with only one occupant on board, but the composure levels with a family-worth of weight in the cabin was notably better. It handled bigger bumps at higher speeds really well, and the steering of the RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid was predictable and likeable in equal measure.

But its biggest letdown was its cabin insulation. It was the noisiest of this mix, with tyre roar and suspension rumble noticeable.. but perhaps it was more noticeable because the RAV4 hybrid is really quiet when you’re using battery power only. The engine can be vocal when its in use, and you notice it more the faster you go. It performs really well, though, and you’ll see big benefits and the petrol bowser. And its CVT auto was fine - really, if you’ve go issues with CVTs, you’re going to have to get over it.

Mazda has built a reputation for offering vehicles that are fun to drive, but sadly the CX-5 GT fell a bit short of our expectations. Yes, its big capacity turbocharged engine is a humdinger, with easily the best acceleration here and good drivability at low and high speeds, and a six-speed automatic (not a CVT!) that offered crisp and thoughtful shifts. But in our hill climb test it fell short for grip - the tyres simply didn’t hang on very well, and the steering has rack rattle and inconsistent weighting at times.

Our drive loop was fashioned to replicate what the average family SUV owner might encounter on any given weekend. (image credit: Dean McCartney) Our drive loop was fashioned to replicate what the average family SUV owner might encounter on any given weekend. (image credit: Dean McCartney)

The ride was better than we’d expected, and proved more settled with extra bodies in the cabin, while running solo it still has a bit of a tendency to feel sharp and twitchy over smaller inconsistencies in the road. Some people mightn’t care about that, but if you’re trying to get your youngster to have a nap in the back and they can’t sleep because they keep getting jostled in their capsule, it could be an issue.

Overall, though - across our mix of urban, highway and twisty road driving, there was a surprise favourite - the Honda CR-V VTi-LX. Even though this model has been on sale since 2017 and has seen no major changes since launch, it was everyone’s favourite to drive - and I’m talking about eight different drivers on this test.

As such, it beat out some very impressive competition. We already knew it was good based on our previous experience with it in our last mid-sized SUV comparison test, but this new test only went on to highlight its strengths - it had the most comfortable ride, its steering was the most direct and enjoyable steering, while also being pretty nimble at parking duties, and it had the best levels of quietness in the cabin at higher speeds.

Admittedly it does have a drivetrain that could do with a little bit more grunt, but the downsized turbo engine and CVT automatic performed perfectly fine during our test. All of our testers agreed - the CR-V VTi-LX was our pick of these SUVs when it came to the overall driving experience.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX9
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo8
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid7
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S7

Safety

Family vehicles should be safe, and if you can afford to buy the top-spec version of these models, you’re getting a lot of the latest advanced safety technology - in some cases, like for the CX-5, you’re getting pretty much everything that’s available at the moment in this price range. But others, like the CR-V, fall short of what you might want, or what you might expect, if you’re paying this kind of money.

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
Auto emergency braking (AEB)YesYesYesYes
Lane departure warningYesYesYesYes
Lane keep assist (with steering)YesYesYesYes
Adaptive cruise controlYesYesYesYes
Blind spot monitoringNoYesYesYes
Rear cross-traffic alertNoYesNoYes
Rear AEBNoYesNoYes
Reversing cameraYesYesYesYes
Parking sensorsFront and rearFront and rearFront and rearNone
Traffic sign recognitionNoYesYesNo
Head up display (HUD)NoYesNoNo
Driver facial recognitionNoNoNoYes
Airbag count6677

Indeed, it’s the Subaru and Mazda that hit hardest in this test, with the former let down by a nonsensical lack of parking sensors at the back or front of the car. And despite having two forward facing cameras, it still doesn’t have traffic sign recognition. But it does have a driver-oriented camera, which acts as a safety measure by warning you to keep your eyes on the road (which is annoying if you’re driving in a car park and scanning for a spot), but also offers convenience measures, as you can set up a profile to save your preferred seat and mirror settings, which the car’s computer will apply when the camera recognises your face.

In this spec the Honda may have most of the safety tech we’ve lambasted it for missing out on in lower grades, but it still can’t match its rivals, with a lack of blind-spot monitoring and the super useful rear cross-traffic alert tech missing from the CR-V range. It does have a LaneWatch side-view camera system, which is somewhat helpful, but it can’t match the others here for the same level of ‘don’t merge now!’ or ‘watch out there’s a car coming!’ safety that the others offer.

Some other safety elements worth considering: the ANCAP crash test rating for all four of these models stands at five stars, the maximum score available. But some were tested in different years, which means they were scored against different criteria - the more recent the test, the harder it is to score five stars. So, the Honda and Mazda, both tested in 2017, may score differently against the tough 2019 criteria that the Subaru and Toyota were put up against.

And for child seat mounting points, all four have dual ISOFIX child seat points, plus three top-tether hooks (note: the CR-V’s top tethers are mounted in the rear ceiling above the boot). All have dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags, while the Toyota and Subaru both have driver's knee airbags, too. 

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX7
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo9
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid8
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S8

Ownership

It seems like a fairly level playing field when it comes to ownership. I mean, if you travel a lot of kilometres, you might find having to go in to the dealership a couple of times a year to service your car a bit painful. Or you might think that not having roadside assist included is a problem.

But take a look at the table below and you’ll see there are pros and cons for each of these vehicles - none of them nail it across the board.

 Honda CR-V
VTi-LX
Mazda CX-5 GT
2.5 Turbo
Toyota RAV4
Cruiser Hybrid
Subaru Forester
2.5i-S
WarrantyFive-year/unlimited kilometreFive-year/unlimited kilometreFive-year/unlimited kilometreFive-year/unlimited kilometre
Roadside assistNot includedFive-year/unlimited kilometreNot included12 months
Capped price servicingTen years/100,000kmFive years/50,000kmFive years/75,000kmFive years/62,500km
Service intervals12 months/10,000km12 months/10,000km12 months/15,000km12 months/12,500km
Average minimum service cost$295$335.60$210$477.67

There’s a caveat to the Toyota warranty plan - if you maintain logbook servicing - it doesn’t have to be Toyota Service, just so long as there are stamps in the owners manual - you are eligible for a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. There is no included roadside assist for Toyota models, but you can purchase it through the company.

There’s also a worthwhile disclaimer for the Honda’s warranty plan - the brand has been running a seven-year/unlimited kilometre promotional warranty for a while now, and that plan includes the same cover for roadside assist. If you miss out on that deal, the standard warranty is five years/unlimited kilometres, and doesn’t include roadside assist.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that the servicing costs listed for the Mazda and Honda don’t include any potential consumables that might also be required over the period. The pricing for the Toyota and Subaru have all consumables included.

On balance, the Toyota’s lengthier intervals and low servicing costs make up for a lack of roadside assist, so it wins this section by a whisker. The Mazda and Honda are so close, but the Honda is just a bit more appealing as it has a longer capped price plan. The Subaru’s high costs put it last for ownership.

If you have concerns over reliability - whether its engine problems, transmission issues, or anything else that could go wrong - we have a resource for you! You can check out our Honda CR-V problems page, Mazda CX-5 problems page, Toyota RAV4 problems page, or our Subaru Forester problems page.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX8
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo7
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid9
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S7

Verdict

You’re so lucky. If you’re shopping for a new mid-sized SUV in today’s market, there are some seriously impressive offerings. These four are among the best, that’s for sure, and the result is one of our tightest comparison tests yet.

But we set out to find out which of these high-grade models nails the brief of offering a bit of plushness with a strong sense of sensibility, as well as great value for money and family comfort and convenience - and here’s how these four models fared after days of rigorous testing.

In this test the Subaru Forester 2.5i-S fell short of what we’d expect for a flagship offering, with a lacklustre drivetrain and fuel economy, not to mention a few missing items that don’t see it hit that ‘luxe’ level that its rivals do. That said, we think the current Forester range’s sweet spot is at the lower level, because you get so much gear for the money that spending up to this point doesn’t really make sense. So if you are looking at the Forester as your next family SUV and don’t need any of the luxury pretences, definitely consider either the base grade or the second model up the range.

Our third-place getter was the Mazda CX-5 GT. Surprisingly, it fell a little short on the drive experience, and it is the most compromised when it comes to cabin space. But if you’re after a luxury experience that also has excellent safety equipment and technology, the Mazda is the one you should probably buy.

Second place goes to the Honda CR-V VTi-LX, which offered a wholesome and likeable drive experience and amazing packaging to allow plenty of space in the front and the back. Its a charmer of a car, but once again can’t nail the brief for all the safety gear we’d expect at the price point - this time its short of its rivals with no blind-spot monitoring or rear cross-traffic alert.

That means our winner is the Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid. It’s the best all-rounder, all things considered. It is super frugal, punchy and decent on the road, and if only it were a little quieter at pace it would have been close to our best for driving, too. The value on offer is excellent, and we applaud Toyota for offering this level of powertrain tech in a mass-market model. The fact you don’t have to spend up to this point to get a hybrid RAV4 just adds more intrigue, and could mean you’ll find a better RAV4 for a more affordable price. That’s what I thought at the launch, where I nominated the GXL Hybrid to be my pick.

We told you it would be close.

ModelScore
Honda CR-V VTi-LX8.0
Mazda CX-5 GT 2.5 Turbo7.9
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid8.3
Subaru Forester 2.5i-S7.5


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