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Richard Blackburn road tests and reviews the Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5 and Volkswagen Tiguan with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.
The mid-sized SUV is on its way to becoming the most popular vehicle in the land and the good news for buyers is that with success comes competition.
One promises a great drive, the other great value. With the current Mazda overdue for an update, this could be the changing of the guard.
It's easy to see the attraction. Our test car costs just $33,990 plus on-roads and comes with electrically adjustable leather seats, satnav and dual-zone airconditioning.
The leather trim not only gives the cabin a richer feel, it's also more practical for mopping up family spills.
The cabin is arguably the pick of these three, with its soft-touch surfaces on the dash and armrests, a seven-inch colour touchscreen and modern, high quality graphics including a digital speedo.
The leather trim not only gives the cabin a richer feel, it's also more practical for mopping up family spills. The only complaint is that the seat cushions feel flat and unsupportive.
Thoughtful touches include two 12V outlets, a USB port in the front and another of each for the rear seat, which also gets its own air vents.
A full-size spare is a welcome inclusion, even though it eats into luggage space.
Beating its rivals here for value, the Sportage loses points in other areas. The engine lacks the grunt of the other two and would struggle with a clan on-board. It's also a little raucous higher in the rev range, although the six-speed auto shifts smoothly.
On the road, it's the least assured of the three through corners and on pockmarked urban roads the ride is sharper and busier.
Finally, it lacks the active safety aids of its rivals here. Blind spot monitoring, automated emergency braking and lane departure warning are only available on the most expensive Platinum model.
It wins back points, though, for its industry-leading seven-year warranty.
Mazda will unveil its next-generation CX-5 next month. It's remarkable that the current model remains top of the heap after four and a half years.
To keep it competitive, Mazda has tweaked the features list and the latest move is to add blind spot monitoring, automated emergency braking and rear cross traffic alert as standard. Our test car is cheaper than the Sportage. It costs $33,490, while metallic paint is cheaper than the Kia.
Despite the update, the Mazda cabin is beginning to show its age. The rival pair have digital speed readouts but it makes do with old-fashioned analog dials.
There's only one USB port and 12V outlet and no rear aircon outlets. The rear seat also isn't as roomy as its newer rivals.
It wins back points with standard satnav, electric parking brake and push-button start.
It feels the most car-like of this trio, sitting flat through bends and soaking up mid-corner bumps without getting flustered.
Even with a temporary spare under the rear floor, cargo space is down on the Sportage.
On the road, the Mazda still shines. It feels the most car-like of this trio, sitting flat through bends and soaking up mid-corner bumps without getting flustered. The steering is accurate and well-weighted and the ride is firm but not crashy.
Engine outputs are almost identical to the Sportage but its 100kg weight advantage means the Mazda feels more spritely off the mark.
The Tiguan is supposed to change that and get the company back on the front foot after the Dieselgate scandal and reliability issues in recent years.
As with all VWs, the new model's design is evolutionary and the cabin layout would be familiar to someone who bought the old model. If it ain't broke, though... the Tiguan still feels modern and up-market inside. The digital instrument displays are high-resolution and the centre screen is larger than in the rivals.
The 1.4-litre turbo may be smaller than the Mazda and Kia but it punches above its weight thanks to more torque available at lower revs.
The seats are comfortable and supportive and there are clever cubby spaces on top of the dash and near the driver's right knee. The second row is noticeably roomier than the Mazda's and there are aircon vents, as well as 12V outlets in the rear and the load area. It has the most cargo space by a comfortable margin, with 615 litres (VDA) against the Sportage's 466L and the Mazda's 403L.
The Tiguan's strongest suit is the way it drives. The 1.4-litre turbo may be smaller than the Mazda and Kia but it punches above its weight thanks to more torque available at lower revs. The super-slick changing DSG transmission also helps performance, although it occasionally hesitates in town.
The VW feels noticeably more refined. The suspension feels plush, there's not as much tyre and road noise and the engine doesn't sound as if it's being worked as hard as the others.
It's not as sporty as the Mazda, leaning more through corners, but it is predictable, composed and comfortable.
Driver assistance is another strong suit. Automated emergency braking and lane departure warning are standard and the Tiguan will park itself.
Unfortunately two major gremlins surfaced during our road test. The airconditioning didn't work and the stop-start technology refused to operate.
VW's inspection found the two were connected — a hardware defect in the aircon control unit in turn switched off the start-stop.
They say competition improves the breed and these three are great examples. The CX-5 uses less fuel, drives better and has driver assistance technology not available on the Kia, but the Sportage edges in front with a more modern cabin, standard leather and a seven-year warranty.
The Tiguan is another step up with its bigger cabin, better engine and more refined drive but the electrical issues rob it of a win in this contest.
It will get a chance at redemption in our Car of the Year contest, where it's likely to meet the victorious Sportage again.