With its large back seat, easy access and ample cargo space, the family-friendly Honda CR-V narrowly topped the Mazda CX-5 in Consumer Reports' recent head-to-head tests of small SUVs.
On paper, the redesigned CR-V and new CX-5 appear very similar. Both can accommodate five passengers, have comparable dimensions, are available with front- or all-wheel drive and are priced about the same. They also finished very close in CR's overall road-test scores x – with a 77 and a 75, respectively –just under the segment-leading Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester.
CR found that the CR-V EX (tested price $26,455) is a more family-friendly SUV, with a large backseat, easy access, lots of cargo space and a comfortable ride. On the downside, the CR-V suffers from pronounced road noise, sizable rear blind spots and subpar at-the-limit handling. Overall, CR's testers found the CR-V is functional and easy to live with, if not particularly exciting to drive.
The CX-5 Touring (tested price $27,125) is more athletic and engaging to drive, thanks to its agile handling, taut cornering and responsive steering. The CX-5 also delivers the best fuel economy in its class – 25 mpg overall – thanks to Mazda's new Skyactiv technology. But the CX-5's trade-offs include a smaller, noisier cabin; a choppy ride on the highway; and slower acceleration.
The Mercedes-Benz ML350 and BMW X5 luxury SUVs were also tested against each other, as well as two small hatchbacks, the Subaru Impreza and Kia Soul.
Only the CR-V is Recommended by CR. Although the CX-5 scored well enough, it's still too new for CR to have reliability information. To be Recommended, a vehicle must perform well in CR's battery of tests, have average or better reliability in its Annual Auto Survey and perform well in government and industry crash tests.
Mercedes-Benz ML350 and BMW X5
Helped by an impressively quiet and luxurious cabin, the redesigned Mercedes-Benz ML350 beat the sportier, updated BMW X5 in a match between the two German luxury SUVs. The new ML jumped seven points in CR's Ratings over the previous generation, with a Very Good overall road-test score. It's more fuel efficient, quicker and quieter than the previous model. The transmission and controls are also improved.
With a turbocharged six-cylinder base engine that's quicker and more fuel-efficient than the previous one, the X5 also achieved a Very Good score. But its choppy ride and overly heavy steering did not improve. The X5's tested price of $62,675 is almost $6,000 more than the comparably equipped $56,960 ML.
In everyday driving, both the ML and X5 exhibited good handling, with little body lean. The ML's steering is responsive but a touch vague. The more agile X5 holds the edge in handling and steering, but its steering feels heavy in low-speed situations such as when parking. At its handling limits, the X5 was capable and controlled; the ML350 was considerably less capable, with lower limits.
Both vehicles rank mid-pack in this category, below the less expensive Acura MDX ($46,715) and Lexus RX 350 ($47,381). Although the SUVs scored well enough in CR's tests, neither model is Recommended because the ML350 is too new for CR to have reliability data and the turbo X5 has had below-average reliability.
Subaru Impreza hatchback and Kia Soul
The all-wheel-drive Impreza ($22,345), which was redesigned for 2012, has a smooth, comfortable ride, while the Soul ($19,270) can be unpleasantly stiff. Although the Soul is notably quicker thanks to recent engine tweaks and a new six-speed automatic transmission, performance is marred by much longer braking distances.
In some ways, the two cars are very alike, providing easy access, simple controls, similar cargo room and turning circles, and the same commendable fuel economy of 26 mpg overall. The Impreza's overall road-test score places it second in CR's small-hatchback Ratings, behind the Volkswagen Golf. The less-refined Soul scored lower, but CR found it to be a good value.