Pressed to choose just one vehicle type that would meet nearly all the transportation needs of a family in Los Altos, we would unreservedly recommend a new mid-sized sport-utility vehicle.
Often called “cross-overs,” these vehicles can transport at least five passengers or a large cargo load with ease and can be driven on unpaved roads, but they still provide the safety, handling and fuel efficiency of a comparable sedan.
In July, we drove two of the best – the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 with all-wheel drive in top-of-the-line trim, both completely redesigned for 2017 and economically list-priced at less than $35,000.
Our conclusion: Either one would make an excellent choice. There are a few subtle differences that might swing your family one way or the other, but first let’s talk about all the features built into both vehicles.
Most obviously, these are not your parents’ SUVs. Carrying less weight and with smaller and considerably more efficient four-cylinder engines – the Honda with 1.5 liters and a turbocharger producing 190 horsepower, the Mazda with 2.5-liters and no turbo producing 187 horsepower – these practical haulers get 29 and 26 mpg, respectively, in combined use. Few compact sedans got that kind of mileage 10 years ago.
Back-up cameras, active cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist, back and blind-spot obstruction warning systems, active stability control and collision prevention systems are standard equipment on both vehicles. With the exception of back-up cameras, those systems weren’t available on any car 10 years ago and as recently as five years ago only on the most expensive luxury brands.
Also, unlike SUVs of a decade ago, both vehicles are quiet and smooth-riding at highway speeds. Gone are the days of noisy tires and unyielding shock absorbers. Similarly, unlike the SUVs in days of yore that flaunted their fundamental rough-and-ready interior trims, both vehicles are notable for having upgraded the appearance, materials quality and comfort in the interior and now are indistinguishable from the sedans with which they share basic platforms.
On the exterior, both cross-overs have been substantially restyled from their previous generations – giving up the “muscular” appearance of wannabe off-road vehicles. Both are getting well-deserved accolades for their stylish and almost elegant appearance.
In comparison with these shared features, the differences between vehicles seem almost extraneous. Nevertheless, you’ll have to make a decision if you’re in the market for a new SUV, so what’s to like and dislike?
In terms of hauling capability, we have to give the category to the Honda. Although it’s barely an inch longer than the Mazda, it has a shorter wheelbase and longer rear overhang; the repositioned rear wheels allow an additional inch of rear-seat legroom, (though rear legroom in both vehicles is more generous than in any luxury sedan).
The most significant difference is in cargo handling space, which is of course one of the major rationalizations for buying an SUV rather than a more economical sedan. With the rear seats folded, the Mazda can carry a substantial 60 cubic feet of cargo, but the Honda betters this by nearly 16 additional cubic feet – either way, that’s a lot of paper towels.
We also noted in our time with the cars that the Mazda’s front seats were more generous and supportive than the Honda’s, but in contrast the Mazda’s rear seats are criticized for short and firm bottom cushions.
Handling and ride quality are another area where there were some noticeable differences. The Honda has an extremely smooth ride and doesn’t roll during quick lane changes or in tight corners, but it isn’t going to be confused with a sports sedan. The Mazda sticks with its trademarked “driving matters” focus by offering a stiffer ride that is more satisfying when handling twisty back roads.
Similarly, the Mazda offers a controllable automatic transmission for the driver who likes to be in control, while the Honda uses a less-involving continuously variable transmission, though in normal driving we really didn’t notice any differences. While the responsiveness from a stop or when changing speeds was just fine with both, we gave the edge to the Mazda. Your preferences will govern your choice in this department.
One last issue, but maybe it’s just the complaint of car testers who only have a week with each vehicle. Both vehicles use touch screens in preference to knobs to control the entertainment and navigation systems, as well as to supplement climate controls. We believe this technology is a bad choice, because it requires the driver to look at the screen while making adjustments. But even with that said, we continue to find the Honda system more complicated to learn and harder to manage than other manufacturers’ systems. Perhaps with the time that a new owner could invest, it might be possible to overcome that problem.
To broaden your focus, you might also consider the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape, both of which are in the price and feature range of these two vehicles.
One final note: Although the prices of both vehicles are economical, we think you could drop down one level from the top-of-the-line models we drove and save another few thousand dollars without sacrificing any of the safety or convenience options.
But it’s a pretty good world when the one vehicle that can take care of 90 percent of your transportation needs is available from several manufacturers at a reasonable price, offering comfort, efficiency, utility and all state-of-the-art safety systems.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.