Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester

Could new automatic gearboxes in the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester at long last prove the mighty Mazda CX-5's undoing?...

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What Car? team
26 July 2015

The Honda CR-V has long been a popular family SUV, but newer alternatives have shone a critical light on its cost, efficiency and dynamics. A new nine-speed automatic gearbox, paired with the recently introduced 1.6 diesel, could solve all that. Emissions are very low while dynamics should be substantially improved by the addition of a modern gearbox.

The Subaru Forester is less concerned with image and emissions than the CR-V, settling instead for the simple, all-weather appeal of an old-school SUV, complete with permanent four-wheel drive rather than the on-demand systems of the others here. This freshly facelifted model gets a new CVT automatic gearbox and a new touchscreen system.

Which leaves the Mazda CX-5. It sets the benchmark with its balance of engaging handling, competitive costs, strong performance and spacious cabin. A recent facelift has also improved the cabin quality and standard infotainment.

The contenders

Honda CR-V 1.6 i-DTEC SE Navi auto

A new nine-speed gearbox enhances running costs and performance

Mazda CX-5 2.2d 150 AWD SE-L Nav auto

A best buy, particularly for costs and dynamics. Updated cabin improves it further. 

Subaru Forester 2.0D XC Premium Lineartronic

New infotainment and CVT automatic improve the no-nonsense Forester’s appeal. 

What are they like to drive?

The CR-V’s gearbox shifts are almost imperceptible in steady driving, so you can just enjoy the engine’s decent flexibility (although the pace is somewhat mediocre) and low-revving motorway manners. The only irritations are that the gearbox occasionally hesitates when you pull away, and it sometimes holds first gear in sluggish stop-start traffic, making the accelerator response jerky.

Jerkiness isn’t something you’ll suffer in the Subaru. As with many CVT autos, accelerating hard results in more noise than actual gain in pace, but otherwise the gearbox responds predictably as it goes up and down the 2.0-litre motor’s mid-range. However, it’s the slowest car here. The Mazda’s six-speed auto doesn’t feel as sharp-witted as the CR-V’s ’box, but it’s still smooth.

The CX-5’s 2.2-litre engine delivers the strongest response with no ungainly surges in power, and it remains a benchmark for diesel performance in this class. The CX-5 is also still the best for handling. It has substantially less body lean through corners than the other two (particularly the very sloppy CR-V) and the steering is predictable and well weighted, making it relaxing in town and satisfying on twisty roads.

Despite all three cars having four-wheel drive, the CR-V and Forester’s willingness to wash wide through fast corners makes rural roads or fast bends less enjoyable. Both are perfectly grippy and confidence-inspiring in normal pottering, but the Forester’s slow steering makes it feel more cumbersome than the CR-V, which turns in to corners keenly. It’s just a shame the Honda’s heavy steering can be hard work at low speeds.

Ride comfort is also a bugbear in the Honda because it thumps heavily over speed bumps and drain covers, and doesn’t settle properly until it’s on faster, smoother roads. Mind you, all of these cars can be jarring over mid-corner bumps, and the CX-5 is marginally the worst affected, but the Mazda is more forgiving on scruffy town roads than the Honda.

The Subaru offers the most pliant ride here. As with the CR-V, the body bobs up and down noticeably over big bumps, but it’s the most comfortable overall. All of these cars suffer from plenty of road noise at speed, and the engines sound gruff under acceleration. The Subaru fares worst, and also has more vibration through the wheel and pedals.

What are they like inside?

Getting comfortable is easiest in the Mazda. Its seats and steering wheel are simple to adjust and there’s adjustable lumbar support. If anything, the Honda’s front seats are marginally more comfortable and they, too, have adjustable lumbar support.

The CR-V also edges the CX-5 for over-the-shoulder visibility, although the Honda’s steering wheel doesn’t adjust low enough. Meanwhile, the Subaru’s seats are flat and short on shoulder support while adjustable lumbar support isn’t even available as an option. That’s a shame because the electrically adjusted front seats make it easy to find a comfortable driving position and all-round visibility is the best here.

The Honda and Mazda will appeal most if rear passenger space is a priority. Both offer identical leg room – plenty for a couple of six-footers. The CX-5 has slightly more head room, but middle rear passengers are forced to straddle a chunky transmission tunnel that runs along the centre of the floor. The CR-V’s floor is completely flat. The Subaru has even more rear leg room than its rivals, but its standard sunroof eats up a lot of head space; anyone much more than six feet tall will struggle.

Officially, the Honda has the most luggage space – its load bay is certainly the longest and the deepest with the rear seats in place. However, the Forester’s is slightly wider and is the only one without a loading lip. To fold down the rear seats in any of these cars, you simply pull a lever on the side of the boot and the seatbacks drop. They’re split 40/20/40 in the case of the Mazda and 60/40 in the Honda and Subaru. The Forester has the longest extended load bay, which is handy when carrying flatpack furniture or taking tall items to the tip. By contrast, the Honda has the shortest extended load bay and the narrowest boot opening.

What will they cost?

Cash buyers will save a small fortune by choosing the Mazda. That’s not only because it’s the cheapest by around £2500 after discounts, it’s also because the CX-5 is predicted to depreciate more slowly than its rivals. Buy now and sell after three years, and your total bill will be around £1975 less than that for the Honda and £2619 less than if you’d bought the Subaru.

Prefer to buy using finance? Again, it’s the Mazda that appeals most with monthly repayments of £385, compared with Honda’s £422 and Subaru’s £508. All of these PCP deals are 36-month agreements subject to a £5000 deposit and an annual mileage limit of 12,000. If you want to own the car at the end of that agreement, you’ll have to pay a big final ‘balloon’ payment or take out a new finance agreement.

The CX-5 also works out cheapest for company car drivers, although only by £2-£5 a month over the lower CO2-emitting CR-V. The Forester, meanwhile, will cost you a further £54 a month in tax.

All three cars are equipped with 17in alloys, climate and cruise controls, auto lights and wipers, and electric-folding door mirrors. The Honda and Mazda go further with standard front and rear parking sensors, although the Subaru does have a rear parking camera. It’s also the only car here with a sunroof and a powered tailgate. The CX-5 and CR-V have city braking systems that can automatically apply the brakes at low speeds. No such technology is available on the Subaru, and it’s also the only one of the three cars without a tyre pressure monitor.

Our verdict

Despite some significant improvements to both the Subaru and the Honda, the Mazda CX-5 remains the class leader. It’s the best by a fair margin when you consider costs for private and business users, cabin versatility, safety and driver reward. It’s also relaxing and enjoyable to drive, easy to live with and by far the best value.

In fact, there are few areas of real criticism for the Mazda, other than that the Honda now beats it on emissions and comfort for three rear passengers; that’s nowhere near enough of an edge to justify the CR-V’s high list price. The Honda is a reasonably good car to drive, with the best gearbox here but a tendency to run wide and lean badly in fast corners. A more competitive purchase price wouldn’t change that, nor the fact that the Mazda is much more fun to drive and has a less fiddly infotainment system.

The Subaru is also scuppered by its high purchase price, so if you really fancy one we’d suggest sacrificing sat-nav so you can get a much cheaper trim. The problem is, with average performance, high CO2 emissions and VED, a gruff-sounding engine and sometimes irritatingly unresponsive infotainment screen, this expensive version of the Forester is hard to recommend. Sure, it’s got genuine charm and off-road ability that many buyers will appreciate, but its objective shortfalls make it hard to justify next to the Mazda – or any of the more modern alternatives in this competitive class. 


Mazda CX-5 2.2d 150 AWD SE-L Nav auto

ForGreat handling; low company and private costs; strong engine

Against Slightly firm ride; engine noise under heavy acceleration

Verdict The best all-round family SUV you can buy in this price range


Honda CR-V 1.6 i-DTEC SE Navi auto

For Smooth gearbox; low emissions; good rear space

Against High price; sloppy body control; choppy ride

Verdict Nice in isolation, but overpriced in this company


Subaru Forester 2.0d XC Premium Lineartronic

For Decent boot; glass roof; off-road potential

Against Gruff engine; mediocre handling; high CO2

Verdict Cheaper trims make much more sense

Honda CR-V

Engine size

1.6-litre diesel

Price from

£30,520 (list)




258lb ft


9.6 seconds

Top speed


Fuel economy




Mazda CX-5

Engine size

2.2-litre diesel

Price from

£27,895 (list)




280lb ft


9.2 seconds

Top speed


Fuel economy




Subaru Forester

Engine size

2.0-litre diesel

Price from

£30,995 (list)




258lb ft


10.3 seconds

Top speed


Fuel economy