New Honda CR-V & Toyota RAV4 vs Mazda CX-5

With admirable fuel economy and CO2 figures, Toyota’s new hybrid RAV4 promises to be one of the cheapest large SUVs to run. But should you choose it over frugal rivals from Honda and Mazda?...

Toyota RAV4 leading Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5

The contenders

Honda CR-V 2.0 i-MMD Hybrid 2WD SR

  • List price - £33,445
  • Target Price - £32,966

CR-V failed to impress in petrol form. Is this fuel-sipping hybrid version a better buy?

Mazda CX-5 Skyactiv-D 150 2WD Sport Nav+

  • List price - £29,895
  • Target Price - £28,413

One of our favourite large SUVs, featuring here in its most economical form.

Toyota RAV4 2.5 Hybrid 2WD Excel

  • List price - £33,610
  • Target Price - £33,610

New RAV4 has incredibly low CO2 emissions for such a big car; it’s well equipped, too.

If you’re reading this and experiencing a mild sense of déjà vu, worry not. We did indeed pit the new Honda CR-V against the Mazda CX-5 recently (just two months ago, actually), in a match-up the latter went on to win quite comfortably.

So, why the rerun? Well, this time the CR-V is appearing in hybrid form, which means, according to Honda, it’s both faster and more frugal than the pure petrol model we tested previously. Meanwhile, the CX-5 is also featuring in a different guise than before. There’s no hybrid model, so we’ve lined up the most economical engine in the range, the 148bhp diesel.

But there’s a bigger reason that both cars have been summoned again: a brand new Toyota RAV4 has arrived on the proverbial block. It’s available only in hybrid form and, officially at least, emits a lot less CO2 than either of its rivals and should also net you more miles to the gallon.

The question is, which of these fuel-sipping Japanese SUVs is the best buy?

Honda CR-V Hybrid driving

On the road

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Let’s start with the two hybrids, both of which are the type you don’t need to plug in and charge up. This is obviously good news for convenience, but it means you can’t go very far at all on pure electric power; even with ‘EV mode’ selected, you’ll be lucky to get more than a few hundred yards before the petrol engine kicks in to provide assistance.

Switch to any of the normal driving modes and the cars decide for themselves when is best to deploy the electric motor and petrol engine. This generally means battery power alone in stop-start traffic and a combination of both power sources at higher speeds. The main point of hybrid technology is, of course, to improve fuel economy, which it does in both cases (we’ll come on to that later), but with the electric motor and petrol engine giving their all in unison, acceleration isn’t too shabby, either.

The CR-V can ultimately whisk you up to speed a little quicker than the RAV4, although both cars do so in a slightly incongruous manner. It’s due to the type of automatic gearbox they use; put your foot down and the petrol engine immediately starts revving hard, almost as though you’re stuck in first gear – only the car keeps accelerating and the revs only start to subside when you ease off with your right foot.

Mazda CX-5 Driving

It isn’t what you’d call a relaxing experience, particularly in the RAV4, because its 2.5-litre petrol engine sounds coarse and channels vibrations up through the soles of your feet. The CR-V’s 2.0-litre petrol engine is altogether more refined; you hear it revving away in the background, especially up inclines, but it could almost be someone strimming grass in a nearby garden, so it rarely grates.

The CX-5 has one of the smoothest diesel engines around, but it still makes the car a rather gruff companion at crawling speeds compared with the two hybrids. The standard six-speed manual gearbox only compounds this problem by being a bit stiff, and although the stop-start system is quick to switch the engine off when you come to a halt, you have to press the clutch pedal all the way to the bottom of its travel to get the engine to fire up again. An automatic gearbox is available (for £1900), but this makes the CX-5 even less competitive with the hybrids for CO2 emissions.

Out on the open road, the 2.2-litre diesel engine fades into the background and the CX-5 is actually quieter than the hybrids when you’re accelerating briskly. But with no electric motor to help propel the car, it doesn’t build speed with quite the same vigour, so overtaking always needs that bit more planning. It’s far from sluggish, though.

All three suffer from noticeable tyre roar on the motorway – more so than the best large SUVs – although the RAV4 is worst in this respect. Meanwhile, the CX-5 is worst for wind noise, so overall the CR-V is the least rowdy cruiser.

Toyota RAV4 driving

There’s a clear pecking order when it comes to ride comfort: the CX-5 is the firmest and the CR-V most agreeable. The way the CX-5 jostles you about, no matter what speed you’re doing, can get tiresome pretty quickly; if you like a supple ride, it’s really best avoided. Meanwhile, although the CR-V is no luxury limo, it’s relatively untroubled by pockmarked urban back streets and wafts along comfortably on faster roads.

The RAV4 falls somewhere between those two stalls. It’s certainly smoother on the motorway than the CX-5, yet in town it shimmies around almost as much, while potholes and broken surfaces tend to send shudders through the body. It’s disappointing, given that the RAV4 is the least impressive through corners; it has the least grip and feels the least stable during quick changes of direction.

At least the CX-5 rewards you for putting up with its bumpy ride by being good fun to drive. By large SUV standards, it stays surprisingly upright through corners and feels much lighter than its hybrid rivals (it’s no illusion). It has the most precise steering of the trio, too. Meanwhile, the CR-V is composed and stable and has plenty of grip. Yes, it sways around more than the CX-5, but its steering is more naturally weighted than the RAV4’s at all speeds

Next: Behind the wheel >

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