New Honda ZR-V and Renault Austral versus Kia Sportage

High-riding and hybrid powered, these family SUVs couldn’t be trendier. But which is the hottest outfit?...

New Honda ZR-V and Renault Austral versus Kia Sportage fronts

The contenders

NEW Honda ZR-V 2.0 e:HEV Advance

List price £42,895
Target Price £42,895

Slotting in between Honda’s smaller HR-V and larger CR-V, this all-new hybrid family SUV aims to combine low running costs with sharp handling

NEW Renault Austral 1.2 E-Tech FHEV Iconic Esprit Alpine

List price £39,495
Target Price £38,143

The high-tech replacement for the distinctly average Kadjar brings features that are rarely seen at this price point

Kia Sportage 1.6 T-GDi HEV GT-Line S

List price £40,475
Target Price £38,599

The one to beat. In a cheaper guise, the well-rounded Sportage is our reigning Family SUV of the Year. This time we’re testing it in top-spec hybrid form

The Temu online shopping app has been downloaded by millions of users attracted by the premise of its ‘shop like a billionaire’ tagline. Its success was a shoo-in; people love to show off with the latest fashion and tech, and if it can be bought cheaply, so much the better.

The allure of affordable prestige is just one reason why family SUVs have become so popular. They look impressive, their elevated driving positions both feel good and aid visibility, and they’re practical to boot – all while costing little more to buy and run than a more traditional family car. Buyers are clamouring for them, so it’s no wonder that car manufacturers are pushing them in such a big way.

Honda ZR-V front

Take Honda, for instance. It already offers the sizeable CR-V and more compact HR-V, and now it’s plugged the gap between the two with the Honda ZR-V we see here. The fact that it shares underpinnings with the Honda Civic hatchback (as well as its dashboard layout, infotainment set-up and engines) bodes well for the ZR-V’s competence, given that the Civic holds our maximum five-star rating.

Then there’s the Renault Austral. This new replacement for the familiar Kadjar places a real emphasis on technology, tempting buyers to the showroom with four-wheel steering (a technology typically reserved for much more expensive models), a complicated but supposedly highly efficient hybrid system and an Android-based infotainment system that integrates the likes of Google Maps and Google Assistant (don’t worry, it co-operates nicely with Apple CarPlay, too).

Our third contender – the ever-popular Kia Sportage – is the car both newcomers must beat. It was named Best Family SUV at our 2023 Car of the Year Awards, thanks to its impressive efficiency, competitive list price and fine driving manners.

Three very appealing packages, then, but for which one should you click ‘buy now?’

New Honda ZR-V and Renault Austral versus Kia Sportage rears


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

It’s not often that we kick off the driving section by focusing on gearboxes, but the very diverse automatic set-ups of our contenders are key to how differently each one performs.

While the Austral’s 1.2-litre petrol engine is connected to a traditional four-speed automatic gearbox, it’s assisted by an electric motor with two gears of its own. It’s a complicated system that Renault claims is ultra-efficient, but it also happens to make the Austral one of the stranger cars to do standing-start sprints in.

Put your foot down and it always starts off on electric power, but the compact motor’s 67bhp isn’t exactly muscular. At around 15mph, the petrol engine kicks in, giving you a welcome surge of acceleration, but that soon tails off when you’re subjected to a very slow gearchange at around 45mph (and again at around 75mph).

Renault Austral front

Looking at our data, these slow gearchanges rob the Austral of crucial forward momentum (it’s more than a second slower from 30-50mph), and as a result, its overall 0-60mph time of 8.8sec is tardier than we would expect from a family SUV with almost 200bhp.

The ZR-V and Sportage, meanwhile, feel quite a bit punchier than the Austral (managing 0-60mph in 7.5sec and 7.2sec respectively), and each delivers a more traditional accelerative experience. That the ZR-V manages this is made all the more impressive when you consider that it technically doesn’t have a gearbox at all.

Instead, its engine is directly coupled to the front wheels via a clutch and two electric motors, with simulated ‘gearshifts’ engineered in. This helps the ZR-V to do a very convincing impression of a regular automatic ’box, like the one found in the Sportage, while also making its responses snappier than a traditional auto’s because it doesn’t need to ‘kick down’ to find the appropriate gear.

Honda ZR-V gear selector buttons

That said, how often do you find yourself driving flat out? Exactly. These machines are more likely to spend their lives being driven sedately, and it’s here where the Austral manages to score points back. With a relatively large battery for a hybrid, at 1.7kWh (the ZR-V has a 1.05kWh battery, the Sportage’s is 1.49kWh), it is more willing to run on electric power alone and does so for longer periods, making urban motoring a pleasingly silent affair, particularly compared with the Sportage, which has a tendency to fire up its engine when pulling away.

The Austral is also the quietest cruiser, generating very little wind and road noise at motorway speeds. The engines of all three cars are fairly subdued, but the Sportage suffers from some wind noise around the door mirrors, while the ZR-V is the loudest overall, generating notable wind and tyre drone. But don’t go thinking that its low levels of noise make the Austral relaxing to drive, because when it comes to ride quality, the tables are turned.

Although there’s a firm edge to its ride at lower speeds, the ZR-V is the most comfortable car at a cruise, feeling settled and controlled, while the Sportage does a fractionally better job of taking the sting out of potholes around town. Both are leagues ahead of the Austral; whether in town or on the open road, it never feels particularly settled and has a tendency to thump and hop over larger road surface imperfections.

Kia Sportage front

The Austral’s modest body control also shows up as significant body lean in corners, dampening driver appeal. Worse, though, is that the four-wheel steering system – which is intended to improve manoeuvrability – is too aggressive. Combined with overly quick steering (less than 2.3 turns lock to lock), it makes the car feel nervous and leads to it being tricky to place on the road.

This simply isn’t a problem in the ZR-V and Sportage; both cars lean progressively and predictably in corners, and their steering is well weighted. The ZR-V’s Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres aren’t particularly grippy, though; that’s part of the reason why it travelled nearly three metres farther in our 70-0mph braking test than the Austral, and two metres farther than the Sportage.

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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