Audi Q3 2.0 TDI 140 SE
List price when new £25,065
Price today £13,000
Available from 2012-present
The Q3 is the only premium contender here. Can its extra class make up for its size deficit?
Honda CR-V 2.2 i-DTEC S
List price when new £24,605
Price today £12,000
Available from 2012-present
Lots of space for relatively little cash is the main selling point of this entry-level CR-V
Mazda CX-5 2.2D 150 SE-L
List price when new £22,995
Price today £11,500
Available from 2012-2017
The CX-5 features clever fuel-saving technology, and its shapely styling has won it plenty of fans
Toyota RAV4 2.0 D-4D Icon
List price when new £24,295
Price today £12,000
Available from 2013-present
The latest RAV4 has held its value well – but can it now compete with its rivals on price?
Price today is based on a 2013 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
It’s fair to say that SUVs are all the rage these days. Used and new car buyers alike love the raised driving positions, added practicality, space and, in the case of SUVs equipped with four-wheel drive, the extra security on slippery roads.
No surprise, then, that used SUV sales surge as the winter months approach and the weather turns. But if you’re one of the many buyers contemplating an SUV purchase right now, the options are myriad, and you might be wondering which you should choose.
Do you spend a little more, or perhaps take a hit on engine and specification in order to afford a premium brand? Or do you go with a more mainstream badge, and perhaps sacrifice quality and image? And do you really need four-wheel drive – or will two-wheel drive, with the improvement in fuel economy that it brings, suffice?
To help you answer those questions, we’ve brought together four family-sized used SUVs that all offer something special, to pit against one another in a quest to find out which is best. First up, there’s our premium contender, the Audi Q3, which has a bit of a mountain to climb on first appearance; it’s hampered by its high purchase price and it’s smaller than the other four cars here. However, like all Audis, it promises a beautifully crafted interior and a punchy diesel engine, not to mention the kudos of its upmarket badge, which might be enough to tip the balance.
The polar opposite of the Audi is the Honda CR-V. For starters, it’s the largest car here – jointly, with the Toyota – and it’s also the only four-wheel-drive model of our group. With its emphasis on comfort, it eschews the Audi’s overtones of sportiness in favour of something a little more benign. That might make it a less compelling proposition to drive, though.
For those who like their SUVs served with a side of driver involvement, by contrast, we’ve the Mazda CX-5, whose svelte styling hides an SUV which is surprisingly good fun to drive. Of course, that isn’t exactly the top priority for most family buyers, so it means little if the CX-5 can’t stack up on practicality and value. Fortunately, Mazda’s clever fuel-saving technology means it should at least be cheap to run.
Finally, there’s the car that started the soft-roader craze in the first place, more than 20 years ago. But being the first doesn’t necessarily equate to being the best, and the Toyota RAV4, here in its fourth generation, will have to be on the money in order to fend off the challenge from its upstart competitors. Nevertheless, it purports to offer the same dependability and user-friendliness of all of its predecessors – which is certainly a good start.
What are they like to drive?
The RAV4’s 122bhp engine is pretty weedy by today’s standards. While it will rev to 5000rpm, there’s little point in working it hard because the meat of its torque is between 2000 and 3000rpm.
Instead, the RAV4 performs best when you ask for a short burst of pace before quickly shifting up to the next gear. That’s all well and good if you’re just accelerating up a slip road before sitting on the motorway for a couple of hours, but it’s far from ideal in more congested conditions.
The Q3 has an extra 16bhp, and is a lighter car, so it’s no surprise that it destroys the RAV4 on outright performance. However, the Q3’s engine is also happier to rev, and it requires far fewer downchanges when you’re going up hills or passing slower cars.
Things go from bad to worse for the RAV4 when it’s compared with the CR-V and CX-5, which both use muscular 148bhp engines. The CX-5’s is particularly impressive, pulling hard from just 1500rpm, and revving out to its 5200rpm redline with the speed and smoothness of a petrol engine.
The CR-V doesn’t display the same thirst for revs, but it has awesome low- and mid-range punch. The only disappointment is that its engine is working hardest on the motorway.
The original RAV4 was the car responsible for putting the ‘sport’ into ‘sports utility vehicle’. This latest version is a far cry from that, but if you accept its limitations as a much bigger car, then it’s still a decent thing to drive.
It steers with some precision, body roll is generally well controlled and there’s plenty of grip in corners. True, the suspension feels quite busy around town, but the ride improves with speed – to the point where the RAV4 feels settled and totally secure.
It’s actually the Q3 that gets closest to the spirit of the original RAV, combining darty steering with tight body control and loads of grip. You can hustle it down twisty B-roads in the way you would a hot hatch, but while you pay for this agility with a firm low-speed ride, the Q3’s suspension resolves into a smooth, fluid action when you up the pace.
The CX-5 has a similar character. Heavy steering and a shortage of give in the suspension mean it can feel like hard work around town. However, show it a faster road and it’s in its element; the suspension keeps things comfortable and controlled, and you can place the car with total confidence, thanks to its precise steering.
The CR-V is a very different beast. There’s plenty of travel in its suspension and a fair bit of give in the tyre walls, so it soaks up bumps and potholes well. That said, it does tend to shimmy from side to side over patched-up roads, and you pay for its more compliant nature in corners, where the nose of the car is slow to respond to steering inputs and the body leans dramatically. The CR-V is also the first to run out of grip, which can be a problem if a bend tightens unexpectedly.
The Q3 is almost as refined as the best compact executive saloons, so it’s the quietest car here by a considerable margin. It’s much better than its rivals at shutting out wind noise at higher speeds, and while the engine does get a little vocal when pushed, its smooth, free-revving nature means that the cabin always remains relatively free of mechanical vibration.
You hear more of a whoosh from the CR-V’s engine as it revs up. However, its delivery is as smooth as the Q3’s, and you rarely have to extend it beyond its comfort zone, thanks to its impressive mid-range torque. Tyre roar and suspension noise are also well suppressed, so with the exception of a little wind blast around its door mirrors and front pillars, the CR-V is a perfectly refined motorway cruiser.
Life is much noisier in the CX-5 and RAV4, because both cars suffer from quite a bit of wind buffeting and road roar. Both engines become quite shouty at higher revs, too, but the Mazda’s superior mechanical refinement means that far less vibration can be felt through its steering wheel, pedals and floor. In fact, the CX-5 suffers from less vibration than any of its rivals in this test.
The Q3, CR-V and RAV4 all have light clutches and slick gearshifts, so they’re easy to drive, even in stop-start traffic. However, the CX-5’s shift takes a bit of getting used to; it has a very short throw that feels more suited to a sports car than an SUV, plus the action is slightly obstinate.
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