Used test: Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester

These automatics should take the strain out of SUV ownership, offering the best all-round package without compromising efficiency...

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What Car? team
4 Feb 2018 8:20 | Last updated: 3 Sep 2018 15:58

The Contenders

Honda CR-V 1.6 i-DTEC SE auto

List price when new £30,520

Price today £17,500*

Available from 2012-present

The Honda CR-V is a more comfort oriented SUV, but could this nine-speed auto version be the fastest shifter in the west?


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

List price when new £27,895

Price today £14,500*

Available from 2012-2017

A winner for its dynamics, but could the more conventional six-speed auto in the Mazda CX-5 be its undoing?


Subaru Forester 2.0d XC Premium Lineartronic

List price when new £30,995

Price today £19,000*

Available from 2013-present

The Subaru Forester is rugged, no-nonsense and a little bit gruff, but does the CVT transmission bring any newfound sophistication?


Price today is based on a 2015 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing


The Honda CR-V was a popular family SUV when it arrived back in 2012, but rivals have since shone a critical light on its cost, efficiency and dynamics. However, when fitted with a nine-speed automatic gearbox and paired with an efficient 1.6-litre diesel, these issues could be solved. Its emissions are very low, while the dynamics should be substantially improved by the addition of a more 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 facelifted model gets a CVT automatic gearbox and a better touchscreen system.

 

Used test: Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester

Which leaves the Mazda CX-5. It sets the benchmark with its balance of engaging handling, competitive costs, strong performance and spacious cabin. This facelifted example has the improved cabin, which ups the quality and increases the size of the standard infotainment system on this SE-L Nav version.


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.

 

Used test: Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester

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 test.

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.

 

Used test: Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester

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.

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Used test: Honda CR-V vs Mazda CX-5 vs Subaru Forester