SOFT SERVE

THE HARD-FOUGHT MEDIUM SUV SEGMENT IS UNFORGIVING OF FAILURE. WE GATHER NINE OF THE FRESHEST HIGH-RISE CONTENDERS AND DISCOVER THAT THERE ARE HEROES AND ZEROS HERE. LET THE COUNTDOWN BEGIN...

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD, BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS, BARRY PARK PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR, NATHAN JACOBS

MEGATEST medium SUV FORD ESCAPE | HAVAL H6 | HYUNDAI TUCSON | KIA SPORTAGE | MAZDA CX-5 | MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER | SUBARU FORESTER | TOYOTA RAV4 | VOLKSWAGEN TIGUAN

THE HARD-FOUGHT MEDIUM SUV SEGMENT IS UNFORGIVING OF FAILURE. WE GATHER NINE OF THE FRESHEST HIGH-RISE CONTENDERS AND DISCOVER THAT THERE ARE HEROES AND ZEROS HERE. LET THE COUNTDOWN BEGIN...

COULD 2017 be the breakthrough year for medium SUVs? The car-buying public has adored them for more than a decade – inversely proportional to the cooling of affection for large cars – yet as reviewers, we’ve been patiently waiting for a truly great example of the breed to emerge.

Given that Honda’s new-generation CR-V is due in July, Holden’s desperately needed Equinox arrives in October, Jeep’s long-overdue Compass replacement lobs in December and the all-new Peugeot 3008, recently crowned 2017 European

Car of the Year, are also waiting in the wings, that moment of greatness may still be on a loading dock somewhere. But Australia’s favourite SUV – the Mazda CX-5 – has just been renewed, prompting this nine-car collection of affordable midsized metal that also includes the new-gen Volkswagen Tiguan and Ford’s revamped and rebranded Escape.

Critics may have roasted the Hyundai Tucson City when it launched here back in 2005, but two-wheel-drive SUVs are no longer the exception to the rule. And so it goes here – $30-35K front-drive mid-sizers spanning the Haval H6 Premium ($29,990) to Toyota RAV4 GXL ($35,390).

Now, we could’ve asked for a loaded Haval H6 Lux on 19-inch wheels or a base RAV4 GX wearing steel 17s, but neither would’ve quite fit the bill. Driven by the superb value of Ford’s front-drive Escape Trend ($32,990) and Mazda’s 2.0-litre CX-5 Maxx Sport ($34,390), the brief was ‘low-tomid spec, early 30s’.

That also includes the Hyundai Tucson Active X ($33,650, now with GDi engine), Kia Sportage SLi ($34,690), Mitsubishi Outlander LS Safety Pack ($32,000), Subaru Forester 2.5i-L ($33,240, exclusively with AWD) and Volkswagen Tiguan 110TSI Trendline DSG ($34,490).

Just one eligible car failed to make the grid – the otherwise unfancied front-drive Renault Koleos Zen – while Nissan’s closely related X-Trail had a facelift imminent and wasn’t available in time. Question is, can Subaru’s superb-riding, former Megatest winner, the Forester 2.5i-L, be toppled from its exalted perch?

SCORE 9TH /10 2.0

Haval H6 Premium

SPECS

$29,990* Engine 1967cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Power 145kW @ 5200rpm Torque 315Nm @ 2000rpm Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4549/1835/1700/2720mm Weight 1715kg Cargo capacity 400 litres Tyres Cooper Discoverer HTS 225/65R17 102H Fuel consumption 13.3L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.6sec 0-100km/h 10.0sec 0-400m 17.2sec @ 133.0km/h 30-70km/h 3.7sec 80-120km/h 7.5sec 100km/h-0 40.3m 3yr resale 50% . Rear-seat room; warranty . Dire dynamics; little finesse; heavy and thirsty * Driveaway

BIG TROUBLE IN MAINLAND CHINA

WITH the weight of expectation riding on its elevated shoulders, we approached the Haval H6 wide-eyed and full of beans. As the biggest-selling SUV in China (580,000 in 2016) and the first Chinese-brand car to ever feature in a Wheels comparison test, it marks a historic moment in motoring.

This ‘premium’ SUV from the Great Wall empire is no bargain-basement knock-off. Sure, the glasshouse looks a little Range Rover Evoque-esque, but it succeeds in yielding more kit for your coin than its rivals, and the H6 carries a promising mechanical spec.

Packing a powerful 145kW/315Nm 2.0-litre turbopetrol four tied to a Getrag six-speed dual-clutch ’box, plus enough cabin acreage to rival a warehouse, the H6 Premium brings sufficient spec-sheet swagger to make its $30K driveaway sticker temptingly persuasive.

But it doesn’t take much digging to reveal the H6’s true colours. Beneath its wafer-thin upmarket veneer hides the bones of a much older Great Wall SUV dating back to 2011. And while the H6’s acceptably refined engine and reasonable seat comfort give it some semblance of respectability, it has so many rough edges it’s virtually saw-toothed.

The H6’s interior works on a superficial level – much like its ride quality on relatively smooth roads – until you start poking and prodding its switchgear, exposing an inconsistent lack of quality and attention to detail.

Its cheap touchscreen disperses a rainbow of colour from your finger every time you press it, while shuffling through Standard, Sport or ‘Economic’ drive modes (to alter steering weight, transmission and throttle calibrations) is accompanied by a microwavelike ‘ding’. And another one five seconds later! But only if you’re doing less than 100km/h. Above that speed, the Haval locks you out of any drive-mode selection, and into an unsettling ride that’s barely contained by its judicious ESC system.

Aspects of the H6’s dynamics are a reminder of what HQ-HX Holdens used to drive like. Turn in well before a corner to account for front-end lean and steering vagueness, then moderate throttle inputs to limit plough understeer. Except that the Haval isn’t as predictable as a pre-RTS Kingswood, with little cohesion between its front and rear ends.

Get your trajectory wrong and you’re more likely to startle oncoming traffic than the inside of a corner, and any sudden steering movements are greeted with severe intervention from its ESC that lasts several seconds. That the hazard lights switch on every time you brake and steer at the same time speaks volumes about the H6’s handling shortcomings.

The steering is disconnected and oddly weighted, like two bags of sand suspended from either end of a rope, each fighting to point the H6 straight. In overly hefty Sport mode, it’s even worse.

On a bumpy surface, the H6’s suspension and steering each shimmy to the beat of a different Tina Turner hit, equally flummoxed by what to do, and when you want to pull up, the wooden-feeling brakes offer neither decent retardation or confidence.

And the list goes on. The Haval’s thirst for fuel is the least of its problems, given that we’ve driven prototypes that feel eons closer to engineering sign-off than this. All the lounging cabin space and warranty coverage in the world have little chance of salvaging a car with the active-safety handicap of a Haval H6. NP

Fix ’em up

Haval says 2017-build H6s will no longer flash their hazard lights when braking into a corner, or leave the mirror-mounted rear seatbelt reminders literally on constant red alert (a delight at night…) if no one is sitting there. But a better solution may lie in the nextgeneration H6, unveiled at the recent Shanghai motor show and destined for our shores some time in 2018.

ON BAD ROADS, ITS STEERING AND SUSPENSION EACH SHIMMY TO THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT TINA TURNER HIT

SCORE 8TH /10 5.0

Mitsubishi Outlander LS

SPECS

$32,000 Engine 1998cc 4cyl, sohc, 16v Power 110kW @ 6000rpm Torque 190Nm @ 4200rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4695/1810/1710/2670mm Weight 1430kg Cargo capacity 477 litres Tyres Toyo A24 225/55R18 98H Fuel consumption 10.8L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 5.3sec 0-100km/h 10.8sec 0-400m 17.8s @ 130.7km/h 30-70km/h 4.0sec 80-120km/h 7.3sec 100km/h-0 40.3m 3yr resale 48% . Space; price; safety spec . Brittle ride; flat seats; cheap interior

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH? NOT ONCE YOU SCRATCH THE SURFACE

MITSUBISHI must be doing something right.

Outlander sales are growing at twice the pace of the medium SUV segment this year, which begs the question: How much has this old bus improved?

On sale since 2012, this third-gen iteration has never rated highly with us, undermined by dowdy design, lacklustre dynamics, low-rent interior presentation and eyebrow-cocking fuel efficiency. But that was the tubby 2.4-litre all-wheel-drive version. Could the 400cc-smaller and 100kg-leaner front-drive Outlander deliver a stronger outcome?

With a chromed ‘goatee’ grille, glitzy 18-inch alloys and sundry side brightwork, we initially thought the test LS was the exxier Exceed, until the penny dropped and we realised that even the lowliest Outlander has lost its rental fodder vibe.

Similar tactics abound inside thanks to a makeover that ushers in a new centre touchscreen (with digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity), as well as dual-zone climate control and lashings of piano-black trim adorning the solidly built dash.

All are subtle but welcome updates that build on the existing strengths of an airy cabin featuring a lofty, reclinable rear bench, cohesive instruments, simple switchgear, ample storage and space aplenty for occupants out back.

Enabling greater storage are rear-seat cushions that tip forward for a long, low load bay, hiding several underfloor compartments (plus a full-sized spare).

The LS Safety Pack can also stand alongside the Tiguan and CX-5 newbies by offering active driver tech like AEB, as well as lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise and auto high-beam. Throw in a five-year warranty and you’d imagine most customers would rush for the dotted line. Even before a test drive. In which case we’d strongly recommend scratching the Outlander’s surface.

You might literally do that to the cheap, hard plastics beyond the driver’s area. You’ll curse the fiddly multimedia; lament the absent rear-seat air vents; rue the missing digital speedo; wonder what 13 switch blanks support in upper-spec variants; and wish for more under-thigh seat support.

At least the 2.0-litre engine is economical and eager.

Though languid at step-off, it accelerates strongly and smoothly for spirited point-to-point response, the tacho settling at 5900rpm as the CVT holds engine revs for maximum effect. Hit a steep incline, though, and speed begins to wash away. Select ‘Drive Sport’ and the throttle becomes too sensitive, while the engine revs too high for comfort.

At lower speeds, the Outlander delivers quite lively turn-in and a neutral cornering attitude, but its steering lacks feel and consistency once tighter bends come into play, and handling gets ragged as roads roughen up. Despite the low-profile rubber, front-end grip also deteriorates while the helm’s rack rattles in unison with the cargo floor over bumpier bitumen.

Additionally, the relatively soft suspension can become a tad under-damped in certain conditions, resulting in a constant pitter-patter motion.

While way better than the Haval, the Outlander’s dynamic discord leaves it trailing the rest. Is this the same brand that once built the athletic Magna Ralliart, not to mention the Lancer Evolution?

Ultimately, then, the LS Safety Pack’s showroom persuasion turns patchy in the real world. Discerning buyers clearly have better choices. BM

A CHROMED ‘GOATEE’ GRILLE AND GLITZY ALLOYS MAKE THE $32K LS LOOK LIKE THE EXXIER EXCEED

Strutting your suspenders

Mitsubishi updated its four-year-old Outlander last October with a number of exterior and interior titivations, including a fresh central touchscreen, LED cabin lighting elements, and an additional 12V outlet in the cargo area. There have been some modifications to the suspension, with new toe-link bushes for better lateral rigidity, lower-friction struts for more fluid steering responses, and retuned rear dampers for greater stability and improved ride comfort.

SCORE 7TH /10 6.0

Toyota RAV4 GXL

SPECS

$38,890* Engine 1987cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 107kW @ 6200rpm Torque 187Nm @ 3600rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4605/1845/1715/2720mm Weight 1510kg Cargo capacity 577 litres Tyres Dunlop Grandtrek ST30 235/55R18 100H Fuel consumption 10.4L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 5.4sec 0-100km/h 11.5sec 0-400m 18.2sec @ 126.5km/h 30-70km/h 4.3sec 80-120km/h 8.0sec 100km/h-0 41.1m 3yr resale 54% . Armchair front seats; handling; economy . Unsettled ride; ageing cabin * Includes safety pack ($2500), dual-tone paint ($1000)

OLD GUARD DELIVERS COMPETENCE, RATHER THAN BRILLIANCE

TOYOTA may have produced some unexpected gems of late – namely the funky C-HR, and even the new Prius if you appreciate nimble handling – but its SUV mainstay, the RAV4, remains steadfastly linked to the former regime. Bound by a platform dating back over a decade, it represents the old guard of medium SUVs.

Yet there’s still plenty to like here. Relying on a seemingly insipid 107kW 2.0-litre four that drives the front wheels through a CVT transmission, the 1510kg RAV4 GXL is about as performance-primed as a chamomile tea. But, lazy step-off aside, you tend to forgive the RAV4’s anaemic on-paper acceleration because its engine tries super-hard to please.

Toyota’s 2.0-litre sounds sweeter than Mitsubishi’s, with a nifty manual mode that will keenly extend it to 6700rpm, and convincingly mimic a torque-converter auto’s engine braking when downshifting.

Left to its own devices, however, Toyota’s CVT inserts faux ratio steps, ‘shifting’ up at under six grand and killing the accelerative buzz a little. It also takes a tedious amount of time to build revs in Drive, meaning you’re better off leaving it in Sport mode (via a pushbutton buried deep in the dash centre) and taking advantage of the RAV4 2.0’s fuel efficiency.

Drive the RAV4 hard and it rewards with surprising chassis poise. It steers crisply and precisely (via an arguably too-chubby wheel with inadequate reach adjustment), it turns in with enthusiasm, and you can feel its rear suspension ably assisting the front end to promote its handling balance. Compared to the Haval, the Toyota is paradise, but its ride is louder and more pattery than its Korean rivals.

Despite a facelift in 2015 and several more updates last September (see sidebar), nothing can save the current RAV4’s ride quality, certainly not the GXL’s 18-inch wheels. It never settles, with abrupt reactions to bumps and a jostling demeanour that leaves passengers shaken, not stirred. The RAV4 has clearly been tuned for handling, but unlike models on Toyota’s new-gen platform, it doesn’t ride at the same time.

Our test GXL came with a $2500 Safety pack (bringing collision warning, AEB, active cruise, auto high-beam, auto wipers, lane-departure warning with steering assist, front parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert), which unlocks the option of a questionable dual-tone paint option ($1000) which includes black headlining.

Unfortunately, that last detail makes the RAV4’s ageing cabin feel oppressively dark. And while the GXL’s cloth front buckets are almost armchair-like for comfort, facing an expansive windscreen that offers a superb view, a too-high brake pedal skews the driving position. The front passenger, meanwhile, misses out on seat-height adjustment and has to contend with a needlessly protruding lip on the dashboard that proves a perpetual pain for anyone that’s seriously tall.

The Toyota’s rake-adjustable rear seat lacks the armchair feel of up front, despite quite a long cushion, because it’s mounted too close to the floor. Cranking the driver’s seat low unleashes an unimpeded view forward from behind, but rear toe room is marginal.

The RAV4’s strong air-con makes up for its lack of rear air vents, however, and you get four huge door grab handles. Pity the flimsy luggage cover guarding its vast 577-litre boot (when there’s no full-size spare) fails to dampen the continual drone from its tyres.

All of which leaves the Toyota down but not completely out. If you’re an undemanding driver, you could easily put up with the 2.0-litre’s performance, and providing you can tolerate its ride, there’s much to commend the RAV4 GXL’s driveability. But glory in 2017 requires more than just competence. NP

ITS ENGINE HAS THE PERFORMANCE CRED OF CHAMOMILE TEA, BUT IT TRIES SUPER-HARD TO PLEASE

Spruce juice

Toyota updated the fourth-generation RAV4 in late-2015 with a sharp exterior restyle, in-cabin refinements and retuned suspension (to improve the ride), and had another shot last September by expanding AEB availability and adding sat-nav, smartphone integration and DAB radio to GXL variants.

But optioned like our test car, the pricey front-drive GXL lacks the CX-5 Maxx Sport’s knock-out value.

Its resale is inferior too – 54 percent after three years compared to the Mazda’s best-in-class 57 percent.


SCORE 6TH /10 6.5

Hyundai Tucson Active X

SPECS

$33,650 Engine 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 121kW @ 6200rpm Torque 203Nm @ 4700rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4475/1850/1655/2670mm Weight 1584kg Cargo capacity 488 litres Tyres Nexen N-Priz RH 225/55R18 98H Fuel consumption 10.7L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.7sec 0-100km/h 10.5sec 0-400m 17.3sec @ 131.8km/h 30-70km/h 3.8sec 80-120km/h 7.4sec 100km/h-0 38.2m 3yr resale 52% + Handling; packaging; styling - Outshone by Sportage; downmarket interior

SLIGHTLY IMPROVED, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO USURP SPORTAGE

HYUNDAI has already hit the popularity jackpot with the striking Tucson. But with newly hatched sweeteners like a direct-injection heart transplant for 2017, what’s holding the medium SUV from Korea’s biggest brand back from challenging the class order?

That engine first. Ousting the old 114kW/192Nm 2.0-litre ‘MPI’ multi-point injection unit that still serves in the closely related Kia Sportage, the 121kW/203Nm direct-injection ‘GDI’ version’s incremental improvements translate to slightly stronger performance and significantly improved refinement in the upper rev band. The result is a robust slogger, supported by a well-tuned six-speed torque-converter auto.

So imagine our surprise when almost nothing separated the latest Tucson from its lesser-engined Sportage equivalent at the strip, with the Kia matching the Hyundai to 400 metres and actually pipping its cousin to 100km/h. The GDI’s advantage only becomes evident at higher speeds (and revs), though its half a litre fuel consumption saving would certainly be appreciated in the hip-pocket.

Tuned for Australian conditions, the Tucson’s chassis is defined by its neutral balance and confident control.

Keener drivers will prefer more steering weight and crisper feel – something the rather numb Sport mode attempts to address – but the differences between the two settings aren’t that clear-cut.

A downside to Hyundai’s sporty tuning is a propensity for steering-rack rattle through bumpier corners, while the Active X’s standard 18-inch rubber results in a relatively firm (though still adequately absorbent) ride quality. You can hear more than feel the hardware beavering away down there, though, pleasingly, the engineers have managed to effectively contain road and tyre noise intrusion.

The interior, too, is largely successful in execution, with ample levels of passenger space in both rows, commendable forward vision and a simple dashboard that requires no mastery whatsoever.

As with the engine and dynamics, however, there is room for improvement. For starters, the fascia’s layout is probably too elementary in this day and age. There is very little that’s sophisticated or interesting inside the Tucson (bar the lovely and clear instruments).

Time for a fresh design approach, Hyundai.

More pressingly, the driver’s cushion is a little low on support, and yet ironically the seat itself can’t be adjusted quite low enough for some folk.

Out back, you don’t have to be tall to realise that the rear seat’s entry and egress are hampered by the low roof line and coupe-like door cut-out (especially compared to the Sportage’s almost parallelogramshaped aperture).

Yet once inside, most people will appreciate just how roomy and practical the Tucson is, with a cushion that’s nicely padded for optimum comfort, plenty of backrest angle adjustability, armrests sited exactly where they’re needed, and lots of room for feet underneath the front seats.

You’d never call the Active X meanly specified, with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, rear camera with sensors, and electric folding mirrors included. But, again, there are anomalies, especially compared to the Sportage – such as only one auto up/down window (driver’s side), absent rear air vents, no 12V or USB outlets in the back, and of course a five-year warranty (like the Mitsubishi) instead of Kia’s seven years.

Ultimately, the more complete Sportage showed up the Tucson by offering essentially the same medium SUV in a more persuasive, more sophisticated, and better-equipped package. So while the big-selling Tucson improves in a number of small ways for 2017, all-round completeness continues to elude it. BM

v TUNED FOR OZ, TUCSON IS DEFINED BY ITS NEUTRAL BALANCE AND CONFIDENT CONTROL

SUV onslaught

Tucson seems to be closing the sales gap on Mazda’s top-selling CX-5, leaving traditional medium-SUV leaders like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V way behind.

The upcoming Hyundai Kona – the smallest crossover the brand has ever offered – should give the Korean giant even more SUV clout when it lands later this year, closely followed by a new-gen Santa Fe.

SCORE 5TH /10 7. 0

Kia Sportage SLi

SPECS

$34,690 Engine 1999cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 114kW @ 6200rpm Torque 192Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4480/1855/1655/2670mm Weight 1559kg Cargo capacity 466 litres Tyres Nexen N-Priz RH7 225/55R18 98H Fuel consumption 11.2L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.6sec 0-100km/h 10.4sec 0-400m 17.3sec @ 129.2km/h 30-70km/h 3.8sec 80-120km/h 7.5sec 100km/h-0 39.3m 3yr resale 54% + Equipment; keen handling; great warranty - Noisy engine; intrusive ESC

FROM THE SAME TOWN AS TUCSON, BUT NOT ITS MINDSET

IT’S EASY to lump Korean sister brands Hyundai and Kia together. But differences between the sixth-placed Hyundai Tucson and the Kia Sportage are apparent the moment you crack a door. The Kia instantly feels a higher grade of car. The sweeping dash’s design looks and feels more premium, the multimedia unit’s graphics are sharper and more sophisticated, and there’s a strong sense that the Kia is better equipped.

It is. Two 12-volt outlets straddle a USB slot and auxiliary port up front, a sat-nav map lights up on the screen, while dual-zone climate control dials grace the lower dash. You push a button to start the engine rather than insert and turn a key, the driver’s seat adjusts electrically (for superior comfort), and there’s a bunch of other surprise-and-delight additions that justify the Sportage SLi’s $1000 price premium.

But it’s the rear seat that expands the Hyundai/ Kia divide. Backswept, elf-eared rear doors that offer the best access on test open up to a rear bench that appears to have been made with passengers front of mind, and not cobbled in as a begrudging afterthought. Okay, so the second-row seatbacks lack a bit of lateral support, but forward vision via a low-ish beltline and a long glasshouse that appears to wrap around the Sportage is excellent, second only to the Subaru for its sense of light-filled airiness.

Unfortunately, the Sportage is a half-step behind the Hyundai when it comes to what’s under the bonnet.

Australia’s Korean-sourced Sportage continues with a 114kW/192Nm multi-point injection version of the long-serving ‘Nu’ 2.0-litre engine, whereas the MY17 Tucson gets direct-injection and 121kW/203Nm.

In reality, the difference is mostly down to refinement. Over the last thousand revs to the 6500rpm redline, the Sportage’s older engine is much more intrusive, making it less pleasant to punch hard.

Yet when you do, the Sportage offers near-identical performance to the Tucson, not to mention the 2.0-litre CX-5. But neither of the Korean drivetrains can match the Mazda’s sweetly encouraging proficiency.

Where the GDI outshines the MPI donk is in fuel economy. The Sportage’s on-test consumption of 11.2L/100km was half a litre thirstier than Tucson’s.

There’s something else that counts against the Kia.

Higher levels of road and wind noise compared with almost all the other SUVs here tarnish the Sportage’s overall polish – think tyre roar and wind rush rising to about the same level as the previous-gen Mazda CX-5 – and its otherwise well-rounded ability.

That’s a shame because the taut Sportage’s dynamics reward keen drivers, and are a credit to Kia Australia’s dedicated local tuning program.

The Sportage’s steering has slightly crisper feedback than the Tucson’s, even with the Drive mode left in Normal rather than the throttle-jumpy Sport or anaesthetised Eco modes. But it’s nowhere near as good as the Escape’s crisp precision.

With four bodies on board, or even one-up on our winding dynamic loop, the Kia enjoys stringing corners together, and feels more playful than its Hyundai equivalent. Pitch it into a corner and it clearly favours its rear end, as opposed to the more neutral Hyundai.

Unfortunately, that encouraging playfulness can ignite the Kia’s Korean-tuned ESC, killing the fun faster than a coldsore on date night.

But we really like how the Kia Sportage exudes a youthful, fun-to-drive, almost European ethos. Useful, comfortable, well-appointed and individually styled, it doesn’t even need Kia’s unbeatable seven-year warranty to argue a strong case. While its Hyundai cousin toes a conservative line, the Kia doesn’t mind being different. If only that included its engine. BP

THE LIKEABLE SPORTAGE EXUDES A YOUTHFUL, FUN-TO-DRIVE, ALMOST EUROPEAN ETHOS

Boosted fortune

One powertrain choice that Australia misses out on is a 130kW/265Nm 1.6-litre turbopetrol four with seven-speed dual-clutch ’box (as per upspec Tucsons) that powers GTLine versions of the Kia built in Europe. Unavailable at the Sportage’s launch a year ago, Kia Australia is keen to see if it can be added as part of a mid-cycle update due in about a year’s time.

But all that depends on whether the drivetrain becomes available from Kia’s Korean factory.

SCORE 4TH /10 7. 5

Subaru Forester 2.5i-L

SPECS

$33,240 Engine 2498cc flat 4, dohc, 16v Power 126kW @ 5800rpm Torque 235Nm @ 4100rpm Transmission CVT automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4610/1795/1735/2640mm Weight 1568kg Cargo capacity 422 litres Tyres Yokohama Geolander G91F 225/60R17 99H Fuel consumption 11.8L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.6sec 0-100km/h 9.9sec 0-400m 17.1sec @ 133.6km/h 30-70km/h 3.8sec 80-120km/h 6.8sec 100km/h-0 40.4m 3yr resale 54% + Superb ride and vision; strong powertrain; AWD - Average refinement; styling

BOXY, YES, BUT BRILLIANT IN PARTS THAT REALLY COUNT

ALMOST three years ago to the month, Subaru’s unassuming and underrated Forester 2.5i-L emerged from the corner stalls to claim victory in our 2014 medium SUV Megatest. Dressed down in work-a-day threads, the Forester wowed us with its consummate all-round ability and its rather charming personality.

Little has changed in 2017, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Subaru has since upgraded the multimedia system and added the odd flicker of visual sparkle, yet this deeply pragmatic vehicle continues to fly in the face of all that glitters. The Forester is simply about mucking in and getting on with it.

It continues to set the medium SUV benchmark for ride comfort and all-round vision. Indeed, the Forester’s super-low cowl and beltline deliver a panoramic vista, while its superb ride is so far ahead of the next cushiest (the Escape), it’s in a league of its own. As rivals bumped, thumped, jostled and jiggled, the supple Subaru devoured everything beneath it with impervious control and unwavering calm.

If we had to pin-point a weakness, it’s the Forester’s middling level of tyre hum and wind rustle. But given that this is essentially a box on wheels pushing through air – almost as tall as it is wide – it’s more about sensing their presence than their offensiveness.

The benefit of the Subaru’s upright stature is highly effective passenger space. Decent front seats (with tilt-adjustable headrests) combine with an eminently supportive rear bench that, while lacking backrestangle adjustment, gets all the fundamentals right to provide an airy, elevated environment. Despite its relatively short wheelbase, the upright Subaru provides plenty of room for most body types, and terrific entry and egress through wide-opening rear doors for parenty or elderly types. Its 422-litre boot is relatively small, however, in part owing to the full-size spare beneath.

Continuing the Forester’s theme of effortless operation is its drivetrain. A 2.5-litre flat-four engine and CVT transmission combination may seem deeply underwhelming, but the reality is a responsive, refined performer that ties with the turbocharged Tiguan for 80-120km/h class honours (6.8sec).

With a dedicated ‘M’ position (for ‘manual’) in its shift gate, and seven stepped ratios accessed via steering-wheel paddles, the Forester offers similarly effective engine braking to the RAV4. Yet unlike the Toyota, the Subaru accelerates without faux ratio steps limiting the effectiveness of its performance.

With standard all-wheel drive, the Forester also has no problem putting its powertrain to good use, regardless of the surface.

In typical Subaru fashion, the Forester’s dynamics are quite low-key, communicating enough feedback to achieve easy-to-place cornering fluency, yet always with more chassis poise than tyre grip.

It rolls quite a bit, but it’s chuckable and confidenceinspiring, rewarding driver commitment with amusing handling (providing you don’t mind some howl from its all-season tyres running quite low recommended pressures). And if you want the peace-of-mind of Subaru’s comprehensive ‘Eyesight’ safety aids, add $4000 to the 2.5i-L’s competitive $33,240 list price, which delivers a package with a breadth of ability that sits right at the top of this competitor set.

So why has the humble Forrie slipped from grace?

Blame the ageing process. Up against the razzle-dazzle of the new CX-5 and the slick proficiency of the Tiguan, the four-year-old Forester simply has neither the wow factor or quite the refinement to eyeball its fiercest rivals. And alongside the superb-handling Escape, the Forester’s more subdued abilities just edge it back a notch.

But what a deeply admirable thing the Forester is. If you champion function over form and lament the loss of great ride quality in modern cars, then welcome to Subaru country, where the weather’s always fine. NP

RIVALS BUMP, THUMP, JOSTLE AND JIGGLE WHILE THE SUBARU MAINTAINS AN IMPERVIOUS CALM

Boxing days

Expect the fifth-generation Forester to debut in early 2018, underpinned by Subaru’s all-new scalable platform that surfaced with the new-gen Impreza last year, and largely mirroring today’s powertrain line-up. What we’re unlikely to ever see, though, is the Forester’s larger brother, the forthcoming seven-seat Ascent. It’s to be built in left-hook only in Subaru’s US plant in Indiana.

SCORE 3RD /10 7. 5

Ford Escape Trend

SPECS

$34,290* Engine 1499cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v turbo Power 134kW @ 6000rpm Torque 240Nm @ 1600-5000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4524/1838/1749/2690mm Weightt 1532kg Cargo capacity 406 litres Tyres Continental ContiSportContact 5 235/50R18 101V Fuel consumption 10.5L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 3.9sec 0-100km/h 9.6sec 0-400m 16.8sec @ 131.3km/h 30-70km/h 3.4sec 80-120km/h 7.1sec 100km/h-0 37.4m 3yr resale 56% . Ace steering; lovely balance; strong engine; terrific value . Dorky dash; ageing design * Includes tech pack ($1300)

WOLF IN KUGA’S CLOTHING REMAINS A POWERFUL CONTENDER

GOOD riddance. ‘Escape’ is far more apt for a lifestyle-promising SUV than the controversial Kuga nameplate (blame the Germans) it usurps, with the swaparoo finally addressing a key reason for the European Ford’s failure to fire in Australia.

However, the menu is not the meal, and this 2013-vintage SUV still has an uphill battle to fight, even with a name that’s literally no longer on the nose.

Exhibit A: what you see. Rather oddball in some of its detailing, a number of the Escape’s ‘improvements’ don’t quite gel. Behold, for example, the newly bluffer grille that only accentuates the thick-limbed body’s slight awkwardness. The same applies inside.

While the tweaked dashboard boasts an in-vogue touchscreen with Ford’s massively improved SYNC3 multimedia interface, it lives within a heavy-handed hood that looks like Darth Vader’s mask. Trunk-like A-pillar bases could hide a whole Death Star from the driver’s view, and clap-arm wipers thud during each sweep, failing to clear the entire screen properly. The front passenger feels higher than a Cypress Hill fan, perched on a seat with no downward adjustment, but at least the gearlever’s confounded, side-mounted shift toggle gives way to a pair of proper wheel paddles.

Yet these are all superficial observations because the Escape’s driving position is first class. Its front seats are firmly supportive, the steering wheel is perfectly sized, ventilation is brilliant, the dials classy (and include a clear digital speedo), the build quality acceptable, and there’s plenty of room.

Moving to the back, the cushion might look emaciated, but the elevated hip point enables a more natural posture that proves comfortable, aided by a reclining backrest, rear vents and an invitingly airy ambience. Unexpected wins include remote controlactivated windows (with auto up/down for all), capless refuelling for cleaner hands, and a one-tap retractable cargo blind for the usefully large luggage area.

At the other end is a lusty yet refined 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo four, offering gutsy off-the-line performance as well as a steady stream of instant oomph for effortless overtaking. Among the fastest in every acceleration increment, the Ford’s impressive fuel economy came as one of the test’s most welcome shocks, assisted by a seamless idle-stop system.

Braking proved the best of the bunch too.

Also keeping Escape youthful is its leading dynamic agility, with the group’s most fluid and intimate steering, providing gloriously precise handling and beautifully poised roadholding, as well as firmly controlled, yet reasonably supple, ride comfort.

Keeping in mind that the Trend wears 235/50R18 rubber, initial bump impact feels quite firm at first (and so isn’t in the same league as the super-absorbent Forester), but the dampers do smooth things out with disciplined cushiness. Road/tyre noise is also agreeably contained in most circumstances.

Focused and refined, this Ford is the medium SUV set’s top driving machine, as well as one of the best-equipped. Note also that while AEB is optional ($1300), it is accessibly bundled with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and assist, auto highbeam, adaptive cruise and blind-spot monitoring.

Three years ago a (thirsty) Kuga 1.6T AWD managed the same score (but second place) in our medium SUV Megatest. So third spot for its ageing yet more sophisticated, and oh-so-likeable successor is a terrific effort. The Escape isn’t just about changing names. BM

KEEPING ESCAPE YOUTHFUL IS ITS LEADING DYNAMIC AGILITY AND ITS LUSTY POWERTRAIN

Upping the Ambiente

The gem in the Escape range also happens to be the cheapest: the $28,490 Ambiente with a lovely 110kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo and an incredibly well-oiled six-speed manual ’box.

Revvy, gutsy and beautifully balanced, this is a cracker of a powertrain that works with, rather than against, enthusiastic driving. If you’ve ever dreamt of a semi-hot-hatch-like family SUV oozing comfort and finesse, the Escape Ambiente will delight.


SCORE 2ND /10 8.0

Volkswagen Tiguan Trendline

SPECS

$35,190 Engine 1495cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v turbo Power 110kW @ 5000-6000rpm Torque 250Nm @ 1500-3500rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4486/1839/1648/2681mm Weight 1450kg Cargo capacity 615 litres Tyres Michelin Primacy 3 215/65R17 99V Fuel consumption 9.5L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.2sec 0-100km/h 9.1sec 0-400m 16.7sec @ 135.9km/h 30-70km/h 3.4sec 80-120km/h 6.8sec 100km/h-0 37.8m 3yr resale 52% . Superb efficiency; strong grunt; roomy packaging . Busy ride, austere cabin * Includes metallic paint ($700)

MORE LIKE A SUPERB SKODA THAN A WHOLE-IN-ONE VW

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE how the Tiguan is viewed as the Golf of medium SUVs. Based on the MQB modular architectural component tech-fest underpinning most transverse-engined Volkswagen Group cars, the 110TSI Trendline actually is closest to our 2013 COTY-award winning (and enduring benchmark smallcar) hatchback. Certainly in terms of lightness and efficiency, including the entry-level front-drive variant’s ultra-sweet 1.4-litre turbo four-pot and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Given the Golf’s supremacy, we expected the Wolfsburg crossover to bulldoze all before it. So how is second place even possible with such guaranteed genetic goodness, particularly when the list of pros comprehensively outweighs the cons?

Significantly larger, longer and wider than its dinky predecessor, the second-gen Tiguan is a packaging knockout, offering an exceptionally airy, spacious and solid cabin environment infused with palpable quality.

Anybody familiar with any contemporary Volkswagen will instantly connect with the elegant instrumentation, superbly crafted steering wheel, sensible central touchscreen interface, firm yet ably supportive seating, and the almost sensual tactility of materials In this base Trendline we identified 10 surpriseand- delight features none of the others offer, such as flocked door bins, a ratchet-actuated height-and-length adjustable central armrest, infinitely adjustable frontseat reclining mechanism, climate-controlled glovebox, proximity-sensitive multimedia interface, louvered cupholder jalousie, a frameless rear-view mirror, and a sliding back seat. Only one other SUV here features remote-control window operation (Escape), and another a passenger-seat height adjuster (CX-5).

Yet visible expanses of plain vinyl trim and the lack of a centre armrest does make Tiguan’s rear quarters feel somewhat austere, particularly compared to the salubrious-looking Mazda. Lucky that Teflon-smooth engine reclaims some of that premium goodness.

Marginally the quickest yet clearly the most economical, Wolfsburg’s 110kW 1395cc firecracker infuses the Tiguan with waterslide levels of slickness.

Half a second ahead of the next-best to 100km/h, first to 400m and quickest in both the 30-70km/h and 80-120km/h brackets, it’s also the most parsimonious on petrol by nearly a litre. The almost viceless Tiguan proudly upholds the Golf’s mantle of unassailable efficiency. What a joy… in the right conditions.

That’s what makes the laggy nothing-then-everything step-off acceleration all the more infuriating, especially when accompanied by front axle tramp that turns violent over damp roads. Difficult to modulate in heavy traffic, you wonder whether Volkswagen’s engineers actually fully validated the 1.4 DSG combo. Living with it in wet peak-hour commutes would have us crying out for even the Outlander’s soul-sapping CVT. Our advice is to avoid infuriation by choosing the delightful, and cheaper, six-speed manual base Tiguan instead (the same applies to the Ford Escape too, BTW.)

A similar snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory scenario sullies the Tiguan’s almost supernaturally gifted steering, handling and roadholding characteristics. When the roads and environment align, nothing here touches the 110TSI’s suave cornering speed, incisive handling and fearless body control.

This thing can reel in a mountain pass with the killer instinct and confidence of a warm hatch.

But there’s an inevitable but. Unless traversing glassy surfaces, the ride always feels agitated, with excessive (for a Volkswagen) road noise joining the unsettled suspension. This particular Golf-on-stilts is just too stiff-legged for a family hauler. Earth calling Wolfsburg: time to democratise those adaptive dampers! The $50K-plus Tiguan R-Line is way beyond the reach of this lowly end of the medium SUV class.

This, and the jerky powertrain progress, is why the Tiguan ultimately sounds and feels more like an Octavia (which is a plus-sized, 10-percent-inferior Golf in Skoda drag) than the iconic Wolfsburg hatch. Not the leap forward in refinement over its predecessor that this Megatest’s winner so clearly is, VW needs to finish finessing its otherwise brilliant medium SUV. BM

TIGUAN CAN REEL IN A MOUNTAIN PASS WITH THE KILLER INSTINCT OF A WARM HATCH

Frills, not thrills

The entry 110TSI Trendline might look a bit spartan inside, but it’s actually generously (as well as intelligently) equipped, including autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane assist, multi-collision braking, park assist, driver fatigue detection, a 360-degree ‘fish-eye’ reverse camera with front and rear sensors, and a pedestrian-friendly active bonnet.

There’s also seven airbags, auto wipers and headlights, an electric park brake, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and tyre-pressure monitors. Note the spare is a space-saver.


SCORE 1ST /10 8.0

Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport

SPECS

$34,845* Engine 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v Power 114kW @ 6000rpm Torque 200Nm @ 4000rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) 4550/1840/1675/2700mm Weight 1556kg Cargo capacity 442 litres Tyres Yokohama Geolander G98 GV 225/65R17 102V Fuel consumption 10.4L/100km (tested) 0-60km/h 4.7sec 0-100km/h 10.4sec 0-400m 17.4sec @ 130.5km/h 30-70km/h 3.9sec 80-120km/h 7.2sec 100km/h-0 37.9m 3yr resale 57% . Upmarket cabin; engaging character; brilliant value . Busy country road ride * Includes Machine Grey paint ($300) and floor mats ($155))

TAKES CRITICISM ON THE CHIN AND STRUTS BACK SWINGING

IF ‘post-Trump’ is now a recognised term in educated society, then ‘post-CX-9’ must be a thing in Mazda’s inner sanctum. Not the heavy, thick-pillared old lump but the comparatively svelte, COTY-winning new one.

It has set a high-water mark for Mazda SUVs – and large SUVs in general – that makes the task of every subsequent newcomer that much harder.

Here, the microscope is focused pointedly and critically at the new-gen CX-5. And making its mission doubly difficult is the model we’ve chosen – the most expensive front-drive CX-5 you can buy ($34,390 Maxx Sport) featuring a 114kW 2.0-litre engine that could theoretically cure insomnia. Yet the variant that had us concerned may be the runt of the new CX-5 litter is actually anything but.

The engine is definitely a surprise. Seemingly unchanged since 2012, in front-drive Maxx Sport guise, this unassuming little unit has to lug 74kg more than it did five years ago, yet Mazda has clearly made improvements. Even in an SUV as beefy as this, it’s a peach of thing, revving out keenly (and usefully) to 6700rpm without any of the vibes that plague the CX-3.

Its ultimate lack of muscle sees the six-speed auto hunt up and down a bit on hills (in regular Drive mode, not ultra-primed Sport), yet the transmission calibration is close to spot-on and overall refinement is bloody good. The base 2.0-litre even has personality.

So does the rest of the new-gen CX-5. Inside, attention to detail is way ahead of the old car, hitting all the marks in terms of what you expect from a medium SUV, and then some (despite the lack of a digital speedo). Stitched dashboard and door tops look and feel really upmarket for $34K, as does the horizontal design aesthetic and metal detailing.

Better still is the CX-5’s leap forward in seat comfort and useability. Even the base Maxx gets a heightadjustable front passenger’s seat – a long-overdue feature in any Mazda – while Maxx Sport scores rear air vents, four auto up/down windows, and dual USB slots in its centre rear armrest to calm the little coots.

Both front seats are deeper and more supportive, as is the rear bench, making passengers feel part of the car. But this relatively low-slung seating feel doesn’t come at the expense of all-round vision. Even with charcoal trim like our test car, the new CX-5’s thinner pillars, lower dash and superior accoutrements make it feel so much more welcoming.

Pity its ride isn’t quite at the same level. Around town with just the driver on board, the Maxx Sport’s ride is entirely acceptable – firm, yet well-controlled – but over our punishing four-up test road, the CX-5 simply couldn’t relax.

It fails to iron out the low-frequency bumps that a really good ride does (see Subaru Forester) and can ultimately be a bit tiresome on longer, bumpier country journeys. The more challenging the road, the better the CX-5 is, but it always feels primed when sometimes you just want it to chill.

Where that works to its advantage is in corners. The Mazda can’t quite match the Escape’s instant poise, but its crisp steering is nicely weighted and, in typical Mazda fashion, the harder you drive it, the sweeter its balance and the greater its handling involvement.

Tyre-noise suppression has simply caught up to its rivals, rather than setting a new standard, yet the CX-5 has gone from being a car that gets constantly singled out for NVH crimes to a car where it’s now a non-issue.

Yet this is no baby CX-9. The new CX-5 is a sportier, younger person’s car than its plush big brother.

And this front-drive Maxx Sport variant represents amazing value for money, especially when you take into account the CX-5’s best-in-class resale.

Neither as fast or as frugal, or even as roomy, as the new Tiguan, it’s the CX-5’s engagement that gets it over the line. Unlike the old model, and unlike the base Tiguan, the new-gen CX-5 has warmth and personality on its side, and that’s the stuff that builds relationships, rather than just admiration. NP

CX-5 HAS WARMTH AND PERSONALITY ON ITS SIDE, AND THAT STUFF BUILDS RELATIONSHIPS

Four with more

Just 15 percent of CX-5 buyers will go for a front-drive variant, each relying on the revvy 2.0-litre. However, if the price bracket is right but not the powertrain, Mazda offers a Maxx AWD with a 140kW/251Nm 2.5-litre engine for $33,690 – cheaper than the FWD Maxx Sport. But you’d lose alloys, rear vents, auto lights/wipers, a rear centre armrest with USB slots, dual-zone climate and sat-nav.