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The Top 10 Best SUVs

Written by

Scott Murray

You will notice a distinct lack of small SUVs in this list and there’s good reason for that.

See, small SUVs are the most impractical over-compromise in terms of what an SUV is supposed to do. Small SUVs are always heavier (and slower) than their sedan or hatch counterparts, but they lose critical boot space and sometimes even legroom, and their back seats are typically cramped. Then you’re left with a space-saver spare wheel as well, and they cost more than a sedan/hatch. This is generally speaking; your personal preferences may vary.

Long journeys, which we do lots of in Australia, are always better in a sedan or hatch, or a medium or large SUV because they’re emphatically better designed for that task, whilst also being able to do suburban work.

Even a base model medium SUV will do a noticeably better job hauling you and your family’s endless piles of stuff around without having to play Tetris with limited boot space. They don’t usually get the towing capability of a large SUV, which is why four very good options made this list.

It’s important to find the right SUV to suit 90 per cent of what you need it to do, so you have to be completely honest when assessing the kind of driving you’re going to do. Think 2-3 years from now, think about school-age kids, think about your commute, where you park, your local shopping centre, what hobbies you do and how much you take away on holiday.

Also, are you actually going to tow anything - this is important, especially if it’s something bigger than a light 6x4 trailer. Many large SUVs can pull two tonnes, but you need to watch carefully your payload, the towball download and the Gross Vehicle Mass. Do your homework.

Also, remember that these are Sports Utility Vehicles, not heavy workhorse platforms. They’re not designed for going off-road adventuring. They’re designed for passive dirt roads, moderate towing on occasions, and they should be driven conservatively. Take the kids camping or visit grandparents in the country; don’t head off the beaten track with the 4WD crowd. Stay at a Big4; don’t try to pull an Airbus.

Lastly, if your budget is tight and you need the biggest amount of space for kids and/or stuff, consider a large SUV but in a lower trim level, rather than a medium SUV in a higher grade with more luxury features. Buy with your head, not your heart. SUVs are inherently compromised, so find the one that is just right for you.

Kia Sportage 2021 review

1. Kia Sportage

Much like its predecessor, the Sportage is a very well balanced SUV with strength when it comes to performance, practicality, versatility, size and weight, and comfort.

The boot is a decent size without being too big or impractically small (like most small SUVs), you get a full-size spare wheel under the boot floor, and there’s a respectable level of equipment for the price.

Inside, rear legroom has increased slightly thanks to an increased wheelbase, despite being already quite good from the previous model. The boot space has also increased marginally, at least in dimensions, by 77 cubic litres. There’s two outboard ISOFIX and three top tether child restraint anchor points, good cabin storage for all your stuff, and if you’re tech-minded, the widespread adoption of digital screens instead of olde worlde analogue gauges will be a welcome sight.

Good luck choosing between Sportage, Tucson and Mazda CX-5; they’re all safe bets, to which you can add Subaru Forester.

Highlights

  • Firstly, Australian Sportages get a unique ride and handling tuning for our driving conditions, so odds-on-favourite it’ll be the nicest to drive, on balance.
  • The electronic 4WD system can be locked on, which is great if your dirt driveway turns slushy or the campsite gets rained on overnight.
  • New to Sportage is the 1.6-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine (with the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission), which is the premium powertrain and available on the SX+ and GT-Line grades.
  • For long-distance drivers or regional owners, an improved 2.0-litre diesel is available on all grades (but only in 8-speed epicyclic auto), which is ideal for anybody who also does moderate, frequent towing. Diesels also get terrain modes for the transmission/traction control system.
  • You now get a 360-degree camera system which allows you to select from four individual cameras specifically, as well as using a new, manually rotating 3D view.
  • There’s still the option of an old-school six-speed manual should you so wish.

Issues

  • Far too much piano black plastic trim from the centre console to dashboard is going to scratch, scuff and be forever dirty.
  • The fuel tank is smaller than the previous model, which might save weight, but means you’ll be stopping just as regularly as the old Sportage, despite having make fuel economy gains in the engine.
  • The slightly longer wheelbase means the turning circle has been reduced slightly, but you’ll probably never know.
  • Driveaway GT-Line Diesel is going to ask about $55K, so wait about three or four months for more stock to become available before putting on your negotiating knuckle-dusters.

Pricing (driveaway)

A brief summaryDiesel range

‘S’ (FWD petrol auto) $35,700

‘S’ $42,700

‘SX’ (FWD petrol auto) $38,500

‘SX’ $45,500

‘SX+’ (1.6T petrol DCT) $47,000

‘SX+’ $50,000

‘GT-Line’ (1.6 T petrol DCT) $52,000

‘GT-Line’ $55,000

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Hyundai Tucson Elite review

2. Hyundai Tucson

Like Sportage, Tucson might be an entirely new model, but it’s a pretty safe bet for reliability because all drivetrains are known and have had no issues, nor did their previous generation.

It gets the same wheelbase as its Kia sibling, so interior space is gonna be roughly the same, and its length is also the same. What you need to to decide on is your features and layout preferences versus price.

You might like the Sportage’s rotary transmission selector, but find the dirt/scratch prone piano black interior is of greater concern. In Tucson, you might love or dislike the push-button transmission, and also like/hate the same glossy piano black.

There’s also aesthetic differences you need to figure out for yourself, because styling might mean nothing to you, or it might be crucial.

While you still have the complexity of figuring out which engine-transmission combo you want in Tucson (like Sportage), there are fewer model grades in the Hyundai, which tends to package more equipment into each tier, and it’s going to be the difference of a few grand more or less, depending on which grades you’re choosing from. The common baseline is, of course, your budget, and what features you absolutely need versus what you can live without.

The new Tucson also gets a sporty N-Line styling package which you can have on any grade, from base model ‘Tucson Tucson’, to the ‘Elite’ or ‘Highlander’, which adds $1000-$2000-$3600 each grade up you go.

Like Sportage, Tucson is an excellent mid-size SUV option, with every feature you could possibly want, in a cabin with plenty of room for a moderate size family, including a generous boot space, good performance, decent ergonomics generally, reliability a done-deal, and renowned customer service.

Highlights

  • The two-litre diesel gets an eight-speed normal automatic transmission, and this is a really grunty and crisp combination to use thanks to lots of low-RPM power. Also, it’s significantly better on fuel over the previous version. The diesel also gets a lockable all-wheel drive system which comes with terrain modes for moderate soft-roading like gravel tracks and getting out of soggy, steep or snowy situations.
  • There’s also the 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine coupled to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which has a good, reliable history and offers plenty of performance - although not as much as the diesel, it must be said.
  • Like Sportage, you get a full-size spare, even in the N-Line performance version which you might’ve expected to have a space-saver or an inflator kit to save weight. But the reality of customers like you actually using your Tucson on the public road means Hyundai has stuck with the full-sizer.
  • Safe exit warning is a great feature you might want to consider if your kids are coming and going of their own free will from the back seats; it stops the doors opening if the vehicle detects an approaching vehicle behind.
  • The “surround view monitor” system is also quite clear, crisp and accurate; just watch those corners of the vehicle where the front and side images are stitched together on the screen.

Issues

  • That face is probably going to unify or divide, depending on your personal tastes, while the liberal application of high-gloss piano black in the cabin should be something you take into consideration. If you’re going to spend lots of time driving long distances, pay close attention to reflections, otherwise, for general suburban running around, try to make this an issue you can live with.
  • Like with virtually all new vehicles these days, the ‘safety’ features known as lane keeping and blind-sport monitoring are imperfect. Lane-keeping defaults on every time you start a new Hyundai or Kia these days (again, so do most). But happily, it’s only a three-second button push on the steering wheel, unlike some vehicles which make you navigate their touchscreens. Speaking of, Hyundai’s removed a lot of buttons, so there’s very little haptic feedback when you try to turn on things like ‘map’, ‘nav’, ‘radio’ and ‘media’ while driving, so be wary of that.
  • Hyundai/Kia blindspot monitoring has a habit of beeping at you when using an indicator at a set of dual turning lanes, because it thinks you’re about to change lanes into the vehicle beside you. This is annoying, but you will have to decide if it’s something you can learn to ignore (defeats the purpose, huh?), or if it’s going to distract you for the next five years.
  • Don’t get me wrong, these features are brilliant when they get it right on that one occasion, so I’d encourage you to try accepting these faults, especially if you have learner-drivers in the house.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

Base model $38,000

N-Line pack +$3600

Elite $43,000

N-Line pack +$2000

Highlander $50,000

N-Line pack +$1000

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2021 Subaru Outback

3. Subaru Outback

Does your family enjoy packing the boot and heading away for long weekends and school holidays, and does this happen at every available opportunity? If this is broadly accurate to your situation, the Outback is ideal for several reasons, many of which require some casual mythbusting.

Uninformed people criticise the 2.5L Boxer petrol engine, despite being more powerful than its previous version, and the CVT gearbox, which is excellent for freeway cruising or overtaking on rural back roads, gets undue flack because it sounds a bit different than the ‘normal’ transmission they’re used to. In fact, this combo, once you learn to live with its nuance, fits like a glove. Most regular drivers are subdued and relaxed about their driving; which is why it's important to have a test drive of Outback, because normal people who do regular long journeys will appreciate how it performs. It’s calm when you are, and ready to rock when you tell it to.

Outback gets a 2000kg towing capacity, with a rather long boot, essentially like a raised wagon, but it gets a full-size spare wheel and built-in roof racks to make it much more suited for regional driving than most SUVs.

Subaru’s permanent AWD is ideal for anybody who lives in sloped areas, or who endure very steep driveways. There’s an ‘X-Mode’ program for when you come across mud, gravel and snow - and Subaru offers exceptional customer care, even when driving on dirt roads etc.

The radar cruise control and emergency braking systems (incl. lane-keeping etc) are very natural to use and being a five-seater, you don’t carry around a heavy unused third-row seat, so it feels much lighter to drive than bigger seven-seaters. You get two ISOFIX and three top tether anchor points for child seats, plus a knee airbag, and fantastic directional LED headlights which cut through the night.

Highlights

  • The new Outback offers a massive 12-inch portrait touchscreen which is fairly easy to use;
  • Being five-seat only, you’re not storing a heavy bench seat which might rarely get used;
  • The more powerful engine and smooth CVT are great for regional touring and overtaking;
  • The EyeSight safety tech suite is still one of the most ergonomic systems, especially on freeways when vehicles merge in front (many systems hit the brakes where Subaru’s is very gentle);
  • The built-in roof racks are so handy for carrying lengths of timber, long parcels, big tents etc.; Outback’s boot is just so good for carrying kids’ bikes, shopping, a full-size spare wheel (underfloor), luggage and gear for roadtrips, or even moderately heavy equipment (thanks to a really strong boot floor).
  • That trusty AWD system will get you out of damp campsites, slippery backroads and up steep driveways with confidence;
  • Subaru offers exceptional customer care.

Issues

  • That touchscreen can be love or hate for some people who might still prefer buttons; lots of carmakers are doing this, so you need to adapt and accept such changes.
  • All that screen and no 360-degree camera system, only side, front and rear camera views - but Subaru prefers you to look around and rely less on one single camera view, which is how you’re supposed to use it;
  • The cupholders are a clumsy design favouring enormous American takeaway cups, so getting a normal coffee cup out can be tricky.
  • The rear doors don’t open as wide as you might like for getting kids and stuff in; mind you, this can be a benefit if you park in tight carparks a lot.
  • Tiny sunvisors with no extensions are disappointing on sunny afternoons.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

Outback base model $45,000

Outback ‘Sport’ $47,000

‘Touring’ $52,800 (driveaway)

Subaru Forester 2.5i - 2.5i-L review

4. Subaru Forester

Undoubtedly the Forester has the ideal boot for any family with particularly wide items. Think double prams, big eskis you might like to pack width-ways for accessibility, toys and bikes, shopping, packing boxes - it goes on.

Having driven several versions of the current generation Forester, with a child restraint fitted and the boot filled with miscellaneous kid-related paraphernalia, it's quite an impressive all-round car. It's particularly glowing when you venture onto sketchy backroads for camping or even accessing paddocks on rural property, not least because it has 235mm of ground clearance, which is comparable to a LandCruiser.

With a slightly shorter wheelbase (2.67m) than its Outback sister (2.75m), Forester has a taller, more upright cabin position, particularly for the driver, so it’s still comfortable, but not quite as ideal for frequent long distance touring - occasional big kays will still be no problem.

The update for 2022 means a lot of upgrades over the 2019 version, including lane centring and departure prevention, autonomous emergency steering, adaptive driving headlights, and an 8-inch touchscreen is now standard.

Forester is a great option if regular trips to camping grounds, off-the-map beach parking and dirt or gravel driveways are a regular part of your driving, where accelerating on traction-limited surfaces are common.

You don’t get seven seats in Forester, but you do get two ISOFIX and three top tether anchor points in this strictly five-seat only mid-size SUV.

Highlights

  • A revised ‘X-Mode’ (Subaru’s proprietary traction control system for soft-road driving) now re-engages once the vehicle speed drops below 35 km/h, where you previously had to manually re-select it.
  • New aluminium engine mount brackets reduce the significant vibrations and noise caused by the raucous 2.5-litre boxer engine.
  • Gesture-controlled temperature adjustment for the climate control is more a BMW or Mercedes thing, except it’s in a Subaru now. This could be all gimmick and little on practicality, or it could be simple, easy and glitch-free. You can decide that.
  • Tyre pressure monitoring is standard (and you get a full-size spare on all non-hybrid models), and the only real difference between the $46K ‘Premium’ and the top-spec, $49K ‘S’ is, in the latter you get: dual X-mode (instead of single mode), sunroof, LED foglights, leather accented seats and the premium 8-speaker Harman Kardon system with subwoofer and amplifier - all of which should be easy sacrifices to hold onto $3000.

Issues

  • Doesn’t get Outback’s built-in roof racks (only rails), and towing capacity isn’t as good either (only 1800kg braked, with 180kg towball download)
  • Hybrid versions are pretty pointless, adding additional weight in batteries and regenerative motors, but without the power output to make any tangible difference for the extra cost.
  • Forester’s boot space is more height-oriented than the Outback, which is fine if you’re a family of moderate luggage packing on big trips, but you might find things stacking vertically quickly and impeding your rearview mirror.
  • Pricing for top-spec Forester is a bit ridiculous. It’s not as luxurious as a CX-5, there’s no diesel engine with mid-range power outputs ideal for towing, and compared with the Outback - which offers dual-function X-Mode on the $45K base model - $49K for Forester ‘S’ is a bit silly in the same way $52K for top-spec Outback Touring is expensive, when all you get is trivial niceties. My advice: negotiate hard for a top-spec Forester (or Outback); take about 15 per cent off.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

2.5i $40,500

2.5i-L $43,000

Hybrid L $46,000

2.5i-Premium $45,900

2.5i-Sport $47,500

2.5i-S $49,100

Hybrid S $52,300

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2021 Mitsubishi Outlander review

5. Mitsubishi Outlander

The newest SUV from Mitsubishi’s alliance with Nissan and Renault, it’s yet to be proven how it will compare to the old Outlander apart from the usual ‘Better’ verdict.

The Outlander has been, for many years, an awesome budget option for mainstream car buyers who have a very limited budget and need the maximum amount of child and gear haulage possible.

Mitsubishi knows how to make a practical, multi-purpose family vehicle that is full of options and built to be as affordable as possible. Just look at the Pajero Sport; brilliant.

Outlander has a longer wheelbase than the previous model, which means more legroom and a comfier ride for rows one and two. The optional row three seats remain over the axle, so they won’t be as comfy as the middle row, but will be better than the old version thanks to the extra 30mm in wheelbase and a slightly wider rear track that means the seat is more between the rear wheels than on top of them.

The base Outlander LS (which you can have FWD or AWD) weighs 60kg less than the Exceed - which gives it that much more payload, so think carefully about what you need your Outlander to do. If it's big long holidays your mob takes, full of luggage, tents, the dog, bikes and boogie boards, an LS is going to offer you a greater margin of safety when packing. Or an ‘Aspire’ is in the middle, offering kit like

Happily, from the base LS to Exceed, all lights on Outlander are LED, mirrors are all powered, auto folding and heated, and you get a smart key with push-button ignition, and they all get a powered tailgate.

Happily, row three in an LS means kids (and the dog) get air conditioning vents right up the back. And standard collision avoidance tech includes: rear cross-traffic alert, predictive forward collision mitigation (AKA auto emergency braking; incl. pedestrian detection), driver attention alert, rear auto emergency braking, lane change assist and auto high beam.

Make sure you test row three thoroughly before deciding if Outlander is right for you, because even though it’s a few millimetres longer than its predecessor, it’s not quite as big as a Sorento or CX-9 with more room.

Highlights

  • The price is pretty hard to beat - a cut-price seven-seater is such a benefit for lower or middle-income earners who need functionality, versatility and reliability but at a reasonable price. Just $41,000 for a seven-seat SUV in FWD is such a bargain.
  • The value. For the $41K LS, you get power tailgate, smart key, smartphone wireless charger, rear cross-traffic alert, auto dusk-sensing LED headlights, satnav, adaptive cruise control and other crash-avoidance features, auto wipers, front and rear sensors in addition to the now-standardised rearview camera, power folding and heated door mirrors.
  • Knee airbag for the driver is a win for safety.
  • Despite increasing the wheelbase by 10mm, the turning circle has not; remains at 10.6m (that’s good).
  • Cargo volume has increased to 163 cubic-litres with row three up (128L previously), and with rows two and three folded, you get 1.7 metres of loadspace. With row three collapsed, 477 litres was available, now it’s 478 - the same, essentially.
  • Direct injection in the 2.5-litre turbo-petrol engine should make Outlander pretty decent to drive, and providing you don’t want outstanding performance, the CVT transmission will be great on freeways. Only get the AWD system if you’re a keen camping family or have dodgy driveways, otherwise 2WD will be fine.

Issues

  • Comparing top-spec Exceeds, the new one is roughly 45kg heavier than the old Outlander, and gets a fuel tank five litres smaller at 55 litres.
  • Mitsubishi’s 2.2L diesel is gone - new Outlander is only available with a petrol engine, which is disappointing for long-distance touring.
  • You’re stuck with a space-saver spare wheel on all forms of new Outlander, which is a let down compared with the old one.
  • Only two ISOFIX points in the row two outboard seats means row three will be designated for big kids no longer requiring restraints or booster seats.
  • Total net cargo volume and load space is down slightly over the old Outlander, formerly 1.84m and 1600 cubic-litres, it’s now 1437 litres and 1.7m.
  • Outlander is pretty much a seven-seater now; you can’t have higher spec models with just five seats - only base model ‘ES’ in AWD or 2WD. Old Outlander’s five-seat optionable range offered great choice.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

‘ES’ (2WD, 5 Seats) $40,000

‘LS’ (2WD, 7 seat) $41,500

‘Aspire’ (AWD, 7 seats) $47,500

‘Exceed’ (AWD, 7 seats) $51,500

‘Exceed Touring’ (AWD, 7 seats) $53,500

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Kia Sorento Review

6. Kia Sorento

One of the most impressive, supposedly ‘family’ focussed SUVs that is closer to being a high-end prestige vehicle than a daggy kid-hauling school bus.

You get the versatility of seven seats, which includes an ISOFIX point in row three in addition to the two in row two, and you can enjoy the premium stereo from Bose at a slightly cheaper price than the equivalent CX-9.

Sorento’s party piece is the 2.2L turbo-diesel with eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive pairing which is reliable, grunty, while also being frugal on fuel. This combination gives you all kinds of soft-roading access stopping short of hardcore off-roading tracks with big rocks and steep climbs.

Row three is a particular asset to any parents prone to transporting their kids’ school friends to and from. When it’s folded away, the floor is flat and will hold plenty of holiday gear with minimal arranging.

Towing is ample at 2000kg, and with 200kg of towball download limit, there’s plenty of additional utility designed into Sorento without it becoming some loping, heavy, cumbersome hauling machine; it remains civilised and unburdened by some over-exaggerated need to tow more than that.

Sorento is a very respectable place to start if you need a seven-seater that can do just about everything. Try looking at the Sport+ to save a heap of money over the GT-Line, and you’ll still get plenty of tech and comforts.

Highlights

  • Two tonnes of towing capacity is very useful, especially with 200kg of towball download limit allowing for an ideally balanced load.
  • Then, a full-size spare wheel means you’re always rolling on the correct tread pattern, especially while towing, with three kids, the dog, your dearly beloved and a weekend’s worth of camping equipment in the boot.
  • If the weather turns on you, ‘terrain modes’ on 2.2 diesel AWD versions (the best powertrain) will help you get out of ditches, soggy camping tracks and any hairy driveways you might encounter as a sales rep or a home carer etc., or even just friends or family.
  • A row three ISOFIX point gives you yet another option in terms of kids and their seating arrangements. And when you fold row three away, you get an actually flat floor.
  • The rotary transmission selector is a particular delight to use for quick selections, and the level of comfort, especially on GT-Line or even Sport+ is very impressive for the price.

Issues

  • There’s a lot of piano black on the centre transmission and console facia, which gets dirty easily and can be reflective in some lighting conditions.
  • Like most modern cars and tech, the lane assistance features are a default-on proposition. So every time you start the car, you’ll get part-way to your destination and remember to turn it off - which you can thank ANCAP for distracting you with, thanks to their commercial pressure on carmakers. It’s a minor inconvenience in the context of life.
  • There’s no side curtain airbag in row three, which relegated row three to occasional use only - at least morally, in my view. (Remember, I said you need to live with all cars’ deficiencies.)
  • Someone at Kia (in South Korea, not Australia, obviously) thought it would be great to put buttons to adjust mummy and daddy’s seats just within reach of kids in the back seat.
  • The 3.5L V6 sounds good, but it’s a bit ancient (and thirsty) compared with the diesel.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

Sorento ‘S’ $49,000 (petrol)

‘Sport’ $55,300 (diesel DCT)

‘Sport Plus’ $59,700

‘GT-Line’ $67,000 (diesel DCT) (driveaway)

Hyundai Santa Fe Review

7. Hyundai Santa Fe

It’s quite impressive how Hyundai can offer such a high level of luxury, comfort, safety and practicality at sub-Luxury Car Tax levels. The Highlander feels like you’re sitting in a BMW, it really does. The way Hyundai’s ultra-refined 2.2L turbo-diesel, the eight-speed dual-clutch and the all-wheel drive system work together in the real world is seriously impressive. You’re never frustrated when it’s time to overtake, or hit the brakes, or circumnavigate some freeway or climb a steep gravel road. The powertrain is efficient, reliable, full of power and the next gear, up or down, is always ready to go.

I managed to fill Santa Fe with three adults, two kids, fishing gear and weekend luggage with good legroom remaining. However, if this is going to be a regular thing (filling the car with everyone and everything), you might want to have a look at the Hyundai Palisade, which is more LandCruiser without the hardcore 4WD running gear, but more boot space and legroom - and it’s bloody comfy on top.

If the budget isn’t quite able to stretch as high as the Highlander, the Elite is still quite well equipped and will save you a few grand and gives you more payload limit to work with.

Towing can also be a strong point with 2500kg (braked, 250kg towball download) available if you get Hyundai’s ‘Load Assist Kit’.

Highlights

  • Not to overdo it, but the 2.2 diesel is a peach to drive, especially if you do longer trips, and it’s also more economical than the surge-prone petrol, and the DCT is equally effortless to move you around.
  • The all-wheel drive system is highly active in less-than-ideal conditions like rain or dirt (or wet dirt), greasy driveways and steep hills - or if you visit the snowfields every year. It doesn’t wait for traction loss before splitting the power; it behaves almost like Subaru's symmetrical AWD.
  • The under-dash storage bins are very handy for decluttering with bulkier items like tablets or valuables, take-away food - whatever.

Issues

  • The front styling is probably a little bit polarising, but at least you’ll remember where you parked.
  • No row three ISOFIX points for Santa Fe (unlike Sorento) means it’s only for big kids out of restraints.
  • Highly reflective brushed alloy look on the centre dashboard buttons can make them hard to read due to glare. Backlighting them (turning headlights on) only exacerbates the problem. White font on silver fails to contrast so you can get distracted trying to find the right function, until you learn and adapt to a new car, of course.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

Base ‘Santa Fe’ (diesel) $50,000

‘Active’ (diesel) $56,600

‘Elite’ (diesel) $62,800

‘Highlander’ (diesel) $70,500

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2021 Mazda CX 5

8. Mazda CX-5

The way CX-5 drives is almost perfect. Just the right amount of steering weight, a punchy, light efficient engine, and the cabin is such a wonderful space to sit in.

Mazda’s 2.5 turbo petrol engine gives great performance even for an SUV, with loads of mid-range power ready and willing to punch you down the road, with your generously loaded boot space suitably packed for holiday. However Base model ‘Maxx’ looks as good as the Akera top-spec and still gets adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring and auto-braking, as well as tyre pressure monitoring.

There’s a very broad price range with plenty of variants to suit your budget and there are plenty of options on lower-spec models. But if you can find a way to afford something north of the GT, you’re going to really see Mazda’s handiwork. Whatever you do, don’t test drive a grade of CX-5 above what you can strictly afford; you’ll start dipping into the kids’ inheritance, and that’s only going into the dealer’s pockets.

I think the Touring is the best balance between budget and luxury - because you can’t have both, but you want the most for your money.

Keep in mind you cannot have a CX-5 above ‘Maxx Sport’ in front-wheel drive, which is a bit annoying when you’re statistically unlikely to ever really need it. Touring is AWD-only for $46K, you get front and rear sensors, standard stereo and satnav, traffic sign recognition, but not the turbo engine (GT or above), 17-inch wheels only, no Bose stereo, no 360-degree camera, no LED headlights and only the small 8-inch screen. The difference: $6000-$8000.

Highlights

  • Depending on how good you are in terms of hand-eye coordination, the MZD rotary selector for the infotainment system can be a love or hate thing. In many ways it’s great for ergonomics once you get the hang of it because it allows you to navigate without having to lean forward, reach and take your eyes off the road to focus on icons and menus. It seems counterintuitive, but I assure you, once you bed it down, it’s quite useful being able to rotate, push to select, scroll and engage something, with only a cursory millisecond glance.
  • The row two seatback folds in a 40/20/40 design (instead of the typical 60/40), which means you can feed long items like tents through the centre (between the kids) and it’ll act as a natural bench to play shopkeeper on, or as a divider to keep separated, behaviour pending.
  • That 2.5 turbo-petrol engine is such a peach. Overtaking is effortless, accelerating down a freeway on-ramp is a breeze and inching forward in stop-start traffic is smooth.
  • The seats, especially the leather-bound ones, are a nice balance between sporty and comfortable - they’re supportive but not hard bucket seats like you’d find in some silly hot hatch.

Issues

  • Expensive Akera asks $54,500 and offers less boot space than a $10K cheaper Outback.
  • All-wheel drive is the on-demand kind, but you can now get a lockable function in higher grade.
  • The space-saver spare wheel thing is a real bummer for what is otherwise a very strong family vehicle all-round (which is why it’s routinely one of the best-selling vehicles in the country.
  • Towing capacity, while decent, is limited by towball download limits. Always check.
  • Test for yourself the CX-5’s 360-degree camera system which has a graphic display that shows black boxes on each corner of the vehicle from a bird’s-eye view. I found it easy to misconstrue where obstacles were in relation to the car.
  • The left-hand-side exterior door mirror is convex (wide angle), which can be counterproductive when you actually need to see how far away a vehicle or object is, rather than fit as much irrelevant environment in as possible.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

‘Maxx’ $35,500

‘Maxx Sport’ $44,000

‘Touring’ $46,000

‘GT’ $52,000

‘GT SP’ $52,500

‘Akera’ $54,500

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Mazda CX-9 Review

9. Mazda CX-9

If money is not the impediment to getting into a luxurious family SUV, and only the quality of the finished product is, then Mazda CX-9 should be in the top two on your shortlist.

The only reason I put it at #9 is because it is expensive, so the majority of SUV buyers who are more likely to afford one of the previous eight will probably stop there.

CX-9 plays a really interesting game against not only its primary competition in the segment (Sorento, Santa Fe, Kluger etc), but also to the bottom end of the notionally premium brands like BMW X5, Lexus RX, Mercedes GLE and Audi Q7 - all of which are profoundly and unnecessarily expensive compared directly to what the Mazda can offer for half the price or more.

The level of comfort is impossible to ignore, particularly in the Akera - the seats cradle you, the interior smells devine and the way it moves its bulk around is seriously impressive, and the boot is immeasurably practical.

Lower grades still get good levels of equipment, but strip back the unimportant features to give you one of the great all-round, large-family touring and school extraction/reconnaissance vehicles.

Highlights

  • The cabin design, layout and comfort level is arguably the best in the game, especially against the price of the ‘prestige’ brands. Long wheelbase means ample legroom for tall families.
  • The boot, with row 3 folded, is quite spacious and is definitely the CX-9’s most practical configuration.
  • That 2.5 turbo-petrol engine is such a weapon; smooth and quietly civil when you’re driving normally, and then becomes quite raucous when you reach a nice twisty road.
  • Counterintuitively, the MZD rotary dial uses the infotainment touchscreen, once you get used to it, it’s actually quite good at keeping your hands closer to the steering wheel and avoids having to reach to push buttons or non-feedback touchscreen icons. It just takes practice.
  • For many people who aren’t into driving and performance, you will at least appreciate that Mazda uses a normal ‘epicyclic’ automatic transmission, which does all the things you’re used to, such as starting at lower revs, rising into the powerband, then dropping revs as it changes gear. It’s a very good transmission, but doesn’t do anything fancy or complicated, and isn’t as good at fuel-saving as a dual-clutch transmission.
  • The rear doors open almost to an ideal 90-degree angle, so they get the hell out of the way when you’re trying to load kids and bags into the back. Just watch they don’t bash into neighboring vehicles.

Issues

  • A poorly stitched-together 360 degree camera view is probably the biggest letdown with CX-9, because it has black boxes at the vehicle’s corners, instead of the actual environment, so obstacles can be missed;
  • A space-saver spare wheel, on a predominantly front-wheel drive, two-tonne SUV, full of kids and gear, on a wet or icy mountain road at up to 80km/h is not good. For all the additional weight shoved into CX-9, a full-size spare would add a few kilos but dramatically improve safety in poor conditions. Granted, you may never be in this or similar situations.
  • Being limited to 150kg for towball download weight makes the two-tonne towing capacity a bit moot if you can’t put the ideal 10 per cent trailer’s mass onto the vehicle for stability.
  • Sorry to be blunt here but, CX-9 is a bloody big vehicle. Not gargantuan, but it’s five metres long, two metres wide and has a big bum. It handles its weight and proportions well, I must concede - it doesn’t feel big. But you need to watch things like opening the boot into overhead gantries or pipes in tight underground carparks, and the front (or rear) will hang out over the edge of parking bays. Having said this, Toyota LandCruisers, Prados and people movers are generally the same size, and they are driven by mums everywhere in suburbia, so don’t be afraid, just aware.
  • Water can drip off the boot and splash onto the perfectly flat tops of the taillights, which can wet anything precious and dry inside the boot cavity.

Pricing (driveaway)

FWDAWD

‘Sport’ $50,800

‘Sport’ $54,900

‘Touring’ $58,500

‘Touring’ $62,700

‘GT’ $68,500

‘GT’ $72,600

‘GT SP’ $69,000

‘GT SP’ $74,000

‘Azami’ $71,000

‘Azami’ $77,600

‘Azami LE’ $81,700

2021 Toyota RAV4 review

10. Toyota RAV4

Toyota’s claimed combined fuel economy figure, based on static lab bench testing, is 4.8L per 100km - roughly half of equivalent petrol engines in Hyundai Tuscon/Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-5 and Mitsubishi Outlander - all between 7.5-8.5L. Usually, I don’t talk about fuel economy because it’s mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of consumers who buy unnecessarily large vehicles like SUVs, then drive them far too aggressively to even think about saving fuel or even their own money.

But when it comes to RAV4, the hybrid system does make a difference, but only in certain conditions - namely, stop-start commuter traffic - where you’re constantly accelerating and then braking. Meaning: High fuel consumption to get going, all kinetic energy gained is wasted due to stopping. Check out the Top Gear episode where they visit Chernobyl; well, Hammond doesn’t because he runs out of fuel, fortunately.

Not only is RAV4 good at city traffic fuel consumption, it’s a pretty well packaged all-rounder with multiple trades it’s a jack of - but certainly no master of. I, for one, think it’s ugly. There are lots of angles and grouchy looking lines, but it still looks bland, somehow. You’re fully entitled to disagree.

The RAV gets a very generous boot, plenty of legroom thanks to a wheelbase the same size as everyone else, essentially, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong on ergonomics and cabin layout.

The pricing of RAV4 is something of an issue if you want to take advantage of the fuel economy by getting the hybrid, because it’s $2500 more for the hybrid, versus the internal combustion-only equivalent. And the difference between them in standardised combined-cycle testing, is 1.8L/100km. So, you’ll need to save over 1600 litres of fuel (at $1.50/L), which is roughly 100,000km worth of driving - very roughly - in order to break even.

You’ll wanna hang onto your RAV for a while.

Happily, it’s a pretty sure thing it’ll last for 200 thou, and you get a good level of equipment - but not great. If you want premium, see #8.

Be careful when considering RAV4 because Toyota dealers will happily take your deposit but may not know when you’ll actually take delivery - there are reports you’ll wait almost 12 months at the moment.

If you’re happy to wait, and your budget has limits, the GXL is decently equipped at around $45K for the two-wheel drive, which gets you guidelines in the reversing camera, smart key and remote start, premium cloth seats, LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, wireless phone charging, but only the standard 6-speaker stereo (not the premium JBL system in the Cruiser). Safety gear includes adaptive cruise, lane-keeping, blind-spot monitoring & cross-traffic alert, auto emergency braking, front & rear sensors, and a driver’s knee airbag plus two outboard ISOFIX points.

Highlights

  • As hybrid systems go, Toyotas is good, but admittedly not as great as what Mitsubishi packs under the Outlander which has a much bigger battery and the ability to drive exclusively in EV mode. Toyota has managed to make the transition from battery while accelerating, to the petrol engine for cruising speed, very seamless - you’ll barely notice it.
  • I have to admit, the boot is pretty big and the wheelarches aren’t nearly as intrusive as some in other models.
  • If you have small kids - the messy kind - don’t listen to anybody who criticises the liberal use of hard plastics throughout the cabin. They are so good for cleaning and will take punishment for years and years compared with leather or softer rubberised plastics.

Issues

  • Pricing and stock are a big problem right now, particularly because you’re probably going to wait long into 2022 for your RAV4. Toyota is struggling to get stock into Australia, so make sure you get it in writing when they will have your vehicle, read the fine print before paying a deposit which you’ll need to triple check is refundable upon failure to supply the vehicle.
  • As for cost, I do think RAV4 is a bit steeply priced for what you get compared to other mid-size SUVs, especially given that Toyota is supposed to be the king of mainstream brands. How is a top-spec RAV4 asking nearly $60K?
  • You’ll be bolting on a space-saver spare wheel in the case of a flat, and don’t concern yourself
  • The back doors open at such a stupidly narrow angle they don’t get adequately out of the bloody way to load things. In fairness, it does reduce the likelihood of biffing cars parked too close beside you, but that’s not as annoying as doors failing to adequately do what they’re designed to do - open.
  • Towing is basically irrelevant with RAV4 because the maximum braked capacity is 1500kg on hybrid models and an embarrassing 800kg on 2WD-only models.

Pricing (driveaway)

Model and Price

‘GX’ (hybrid AWD) $44,600

‘GXL’ (hybrid AWD) $48,540

‘XSE’ (hybrid AWD) $51,372

‘Cruiser’ (hybrid AWD) $53,800

‘Edge’ (hybrid AWD) $58,500

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About the Author

Scott Murray from BestFamilyCars.com.au

Scott

Murray

Scott Murray

BestFamilyCars offers honest information & discounts for your next new car. Our lives depend on cars, but most reviews don’t answer the real questions. I live with the cars I test, to report their strengths and weaknesses, ad free

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