Crossovers, you may have noticed, are here for the foreseeable future. Enthusiasts see them as an occupying force and the erasure of driving culture, but the scrimmage line is now well behind them as they mount an ineffective resistance from outposts within their former homeland. It was never going to be much of a fight. They couldn’t even keep a stick shift in BMW’s iconic sport sedan, what hope did they have in keeping out the CUV?
The populace has welcomed the friendly and helpful newcomers with open arms and wallets and crossovers have therefore transitioned from occupying force to legitimate government. Diplomatic campaigns to The Resistance have begun in the form of AMG and M and Porsche crossovers and…it’s working. There are defections. It’s over, folks. This cycle of history will simply have to play out. In the meantime it may be worth identifying who in the new order is governing well.
My 1000-mile interview with a 2013 RAV4, a leader in the crossover movement, left me somewhat unimpressed. Yet, as the best selling representative of the best selling segment, it is influential and won re-election in 2019 on a whole new platform and new powertrains. The populist’s choice looks stronger than ever. In contrast, the fussy enthusiasts warmed to the original Mazda CX-5 as the anti-establishment candidate. The new model had the unenviable task of bringing in mainstream constituents without betraying the hardliners. Sales numbers and magazine reviews indicate the coalition was built successfully.
While getting the 2013 appraised by the dealer prior to sale, I thought I’d see if I actually liked either of them. Why not? The segment has advanced, and there wasn’t a single MX-5 or 86 or three-pedal anything in inventory that would be more entertaining to try while I waited. And I kind of liked the 2013’s blend of efficiency and utility; it was like a rolling multitool. That nearly loaded 2013 RAV4 was about $29K when new, translating to $32K today. $32K buys a 2020 XLE Hybrid RAV4 or Grand Touring CX-5. I consider these the segment leaders, on paper at least. Let’s see what has improved in 7 years.
RAV4 XLE Hybrid
No more effeminate styling for Toyota’s sales leader, no sir. This one is all butch edges and flaring fenders. Camry wagon writ tough. I’d like a cleaner and less insecure design, but at least it doesn’t look like anything else. The interior is where the styling language tidies up and coalesces, with a linear and clean dashboard and matching door panels. The tacked-on touchscreen is industry-wide now and keeps the rest of the dashboard low, so I’ll let it slide.
The cabin doesn’t feel as airy as the 2013 and I think some greenhouse has been lost. The materials and build quality are nicer, though. The padded dash has the requisite stitching, the switchgear now feels solid and damped. The doors shut with more attention to the resulting sound and the vertical door grips are solid goods, like those in my 4Runner. The air vent vanes move more fluidly, the console armrest feels sturdy. The steering wheel has softer leather. The shift lever is stout and solid moving through the detents. I didn’t see any immediate panel gaps or poor fit. Unlike the 2013, this generally feels like the asking price.
The key word here is “generally”. The interior door panels are a middle finger at the owner for not buying the top trim. Everything is hard plastic except for the little thinly padded island of armrest. It’s nicely grained hard plastic, but this is a high contact area and you will be bumping into it. This ruins the vibe and harshes the mellow. Buyers must spring for the Limited, Adventure, or XSE to get nice door panels. Additionally, the Softex imitation leather in gas-only XLE trims is not available in the Hybrid XLE and the mandatory cloth is industrial in feel.
In the Camry Hybrid, “XLE” seems to actually mean something for tactile interior quality, providing the upgraded contact surfaces the RAV4 lacks. It’s a nicer interior yet costs the same $32K, demonstrating that the CUV form factor and AWD is still going to require sacrifices or additional cost over the equivalent sedan.
The RAV4’s poorly engineered side mirrors cannot be avoided in any trim. They are gigantic and mounted to the flexible sheet metal where they wobble about when the door closes. On the road, the glass vibrates noticeably within the housing. From 60mph onward they generate a din of wind noise, ruining whatever work was done to suppress tire roar. My 4Runner’s mirrors are every bit as big. They don’t wobble and vibrate. They don’t howl in the wind. All that money in the TNGA platform and they let this slip through QA/QC. This stuff can turn away buyers.
Which would be unfortunate, because it drives nicely for its intended clientele. Toyota has sorted this hybrid powertrain very well. It whisks off the line with no delay, gas engine quickly assisting the initial electric torque. The 0-60 run is less than 7.5 seconds and it will hit 90 at the quarter mile. Freeway merging is no problem. The powertrain is responsive and satisfying on the move, like a turbocharged engine without the initial lag. At 40 mpg combined it uses half the fuel of my 4Runner while being quicker and nearly as roomy. It is the RAV4’s ace in the hole, available for cheap even in the base LE. Mazda charges $10,000 over their base model for one with the good engine.
Yes, the engine blazes from silent to RAAWWRRR! in the blink of an eye when floored. They should work on that, it’s a bit startling compared to the quiet spaceship noises of the electric propulsion and battery regen. However, one mustn’t always floor it for good performance and it behaves nicely otherwise.
Dynamically, this car feels nothing like the 2013 from behind the wheel. Gone are the choppy ride and brutal kicks. Gone also are the sense of lightness and quick reflexes. The 2013 wasn’t exactly athletic or fun, but it was responsive and light on its feet in a way that this 2020 isn’t. Instead, bumps are more adroitly absorbed. The steering is consistent and accurate, but rather slow off center and the car feels heavy in the curves. Body roll begins early, the front end wants to push, and you back off long before limits are approached. It’s far from sloppy, but it’s equally far from sporty. Which, frankly, is a better match to the market than the 2013. XSE and lighter gas-only models with the Dynamic Torque Control AWD seem to get better handling marks by other reviewers. My example combined additional battery weight with the soft suspension and fat tires, and it felt like it.
Overall, it is an impressive machine for most buyers and a large improvement over the 2013. However, some of Toyota’s cost cutting decisions are going to light up the radars of buyers who key in on such details.
Those buyers will be delighted with their first impressions of the Mazda CX-5. Nothing felt cheap or cost-cut on this Grand Touring trim. The seats are nicely grained leather with subtly contrasting stitching. There is a consistent, quality feel and solidity to the interior surfaces. The hard plastics are nicer. The door panels are padded everywhere above the armrest. The switchgear is decent. The center armrest and console are rock solid. The glovebox is flocked. The pillars are fabric. The gauges are a slick, seamless integration of digital and analog, described in detail by Jim Klein in his review. Home run, man. I like a good gauge cluster. Unlike with the Toyota, you aren’t sacrificing material quality and feel going from Mazda6 to AWD CX-5.
However, that interior is smaller than the RAV4’s. Front space is fine but everything aft is tighter. I could buy the RAV4 without checking if a rear-facing infant seat would interfere with my driving position. I’d have to ground truth the CX-5 because it’s walking that line. The RAV4’s cargo area is also 20% larger. These are meaningful differences. However, as a skier I noticed the Mazda rear seatback folds 40:20:40 whereas the RAV4 is 60:40 only.
The driving position and seat comfort are fine for me, but unexceptional. Just as in the RAV4, I’d like a touch more padding and bottom cushion length. I don’t quite get the impression of all day comfort from either car. The Mazda’s mirrors don’t wobble or whistle, but they are set too far back on the door and require a slight turn of the head.
My driving impressions are limited by a 20 minute town-n-highway route with a ridealong salesman. Refer to Jim’s review for a more thorough analysis. There is a crucial difference between my CX-5 and his: the powertrain. $32K buys only the same naturally aspirated 2.5L found in the much lighter Mazda3. No 310 lb-ft turbo unless you pony up another four grand for the Grand Touring Reserve. The base engine attempts to move 3700 pounds of car plus 350 pounds of primate with 187hp and 185 lb-ft torque. My salesman pointed to the twin tailpipes and claimed “that gives it really great power”.
No it doesn’t.
It’s an immediate letdown when compared to the torque blitz of the RAV4. The engine is refined for what it is, and the automatic responds crisply, but it still upshifts aggressively into the no-power zone, struggles below the midrange, and is always downshifting again to keep up with traffic. It’s not meaningfully faster than the old 2013 RAV4 whether from a stop or a roll. Quite disappointing.
My first thought examining the excellent CX-5 interior was, “How can Mazda do this for the same price as that RAV4?” My first thought pulling into traffic was, “Oh. This is how.” All of the money went into making the Mazda feel like a near-luxury product right until you’ve got to get up to speed for the first time. The hope is that those first ten minutes will saturate your memory and lead to an imprint that won’t be shaken by the first trip up an onramp. It probably works for most people, but I wouldn’t be happy with this. The turbo engine is standard in the Mazda6 Grand Touring sedan that costs $1000 less than this gutless CX-5. This is where the crossover penalty hits.
Otherwise, the CX-5 drives well. Road noise on the interstate section was impressively low. The ride is firm but comfortable. Every reviewer likes to pilot it and I won’t second guess them. However, in my recent car shopping experiences I’ve been focusing on how enjoyable a vehicle is to drive around town. I’ve noticed a number of cars with good backroad reputations feeling rather unremarkable in the ‘burbs. This, unsurprisingly, is no different. The steering feels like EPS and the elevated center of gravity is still very apparent. Maybe it comes to life on a good backroad but, believe it or not, the old 2013 RAV4 felt a bit more fun around town. Well, until the suspension started jackhammering over potholes, anyway.
So which is the class leader after a 20-minute test drive? Neither of these $32K examples, which are the wrong combination of expensive and flawed. Either go lower or higher. My personal answer is the $27K CX-5 Sport or $28K RAV4 Hybrid LE. You get the fundamental strengths of each at a price in which the drawbacks are more palatable. Alternately, splurge for the $36K versions to get vehicles that feel worth the price.
Choosing between the Mazda and Toyota at either price tier requires weighing priorities. Overachieving powertrain and practicality…or bargain luxury? At $27K I’d probably lean RAV4, the hybrid powertrain punches above its price and that is more important to me than an interior that does. At $36K, fuel economy is less important and I would lean Mazda for the strong but thirsty turbo and premium road manners.
Impressive as they were, we’ve already got our family haulers so I didn’t vote for either candidate. I went home instead and sold the 2013 private party because the dealers made laughable offers on it. Of course they did. I knew better, but curiosity and the temptation to avoid the flakes and low-ballers of the online classifieds got the better of me. I bucked up, listed the 2013, braced myself for misery, but received my asking price the next day because it was a high-demand vehicle (thank you, new world order) and I made a serious listing with a realistic price.
I then went out to see what I could do to join The Resistance. I’ll write about that next time.
All photos except dashboard, door panel, and obvious web screenshots are from Carvana listings, which made direct comparison very convenient