Crossover Contenders: 2017 Honda CR-V & Mazda CX-5 Comparison Review
Crossovers now represent one third of all new vehicle sales. Compact crossovers—which are dimensionally similar to midsize cars—are amongst the most popular. The Honda CR-V helped start this class and was often its best seller. All new for 2017, it faces stiff competition the second generation Mazda CX-5. While the Mazda has never had the volume of its rival, its original iteration was considered by most as best in class. Let the games begin.
The Honda’s changes run deeper; it is based on a new modular platform that is already in use in the Civic and will soon underpin the Accord. All models but the LX get a 1.5-liter turbocharged engine with 190hp/179lb-ft. Colorado’s thin air doesn’t affect its output as much as that in the normally aspirated Mazda’s 2.5-liter mill, which cranks out 187hp/185lb-ft at sea level. The Honda is faster in independent testing the older Mazda, with 0-60mph times in the low 7-second range. However, the new CX-5 feels more responsive in normal traffic situations; its throttle response is excellent and its midrange thrust makes it feel more athletic in regular use. But once onto its boost curve, the Honda runs stronger, especially as altitude increases. From a dead stop there’s a fair amount of lag; this can be lessened by running the CR-V in Sport so that its continuously variable transmission acts more like a conventional auto. But there’s no hiding from the fact that the CX-5’s slick direct-drive 6-speed gearbox is more fun and has a real manual mode—though sadly no paddle shifters—and rips of rev-matched downshifts worthy of a Ferrari. The Honda has better EPA numbers while the Mazda appears to return better economy in the real world.
Honda has a history of making practical, exceptionally reliable vehicles that are also very pleasing for enthusiasts to drive, and the CR-V ably demonstrates the latter trait. This crossover’s steering is accurate and precise and the chassis it commands is capable of being hustled down demanding roads with aplomb. Ride quality is generally good too, though big bumps do slam through to the occupants in a surprisingly unfiltered manner. Judged against most everything else in the field, the Honda is excellent, with only its high road noise levels betraying its fairly humble origins. Unfortunately Mazda took the outgoing CX-5’s excellent Skyactiv chassis and raised the bar yet again, with steering that shames many a sports sedan, excellent body control, even more nimble handling (thanks in part to cutting edge torque-vectoring tech that only Mazda could implement) and ride quality and noise suppression that make the Honda feel cheap when driven back to back.
Styling is subjective, but it is clear that the two companies approach it differently. The CR-V bigger in most dimensions and its look boldly busy, slathered in chrome and nicely proportioned. Upper models’ bigger 18-inch wheels fill its flares nicely, and contribute to the tougher impression of this one-time wallflower. The Mazda barely changes size from the first generation, but surfaces are now simpler and accents handled in a more upscale fashion. The only misstep is the heinous 19-inch wheels, whose black rim edges make them look two inches smaller than they really are.
Inside the Honda, quality of surfaces above waist level is up substantially and the layout is exceptionally roomy and practical. If size is what counts, the CR-V kills. And what’s this? An actual volume knob has returned, placed handily (for the driver) on the left side of the 7-inch, touchscreen infotainment interface. Plastics lower down are lower rent though; open the Mazda’s front door and the material quality differential is readily apparent. The CX-5’s cockpit is more conventional in layout, with classic-looking round gauges staring back at the driver, as compared to the CR-V’s Jetson-esque digital setup. Look deeper and the design cohesiveness and very high-tech nature of the Mazda become more apparent. Quality is simply on another level from competitors—most of which, like the Honda, cost more than the Mazda—and seating comfort front and rear is actually better in the CX-5. There’s an optional, slick head up display, and all kinds of active and passive safety systems are available from midlevel models up. Honda too offers a suit of driver brain-fade offsets, but in practice they don’t seem to work quite as well in normal situations. For instance, the CR-V’s emergency braking quite often tries to warn the driver of an impending collision even in typical rush hour traffic with either a flashing light show or hard stab of the brakes, and the lane assist system is more herky-jerky than that in the CX-5.
The CR-V is now Honda’s best seller, as the CX-5 is for Mazda. That both are so well resolved is therefore no surprise, and that they’re so good isn’t really either. Historically each has been incredibly reliable and retained excellent resale value. If size or mountain road thrust are prime criteria, you it’s hard to argue against the Honda—it is superb. In urban environs, the Mazda’s smaller exterior dimensions, more posh cockpit and extra layer of refinement make it the unconventional yet undeniable winner.
EPA ratings: Honda 27/33mpg; Mazda 23/29mpg
0-60mph: Honda 7.3sec; Mazda 7.6sec
Price as tested: Honda $34,635; Mazda $32,165
(4.5 / 5) Honda CR-V Touring
(4.5 / 5) Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
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