Sally and I spent the afternoon hitting local dealerships and test driving SUVs and crossovers. It’s time for Sally to replace her 2005 Focus with something new. Her Focus has done her well but it’s loud, rough, and cramped, even more so with two babies on board. While we never thought we would be SUV people but kids tend to change things. In addition to toting around extra stuff like strollers and diaper bags that reduce the existing cargo space in our cars, it’s also really hard to buy anything that comes in a box more than a few feet tall. We decided that we were in need of something a bit bigger and Sally is the one to get it.
The research began months ago and focused on finding a vehicle that satisfied several important criteria: it had to have solid fuel economy (at least 20 mpg city), it had to have plenty of cargo room, it had to be relatively small, it had to have all wheel drive, and it had to cost under $30,000 new. Basically she wanted something with space and utility but didn’t want to drive a cruise ship or something that guzzled gas like one. That narrowed it down to a few candidates: The brand new Mazda CX-5 crossover, the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and the Chevy Equinox.
Today we drove the CX-5, the CR-V, and the RAV4. All three are available with AWD and 4WD and cost about the same – $24k, $26k, and $28k depending on trim level. Based on our research, the RAV4 had the most space but was the most bland – it was the practical, responsible choice. We expected to drive it and immediately cross it off the list as too boring. Next was the CR-V, which was supposed to be similar to the RAV4 but with more edge to it. It gets similar gas mileage and has almost as much space. Then there is the Mazda CX-5. It’s an all-new model for 2013 and it not only packs technology, style, and craftsmanship, but it also gets the best gas mileage of the bunch – up to 32 MPG. Our friends have one that we peeked at once and fell in love with. This was going to be the one.
We started our search by driving a RAV4, mostly to get it out of the way and cross it off the list. The RAV4 that Sally was interested in has been the same style since 2010, so she had both new and used options to look at. We drove a 2010 Sport model in a nice gray color. Other than some scratches and wear on the outside, it looked pretty good. As I said before, the RAV4 is a practical choice. The interior is fine – it’s logically laid out and nice enough though it doesn’t employ particularly expensive feeling materials. In Sally’s words, it’s “not offensive”.
What we found out pretty quickly though is that it has a ton of storage space. The full size spare tire is attached to the back of the vehicle, which leaves a compartment open under the trunk mat that can easily fit jumper cables, our emergency diaper bag, a blanket, and more. The back is nice and wide with enough room to easily stow our stroller and a bunch of other stuff. The rear seat is a 60/40 split and includes a center console that when flipped down actually opens up to the trunk. This feature allows you to slide something (such as skis, poles, or 2x4s) through two seats without folding either of them down, which is perfect when you have two car seats permanently attached. In addition the two back seats not only recline independently but also slide forward about six to ten inches to give you even more space out back. We weren’t ready for how pleased we would be by the storage. It was simply amazing!
As for driving, the RAV4 was not a disappointment. Though it only includes a four speed automatic (I didn’t even know they still made those), it drives rather well. It runs on the same four cylinder engine as my Scion tC did and that gives it enough pep and power to move away from a stop light or merge on the highway quickly. It handled like a car and road noise was minimal. The only major issue that we noticed was that the ride was extremely firm, so much that you felt almost every bump in the road. By the time we were done driving it we were seriously considering a car that we were originally 90% sure we’d cross off our list. We left the Toyota dealership and made our way over to Honda, where we thought we’d be even more impressed.
The CR-V (s)
The CR-V is Honda’s version of the RAV4. It was completely redesigned in 2012 to include things like Bluetooth hands free, better fuel economy, and reduced road noise. The prior generation had been heavily criticized for its road noise so we wanted to drive both to understand how bad it was. We drove the 2012 model first. Honda’s styling is certainly more flamboyant than Toyota’s but there were several things that immediately turned us off. There was no floor storage out back, the rear seats did not slide, and there was no where for the passenger to put their arm. The center console was too low to the floor and the driver had an arm rest built into the seat. The passenger – nothing. We found that the ride on the 2012 was fantastic. It was smooth and quiet. The interior felt upscale, it had a nice iPod integration through a small color screen on the dash, and it was comfortable. Despite having a more powerful engine than the RAV4, the CR-V felt a bit sluggish in the acceleration department. It didn’t offer manual override so we were stuck with the shifting pattern that the car wanted to use. When we arrived back at the dealership Sally declared that she didn’t like it, it just didn’t “speak to” her. I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I’d be either.
We took the 2010 out to see if it would provide a better experience, and if interested, save us some money. It was the top end model with leather and a sunroof. It did have a sliding rear seat, however the seats did not recline and were a complete pain in the butt to flip down as it was a three step process. The cargo area was otherwise similar to the 2012 with the addition of a “luggage shelf” that sat about a foot and a half above the floor to carry light items. Not under floor storage like the RAV4, but clever. The rear seat also had a 40/20/40 split where the center could be flipped down independently to hold the same sort of items that you could in a RAV4. This feature was not available on the 2012 model. The ride was again smooth and acceleration felt a bit more brisk than the 2012 but not as good as the RAV4. The road noise was another story. It was loud. So loud that it sounded like a window was open at highway speeds. So loud that you could hear the tires hit the pavement in the city. So loud that it was a deal breaker.
We left the Honda dealership disappointed. So far our experiences were going completely opposite as we expected. We thought that we’d fall in love with a Honda and its seductive styling, but were instead favoring the bland and practical Toyota. But we had one more trip to make and we were sure this one would change our minds.
As I said before, the Mazda CX-5 is a brand new 2013 model. That limits us a bit as we have no choice to buy new whereas we had more options with the other two cars. The two biggest things that drove us towards the CX-5 were the styling and the fuel economy. Had we not driven a RAV4, we may have had a different opinion. The sales guy was friendly enough and showed us around the car then set us up for a test drive. After explaining that they were selling them as fast as they could get them, we hopped into a top-end Grand Touring model. It was the only drive of the day where the sales man came with us and told us where to go. Not our preference, but whatever. The Grand Touring included perforated leather with red stitching and a few other bells and whistles. It was nice. The interior and materials were certainly the nicest and highest quality we had seen. It included a backup camera and blind spot warning system as well as a really cool stereo with a 5″ color display. It was super stylish. But something was missing. The cargo area was simply bland. There were no reclining seats, no sliding seats, no cubbies, no under floor storage. It was significantly narrower than the cargo areas of the CR-V and RAV4 due to the tire wells. The only thing it really had going for it was a true 40/20/40 seat. Otherwise it was bland and disappointing.
After driving around the salesman’s route and coming back to the dealership we indicated that we were interested and might come back. When we got back in the car I asked Sally what she thought. Disappointed. Severely. This was supposed to be “the one” but it just didn’t speak to her. You see Sally isn’t enamored by technology and materials like I am. She is enamored by functionality. Space. Fuel Economy. Acceleration. Practicality. At the end of the day the Hondas were at the bottom, the CX-5 was not far higher, and the RAV4 was at the top.
Hasn’t been made yet, thankfully. There is no rush to pick up a new car and we still have a few test drives to take. We found out the rough ride of the RAV4 was because we were driving a sport model which is specifically tuned to have a firm ride. We are going to drive a non-sport model to see how different the ride is. We are also going to try out a Chevy Equinox as it gets good fuel economy, has some of the RAV4s storage options, and has a nice interior to boot. We also found out that a redesigned 2013 RAV4 is supposed to hit dealerships in the fall. Few details are known, but we’ve decided to wait until it comes out to avoid buyers remorse. We were already considering a new RAV4 anyway, so why not take advantage of the new model. If we don’t like it we might be able to take advantage on a 2012 closeout or something.
So even though our day didn’t go the way we expected, it was nice to drive some cars around. At least we found something we like even if it wasn’t the one we thought it would be. That’s why we test drive.