Top performers give each other a run for their money.
Everyone loves a hard-fought battle between two evenly matched rivals. Sure, a blowout is fun if your team wins, but the games that come down to the last second are the ones we talk about years later. This fight, between the redesigned 2017 Honda CR-V and the also all-new 2017 Mazda CX-5, is one of those fights.
About a year ago, we conducted a test of the entire fleet of compact crossover SUVs, and the Honda and Mazda finished No. 1 and No. 2 — despite being at the tail end of their respective model cycles. That shows you how good they were: still the best even though the competition had four or five years to catch up. Now it’s Honda and Mazda’s time to set the benchmark yet again.
In terms of size and sales, Mazda has always been an underdog, but one that routinely punches well above its weight class. The CX-5, in particular, has been a perennial Motor Trend favorite in its class, though it’s never won an SUV of the Year award. The Honda CR-V, however, has. The SUV sales leader (among all SUVs, not just in the compact class), the CR-V is a dominant force in the industry, thanks to its combination of practicality, reliability and versatility. The Mazda, though, is more fun.
Or is it?
For 2017, the CR-V moves to the new Civic platform, which spawned the sedan we’re also enamored with. Like the Civic, the new CR-V rides and handles considerably better than before.
The difference is in the suspension damping. The CR-V corners shockingly flat, giving it a planted and confident feeling rather than the top-heavy floatiness we generally expect from crossovers and SUVs. Body control is excellent, allowing smooth and purposeful weight transfers and implying a subterranean center of gravity despite the CR-V having more ground clearance than the CX-5.
The CX-5, by contrast, is more of a wild child. As with other Mazdas, the rear end feels slightly loose, as if it wants to rotate just slightly and point you into corners. The CX-5’s center of gravity doesn’t feel as low as the CR-V’s, though, and the weight transfer happens much more quickly, so you have to slow down your steering inputs and drive more deliberately. Neither vehicle’s front-biased all-wheel-drive system made itself known behind the wheel, nor did either seem to affect the steering much. The Mazda’s steering feel is heavier, and the Honda’s feels more naturally weighted.
Some will argue crossover buyers don’t care about handling. But no one wants to feel like their SUV is going to tip over every time they turn into a parking lot or swerve to avoid a kid who just ollied his skateboard into the street. Nor does anyone enjoy being tossed side to side by a vehicle with poor body control. Here, the CR-V shines. Its damping provides an impressively smooth ride and minimal head toss. Large bumps and potholes are deftly dispatched and barely felt or heard in the cabin. The CX-5 isn’t far behind, but its sportier handling comes with a stiffer ride, so you feel the bumps more.
I preferred the Honda’s unflappable stability, but features editor Christian Seabaugh liked the CX-5’s playfulness. Regardless, if you thought trading in for a crossover meant you’d never experience the joy of driving again, you’re wrong.
On the speedy side of things, it’s a bit less clear. Both engines make roughly the same power and torque, but they do so in very different ways. The Mazda’s naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder feels much more responsive than the Honda’s 1.5-liter turbo-four. We preferred the Mazda’s sharply exponential power delivery that seems to pick up velocity as you go faster, building all the way to its high-rpm peak torque and horsepower, compared to the Honda’s low-down grunt and steady, locomotive accelerative force.
Crossover buyers place a real premium on versatility, especially in this class, where packaging a compact interior is a tough ask. These vehicles need to move people and their stuff, and sometimes a lot of it. Although the CR-V is only slightly larger on the outside, it’s a world of difference on the inside. The CR-V offers an additional 8.3 cubic feet of cargo space over the CX-5 with the seats up, thanks in part to its boxier design versus the Mazda’s sexier sloping roof. Both vehicles offer a delightfully low load floor, each of which hits about midthigh on an average-height man.
Both offer reclining and fold-flat rear seats, which can be dropped using levers in the cargo area, but the CX-5 gets bonus points for its 40/20/40 split and the ability to drop each segment separately from the cargo area. We also appreciated the CX-5’s optional rear-seat heaters and 2.5-amp USB charging ports in the center armrest. The Honda’s 2.5-amp USB chargers are at the base of the center console by your feet, limiting your movements when plugged in.
In terms of actual usability, though, the Honda pulls ahead. Despite giving up 1.5 inches in wheelbase, the CR-V offers considerably more rear-seat space than the CX-5.
Up front, the experiences continue to diverge. Honda has gone with something of a starfighter design theme, and Mazda has done an admirable job of building a modern-luxe interior. We prefer the Mazda’s black and white two-tone scheme over the Honda’s medium gray and light gray, and the Mazda’s materials feel much richer and more expensive (though neither car’s “wood” trim is in any way convincing).
As for where the rump meets the road, the Honda’s front seats are more comfortable and supportive, and the Mazda’s are flat and lack sufficient lumbar support. Then again, the Mazda was nearly silent inside, save some engine noise; the Honda suffered some wind noise and a lot of tire noise, especially on poor pavement.
Technology-wise, we prefer the Mazda’s simple and straightforward infotainment system, though we give Honda credit for how greatly it’s improved its own system. Honda listened to its owners and gave us back an audio volume knob and improved the system’s responsiveness, but we still find the user interface too layered and cluttered. As for the Mazda, we’re disappointed with the lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto availability — although Mazda has hinted at its addition in a future model year.