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2019 Mazda CX-5 vs. 2019 Toyota RAV4: Which Best Seller Is the Better Compact SUV?

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 5/22/2019 Jared Gall
a car parked on the side of a road: We pit the 2019 Mazda CX-5 against the 2019 Toyota RAV4 to see which compact crossover is the more compelling choice in this hotly contested segment.© Michael Simari - Car and Driver We pit the 2019 Mazda CX-5 against the 2019 Toyota RAV4 to see which compact crossover is the more compelling choice in this hotly contested segment.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD

Highs: The best chassis in the class, the best engine in the class, the best interior in the class.

Lows: One of the thirstiest engines in the class, narrow interior, small cargo hold.

Research the Mazda CX-5 on MSN Autos | Find a Mazda CX-5 near you

2019 Toyota RAV4 Limited

Highs: Humongous interior space, cushy seats, thrifty on fuel.

Lows: Noisy, feels brittle and insubstantial, polarizing styling.

The word "car" has long been considered a synonym for the more generic "vehicle." Nobody goes "crossover shopping"; they go car shopping. And what people are shopping for today, increasingly, is compact crossovers, such as the Mazda CX-5 and the Toyota RAV4.

Research the Toyota RAV4 Find a RAV4 near you

The Match-Up

From Honda to Volkswagen, tall compact hatchbacked SUV-like vehicles often are a brand's best seller. The only exception to this rule is domestic full-size pickups, which are all followed in their respective brands' sales charts by-you guessed it-compact SUVs. (See our rankings for the entire segment here.) Here we have two superlative best sellers: The Toyota RAV4 is not only Toyota's biggeste seller, it's the best-selling vehicle in the whole class and the fourth-best-selling vehicle in the United States, period. With Mazda's humbler scale and presence in our market, the CX-5 didn't come close to the RAV4's 427,170 sales in 2018, but it does outsell all the rest of Mazda's lineup combined. How's that for proof of the crossover's dominance?

a close up of a car: Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?

Cars in this class run the gamut from affordable to, well, affordable for wealthier people. You can spend as little as $25,395 on a Mazda CX-5, or you can spend about $40,000. All-wheel drive bumps the price up $1400 on the lower trim levels, while it's standard on the upper Grand Touring Reserve and Signature models. It's the same story in the Toyota showroom, where the RAV4 starts at $26,595 and tops $40K all loaded up. There, too, the ability to power the rear wheels adds $1400.

Our all-wheel-drive CX-5 test vehicle is the Signature version, on which there are no options. It already includes Mazda's new G-Vectoring Control Plus, nappa leather, heated and ventilated front seats and heated rears, keyless entry and start, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control, a 360-degree camera, navigation, and a full complement of active-safety equipment. The CX-5's upgrade engine, a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four producing 250 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, is standard on Grand Touring Reserve and Signature models, while lesser trims get by with a 186-hp naturally aspirated 2.5-liter. (Splurge for the Signature, and Mazda also now offers an optional turbocharged 2.2-liter diesel four good for 168 ponies and 290 lb-ft.) Our example's $39,900 as-tested sticker might seem steep to the uninitiated, but those who have shopped at the upper end of this segment already know that it's possible to spend near or beyond that much on most every vehicle in the class.

a person driving a car: Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?

Including the Toyota RAV4. The Limited model with all-wheel drive that we drove tallies $39,084. Its four-cylinder engine also displaces 2.5 liters but doesn't have a turbocharger. At 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft, it's well behind the Mazda, but an eight-speed automatic helps make the most of the comparatively meager output. Of greater importance to buyers in this class is that the RAV4 matches the CX-5's luxury-feature content line by line and adds wireless phone charging and foot activation for the power rear hatch. While Toyota does offer Apple CarPlay, the Mazda also is compatible with Android Auto.

On the Road

As our current 10Best winner in the segment, the CX-5 is our gold standard for compact crossovers. It's such a standout that, if we want to praise any other similar vehicle, we compare it to the Mazda. And this excellence is apparent from the moment a driver pulls onto the road. The CX-5 has great, rock-solid steering that, in a straight line, feels as though the wheel is fixed. Then you start to turn the wheel, and there's a satisfying buildup in effort. The CX-5 has real body control that doesn't feel like it was designed to manage more than a driver in this segment is going to do with the Mazda but was designed to deliver outstanding ride comfort no matter what.

It's surprising for a Toyota, and especially so for a RAV4, how connected and communicative the RAV4's steering is. And the vehicle as a whole is pretty well balanced and planted. Before you get any warning light or big interruptions, you can feel the stability control intervening in subtle ways to keep the thing neutral and controlled around corners. We were quite surprised to learn that we like the brake pedal more in the RAV4 than in the Mazda. The CX-5's is a little squishy at the top of its travel, while the Toyota's is part of the brand's unexpected commitment to verve in its pedestrian products. And it's not just in feel: The RAV4's handling and braking numbers-0.84 g of grip on the skidpad and a 161-foot stop from 70 mph-are the best in the segment, while the Mazda's 0.78 g and 175-foot stop tend toward the back in spite of the CX-5's subjective composure and comfort.

a close up of a red car: Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?

The Mazda's optional boosted four is the burliest engine in the class. It doesn't rev very high or sound particularly great, but it does make the CX-5 the quickest by a substantial margin despite weighing a relatively hefty 3812 pounds. Our test vehicle's 6.2-second zero-to-60-mph pull was almost two seconds quicker than both that of a mechanically identical RAV4 Adventure model we previously tested and of the last CX-5 we took to the track with the standard 186-hp 2.5-liter. Paired with one of the last six-speed automatic transmissions in a segment increasingly turning to eight- and nine-speeds and CVTs to tease out every last mpg, Mazda's 2.5 does suffer somewhat compared to others in terms of fuel economy, which the EPA estimates at 22 mpg city, 27 highway, and 24 combined. But experientially, the six-speed is deeply satisfying, being smooth, quick-shifting, and with perfectly spaced ratios that keep it from feeling or sounding too busy. Engine behavior is where the Toyota drops behind the Mazda; the RAV4's 2.5 is gritty and loud, and the eight-speed automatic feels slow and abrupt in its actions. But with its more modest output, the Toyota crushes the Mazda in fuel economy, with 25 mpg city and 33 highway for a combined 28 mpg. On our 75-mph highway fuel-economy loop, the RAV4 averaged 32 mpg to the CX-5's 30 mpg.

The Inside View

It's easy to see that Toyota's budget for the RAV4 went straight to its design. Inside and out, this SUV is very distinct. From the quasi-4Runner front end to the big bulky forms and harsh angles inside, all are rendered nicely, if a little polarizing. The front and rear seating areas are huge, and the cushy seats are recliner comfortable. Behind the rear seat lives one of the largest cargo holds in the class at 37 cubic feet. But it's a noisy environment. There's a ton of wind and tire noise, and a particularly egregious racket works its way in from the engine bay. The RAV4's sound-level readings of 76 decibels at full throttle and 70 decibels at a 70-mph cruise both are 3 decibels louder than the CX-5's. Toyota's 2.5 is so obtrusive that one driver claimed he could feel the engine noise through the steering wheel. Another called the transmission's shift quality "chunky." The RAV4 is lighter than many competitors, so it seems like Toyota could afford to pack a few additional pounds of sound deadening around the body shell without going over weight.

a trunk of a car: Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?

Where the Toyota's interior is rugged, the CX-5's is upscale, even luxurious. The materials are lovely, and the design is refined and tasteful, though the climate control system is gallingly loud, particularly the ventilated seats. The front seats are nicely supportive, but the cabin feels narrow, and the rear seats get awfully intimate with three abreast. We also noted that the rear center armrest contains the USB ports and the outboard seat-heater controls, so if you seat someone in the middle, you can't charge your devices, and you'd better be comfortable with the seat-heat settings. Although the Mazda's cargo area is on the tidier end of the class at 31 cubes, its seats fold and raise back into position with well-lubricated ease.

a car parked in a parking lot: Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Toyota RAV4 vs. Mazda CX-5: Which Is Better?

The Bottom Line

The Toyota RAV4 is a spacious and comfortable cruiser and surprisingly engaging. On the one hand, the RAV4 as well as the Camry sedan are the unlikeliest indicators of a shift toward enthusiasm at Toyota. But on the other, they are the volume models, and their honing shows that Toyota is serious about modifying its reputation for building reliable yet staid vehicles. There's a competence to the latest RAV4 that has never been there before. All it needs now is a powertrain that doesn't sound and feel like it's two decades old.

Yet while the Toyota is competent, the Mazda is exemplary. It's not the most spacious people hauler in the segment, but for those whose needs track more toward the modest end of the spectrum, the CX-5 is, in the words of one staffer, "a class-above vehicle despite its middle-of-the-pack pricing." Another, considering the Mazda against any other competitor, called it "no contest." In a field full of mainstream nameplates, the CX-5 feels like a full-blown luxury offering. That it drives in a way that will please enthusiasts merely takes what already has broad appeal and further distills it for those who care differently.

Research the Toyota RAV4 Find a RAV4 near you

 Research the Mazda CX-5 on MSN Autos | Find a Mazda CX-5 near you


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