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2017 Honda CR-V vs. 2017 Mazda CX-5: Head vs. Heart

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 6/5/2017 Motor Trend Staff
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Whether it's basketball or boxing, 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 Big Test of the entire fleet of compact crossover SUVs, and the Honda and Mazda finished one-two—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 play 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 (and I mean 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?

© Motor Trend Staff

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, so much so that my notes read: "I think I could seriously scare the average person with what this crossover is capable of on a back road."

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-Vs, 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.

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Some will argue crossover buyers don't care about handling. But they do, just for different reasons. 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.

One thing anyone can agree on is the importance of good brakes. And here Honda nails it. The pedal itself is appropriately firm, and the brakes respond immediately and linearly. The initial bite isn't grabby, but the braking force ramps up quickly and stops the vehicle with confidence. The Mazda's brakes are plenty strong, but they lack the initial bite, and you have to press the pedal farther before they feel like they're really digging in.

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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 definitely 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.

The characteristics of these engines are amplified by their transmissions. The Mazda's six-speed automatic is an excellent gearbox, shifting smoothly and quickly and never hesitating to downshift and get you more power. In fact, it's nearly impossible to not get a downshift when accelerating from a steady pace. "The CX-5 is not quick, but I'm never left wanting for more," Seabaugh said. "Credit to the transmission—it shifts with speed and purpose. It's happy to hold a gear, too. In Sport mode the transmission even rev-matches downshifts while braking into corners. It's really a sporty car.

"Honda's CVT is one of the best in the business," he continued. "It's responsive, but it isn't tuned to be super jerky off the line, and it surges through the rev range, imitating gears every once in a while when prudent. I kept it in D most of the time; S didn't seem to do much except keep the revs slightly higher. L was actually a better Sport mode than S." I agree--the Honda's transmission was slower to change ratios but did so with a smoothness that took any bite out of the engine.

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Their characters, though, are deceiving and counterintuitive. On the test track, the seemingly less aggressive CR-V hit 60 mph nearly a second quicker than the sporty CX-5, needing just 7.5 seconds to the Mazda's 8.4, though the advantage narrowed to 0.6 second by the end of a quarter mile. Although both vehicles pulled the same 0.81 average g on the skidpad, the nearly 200-pound-lighter Honda maintained its speed advantage with a 27.9-second figure-eight lap at 0.60 average g. The Mazda—hampered by its aggressive stability control, which couldn't be deactivated—needed 28.5 seconds at 0.58 average g. More predictably, the lighter Honda stopped 10 feet shorter, in just 116 feet.

It's a similar story in efficiency. The CR-V has a superior EPA rating of 27/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined, though it fell short of that in our Real MPG testing with a result of 21.9/34.2/26.1. The CX-5, on the other hand, receives an EPA rating of 23/29/26 mpg city/highway/combined and also disappointed with 18.4/29.9/22.3 in Real MPG testing.

But 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.

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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, giving you limited range of motion 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. True, the official headroom, shoulder room, and legroom measurements don't show much of a difference. But if you compare cargo volumes behind the first row, you'll see the Honda offers an extra 16.2 cubic feet, and as noted before, only half of that advantage comes from the cargo area. Or as the 6-foot-1 Seabaugh put it: "Damn near luxury-car levels of room when sitting behind myself." On the Mazda, he said: "The back seat is a bit tight when sitting behind my driver's seat. Despite the scallop in the back of the driver's seat, my knees are up against it."

The single people and double-income, no-kids crowd might be muttering, "So what?" right now, but ask your friends with kids about loading rear-facing car seats sometime. They'll also appreciate that both vehicles' rear doors open super wide, 80 degrees for the Mazda and a full 90 degrees for the Honda.

Moving 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). "The Mazda makes the Honda look down-market," Seabaugh said. "That's not a slam on the Honda. It's just an example of how much Mazda has raised the game."

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.

© Motor Trend Staff

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.

In the adjacent spaces, the CR-V gains a point for a plethora of thoughtful and useful storage bins and easily accessed charging ports.

When it comes to driving technology, both vehicles offer a full suite of optional active safety aids, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist. We like the CX-5's ability to use adaptive cruise control in stop-and-go traffic, but we find its blind-spot warning system hyperactive and hyper-vigilant, beeping wildly when the car in the next lane is two car lengths behind. We also each experienced an unnecessary panic brake from the system, something we've noticed in other Mazdas. The CR-V's collision warning system was also overzealous, blinking BRAKE in the instrument cluster far too often, but at least it only made noise if it was actually going to be a close call. When it comes to lane keeping systems, though, Honda's is clearly more advanced and more aggressive, doing its best to keep you in the center of the lane; the Mazda's doesn't engage until you're wandering over the line.

2017 Honda CR V vs 2017 Mazda CX 5 front three quarter in motion 04© Motor Trend Staff 2017 Honda CR V vs 2017 Mazda CX 5 front three quarter in motion 04

Then there's the numbers game. Both manufacturers offer a three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, and three-year/36,000-mile roadside assistance. As tested, these two loaded versions are just $355 apart, with the Honda being slightly more expensive. Their lesser trim levels follow a similar pricing ladder. You might recall from our Big Test last year—which featured the previous generation of these two vehicles—that the Honda holds its value better and is cheaper to maintain, repair, and insure, per our partners at Intellichoice. The redesigned 2017 Honda also received five-star front, side, and overall crash test ratings and a four-star rollover rating from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. The Mazda has not yet been tested.

As so often happens in these sorts of comparison tests, it ultimately came down to a fight between the head and the heart. On more consumer-focused tests like these, we often find ourselves saying things such as, "Well, we'd rather have this one because it's better to drive, but you should probably buy that one because it's a better all-around people mover." Frankly, we hate recommending the car we wouldn't spend our own money on, but we know the priorities of enthusiasts tend to be different than most people who buy crossovers. We get it—we're outliers.

This time, though, we don't necessarily have to couch it that way. Yes, the Mazda CX-5 is prettier, more luxurious, and a little more fun to drive, but the Honda CR-V is just damn good. If you want to be coldly rational, the CR-V has more space, gets better fuel economy, has more-advanced technology, and is cheaper to own. It's also very good to drive. In the past, we lead-footed sports car lovers might have excused the Mazda's deficiencies in exchange for its lusty driving experience. But this time, we have no hesitation in recommending the CR-V to enthusiasts as well as our automotively apathetic friends and family. It's a narrow margin of victory, but whether your other car is a Camaro or a Corolla, if you want a compact crossover, you'll be slightly better served by the new Honda CR-V.

2017 Honda CR-V Touring AWD2017 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, AWDFront-engine, AWD
ENGINE TYPE Turbocharged I-4, alum block/headI-4, alum block/head
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cylDOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 91.4 cu in/1,498 cc151.8 cu in/2,488 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.3:113.0:1
POWER (SAE NET) 190 hp @ 5,600 rpm187 hp @ 6,000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 179 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm185 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
REDLINE 6,500 rpm6,200 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 18.3 lb/hp19.6 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto6-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 5.64:1/2.28:14.62:1/2.77:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll barStruts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING RATIO 12.3:115.5:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.32.7
BRAKES, F; R 11.1-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS11.7-in vented disc; 11.9-in disc, ABS
WHEELS 7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum7.0 x 19-in cast aluminum
TIRES 235/60R18 103H (M+S) Hankook Kinergy GTP225/55R19 99V M+S Toyo A36
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 104.7 in106.2 in
TRACK, F/R 62.9/63.5 in62.8/62.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 180.6 x 73.0 x 66.5 in179.1 x 72.5 x 65.3 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.2 in7.6 in
APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE 20.8/24.8 deg17.0/20.0 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 37.4 ft36.0 ft
CURB WEIGHT 3,478 lb3,667 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 57/43%57/43%
TOWING CAPACITY 1,500 lb2,000 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 55
HEADROOM, F/R 37.8/38.3 in39.3/39.0 in
LEGROOM, F/R 41.3/40.4 in41.0/39.6 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 57.9/55.6 in57.1/54.8 in
CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/R 75.8/39.2 cu ft59.6/30.9 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.8 sec2.7 sec
0-40 4.14.4
0-50 5.66.1
0-60 7.58.4
0-70 9.811.0
0-80 12.614.8
0-90 16.2
0-100 20.7
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 3.74.4
QUARTER MILE 15.8 sec @ 89.0 mph16.4 sec @ 83.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 116 ft126 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg)0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.9 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)28.5 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,750 rpm2,000 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $34,735$31,635
PRICE AS TESTED $34,735$34,380
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/YesYes/Yes
AIRBAGS 6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
BASIC WARRANTY 3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 5 yrs/60,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY 14.0 gal15.3 gal
REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB 21.9/34.2/26.1 mpg18.4/29.9/22.3 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 27/33/29 mpg23/29/26 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 125/102 kW-hrs/100 miles147/116 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.66 lb/mile0.76 lb/mile
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regularUnleaded regular

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