Looking to replace my aging 2012 Hyundai Santa Fe, I’ve been surveying the current car market. When shopping for a new car it can be confusing due to the sheer number of choices, so settle on a few ‘must haves’ and go from there.

For me, it’s things like SUV, late model, diesel, sunroof, heated seats, rain-sensing wipers, push-button start – not necessarily in that order. So that shopping list does narrow down the candidates considerably, and here in New Zealand that aims my focus directly on the premium SUV market. And, because my budget won’t extend to the luxury large SUV models – Lexus, BMX X5, Audi Q5, Toyota Highlander – I’m looking at the medium SUVs – Mazda CX5, Ford Escape, Holden Captiva, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage – and more in particular the premium models.

Last week I took a 2017 Ford Escape Titanium 2.0 TDCi AWD for a drive. Normally retailing for around $55k, you can find near new models for around $40k. These cars are fully spec’d – panoramic sunroof, auto-everything, heated leather (ok its probably just pleather) seats, parking assist, blindspot warnings etc etc.

This week I took a 2017 Mazda CX-5 Limited and while it matched the list of specifications point for point, there were definitely differences between the two.

For these premium models you can pay up to $20k more so you really have to ask yourself if all those extras are worth it. That sort of financial decision is a subject for a whole other blog post; obviously the smart thing is buy near new when its already had that big whack of initial depreciation, or even smarter buy a sensible, reliable car and drive it until dies but hey money’s for spending right?

When you take a car for a test drive, the obvious comparisons are going to be with the car you currently drive, which for me is a 2012 Santa Fe which has got a few miles under the belt. I keep it in good condition but it’s definitely not new. So driving this 2017 Ford Escape off the yard, with barely 3000k on the clock, some things are definitely going to stand out – it’s smaller, the cabin space definitely feels more compact, the ride is a lot tighter and the steering more precise, it’s very smooth, incredibly responsive and still has that new car smell.

The Mazda CX5 was also incredibly smooth, you could hardly tell it was a diesel. The idle-stop (start/stop) feature was a bit more hit and miss than the Escape but you can switch it off completely (for people who hate the planet haha only kidding I have no idea how much of a difference it would make in NZ, maybe somewhere you spend a lot of time stopped in traffic). The driver setup is all very convenient and comfortable, with ergonomic and easy-reach controls. Like the Escape everything was pretty intuitive.

I’m no motoring journalist so you won’t be getting a technical review – I’m just going to keep it simple – what I liked and what I didn’t, with a quick sum up at the end. And, for the record, I have no affiliation with either Mazda or Ford.

Pros – What I liked

Ford Escape

  • Panoramic sunroof – My wife has a convertible and I do get incredibly jealous on those blue-sky sunny days. A sunroof is an acceptable compromise. Both models had sunroofs but the Escape’s was simpler to operate (the CX5 had some odd up-down configuration which made it confusing to get it to slide vs tilt) and also had the benefit of the panoramic roof that brought in a lot of natural light into the car and would be nice for the passengers at the back (or lying back and looking up at the stars!). Wind noise was minimal even at open road speeds however there is some buffeting if all the windows are up, which could be an issue for people with sensitive ears.
  • Adaptive cruise control – Both cars had this option but I only get to test the Escape. Never having used it before, my foot hovered tentatively over the brake as we approached slower traffic, my faith in semi-autonomous driving still very fresh. But it worked just fine; the speed smoothly backed off right down to around-town speeds. Nice! I do have cruise control but barely use it because I find it only useful on long straight stretches of open road so this is a great feature I can see myself using a lot.
  • Lively diesel engine – Advertised MPG for the diesel Escape is a miserly 5.4/100km so I imagined the performance may have been seriously handicapped but I found it quick to respond and plenty of power when you needed it. It felt like the gear changes were spaced just right for my style of driving and it never felt like it was straining. It doesn’t have the 145kw the Santa Fe has but I don’t often need that sort of grunt.
  • iPod connection – Despite not having a dedicated iPod connector (and Apple’s Carplay doesn’t support anything less than an iPhone 5) the USB connection worked remarkably well (much better than the CX-5s connection), remembering your settings when you restarted the car. Of course, like all new cars it has Apple Carplay and Android Auto to hook up your phone.

Mazda CX-5

  • Comfortable front seats – No pinching of the thighs like the Escape, and the fake leather with contrasting stitching certainly has a luxury feel about it. Both front seats have a massive range of button-adjusted positions, including almost completely flat.
  • Centre console controller – This dial makes controlling your audio, navigation, phone or car settings a cinch. It’s a genius piece of innovation and you can tell a lot of thought has gone into making this intuitive and easy for drivers to use (which is probably a safety consideration too). It also has quick buttons to go straight to the home screen, phone, audio or navigation, plus a separate dial for volume (press to mute).

  • Walk-away locking – This makes you feel like a boss, no clicking of buttons (so last year) you can setup the car to automatically lock if you walk a few metres away from it. It’s stuff like this that just gives it the cool factor (again, the show-off-to-your-friends factor).
  • HUD (Heads Up Display) – This is a great feature that hopefully more car makers will adopt. It projects your speed, the posted speed limit for the road you’re on and your next turn (when using navigation). Only the driver can see it so hopefully you won’t get too many tuts from fellow passengers when you creep above the speed limit but the whole thing is perfect for helping you keep your eyes on the road.
  • Bose sound system – The sound quality was amaaaaazing and better than what I have at home. I can imagine just sitting in the car while it’s parked in the driveway to listen to my music!

Cons – What I didn’t like

Ford Escape

  • Feels small – Measurement wise it’s probably not a lot different from the CX5 but it felt a bit more squashed in. Maybe it was the seats, maybe the cluster of gauges on the dash, maybe the way the shifter sits somewhere between the centre console and the dashboard. I’d probably get used to eventually but it bugged me at the time.
  • Auto tailgate – It didn’t lift half the time and then to have it come down on you because your foot just happened to be in the wrong place. No thanks. It did give a warning beep so I guess that’s something!
  • Styling feels like it would date quickly – I do like the new grille compared with the outgoing Kuga, and brings it more in line with the more rugged looking Ranger however I feel it has too many sharp lines that would cause it too date quickly.

Mazda CX-5

  • Sunroof controls – It took me a few goes to figure out how to get the sunroof to slide instead of just tilting up. It definitely wasn’t intuitive but I got there in the end. And why can’t they have a panoramic roof like the Escape!
  • iPod connectivity (or lack of) – Ok, yes a little old school but I like just leaving the iPod in the car for my music. I don’t have to make sure BT is switched on before I can get some sounds, or worry about it draining my phone’s battery. The iPod would eventually connect but it took forever and didn’t autoplay, and then you had to start your playlist all over again.
  • Flat spots when accelerating – This one surprised me a little because I always thought Mazda were the sporty one of the Japanese stable (maybe I got that wrong and it’s actually Honda) but when pressed it was slow to respond, and even mid-range it seemed to take its time. Of course I could have used the sport shift manual changer but I’m way too lazy for that these days!
  • Inconsistent start/stop – The i-stop is designed to shut off the engine when you’re stopped somewhere. When active it seemed to only work half the time, and it seemed you needed to hard press the brake to activate it. Seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

To sum up – CX-5 vs Escape

So which one is better? If I was to pick one, I’d probably go with the CX-5 just because it felt roomier and the centre console control dial is well thought-out but it was very close and I’d definitely be missing that panoramic sunroof in the Escape.

They are both nice vehicles and enjoy all the little upgrades new cars have been getting over the years (even if they are a good five years behind the rest of the tech world, I mean they still dont have a wifi option!). The little things that make a driver’s life easier – auto high-beam headlights, adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, blind-spot warning, reversing camera, proximity keys, integration with your phone, auto wipers etc.

But the real question for me is all that worth spending an extra $20-$30k? I think I’d have a hard time justifying that but of course if I just had money to burn and wanted to show off to all my friends then sure why not!?

Dimensions – What about the space inside the car?

One of the things I like about my Santa Fe is there’s plenty of space when you need it, so I thought I’d add this little postscript about the relative interior sizes of each car. With my current Santa Fe you never really have any concerns about not fitting everything in – Moving furniture, going camping, roadtrips with friends etc. Of course, for day to day stuff we never need that much space but it’s nice knowing it’s there if you ever need it. I guess it’s like having a house that’s way bigger than you need – it’s that peace of mind if you need to house a family of wombles you’ve got the space.

While luggage capacity (generally measured in litres/cubic feet – or VDA, it’s metric equivalent) is hugely hypothetical unless you’re in the business of transporting beanbag filler it won’t mean much. It is however a helpful way to compare different models – keep in mind that the actual shape and design of the cargo space will also affect how much you can transport.

Other things to keep in mind if you’re frequently transporting goods are ease of access to the luggage area. This can include things like lip height, how flat the load area is, tailgate opening (the Ford Escape has a handy – or should I say hand-free – feature where you wave you foot under the bumper to open the tailgate – be warned, for some reason the designers thought it a good idea that it would also CLOSE the tailgate so if your foot strays into the detection area while you’re ferreting around in the boot space the tailgate will come down on top of you – and it does exert significant pressure on your person before it stops – or so I’ve been told ;)) and other things like the blind cover (Mazda’s CX5 cleverly pulls up out of the way) or shopping bag hooks (I get the concept but who drives like Scott Dixon on their way home from the supermarket?).

You can see from the numbers below that my 2012 Santa Fe is significantly bigger volume-wise than the SUVs I’m looking at – it’s even bigger than the new model Santa Fe. Obviously, their research indicated that customers weren’t buying their cars to transport a lot of stuff so they could get away with making them smaller, helping with things like fuel economy or making them a little more usable in Europe where scooter-sized streets and carparks are often standard.

Volume Capacity
2012 Santa Fe: 960 litres/2200 litres (2nd row down)
2017 Mazda CX5: 442 litres/1342 litres (2nd row down)
2017 Ford Escape: 406 litres/1603 litres (2nd row down)
2017 Kia Sportage: 564 litres/1353 litres (2nd row down)
2017 Holden Captiva: 965 litres (2nd row down)
2017 Santa Fe: 516 litres/1615 litres (2nd row down)

Ground Clearance
2012 Santa Fe: 185mm
2017 Mazda CX5: 193mm
2017 Ford Escape: 198mm

But it’s not just about how much you can carry where you notice the smaller size – it’s up front too. The roof space is reduced and the seats and legroom a little tighter. This was particularly noticeable in the Escape where the front seats felt so narrow they were uncomfortable. It’s possible you might just get used to the smaller dimensions but it’s definitely a sacrifice.

Next: Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson…

2017 Ford Escape Titanium vs 2017 Mazda CX-5 Limited – Test Drive Review