IT’S a tough job being a car. In these trying economic times, people want a lot more from you, especially people with families. They’re not only demanding space and a decent spec, but all this on a tight budget too. For the car, that means a balancing act worthy of the gasps and applause usually heard inside the Cirque du Soleil’s big top.
Of course the problem with this budget-versus-space-versus-spec scenario is that usually you only get to pick two. By default, one has to be sacrificed. Which is why the contenders in the 2,0-litre compact SUVs segment are working particularly hard.
Wearing price stickers ranging from R280k to R330k, they occupy the lowest rung of the segment’s hierarchy and are looking to attract buyers with families who have “Bang For Your Buck” as a guiding purchase principle. The holders of these wallets won’t settle for two out of three either. And so the balancing act begins.
The two latest circus talents on the market are the Toyota RAV4 2,0 GX and the Subaru Forester 2,0X. As is the case with their competitors, the entry-level RAV4 and Forester are given limited resources and sent off to emulate their better-appointed and more expensive siblings. Equipped with normally aspirated 2,0-litre petrol engines and manual gearboxes – the norm at this price point – and interior space that’s one size up from a compact hatch, the pair face a raft of competitors with comparative offerings.
Among these are two signifi-cant adversaries. One, the Honda CR-V 2,0 Comfort, is the entry-level model of the reigning champion in the Compact SUV/Crossover category of CAR’s Top 12 Best Buys and, like the RAV4, its ancestors helped establish this segment. The other is a relative newcomer – the Hyundai ix35 – a car that shook up the market segment with its launch back in mid 2010. Together with its Korean cousin, Kia’s Sportage, the ix35 offered high spec and great styling at an affordable price. Thanks to minor cosmetic changes in May, and because CAR has never tested the 2,0-litre ix35 before, the Hyundai takes its place alongside the CR-V as a gatekeeper of this segment. To get in, the RAV4 and Forester will need to get past these two impressive cars.
Toyota RAV4 2,0 GX, Road Test Score 75/100
The Toyota makes its play early on. At R279 900, it is the most affordable contender on test by a margin of R27 000. From a styling point of view, it’s also the bravest. A design language that first debuted on the Auris, this new Keen Look, as Toyota calls it, is not exactly a product of The Shrinking Violet School Of Automotive Design. The V-shaped front grille and headlight combo meets an upswept bumper cladding that gives the RAV4 a confrontational front-on presence. The rear is similarly daring with sizeable lights that form part of a large ledge beneath the rear window, which then drops – in an expanse of sheet metal – to the bumper.
At first glance it’s a polarising design. Our initial take wasn’t that positive, but after spending a week with the car, attitudes to the Toyota’s appearance began to change. The line that sweeps down from the D-pillar to undercut the wedgy front end does pull it together rather well. And the large dark plastic cladding creates a nice contrast to all that sheet metal. White is a colour that’s definitely suited to the RAV4.
The RAV4’s motor might have the lowest power rating (114 kW) in this group, as well as the lowest torque (187 N.m), but it’s a revvy unit that is as lively as it’s enthusiastic. If anything, the paucity of torque is noticeable, but let’s be honest, potential buyers aren’t going to be that fussed about performance or even handling characteristics. In all likelihood the 2,0 GX’s required role will be to cart kids to and from school and haul the weekly shopping home. Do that with minimal fuss and frugal fuel consumption and you’ll have a happy driver who has little interest in performance stats.
This RAV4 has a six-speed manual gearbox that does the job well – the clutch is perhaps a little eager to bite, but it doesn’t take long to get used to its action. For fuss-free driving an automatic would obviously be better, but self-shifting 2,0-litre petrol-engined models demand an extra R10 000 to R12 000 in this segment and to get the best out of these four-cylinder engines, you’re better off with a manual.
It’s the interiors of these compact SUVs that prospective owners will be most interested in. How well they utilise the segment’s general dimensions, and what creature comforts are standard are key questions.
The RAV4 answers the first one very well. Its luggage bay offers 368 dm3 of space (second only to the Honda’s 408 dm3) and with the rear seatback folded flat, it leads the group with 1 480 dm3. The large hatch means ease of loading, which is handy. Unfortunately that low sill is compromised somewhat by a raised platform needed to cover the full-size alloy spare wheel. It looks odd and the plastic lip is going to get scratched, but it’s no deal-breaker. What could be, however, is the finish of the interior.
The disadvantage of Toyota’s strategy to undercut its rivals is exposed by an interior that feels low-rent. The quality of the plastics and rubber don’t match the others in this test and the faux-aluminum plastic inserts on the doors and facia were already sporting a few scratches. On the upside, the seats are covered in a fairly robust fabric that, while not plush, looks the hardest-wearing of the interiors in this group. That’s a big plus when facing the prospect of ferrying tots and the spills they’re bound to cause.
While it has an impressive entertainment system that includes USB and Bluetooth connectivity, there’s no satnav. There’s also no reverse camera (present in the ix35 and Forester) and no cruise control either. A rear-view display on the facia or rear-view mirror would’ve been handy, because the ledge-to-drop-off rear is tricky to judge.
Given the precious cargo sitting behind the driver, safety is the other big box to tick in the segment. The RAV4 certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard. It comes with front, side, curtain and knee airbags, as well as Isofix anchor points for child seats. ABS, vehicle stability control and electronic brake distribution driver aids are all standard, too.
Subaru Forester 2,0X, Road Test Score 74/100
As ever, the left-field option in this segment is … a Subaru. At R329 900, it’s the most expensive – a fact that reflects the pricey nature of the entire Forester range – and it’s also the most aesthetically challenged, if one could put it that way. Not that this should surprise anyone. Subarus have always favoured utility and function over beauty – it’s an aesthetic reinforced by the fact that this brand may well have the most schizophrenic design lineage in this history of vehicles. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
While this new-generation Forester with its scrunched up nose looks very different to its predecessor, the overall profile remains quite similar. And that means a compact SUV with an exterior that appears a little boxier than the rest. Somewhat surprisingly, the extra height doesn’t translate into additional interior space and, bar the visibly smaller ix35, the Forester’s 288 dm3 boot and seats-folded-flat 1 240 dm3 offers the smallest interior dimensions in the group.
What it does offer is the best view. While CAR’s exhaustive tests don’t measure the surface area of front- and side glass, the Subaru clearly has the biggest windows, affording the driver a commanding view of their surroundings.
The interior isn’t quite as good as the CR-V or ix35’s, but it’s nothing like the cheap, spartan stuff Foresters have served up in the past. Hard-wearing cloth covers the comfortable seats and a well-laid out facia features a smart audio system that includes MP3, USB and Bluetooth capabilities, cruise control and a manual air-con as standard.
The Subaru has the safety bases admirably covered too with front, side and curtain airbags, as well as ABS with EBD and brake assist. And with that quick nod to active and passive safety systems, we get to the best part of this particular Subaru – the handling.
Given what we said earlier about handling not being important, this speaks volumes for what a left-field choice a Subaru actually is.
The immediate point of difference is that unlike its three front-wheel-driven rivals, the Forester comes with a symmetrical all-wheel-drive configuration. That, along with a suspension setup that gives the Forester plenty of grip, means the Subaru is by far the most fun vehicle to drive in this group.
When driven enthusiastically the Forester leans into corners with more body roll than you’d expect, but it’s supple suspension and nicely weighted steering translates this momentum into grip rather than wobbles.
The 110 kW engine, though, feels a bit flat. Fortunately this engine is mated with a slick-shifting six-speed manual, which allows the ‘box to make full use of the Forester’s 198 N.m of torque.
Hyundai ix35 Executive, Road Test Score 70/100
The first of the gatekeepers that the Toyota and Subaru must get past is the Hyundai. A wildly popular SUV in South Africa since its launch here three years ago, the ix35, with its good looks, solid build quality and high spec level has been a great value proposition. The problem is, these days three years is a long time in terms of car development. New models appear fast and furiously, and goalposts are continuously being shifted. Can a minor cosmetic tweak help the Hyundai keep pace with the pack?
The short answer is no. We even gave the ix35 a little head start by testing the 2,0-litre Executive model rather than the entry-level Premium. They share a 122 kW/197 N.m motor, but the R314 900 Executive comes with a fancier interior (leather, reverse camera, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate control, ESP, side and curtain airbags) than the R284 900 Premium.
The subtle cosmetic changes we alluded to are limited to a slightly revised front end and roof rails that are now flush with the roof. Inside and out, though, it’s very much the same car.
With 122 kW and 197 N.m on tap, the Hyundai’s engine offers the highest power output of the four contenders and a single Newton metre less torque than the Forester. The reality is a little less rosy with a flat spot that’s especially noticeable in the lower gears. It’s less aparent at sedate, low-rev gear changes, but push it from first to second and the Hyundai even dips its nose as the power momentarily disappears.
The self-centring power steering is another odd piece of behaviour engineered into the ix35. Turn it left or right and the wheel swivels back to the centre position with far too much enthusiasm.
Beyond those two oddities, the ix35 remains a comfortable drive with a cosier interior than the rest. The cockpit is more hatchback-like than the others and the interior dimensions bear it out. Its utility capacity (1 184 dm3 ) is smallest of the quartet.
Both newcomers comfortably march past the ix35 then. For the Forester and RAV4, however, the Honda CR-V will be a far more challenging gatekeeper…
Honda CR-V 2,0 Comfort, Road Test Score 80/100
At first glance, the Honda looks to be beaten on price. While it’s more affordable than the Subaru, it’s nearly R27 000 more expensive than the RAV4. However, where the CR-V bounces back is when you consider what you get for that R306 900.
Let’s start with the CR-V’s exterior. Honda manages a clever trick with the CR-V – it looks quirky and elegant at the same time. That front end, for example, makes a bold statement with overly large, swept-back headlamps and a big triple-barred chrome grille. The other end is equally extrovert, featuring a rather heavy-set rear with thick D-pillars and large rear lights that pull your eye to the sloped rear window. It’s an evolutionary design that gives the Honda a stronger sense of sophistication and presence compared with the other three. There’s been a consistent design approach throughout the CR-V’s four generations, the first version of which dates back to the mid ‘90s. It’s a car that’s clearly comfortable in its own skin.
It’s also a vehicle in which your skin will sit comfortably. The CR-V’s cabin is head and shoulders above the others in terms of interior spec. From the quality of the rubber and plastics, to the plush velour seats and dual-zone climate control, the CR-V’s cabin is a lovely place to be. The relaxed driving position, compact steering wheel, and the dash-mounted gear lever make driving this Honda a very comfy experience.
The 114 kW engine feels relatively punchy throughout the rev range, requiring little wristwork through the six-speed manual box to make the most of the 192 N.m of torque. The ride too is predictable, cosseting and hassle free. Electronic stability control, ABS with EBD and brake assist are all on standby to help out if things get sketchy, as are front, side and curtain airbags.
In fact, there’s not much you have to think or worry about when driving the Honda. As a potential buyer in this segment, you’re looking for a vehicle to do a job efficiently, in comfort and, in this instance, on a budget.
The ix35 is the oldest contender here and clearly shows its age – more mechanically than looks-wise it must be said, but the RAV4, Forester and CR-V suggest the goalposts have shifted. The Korean, however, remains very popular and with the more substantial facelift due here early next year (possibly featuring a new direct injection 2,0-litre), it should put up a better fight.
As always, the Forester presents an alternative choice. It’s expensive, but will be the choice if fun-for-your-buck trumps bang-for-your-buck in your own hierarchy of needs. The Forester, shod with its signature steel wheels, offers the most dynamic ride and its boxy, utilitarian design will appeal to those with a more adventure/lifestyle bent.
On paper, the RAV4 should win it. As a compact SUV, it is reasonably specced, its revvy engine offers some driver enjoy-ment, and at R280k is excellent value. The angular styling might put some off, but we suspect it’s the kind of design that improves with familiarisation.
Unfortunately, this RAV4 is let down by a poor interior and it’s clear in which areas Toyota has saved its money. We’ve recently driven the 2,5-litre VX with a high-spec leather interior and it genuinely transforms the car.
Which brings us to the CR-V. With its comfortable, high-quality interior, smooth drivetrain, and elegant design, the Honda is a wonder at this price-point.
It’s as polished as an entry-level SUV experience can be, and it never appears cheaper than its bigger-engined CR-V siblings. This simply does not feel like the bottom-of-the-range variant.
So the Honda takes it then? Perhaps not …