LET’S dispense with setting the scene as the crux of this comparative test lies in a simple question: between these two facelifted models, which forms the best rung on the entry-level diesel compact-crossover/SUV ladder?
Usurping the mid-size sedan, estate and even the MPV these days as the new de facto urban family car, a front-wheel-drive turbodiesel SUV has to meld practicality, fuel efficiency and (especially) value for money – not to mention a bit of aesthetic flair – into one appealing package. We set ourselves a shopping budget of around R400 000 and selected these two recently revised candidates as leading contenders for the title. Let the contest commence…
Although both vehicles have undergone recent facelifts, it’s fair to say that their aesthetic upgrades are by no means ground-breaking. In the Mazda’s case, it’s the upper-echelon models in the Mazda CX-5 line-up that have undergone the bulk of the updates. The adoption of a louvred grille design is the only tell-tale sign of this base Active model’s 2015 vintage. Other changes to the range such as LED head- and foglamps, and new-look 19-inch alloys, are the preserve of the flagship Akera model.
The Kia’s updates are only marginally more pronounced, with the highlights being a redesigned grille meshwork, remoulded front bumper featuring updated foglamps, a new set of 17-inch alloys with a neat stepped-spoke design, and revised tail-lamp clusters.
In general, the Kia has aged very well and remains one of the best-looking members of its class, courtesy of chunky styling that lends it a fairly masculine air of SUV purposefulness, as well as attention-grabbing LED running lights.
By contrast the Mazda, with its gently curvaceous sheet metal that seems more moulded to its frame than the Tonka toy-like Kia, is more graceful and akin to a modern hatchback in its appearance. And although it may not possess the Kia’s macho kerb presence, its design should age equally well.
Hauling children, pets, friends, furniture and virtually all of life’s movable addenda is the lot of the compact SUV and, given the amount of on-road time owners will hope to be getting with these diesel-fired protagonists, they have to be accommodated in a space that’s both stylish and practical. Aesthetically, you’re presented with a choice between the sporty, technical-looking trimmings of the Kia, or the Mazda’s stylishly serene innards.
The Kia’s facia, with its stepped central section and new, technical-looking design elements, is in keeping with the car’s overall dynamic looks. The textured, moulded door tops are a welcome addition, and although the plastics are hard, they are well screwed together and build quality is solid.
The only element that now appears a bit out of date is the red-on-black audio system display – especially in a market segment where colour TFT items are becoming more commonplace. It’s functional enough, but old fashioned and lacks the Mazda’s crisp display, slick rotary/touchscreen interface and overall functionality. Perhaps the most telling aspect is the sat-nav upgrade option on the CX-5 – a function offered only in the Sportage’s R500 000-plus range-topper.
By contrast, the Mazda’s facia layout doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair, but is simple and its updated HVAC array is clean. New metallic-effect garnish adds a bit of class to the facia and the use of dense, textured plastics on the upper sections lend the cabin a solid, upmarket feeling. The Mazda may not have leather upholstery but the seats are firm, supportive and their cloth trim feels robust.
While the Kia boasts leather cladding, it has the feel of vinyl. Still, the Kia’s hide should do a better job of repelling the mud, spills and pet-related leavings a family crossover will likely have to endure.
Although the two are only separated by a few millimetres of actual cabin space, the Mazda’s light-coloured head- and pillar lining, along with deeper glazing, make the cabin feel more spacious than the Kia’s predominantly black-trimmed interior. In both vehicles, the 1,8-metre-person sit-behind-self test revealed generous kneeroom (marginally greater in the Kia) and ample headroom aft. Luggage space in both is adequate for most families’ needs, but the combination of folding seats with thinner seatbacks and skirting over the hinges creates a near-flat load floor in the Mazda, which gives it the edge in utility space.
From the driver’s seat, both vehicles are roughly the same in terms of base cushion level, but there’s more elevation to the Kia’s height adjustment. This is great for shorter folk, but taller drivers will be frustrated by the lack of rake adjustment to the steering column that often leaves the wheel sited too low.
Performance and Dynamics
The gap between on-paper and in-practice performance served up by the two engines is considerably smaller than most would imagine. Looking at the numbers, the Kia unit’s 130 kW/382 N.m suggests it’ll take the 110 kW/380 N.m Mazda 2,2-litre powerplant to the cleaners, but our acceleration runs showed precious little separating the two.
The Kia feels punchy and responsive, especially in the mid-to-upper end of the rev range, and its tall gearing gives it a long-legged gait that makes it feel at ease on the open road. Kia has previously been met with criticism for the mechanical harshness of its diesels and has sought to counter this in the facelifted model with uprated engine mountings and the application of more sound-deadening material. It’s a mite quieter than before, but remains somewhat agricultural-sounding compared with the Mazda’s oil-burner.
Our experience of Mazda’s high-compression SkyActiv petrol motors, which are impressive in terms of refinement and fuel efficiency but lack mid-range torque, have been bittersweet affairs, especially in the case of entry-level CX-5s. We were therefore understandably concerned that similar compression-ratio tinkering, albeit lowering in this case, would also result in disappointment. But, while the Mazda is not quite as punchy as the Kia, it’s hardly left in the dust and the motor gels well with its six-speed transmission.
Dynamically, both vehicles conduct themselves well in cornering and fast lane-changing exercises. But the Mazda’s body control feels marginally more resolved when pressing on, and its ride is more fluid than the occasionally jittery Kia’s. The steering is a similar affair – the Kia’s helm is light and suited to town pottering, but there’s a numbness and degree of play around dead centre that isn’t present in the Mazda’s more naturally weighted and responsive tiller.
But it’s the Kia’s clutch that remains a bone of contention among the CAR test team. While the gearshift snicks home accurately with a pleasantly short throw, the clutch action is clumsy. Lacking progression and being overly keen to bite at the top of its travel, it requires a measured ankle to iron out the lurches in town-traffic crawling. There are no such qualms with the Mazda’s transmission. The ’box goes about its business in a smooth, fuss-free manner – only tripped up by an occasional reluctance to kick down under hard acceleration.
Value & safety
Barring metallic paint and the option of upgrading the Mazda’s infotainment software to incorporate a satellite navigation module at a cost of R4 860,02, there’s little else in the way of optional offerings to either car. Kia’s generous five-year/100 000 km span for its service plan and warranty has always been a big draw card, and will appeal to those looking to extract as much value from the diesel motoring experience as they can. The only advantage to the Mazda’s shorter three-year plans is that they don’t fall within a mileage bracket. Sportage owners will also benefit from 20 000 km service intervals, as opposed to the Mazda’s 15 000 km.
Our mixed-use fuel route saw both cars return impressive average consumption figures, but the expectation that the automatic Mazda would bow to the manual Kia was dashed when the Japanese car’s figure of 6,8 litres/100 km bested its rival’s still impressive 7,0 litres/100 km – testimony to the Mazda’s more advanced powertrain. That may not seem like a huge margin, but it equates to the Mazda getting a potential range of 818 km versus the Kia’s 684 km from a tank that’s just one litre larger.
Safety-wise, there’s nothing to choose between the two, with staples such as front/side/curtain airbags, rear Isofix anchorage points and ABS/EBD braking systems standard fitment. But our testing showed the Mazda’s anchors to have appreciably more bite, bringing the whole shooting match to a stop from 100 km/h in an excellent-rated 2,98 seconds and 41,22 metres, as opposed to the Kia’s 3,29 seconds average and 44,94 metres.