Confronted by choice: Which SUV should I buy?

Hi John,

I'm trying to find the sweet spot for my new car - reluctantly having to sell my 2008 Nissan X-TRAIL diesel due to DPF issues, despite much highway driving. I don't tow anything at the moment, but I don't want to change cars if we get a small caravan or boat. It's mostly just my wife and myself, both in our early 60s.

THE CONTENDERS:

The Volkswagen Tiguan sounded great (until reading your last article and it pricked my conscience). Then there's Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson and Hyundai Santa Fe. We will get the top-of-range vehicle, whichever way we go.

Thank you, Matt

Hello Matt,

People grossly overstate in their minds the differences between what are really very similar vehicles. The problem then is that making the right choice on somewhat flawed perceptions is like solving a really messed-up Rubik’s cube…

VOLKSWAGEN

So, the primary reason not to buy Volkswagen is not conscience, but risk - risk of poor reliability and worse support. That risk is unacceptably high with that brand. See How Volkswagen Betrayed the World >> and how appallingly they treated their customers during the DSG fiasco >> more recent was the appalling/hilarious Volkswagen temper tantrum >>

For the same reason that I would not commission a child molester to baby-sit the kids one night, I would not buy a Volkswagen - the company has a solid track record of unreliability and also letting its customers down in terms of support. It's disgraceful.

Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Subaru all have good levels of customer support and better reliability than Volkswagen. This is the objective difference that eliminates Volkswagen.

SIZE SIMILARITIES: SANTA FE -Vs- CX-5

People often say to me the Hyundai Santa Fe is a lot bigger than the Mazda CX-5. It's not. The Santa Fe and CX-5. They’re built on exactly the same wheelbase, and the Santa Fe is just 6.3 inches longer. The Santa Fe is a little heavier (extra seats, etc) but also a little more powerful, so performance is going to be a photo-finish. (Both 5-star, both 6sp conventional auto, both have adaptive cruise control in top-spec variants, etc.) They are vastly more similar than different.

Santa Fe Highlander has the following distinct points of difference compared with a CX-5 Akera: 5yr warranty with unlimited kilometres. 12mth/15,000km service interval. Seven seats. Auto tailgate. Capped price service for life. Full-sized spare tyre. CX-5 has a petrol engine option (Santa Fe Highlander does not).

Mazda CX-5 Akera is excellent, but it has a space-saver spare (limited to 80km/h - not much fun towing, in the wet, on the highway, at night). CX-5's notional 12-month servicing is actually about eight months for average drivers (because the average Aussie driver does 15,000km per annum, and Mazda’s service interval is 12mths/10,000km - so 10,000 is likely to click over every eight months).

I'm not a huge fan of the Mazda i-Stop system, which has to be manually disabled every time you start the car, if you just don’t want it active. And it really saves bugger-all fuel. Mazda has a 3yr warranty. 

You should also add Kia Sorento to your list - very similar (7yr warranty, and slightly more interior space really the only difference - identical powertrain.) More here:

KIA SPORTAGE AND HYUNDAI TUCSON

Sportage and Tucson: these are only slightly smaller, with only five seats. I mean, they're built on the same platforms and have - essentially - mainly only styling differences.

I’m not a huge fan of the Tucson 1.6 turbo petrol. This is because the dual-clutch transmission lacks refinement for low-speed manoeuvering - the engine itself is a pearler. Unfortunately all turbo petrol Hyundai engines require intermediate (6, 18, 30... month) servicing. It's only a glorified oil change, but it's still eroding one of the main benefits of Hyundai ownership (true annual servicing for average-distance drivers). However, I am a huge fan of the 2.4 petrol in Sportage, and the 2.0 diesel which is common to both vehicles. Unfortunately, you miss out on adaptive cruise if you step down from Santa Fe/Sorento, but you save significant cash. More here:

Subaru Forester

Subaru Forester

SUBARU FORESTER

Forester is a decent SUV - reliable, etc., and Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD is excellent. Unfortunately, Subaru needs servicing every six months (or 10,000km), and this tends to be expensive. At least Foresters have a full-size spare tyre (unlike Mazda's insane passion for space-savers).

I am not a fan of the CVT transmission, however, compared with the conventional auto in the other SUVs. Subaru also has a 3yr/100,000km warranty - which is eclipsed by Hyundai and Kia.

Subaru is excellent at customer service - if you have a reasonable claim that the product doesn't measure up, Subaru will look after you. (Hyundai and Kia are also quite good in this respect. Mazda - decent but not as good as the other three.)

TOWING CAPACITIES

Because you said you might tow in future, here are the facts on that - maximum tow capacity per vehicle:

  • Santa Fe: 2000kg
  • Sorento: 2000kg
  • Tucson: 1600kg
  • Sportage diesel: 1900kg
  • Sportage 2.0 petrol: 1600kg
  • Sportage 2.4 petrol: 1500kg
  • CX-5: 1800kg

You also need to be mindful of the maximum permitted towball download for each vehicle, and make sure the trailer (loaded) does not exceed that. More on towing and download limits >> and towing with Santa Fe >> 

CONCLUSION

No new car is perfect - the above are all excellent choices. These differences really are about it, from a functional, objective viewpoint. Everything else about this choice is just personal preference, so I guess your mission (should you choose to accept it…) is to examine these objective factors plus your subjective assessment of each, and weave them into a framework that suits you best. Given the length of time you owned the X-TRAIL, I’d be leaning on the longer warranty of Hyundai and Kia - an example of an objective difference making the choice easy. And then I’d also flick Mazda on the basis of the space-saver spare tyre.

Then the choice becomes a slightly bigger, more expensive 7-seater with adaptive cruise, or the next size down. Then it’s either Tucson V Sportage or Santa Fe V Sorento. 

Finally, right at the moment, I’d suggest that we seem to be getting very strong discounts on Kia at the moment - I don’t know exactly why, but it might be an aggressive push by them to increase sales volume nationally. See also:

Sincerely,
John Cadogan

Santa Fe is an excellent consumer choice on objective criteria

Santa Fe is an excellent consumer choice on objective criteria

Hi again John,

Thank you so much for your factual and very thoughtful reply. I've been in this process for a while now and you've crystallised a lot of information directed right at my needs into one succinct email! Much appreciated.

I'm thinking the Hyundai Santa Fe after reading and considering your reply, plus the many other articles you've written comparing SUVs etc. After talking with Alec in your brokerage team he's thrown the Mazda CX-9 in as a possibility and also the Prado. No diesel with the Mazda unfortunately but still a good motor etc. Will check to see if they've just got a space saver also as that's a deal breaker it seems. Prado possibly just a bit more truck like for our needs (we still don't tow anything - just want to be able to without changing vehicles also). 

One thing I'm really wrestling with is, should I wait just a matter of days to sit in a new VW Tiguan? It seems to hit the sweet spot for car-like driving but also able to tow close to 2 tonne with the diesel. I'm very conflicted about that one, as I gather from what you've written they make some great cars but are absolute bastards to deal with, should things go wrong. You'd think they'd be trying to make amends by now though with build quality, customer service etc. your experience tells me otherwise. Land Rover Discovery Sport is another one I've considered however their newer ingenium diesel engine is available overseas but not here yet.

Thanks very much again,
Matt

Mazda CX-9: brilliant vehicle with an exceptional turbo petrol powertrain - but saddled with a space-saver spare tyre, which is a real highway driving liability (especially in the wet, at night, on a freeway)

Mazda CX-9: brilliant vehicle with an exceptional turbo petrol powertrain - but saddled with a space-saver spare tyre, which is a real highway driving liability (especially in the wet, at night, on a freeway)

Hi Matt,

Mazda CX-9 does have a space saver (and a brilliant turbo petrol engine) - but the space saver would be a deal breaker for me, too. Prado is a truck - drives and feels like one, and is completely illogical unless you need severe off-road capability or heavy tow capacity.

Santa Fe will tow two tonnes with a maximum towball download of 150kg (with the Genuine Load Assist Kit fitted - basically a set of replacement variable rate rear springs). Sorento will tow two tonnes with 100kg maximum download and no load assist kit is available. (Two tonnes is a lot. It’s more than the vehicle weighs.)

Discovery sport: It's got the look, but looks pretty shaky in terms of consumer fundamentals. Reliability is poor, ownership costs are high and up-front objective value is atrocious

Discovery sport: It's got the look, but looks pretty shaky in terms of consumer fundamentals. Reliability is poor, ownership costs are high and up-front objective value is atrocious

Discovery Sport is a joke inasmuch as it’ll cost you $75k by the time you option it up with everything the Santa Fe has as standard equipment. Everything you want is extra.

Volkswagen: to be perfectly frank, are you smoking crack? Beautiful to look at; nice to drive - but horribly unreliable, and from a company that is spectacularly unhelpful when anything goes wrong. I’d suggest that - in part - buying a car is a risk management exercise. This means Volkswagen is a categoric ‘don’t buy’. People do get smitten with Volkswagen, and apparently you are one of them. It’s a mistake. Rise above it intellectually.

Ultimately, of course, this is up to you - happy to help you buy even a Volkswagen. Just don’t complain to me when it boils the kids’ bunny.

JC

Crack cocaine (a.k.a. 'ready rock') - one of the few substances that can make Volkswagen ownership seem reasonable.

Crack cocaine (a.k.a. 'ready rock') - one of the few substances that can make Volkswagen ownership seem reasonable.

Hi John,

Thanks again for your reply.

After we stopped laughing about the "are you on crack" comment, we realised that it seems just too much of a risk - bummer! Will investigate the Hyundai and Kia options and come to a decision. 

Thanks again John –  we really appreciate your informed opinion, website/car reviews and straight forward comments! A breath of fresh air!

Matt

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