Is there room in our Four Seasons fleet for two sporty compact crossovers? We're starting to find out as the Kia Sportage duels against the new Mazda CX-5.
The Sportage competes in one of the hottest segments in the market. Honda has recently redesigned its strong-selling CR-V, and Ford is about to introduce an all-new Escape. However, the Mazda CX-5, which joined our long-term fleet just this month, may prove to be the Sportage's most direct -- and difficult -- competitor. Like the Sportage, the CX-5 stands apart from the compact-crossover pack with effusive styling and the promise of an engaging driving experience. The spec sheets are as similar as the mission statements. Both employ direct-injected four-cylinders paired with six-speed automatics. Kia's 2.4-liter makes some 20 hp more than the 2.0-liter in the Mazda, which in turn scores better fuel economy. They're also about the same price if you account for the fact that our Sportage is equipped with all-wheel drive, something we didn't opt for with the CX-5. For just about $30,000, each comes loaded with leather seating, touch-screen navigation systems with Bluetooth and iPod integration, and large aluminum wheels (eighteens on the Kia, nineteens on the Mazda). We even made sure to get the CX-5 in an eye-searing shade of blue to face off against the Sportage's much talked-about burnt orange exterior.
Our early comparative impressions tell us that each automaker could stand to learn something from the other. The Sportage enjoys a slight edge in terms of interior technology, with the CX-5's simpler-to-use Bluetooth system failing to make up for the shortcomings of its clunky TomTom turn-by-turn directions. The Japanese automaker schools its Korean competitor, though, in the art of interior refinement. The CX-5's soft-touch dash, nicely grained surfaces, and tasteful aluminum and piano black trim all serve to expose the cheapness of the Sportage's cabin.
A short test drive of each vehicle might leave you thinking they were separated at birth. Both crossovers perform eagerly in the city, accelerating in satisfying spurts and handling more nimbly than most competitors. Neither is very comfortable hammering down the highway, particularly when speeds creep above 80 mph. Those editors who have spent the last eleven months groaning about the Sportage's brittle ride will find little respite in the CX-5, which similarly tosses heads over potholes and other road imperfections.
As the miles wear on, however, seemingly minor details begin to paint a clearer picture of how the two vehicles differ -- and it's not pretty for the Sportage. For instance, although both vehicles have relatively hefty steering, it's only in the Mazda that the weight really corresponds with cornering forces. And even though the Kia's larger four-cylinder has more power, its grainy high-rpm note means that it's less enjoyable to flog than the Mazda. That makes it much harder to justify the Sportage's 6-mpg deficit in combined fuel economy (5-mpg when compared with an all-wheel-drive CX-5).
The CX-5, despite being the new entry, speaks to Mazda's superior experience in filling the sporty, premium niche to which Kia aspires. Of course, this is only the first round. We'll see how our editors take to each crossover as the Mazda's shiny newness wears off and as the Sportage enters its last month in our fleet.