But herein lies the irony. The sporty “zoom-zoom” Mazda CX-5—big wheels, contrasting red stitching, dual exhaust, swoopy lines and all—is not very engaging to drive. Oh, it corners very well, but its throttle response sometimes is virtually non-existent, with a transmission that insists on finding a higher, more fuel-efficient gear at every opportunity. It sometimes feels as if the engine has died underfoot, unless you really step on the accelerator and force it into a lower (sometimes much lower) gear. Occasionally it’s annoying, like riding a horse that just won’t “gee-up.”

The Honda CR-V, in contrast, has a lovely, smooth, responsive engine (unless you’re accelerating hard, when it’s not so quiet). In normal driving, though, the gears change crisply and imperceptibly, enabling the CR-V to deliver the power you want when you want it. Don’t get me wrong… this is no hot-rod, but it is willing, and feels it. And it handles, too; agile and maneuverable both on the highway and in the tight confines of a city parking lot. At 1,608 kilograms (versus the Mazda’s 1,554 kg) the Honda is heavier, but doesn’t feel it.

2012 Honda CR-V Touring
2013 Mazda CX-5 GT
2012 Honda CR-V Touring
2013 Mazda CX-5 GT
2012 Honda CR-V Touring (top); 2013 Mazda CX-5 GT. Click image to enlarge

As far as fuel economy goes, let’s face it, the Honda’s 9.2/6.6 L/100 km, city/highway is not much of a penalty against the Mazda’s 8.0/6.4 L/100km. Personally, I’d take the extra power and throttle responsiveness and live with the marginal reduction in fuel economy. In addition, the Honda features an Eco mode that optimizes fuel economy by dialing back the throttle response and climate control, so you can “hypermile” if you want.

In addition to “drivability,” there are some equipment differences that may sway a buyer this way or that. The Mazda arrives with its standard Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which, blind spot detractors notwithstanding, is a worthwhile safety technology. It also has a rear-view camera and proximity sensor, although the display for the camera is on the small side.

I liked the standard Mazda’s rain-sensing windshield wipers as well, along with the remote operation for the rear seats (which drop at the pull of a lever in the rear cargo area).

As an alternative to the Mazda’s superior BLIS system, Honda supplies what it calls an Expanded View Driver’s Mirror (although there’s no similar mirror on the passenger side). My driving companion found the mirror disorienting.

But like the Mazda, the Honda supplies a standard rearview camera, although the display is larger than that found in the CX-5. And navigation and satellite radio are included in the CR-V’s Touring package, while those are a $1,395 option in the CX-5 GT (taking it to $33,890 compared with the Honda’s $35,090).

Honda also supplies remote controls for the rear seats, but with more engineering designed into their operation. Neither offers the trick auto-opening power rear door available on the upcoming 2013 Ford Escape, which is sure to be popular.

Inside, the Honda offers 2,007 L of cargo space (rear seats down), compared with the Mazda’s 1,852 L. The Mazda boasts an extra 25 mm of rear legroom, however, likely a function of its longer wheelbase (2,700 mm vs 2,620 mm).

All in all, I liked the Mazda’s looks—especially from the side and rear—along with the sporty interior and exterior touches and its BLIS system. And what can I say…? I like the big sporty wheels as well. But the drivetrain was something of a letdown. In contrast, the Honda impressed with its peppy engine and comfortable interior. I also liked its big information display and standard navigation system. But I found its appearance to be somewhat lacklustre—practical, but not as engaging as the Mazda. CR-V actually stands for Comfortable Runabout Vehicle, which kind of says it all.

What I’d like is the Mazda CX-5 with the Honda drivetrain!

But to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, the essential difference is clearly that the Mazda emphasizes the “sport” in sport utility vehicle, and the Honda emphasizes “utility.” It seems totally clear when you drive them back-to-back. The irony is that the Honda, in my opinion, has the sportier performance.

Decisions, decisions…

Connect with Autos.ca