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
Related Articles:
Comparison Test: Five Compact CUVs
Comparison Test: Compact CUVs, Round 2
Test Drive: 2012 Honda CR-V Touring
Test Drive: 2013 Mazda CX-5 GT

Manufacturer’s websites:
Honda Canada
Mazda Canada


Originally published on June 27, 2012

Review by Paul Williams
CR-V photos by Paul Williams; CX-5 photos by Greg Wilson

Photo Gallery:
2012 Honda CR-V
2013 Mazda CX-5

Canadians like compact CUVs; a vehicle type that offers an excellent combination of practicality, fuel efficiency, value, and choice. Consequently, all mainstream manufacturers have competitive models in this popular segment, but with their similar shapes and attributes, consumers could be forgiven for wondering if there’s any real variation between them.

Here’s a tale of two compact CUVs that, superficially, may seem very much alike. The 2013 Mazda CX-5 and the 2012 Honda CR-V are both all new this year (in the case of the Mazda, it’s a completely new model; Honda’s is a new generation). They’re both available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, both have four-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions, they’re similarly sized and similarly priced. So what’s the difference?

Lots, actually, but not much that necessarily jumps out by looking down the list of available and standard features. No, the differences have more to do with the intangibles; the overall character of the vehicles. Just like people, they have their ways.

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

Recently I spent quite a bit of time in the GT version of the CX-5, and the Touring version of the CR-V. These are the top models available, and are priced accordingly at $32,495 and $35,090 respectively. I hauled people, groceries, some furniture, a set of wheels and tires, wine, woman and song (on the radio…) over a two-week period. It was a real-world experience where the “utility” of these compact Crossover Utility Vehicles was put to the test, along with their drivability and fuel economy.

And it wasn’t a planned test… it was coincidental. I just happened to drive these vehicles back-to-back, with places to go and errands to run. Because of that, their similarities and differences became more obvious. And I started thinking,
“What’s the essence of the difference between them?”

The Mazda builds on its “zoom-zoom” branding by including sporty touches like contrasting red stitching in the black leather seats, an instrument panel reminiscent of the MX-5 sports car, a dual exhaust and large 19-inch alloy wheels. The performance appearance continues most obviously in the exterior design of the CX-5, which features swoopy lines and chiseled edges that suggest speed and vitality. It’s a sharp vehicle that looks like it might take you somewhere cool.

The Honda sends a different message. Its single exhaust, soft beige leather seating surfaces (in my test vehicle) and smaller 17-inch alloy wheels are more family oriented; targeted away from the enthusiast buyer. The message is more about practicality and comfort, with the CR-V’s exterior design looking sleek but conservative. The CR-V looks like it’s ready to give you a hand.

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

Standard features are similar. Both the Honda CR-V Touring and the Mazda CX-5 GT are equipped with leather upholstery, all-wheel drive, automatic climate control, premium trim, auto-dimming rear view mirror, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, roof rails, alloy wheels, and a full power group.

There are differences under the hood, though. The Mazda CX-5 features Mazda’s new “Skyactiv” technology designed to provide a sporty driving experience and excellent fuel economy. The engine, the transmission, and the chassis have each been optimized for good handling and low fuel consumption, and Mazda’s betting much of its future on the viability of this technology as an alterative to developing a hybrid (although a diesel CX-5 is rumoured).

The Mazda’s 2.0L, four-cylinder engine makes 155 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, and is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission. The all-wheel drive CX-5 is estimated to consume 8.0/6.4 L/100km, city/highway, which is indeed excellent for a vehicle of this type.

The Honda uses an updated version of its 2.4L four-cylinder engine that makes 185 hp and 163 lb-ft torque. It’s mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and has an official fuel consumption rating of 9.2/6.6 L/100km, city/highway. These also are very competitive numbers.

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…

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