Except, with the 2017 Honda CR-V and now the 2017 Mazda CX-5, Joe P. Everyman has a chance to choose between two vehicles that are quite clearly different, yet also clearly leaders in what they do. Everything else seems like alternatives based on price or perhaps off-road readiness (Jeeps Compass and Cherokee, perhaps a Subaru Forester).
As scheduling would have it, a 2017 CR-V Touring just happened to be sitting in my garage the week I was set to drive the new CX-5 Grand Touring in San Diego. This isn't a complete, scientifically enacted comparison test, but there was enough drive time in close succession on the same roads and with similar price tags to draw conclusions.
At its simplest, the CX-5 is the best choice for the driver while the CR-V is the best choice for everyone else aboard. That's not to say they are myopic in those classifications – the CX-5 could still ably handle family duty, while the CR-V is impressively well-rounded to drive in a way that shouldn't turn off those seeking some driving involvement. However, each has a clear focus that sets it down a different path toward different target buyers.
Let's start with the newer kid on the block from Mazda. It is best suited for the person whose life changes have dictated the switch from an agile car to some sort of family hauler. Its spot-on steering and throttle response evoke Porsche, while the six-speed automatic transmission favors performance over fuel economy (while still getting really good fuel economy). Those dynamic elements, plus a carefully crafted, ideal driving position should make the CX-5 feel "just right" for those used to more sporting, non-family-oriented transport.
Inside, the latest CX-5 boasts a handsome, upscale design with materials to match. Aesthetically, to these eyes at least, it's the best of a crowded bunch. Quality-wise, only the also-impressive CR-V would seem to come close. Along with the slick new exterior, the cabin conveys the more premium vibe that Mazda was shooting for with the new CX-5 – it also makes a more emotional connection than the typical cardboard box on wheels.
The latest CR-V is less cardboard than ever before, but you'd have to be quite the cubist to prefer its looks over the slinky CX-5. However, the Honda's rather bulbous rear-end proportions make its unmatched stuff-carrying potential possible. Its 75.8 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume is best-in-class (the CX-5 is down by 5 cubes to 59 cubic feet for 2017) and its low load floor makes lifting in that heavy suitcase or getting the Golden Retriever onboard that much easier.
It's a similar story in the back seat. Honda added two inches of rear legroom for 2017, producing a sprawl-out space for adults and an abundance of clearance for a rear-facing child seat. Even with the driver's seat pushed all the way back for my 6-foot-3 self, I still had about 3 inches of space remaining in the back. In the CX-5, my knees were grazing the seatback – that's fine and an extreme example, but worse nevertheless.
Space for smaller items up front is better too, as Honda's Department of Cubby Bins once again flaunts its talents with a pair of big cupholders and a massive, versatile purse-friendly bin that can be partitioned with a handy, moveable tray.
Technology is a mixed bag for both cars. Honda's touchscreen receives some much-needed improvements in the CR-V (extra touch-operated menu shortcut buttons, a real volume knob), but it's still a bit slow to react, going between Apple CarPlay and the Honda systems can frustrate, and the navigation system feels rudimentary.
The CX-5 gets Mazda's standard system with an Audi-like combo of a dash-mounted screen and console-mounted controller (the screen is technically touch-operated, but only when the vehicle is stopped). On the whole it works well, but there are often too many steps required when using the audio system and the controller is placed too far rearward. If you're shorter, expect to use what can only be described as "dinosaur arms" to reach it. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also not available ... yet. Mazda says they will eventually arrive and can be retroactively applied to already purchased cars.
Under the hood, you'll most likely be comparing the CX-5's standard 2.5-liter 187-horsepower naturally aspirated four-cylinder to the 1.5-liter, 190-hp turbo four found on all but the base CR-V. The CX-5's is the far more responsive engine, while the CR-V's is a bit smoother and quieter. But really, both are superb, offering strong acceleration and excellent fuel economy. The Honda is ultimately more efficient, though, likely by two or three mpg combined. You might save about $100 per year on gas.
So there you have it: two crossover SUVs, both class leaders, but in completely different ways. Which is better? That really depends on you. But it doesn't seem like a stretch to claim that together they sit above the cardboard heap. For Joe P. Everyman, start your search with these two.