In the vast pool of middle-of-the-road SUVs, Kuga and Maxx have made the driving experience their number one focus.
Australian buyers love the high-riding style, practicality and the chance to get a bit adventurous in modern crossover SUV wagons.
The medium SUV segment, which accounts for around 12% of all new passenger vehicle sales, is well-stocked and ultra-competitive, so it is important that models are kept fresh and continue to evolve. Hence we see mid-life updates for Mazda CX-5 and Ford Kuga, and they are a very good place to start your search.
Mazda’s smartly styled, neatly packaged CX-5 has received minor cosmetic changes, more safety features and a slight tweaking of the suspension. Ford’s changes, while also not abundant, have been right at the heart of Kuga with two new EcoBoost petrol engine options, an upgraded diesel and an automatic version of the base-model 2WD Ambiente.
Both model ranges have extensive choice, with three engine options (two petrol versions and a diesel), 2WD or AWD, and a 6spd automatic available across the range alongside a 6spd manual version in their entry-level cars.
Mazda has four equipment grades: Maxx, Maxx Sport and GT (each with Safety Pack versions) and the fully kitted-out Akera. Prices go from $27,190 (plus on-road costs) for the 2WD 2.0L petrol manual Maxx to $50,610 for the AWD 2.2L diesel automatic Akera.
Ford’s three-model range goes Ambiente, Trend and finally Titanium. Kuga almost matches CX-5 with a $27,490 entry-level 1.5L 2WD petrol manual Ambiente, while it tops out with the Titanium AWD 2.0L diesel auto at $46,990. A Technology Pack with a range of desirable safety features can be optioned on the Trend and Titanium.
We wanted to follow the smart money for this comparison and requested the best-selling version of each. Mazda supplied a 2.5L petrol AWD Maxx Sport with the Safety Pack, which is $37,020. Ford gave us a top-spec petrol 2.0L AWD Titanium that’s $44,990 plus $1600 for the Technology Pack, even though the official industry data has the mid-spec Trend outselling the Titanium. Mechanically they are the same but Titanium has more comfort features, and the CX-5 Akera is its logical rival. Price and equipment-wise, the Kuga Trend at $36,490 plus the $1600 option pack makes it more than $1000 dearer than the Maxx Sport Safety.
Apart from the equipment mis-match, the CX-5 and Kuga we tested are closely matched in many ways. Each has enough safety features and performance to draw a five-star ANCAP rating, while the extra cost of the optional safety assist technologies is certainly a worthy investment.
Kuga’s greatest appeal lies in its impressive performance. Trend and Titanium models get a new 178kW 2.0L EcoBoost turbo-petrol engine, which also produces a whopping 345Nm of torque from 2000-4000rpm. This Kuga will out-sprint not just the CX-5 but also most other vehicles in the class. On test, it felt stronger on the hills and always seemed to have plenty in reserve when passing.
Not that the CX-5, equipped with a 138kW 2.5L SkyActiv petrol engine, is a slouch. Over a wide range of operating conditions, including city and highway driving as well as a jaunt through the High Country in Victoria’s north-east, CX-5 was never found wanting. And the operation of Mazda’s 6spd SkyActiv automatic transmission also felt a touch better than Ford’s 6spd PowerShift dual-clutch automatic.
Lacking fuel economy
Kuga pays the price for its bountiful performance at the service station. The big selling-point of Ford’s EcoBoost range of engines has been their happy marriage of performance and fuel economy, yet the 2.0L EcoBoost’s fuel consumption on our test was a disappointing 27% higher than the 2.5L Mazda – and on premium-grade 95-RON petrol. That said, the CX-5 fuel economy was nothing better than respectable.
Fortunately, in both of these SUVs we can praise the surprisingly good, almost car-like dynamics and ride comfort, with the reassurance of on-demand AWD grip when needed. The most noticeable difference was in their electric power steering. The CX-5 has a well-weighted, progressive feel, whereas Kuga’s steering felt a bit heavier and without quite the same positive, smooth-flowing action.
Styling preferences are always a matter of personal taste, but both companies have managed to give the boxy SUV wagon configuration a modern, appealing look. CX-5 has an inviting, open cabin design with good leg and head room.
The instrumentation is clear and straightforward, while the seats have better comfort and support. Kuga’s cabin is a little tighter and feels more enclosed. Ford’s small buttons and randomly placed switches (typical of the company’s European designed models) make it all a bit fussier to use.
Both vehicles have the ease of entry/exit and a commanding forward view that is an appealing feature of this class, but they also have the usual minor blind spots in rear vision. Kuga’s reversing camera (which is standard only on the Titanium and an option on other models) is an asset but its small 5.0-inch screen is not as easy to use as the Mazda’s 7.0-inch display which is standard across the CX-5 range.
Each company’s three-year warranty period is shorter than many of their rivals, while the difference in value between Mazda’s unlimited kilometres and Ford’s 100,000km cut-off is only going to be an advantage to buyers consistently travelling long distances. For many private buyers, it will be purely academic.
While both vehicles have a wide range of appealing attributes, the mature and civilised CX-5’s all- round user-friendliness is hard to beat, despite the Kuga’s stronger performance and well-mannered on-road ability.