Best SUV under $45,000

Winner - Subaru Forester 2.5i

2.5 litre, 4 cyl, CVT, AWD
$36,805 (Indicative Drive Away)

8.1 L/100km; fuel type - ULP
Country of Origin: Japan 

GVG: starstarstarstarhalf star

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Our Verdict

Great cars never stray far from the podium and Subaru’s Forester is a perfect example of that.

Before the term Sports Utility Vehicle became fashionable, and at a time when Australia’s Best Cars grew to become a national award program in 2000, the Subaru Forester won the Best Recreational vehicle category and went on to repeat that victory in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006. Since Subaru’s last victory, the SUV category, as it is now known, has changed dramatically and is the second largest market segment in Australia, with nearly every manufacturer competing for sales. Even with increased competition though, the Forester was never far away from the front runners, with a finals berth in 2009, and the old generation, despite its advancing years placed in the top six last year - a testament to its enduring qualities.

So what makes the Forester 2.5i so good and stand out in a sea of highly regarded competition this year?

This fourth generation Forester was launched in early 2013 and the designers looked to enhance and build on the model’s strong foundations, safety, practicality and off–road ability. The all-new design retains elements of its predecessor, and whilst arguably it’s not the best looking in the class, with the Subaru it’s more about function. Now the front windscreen A-pillars are more sharply raked and have been moved forward, which has opened up the cabin and added to the sense of spaciousness inside. Other Forester traits like the easy entry into the cabin and the elevated front seating positions have been tweaked and improved, and that’s not just confined to the front seats. In the rear, the seat hip point has been improved and the seat base raised by 36mm.With an additional 25mm longer wheelbase and a lower centre tunnel, there is now much more legroom than before. The result is an equal class leading score for practicality and above average score for space.

Our winner is powered by Subaru’s larger 2.5 litre boxer petrol engine, matched to a CVT transmission. Smaller 2.0 litre petrol and diesel versions are available for those seeking the absolute best in fuel economy and the 2.5i features engine stop start technology, which helps mitigate the higher fuel consumption. The Forester achieves a best in class environment score. Subaru’s CVT transmission is one of the better versions going around and the new Forester scores well for smoothness and quietness, normally the Achilles heel for a CVT transmission.

On road, the Forester has always been a standout and its strengths lie in its car-like feel in ride and handling. That hasn’t compromised the Forester’s off-road ability and with 220mm of ground clearance the Forester can tackle off-road scenarios that would stop many of its competitors in their tracks. 

The Australian car buying public love their SUV’s and the love affair shows no signs of slowing, in fact the segment is growing almost every month. Over time many cars have come and gone but the Forester has always been there, ticking many of the boxes in terms of buyer’s expectations looking for a capable SUV.

Category Finalists

2nd Place:         Kia Sportage Platinum

Drivetrain:                   2.0 litre, 4 cyl turbo, 6 speed auto, AWD
Price:                            $43,738 (Indicative Drive Away)
Fuel economy:           7.2 L/100km; fuel type - Diesel
Country of Origin:      Slovakia

ANCAP:                       starstarstarstarstar
GVG:                             starstarstarhalf star

Such is the intense competition in this class it has taken an all-new model to shift the Kia Sportage from the top spot last year to a highly commendable runners up position for this year’s Australia’s Best Cars. A change to the volume seller for this year, up to the top-specced Platinum diesel replacing last year’s cheaper SLi didn’t help, and the Platinum’s higher price and increased depreciation put the Sportage behind the eight- ball from the get go.

Buyers need to look at the complete picture though, as the model change and increased specification has resulted in a class leading score of 10 for standard features, highlighting the brand’s overall genuine value for money proposition. And, just like last year, the general feeling amongst the judges was that the Sportage, especially in Platinum is still one of the best-looking SUV’s in the segment. Inside, the design remains contemporary and beats the Forester in ergonomics with a class leading score.

The Aussie input into refining the Sportage’s suspension continues to pay dividends and the on-road scores remain high and the diesel engine’s 135kW and 392Nm from a low 1800rpm is the envy of many of its rivals.

Kia’s on-demand AWD system, like many in this category, can’t match the Subaru in terms of its off road prowess. However, the Sportage has features like a rear diff lock, hill-start and hill-descent. It’s the lack of ground clearance that ultimately seals the Sportage’s fate for any serious off–road excursions.

3rd Place:          Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport AWD

Drivetrain:                     2.5 litre, 4 cyl, 6 speed auto, AWD
Price:                              $40,296 (Indicative Drive Away)
Fuel economy:             7.4 L/100km; fuel type - ULP
Country of Origin:        Japan

ANCAP:                        starstarstarstarstar
GVG:                              starstarstarhalf star

What a difference an engine makes!

Last year’s finalist was Mazda’s CX-5 2.0 litre 2wd Maxx Sport, and, at its first attempt the all-new SUV accumulated enough points to earn a finals berth. For this year, we tested the new volume selling 2.5 litre Maxx Sport AWD variant. This much anticipated SUV from Mazda replaced the stylish but thirsty CX7. Even though it’s smaller externally, inside there is more usable space and in this category only a handful of vehicles such as Toyota’s new RAV4 and the ageing Nissan Xtrail outscore the CX5 for space. Comfort levels across all seating positions are high and like the category winner provide a clear unimpeded view of the surroundings. Mazda’s high standards for build quality and finish are reflected with a class-leading score of nine.

What the 2.0 petrol version from last year lacked was some ‘zoom zoom’ performance, reflected in our low, (for the class) performance score. The new 2.5 litre SKYACTIV petrol engine, which debuted in the new Mazda6 this year, has changed the CX5’s character completely and lifted the CX5’s performance score to the levels of the torquey diesels in the class. The engine has also boosted the CX5’s smoothness and quietness score from last year and now the CX5 has the level of refinement and poise that’s set Mazda apart from the rest.

The engine is matched to a more than capable chassis and few vehicles in the class outscore the CX5 when it comes to driving refinement, particularly in areas of ride and handling. About the only area where the CX5 falls short is in its off-road ability, where it’s on demand AWD system struggles against the other finalists.