These four compact SUVs are Very Important Cars, despite names somewhat less catchy than bird flu. Drum roll (and deep breath) for the Ford Kuga Titanium X 2.0 TDCI Powershift Auto AWD, Toyota RAV4 Invincible 2.2 D-4D Manual, Honda CR-V 2.2 i-DTEC EX 4WD Manual and Land Rover Freelander HSE Lux 2.2 SD4. If you’re after practical family transport with the ability to splosh around the occasional developer-avarice-spurns-floodplain housing development, then one of these four machines just might be the disease for you.
Clearly, since the bucket-of-smashed-crabs-ugly Nissan Qashqai still sells like suburban soft-porn paperbacks, styling an SUV is something of a pointless chore. So we’ve smothered them in disused quarry because little is to be gained by viewing them clean…
What’s new for the Ford Kuga?
The last-generation Kuga was designed for European marketing dream families with impossibly white teeth; the previous Escape for Arkansas American dream families with no teeth whatsoever. Given its size, this one-set-of-dentures-fits-all meld of two vehicles divided by a common design language wears its Focus-badly-in-need-of-lancing couture with acceptable dignity.
However, the xylophone of pronounced ribs which dominates the bows does make me want to take the poor thing out for a slap-up meal. And the peculiar presence of a panel gap in the plastic nappy department large enough to house an entire family of marmots will tickle those who still recall the old Fiat Cat Test ‘joke’. Even though I’m starting not to enjoy Ford exterior styling as much as I used to, it does at least provide a talking point. Between them, the other three cars here could scarcely tempt a Trappist to break his vows.
And the new Toyota RAV4?
Though Toyota’s 1994 RAV4 may be held largely responsible for the whole compact SUV boiling, today’s iteration has swollen every inch as dramatically as the belly of its pregnant windsurfer target customer and no longer shares even the smallest of styling divots with that engaging, pugnacious little two-door of yore.
However, Toyota’s exterior treatments have made huge progress to the good of late, particularly in the hooter department. And – sporting the impossibly wide upper grille grin of the alien cockroach-inhabited hick from Men in Black – the RAV4 has now sailed far beyond the point at which it could be instantly plucked from an identification parade as the one not trying hard enough. For starters, Honda’s CR-V would give it a run for its money…
What about the Honda CR-V?
The CR-V has something of the big VW about the bows (Phaeton SUV, anyone?), and nothing at all about the stern. Clearly, the engineers whipped the unfinished drawing from the designer’s board whilst he was on his lunch break and simply set to. The result is so innocuous I wouldn’t be surprised to find that, like an apologetic vampire, it has no reflection in a mirror.
Not forgetting the Land Rover Freelander…
The exterior of the Land Rover has also been styled. I gather. Today, just one glimpse serves as the least salutary of reminders that the sharp-dressed Evoque should be standing here instead. But with the Freelander already priced at almost £10,000 more than these other three circa £30k SUVs, that clearly falls into the Fat Chance category.
Life inside the Ford Kuga
Settle behind the wheel of the Kuga and all is immediately C-Max-familiar: posh piano-black, deep-frozen-oystercatcher-bill instrument needles, undersized centre-console screen barely larger than the secondary driver’s binnacle offering, and a dashboard dominated by Sony’s irritatingly counter-intuitive infotainment gubbins. Still, at least the left- and right-hand steering wheel switches have now graduated from bafflingly identical ‘OK’ labelling.
It all looks pretty good and is evidently well made yet, somehow, fails to blow the frock up to the full Marilyn. Perhaps it’s a trifle overworked? Too much designer time spent riffling the pages of the Observer’s Book of Unlikely Shapes…?
But the driving position – the most car-like amongst these contenders – is good, the steering wheel nicely sized and the seat entirely comfortable. Which is more than can be said for the second row, wherein passengers endure ample legroom whilst perched on what feels like leather-clad mahogany.
How does the Toyota compare?
Pile out of the Ford and into the Toyota and the first thing you notice is how relatively flimsy the RAV4’s door feels; after the Brink’s-Mat weight and thunk of the Kuga, it’s an action more akin to folding the pages of a pop-up book.
The RAV4 cockpit, though of undeniably improved quality and punctuated with elegant touches such as the padded curve of the main dash, feels so unremittingly chthonic that I’m surprised not to find a caged canary hanging from the mirror. The centre console screen is nothing like as easy on the eye as it is on the fingertips, the digital clock is Fawlty Towers bedside alarm-dated, and the driver’s instrument binnacle looks to have been purloined from a car built ten years ago.
However, the snug front seats are a comfort match for the Kuga and, though the steering wheel errs towards pope-on-a-rope slippery, there’s nothing wrong with the driving position except that the back of the bonnet’s so high you feel somewhat absorbed by the car unless you sit higher than might be desired.
The RAV4 delivers far more rear-seat legroom than the Kuga (indeed, easily the most in this group), the seats recline further, and they’re altogether more comfortable than those of the Ford. But then, so is a wheelbarrow studded with carpet tacks.
Is the CR-V the best inside?
It’s odd that the CR-V interior should feel so much classier than the RAV4, because it’s barely any more exciting as a design, and equally slathered in dark finishes. However, the dashboard and instrument layout is clear and functional, ergonomics are first class, and everything works beautifully, including the dash bitch, who, unusually for a navigation system, is to be applauded for not talking too much.
Though not as snug-fitting as those of the Ford or Toyota, the front seats are properly comfortable and the cockpit offers a far more spacious, open feel than either, and a notably less claustrophobic driving position thanks to a lower level collision of bonnet and windscreen. The rear seats are on a par with the Toyota in the comfort stakes, with legroom falling between RAV4 and Kuga.
And what about the Freelander’s cabin?
The Freelander interior is familiar, strangely likeable turf; a bold, Sumo-chunky, well thought-out dashboard abetted by buttons big enough to operate whilst wearing sheepskin gloves, and that sub-standard centre-console screen which must be operated in sheepskin gloves to avoid severe bruising of the fingertips. The Captain’s chair up front still isn’t quite comfortable enough, but at least the armrest doesn’t clash with a lumpen centre console box lid a la new Range Rover, so you can actually still rest your arm on it. A somewhat upright driving position is the highest on offer here, yet perfectly respectable. The rear seats are actually the most comfortable of the group by some margin. A pity, though, that this is combined with far and away the least legroom.
Talk me though the toys
All four of these top-spec models boast powered tailgates, operable from both dashboard and key fob, and only Ford asks an extra £350 for the privilege of power operation. Its ace-in-the-hole is that it is entirely hands free, and involves waving one’s leg under a bumper-mounted sensor. It takes practice. I started by cocking my leg rather hopelessly at it like an old, arthritic dog revisiting a favoured lamppost, and only finally succeeded with a somewhat more satisfactory action akin to kicking Wayne Rooney when he’s down.
Tailgate f…i…n…a…l…l…y aloft on steam locomotive piston-sized struts, the Kuga loadspace benefits from a simple enough rear-seat folding mechanism, but its effectiveness is destroyed at a stroke, by a 3in step up from load level to folded seatback level, so you won’t be sliding anything heavy in here in a hurry.
A tangle of accessories like the rigging of a wrecked trawler spans the RAV4 loadspace (find room in the shed), but the seat folding system is simplicity itself and, although the floor isn’t totally flat, at least it’s step-free. The Freelander adds the complexity of requiring the separate raising of the seat bases before the seat backs may be folded fully flat, and the headrests invariably snag on the seats in front.
All of which leaves the CR-V a clear winner in the practicality stakes, because it’s the only car here fitted with tailgate-accessed, loadspace wall-mounted levers which fling everything Michael Winner ECG-flat with one tug. Granted, the seat-mounted strap that achieves the same effect via the rear door effect feels a tad cheapskate, but this being a Honda you could doubtless hang an ocean liner from it with no ill effect.
Which wins honours for best powertrain?
All four cars are armed with turbodiesels; the Kuga a 2.0-litre, 161bhp unit, the other three 2.2-litre powerplants, developing a somewhat asthmatic 148bhp for both CR-V and RAV4 and a more wholesome 187bhp for the Freelander. Ford and Land Rover are equipped with automatic transmissions here, the Japanese offerings mustering manual gearboxes. And all four machines also boast four-wheel drive.
Despite outweighing the Kuga by almost 100kg (and the CR-V and RAV4 by even more), the Freelander’s 8.7 second dash to 62mph bests both Honda and Toyota by about a second, and the Ford by closer to two. The Kuga’s auto ’box is a mite smoother than that of the Land Rover, which takes too long to respond to throttle imperatives, and both offer manual override you’ll never use. The latter because it’s lever operated only and works the wrong way round (as oft discussed, Spike, the Tom and Jerry cartoon bulldog, knows all too well you push to slow down), the former because it features something unfathomable called Powershift; tiny buttons on the side of the gear knob which require a deal of learning and an ecstasy of fumbling. Don’t they have paddleshift in America? The Ford, however, is no fun in traffic. It’s milk-train-drunk-aggressive on the throttle, and the brakes are pickpocket grabby, which makes smooth slow-speed progress difficult despite seamless shifts.
Though perfectly acceptable, the RAV4’s gearchange isn’t anything like as crisp as the CR-V’s, yet what you notice more in cars with almost identical performance is how much more vocally the Toyota goes about its business. Noisy at tickover, the engine thrums through every part of the car you come into contact with. Worse, on a trailing throttle it tends to boom like a lovesick bittern.
Presumably, less insulation accounts for the lighter weight of both Japanese offerings, because they suffer from greater noise intrusion than either Ford or Land Rover, most notably from the road surface. Moreover, whilst it’s not excessive in the Honda, wind noise from the Toyota’s A-pillars and mirrors is ever-present. Indeed, the CR-V’s only glaring acoustic vice is astonishingly loud and intrusive wiper noise; a catgut strung violin played with the cat still in place.
With the Freelander’s diesel also somewhat over-eager to be heard, it’s the Kuga that takes the NVH honours here; the occasional thrum of vibration escaping the engine bay the only counterpoint to thoroughly damped wind and road noise.
And which takes the handling crown?
With clever, torque vectoring electronic trickery hard at work beneath the surface, the Kuga will out-handle anything else here, slightly greater levels of body roll than expected a small price to pay for the retention of a pleasingly pliant ride quality. The steering is quick, and the meatiest here by some margin, yet does feel somewhat rubbery. Strangely, the suspension actually offers more road-surface information than the helm.
The CR-V proves the more agile, better planted drive of the Japanese contenders, though the RAV4 has improved significantly, particularly in a steering department once woollier than a sheep disguised as Father Christmas. Both ride quite firmly in the interests of handling, but the Honda’s helm, though predictably light, is far more accurate and linear, and its body control better even than the Kuga.
The Freelander, by contrast, handles like an unnervingly accurate sherry trifle. The nose reacts instantly and so abruptly to just a twitch of the helm that it reminds me of the Honda soap box I once accompanied down Goodwood Hill which, at the faintest input, changed direction like a rubber bullet fired into a squash court.
Interestingly, though, adding lock thereafter appears to send less of a command and more of a suggestion downstairs, invoking instant fear of understeer on a par with a puppy overrunning its breakfast bowl. In truth, the Land Rover will still go round corners with considerably more aplomb that it has a right to, ride quality being its real Achilles heel. Combining St Vitus fidgeting with perceptible brickbats in the blancmange, the poor thing hops and wallows like a drunk with a badly stubbed toe.
To touch quickly on matters mud-related; presumably, the Freelander’s 10 grand price hike buys you that Land Rover-sacrosanct ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound, tease people and shave your legs. But, given their briefly sampled off-road proclivities, the other three will happily tackle most of the worst Mudfordshire has to offer with near-equal disdain.
So, if you want commodious, great handling family transport, buy a low-mileage BMW 5-series Touring. If you want the most car-like SUV drive, opt for the Kuga. If you want rear-seat legroom, take the Toyota. If you’re a brand snob with too much money, fund the Freelander. If however, your decision is to be in any way segment-appropriately pragmatic, it’s the Honda that best combines comfort, practicality and ergonomics with a sufficiently engaging drive to keep you interested.