FOR THE first time last year, SUV sales overtook passenger cars. And now so far this year, the medium SUV segment has soared past the previously dominant small car class.

Australians want mid-sized SUVs, specifically 174,094 of them that were sold from January to October 2018, up 7.5 per cent on the 161,757-unit haul over the same period in 2017. It’s that circa-15,000-unit boost that helped the predominantly $30,000 to $55,000 family movers to sweep past small hatches and sedans, which last year led with 182,394 sales – but this year dropped 6.9 per cent to 169,757 units.

Here we look at the cheaper end of the spectrum. What are the best-value, 4.6-metre-long, front- or all-wheel drive high-riding wagons available for under $40K? What we’re looking for – and presumably you are too – is a blend of price, space, safety and infotainment technology, standard features, performance relative to economy, and a good after-sales mixture of long warranty and affordable servicing.

It’s a tall order, perhaps, but the below top 5 medium SUVs under $40K are tall poppies.

Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport

This is a rare case where the most popular medium SUV is also arguably the best mid-sized SUV. The CX-5 Maxx Sport, with a 2.5-litre petrol engine, all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic asks $37,870 plus on-road costs, or $40,240 driveaway … but let’s call it $40K.

It’s the pick of the range because it’s the ‘all-rounder’ within a model line-up that itself is the definition of offering wide-ranging appeal. The Mazda isn’t the benchmark for cargo space, and indeed its 442-litre boot is a slight achilles heel – although it is a square and usable space. It doesn’t have the most rear legroom, either, yet both its front and rear seats are among the cushiest around.

That’s about it for the downsides, too, because this medium SUV’s engine is strong yet fuel efficient, its auto the smartest in its class, the ride quality on this model grade’s sensible 17-inch tyres is exemplary – beating all of the below contenders – and its mix of steering and handling are as enjoyable as you’ll find in a sporty hatch.

Add a classy and beautifully built cabin, an equal-benchmark level of active safety technology, a high level of interior equipment, plus a five-year warranty and decent $1489 in servicing over four years or 40,000km, and the CX-5 offers a terrific blend of virtues.

Subaru Forester 2.5i

Welcome to the price-versus-space benchmark. The all-new Forester 2.5i starts from $33,490+ORC, though it loses a point for high $38,152 driveaway pricing without offers. It loses another for a three-year/unlimited kay warranty, though $1316 in servicing to three years or 37,500km is competitive.

The Subaru still isn’t quite as nice to drive as the Mazda, either, but they’re pretty close these days.

Even this entry-level 2.5i matches the above middle-grade CX-5 Maxx Sport with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, auto on/off headlights and wipers, adaptive cruise control and active lane-keep assistance. It does, however, miss out on the auto-dimming rear-view mirror, reverse AEB and satellite navigation of that above (slightly pricier) rival.

However, here you get a larger 498-litre boot volume, more expansive rear legroom, and better vision, though the seats and materials used inside the cabin aren’t in either case quite to the level of the plush CX-5. In the latter case, the plastics get better the more money you spend on a Forester, but here base is best. It’s loaded up and really great value, only let down by that warranty and high driveaway pricing.

Honda CR-V VTi-S AWD

Now that this CR-V VTi-S delivers AEB as standard, it soars in our estimation here. It still isn’t available in the $33,290+ORC front-wheel drive model grade, so stepping to the $36,490+ORC all-wheel drive is a must. It’s $40,345 driveaway, right on our max.

Unlike the above two rivals, the CR-V VTi-S scores a standard electric tailgate, front and rear parking sensors, and a full-sized alloy spare (versus full-sized steel in Forester and space-saver in CX-5). There’s also keyless auto-entry like only the Forester, sat-nav like the CX-5, and dual-zone climate, adaptive cruise control and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto tech like both – though no auto on/off wipers.

The Honda is the only one of the three with a 1.5-litre turbo engine that makes near-identical outputs to the others’ 2.5-litre non-turbo units, and similar economy of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres (versus Subaru’s 7.4L/100km and Mazda’s 7.5L/100km). The engine is smoother and quieter, but the auto continously-variable transmission (CVT) is nowhere near as good as the CX-5’s six-speed and it falls behind Forester’s CVT. It doesn’t steer and ride as well as the former, but it equals the latter in these respects.

Where the VTi-S wins back points is with its classy dashboard, benchmark rear legroom and utterly enormous 556-litre boot volume. This is the medium SUV to have if your family is larger than average, and combined with a five year/unlimited kay warranty it looks like a fantastic deal. Only six month or 10,000km servicing, for a costly $1827 to 3.5 years or 50,000km, lets the CR-V down.

Skoda Karoq 110TSI

The value-focused brand of the Volkswagen Group runs with the tagline ‘Simply Clever’ – and this is true of the Karoq 110TSI. Priced from $32,290+ORC or $35,290 driveaway, this is a pragamatic family vehicle mixed with really impressive panache.

Five-year warranty, ultra-affordable $790 servicing to three years or 45,000km (less than half of CR-V!), amazing fuel efficiency (5.8L/100km), a competitive 479L boot that – thanks to a sliding back seat – can extend to a class-leading 588L; it’s superb.

The secret to the 110TSI is to use front-wheel drive only, ensuring that the body is kept light and only a 110kW 1.5-litre turbo needs to be used (in a class of 135kW+).

The kit list is impressive, too, with AEB, adaptive cruise control, keyless auto-entry, auto on/off headlights/wipers, plus dual-zone climate and leather-wrapped steering wheel to match all of the quartet above. The only areas where the Karoq falls is in terms of sheer cabin size and refinement. It’s light, but it can feel it sometimes with its road noise. It’s also small on the outside, and that can translate to a lack of rear legroom. In that way it’s the Honda’s opposite, flaunting smarts of spaciousness.

Peugeot 3008 Active

If it wasn’t for a $37,990 driveaway deal, the 3008 Active wouldn’t make the cut here. That’s because the $36,990+ORC pricetag usually translates to $41,594 driveaway – but even if the offer stops, let the dealer know $38K is what you’ll pay.

With AEB, lane-departure warning, CarPlay/Android Auto and even wireless smartphone charging as standard, this is the designer-chic standout of this company. The dashboard feel beautifully high-end, yet the brilliant 3008 double act is that it’s also spacious and flexible, with superb seats and a benchmark 591-litre boot.

Like the Skoda, it’s front-wheel drive only with a 121kW 1.6-litre turbo, so if you’re traversing much beyond this Active specification it can feel a bit immature for the price. A CX-5 or even CR-V are just a touch more solid and sophisticated with their suspension set-ups. But on these standard 17-inch tyres, this Peugeot delivers excellent ride quality matched by the sharpest and best steering of this group.

Add a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty plus annual or 20,000km servicing intervals, and a competitive $1709 outlay to three years or 60,000km, and this French contender delivers on both style and sensibilities.


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