High-riding SUVs combine space with superior vision and the promise — or illusion — of adventure. They are more popular than passenger cars in Australia and buyers are spoiled for choice.
This year was relatively quiet for family SUVs, but for the arrival of Toyota’s best-selling RAV4. Now available in hybrid form, the RAV4 brings fuel savings in a more desirable package than the Camry sedan — and it’s selling like hot cakes.
At the other end of the spectrum is the new Citroen C5 Aircross, a niche vehicle that sells on style and individuality.
Our third combatant is the updated Land Rover Discovery Sport with seven seats, Range Rover-inspired looks and all-wheel drive.
We compared them using our car of the year criteria — value for money, performance, design, technology and safety — to come up with a Car of the Year category winner and finalist.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
If you’re going to do the SUV thing, you might as well do it properly. That’s the pitch from Land Rover, which equips every model with all-wheel drive as well as multiple driving modes tuned to suit varying terrain, and driver aids such as hill descent control.
The Disco Sport looks smart inside and out with fresh lights, bumpers and a reworked cabin with 10-inch wide-screen display.
Priced from $60,500 plus on-roads — about $68,500 drive-away — the entry-level Land Rover tested is available with clever tech such as the wide-screen dash and head-up display, wearable FitBit-like “activity trial”, 360-degree camera, wireless charging and dual-zone climate control.
Building on a fairly basic standard spec sheet, all of these are options from a long and expensive list. You get autonomous emergency braking, smart keys and a reversing camera with front and rear sensors.
It wins points with three rows of seats in a cabin stocked with a total of nine USB and 12V outlets to keep gadgets on the go. Interior materials feel a cut above what you’ll find in cheaper cars, though our test model had a squeaky sunroof and loose stitching on the steering wheel.
The most affordable Disco is powered by a 2.0-litre turbo (147kW/320Nm). Claimed 8.1L/100km fuel economy is made possible by the frustratingly laggy idle-stop set-up.
It’s a quiet engine with adequate if not impressive grunt and it isn’t helped by the nine-speed auto, which can be indecisive.
Similar in size to popular mainstream models such as the RAV4, the Disco is noticeably heavier on the road and that weight results in a planted though somewhat firm ride.
It leans in the bends and asks a lot of its tyres when cornering. The comparatively generous ground clearance will be useful off-road.
Citroen C5 Aircross
Citroen has been known for plush suspension for decades and nothing has changed with the C5 Aircross. This medium SUV has “progressive hydraulic cushions suspension”, rally-bred technology that translates to a surprisingly comfortable ride.
Weighing in 465kg lighter than the Discovery and 250kg less than the Toyota, the Citroen has physics on its side. Light steering adds to the walking-on-air sensation and keen drivers will be impressed with its dynamics away from the school run.
It also has to make do with the least powerful engine here, a 1.6-litre turbo with 121kW/240Nm peak outputs and 7.9L/100km claimed fuel economy.
Just as it has the most comfortable suspension and least powerful engine, there are sweet and sour points to the Citroen experience.
Its digital screen in front of the driver is both legible and futuristic, which is a high point. You have to use the central infotainment screen for basic tasks such as temperature adjustment, which annoys.
The seats look great but give minimal support through corners. The rear seat is comfortable but has only one power outlet.
It has a five-year warranty but nearly doubles the Toyota’s servicing costs (there is a current deal with three years’ free maintenance, worth $1728).
It presents as good value at $39,990 plus on-roads (about $44,200 drive-away) but crucially misses out on a five-star ANCAP safety rating due to a lack of vulnerable road-user protection.
We also took issue with the six-speed automatic, which proved lumpy around town. The hyperactive traction control scuppered swift getaways.
Rapid escapes are a strong point for the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, thanks to 160kW of combined power from the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor.
You’ll also go further before having to stop for fuel, thanks to the impressive 4.7L/100km claimed fuel economy — which you can match in the real world.
The Toyota ticks a lot of boxes. It’s the cheapest to service, has the most spacious rear seat (with twin USB ports) and a huge boot that matches the Citroen’s.
It gets full marks from the safety police, building on modern basics such as autonomous emergency braking and blind spot monitoring with active cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning — gear that’s either unavailable or optional in the Land Rover and Citroen.
So what’s not to love?
The cabin is somewhat plain, lacking the design flair or luxury finish of the rivals. It’s noisier on the road despite having a quiet hybrid engine and the ride is a little firm.
Wheel spin under heavy throttle inputs can make the two-wheel-drive version tested here feel rowdy but you can fix that by paying more for an all-paw variant.
The RAV4 missed out on Apple CarPlay and Android auto at launch but, as with the Land Rover and Citroen, the tech is standard now.
Priced from $38,140 plus on-roads, or about $42,500 drive-away, if you can get one.
Another mark against the RAV4 GXL Hybrid is that Toyota Australia has struggled to secure sufficient supply. You can collect a Disco Sport or Citroen this weekend but you might have to wait a while before taking home a Toyota.
Pick the Land Rover if you want to use an SUV for more than the school run, and try the Citroen if you want to stand out from the crowd. The RAV4 works if you want to play it safe. We’ll reveal our winner next week, when the best cars in each class come together for a final test.
Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Price: About $42,500 drive-away
Engine: 2.5-litre 4-cyl hybrid, 160kW
Warranty/Service: 5-year, unlimited km/$1475 for 5 years
Space: 580 litres
Citroen C5 Aircross
Price: About $44,200 drive-away
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo, 121kW/240Nm
Warranty/Service: 5-year, unlimited km/$1282 for 5 years
Space: 580 litres
Land Rover Discover Sport P200 S
Price: About $68,500 drive-away
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 147kW/320Nm
Warranty/Service: 3 year, 100,000km/$1750 for 5 years
Space: 157 litres (with 7 seats)
Other 2019 car of the year comparison tests:
Originally published as Which is the best new medium SUV?