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Best Medium SUV 2022

It’s the premier league of the Australian new car scene, but which mid-size SUV deserves to take home the silverware?

Australians bought more SUVs than all other new vehicle types combined in 2021 because we love the versatility and practicality they offer. The most popular SUV category is the Medium SUV class, which absolutely nails the Goldilocks zone: they are right-sized for families, tuned for economy and performance, well-equipped and sharply priced, and brimming with the latest technologies and safety features demanded by Australians.

The number-one seller in the Medium SUV class is the Toyota RAV4 and has been for two years now, pipping the impressive Mazda CX-5 and Mitsubishi Outlander as the choice for new car buyers. 

The Toyota RAV4 has also won the Drive Car of the Year Best Medium SUV category two years in a row, and if bookies were taking bets on it doing so again this year, the RAV4 would have been a short-priced favourite. It’s a very accomplished vehicle, so it will take something extra special to knock it from the top step of the podium.

The Mazda CX-5 is one vehicle hoping to do exactly that, and has used a late-2021 update to close the gap to the RAV4 in the sales race. A new-look front end, and improvements to comfort and dynamics headline the changes, making the CX-5 even more appealing to buyers.

As for our other two finalists, the Kia Sportage and Mitsubishi Outlander are both completely new cars for 2021. This means they’re equipped with the latest engine technologies, the latest safety features and equipment, and have new versatility tricks to give the RAV4 a run for its money.

This high-quality field means we’re in for a serious fight, and there’s one thing of which you can be sure: the winner of the 2022 Drive Car of the Year Best Medium SUV will thoroughly deserve its victory. So, without further ado, let’s meet the winner.

Winner: Kia Sportage

What we love
  • Beautifully presented and tech-laden cabin
  • Packed with standard equipment even in entry-level models
  • Cavernous space in first and second rows, and the boot
What we don’t
  • Seven-speed dual-clutch models show minor signs of hesitation
  • Servicing costs a touch on the high side for the segment
  • Rotary-dial gear selector (nitpicking, we know)

The new, fifth-generation Kia Sportage arrived in Australian showrooms in November 2021, bigger, more powerful, more efficient, more technologically advanced and safer than the model it replaced. The new Sportage is proving not just a big hit with new SUV buyers, it has also won the 2022 Drive Car of the Year Best Medium SUV category.

It was a hard-fought battle this year, with the Sportage scoring 30 of a possible 35 votes from the judges and winning by the slimmest of margins. The Mitsubishi Outlander came second on 29 votes, then the Toyota RAV4 (25) and Mazda CX-5 (14). 

The Sportage’s sharp new styling certainly makes for a good first impression, but it’s what’s under the skin that powered the Sportage to victory.

For starters, the Kia Sportage has grown in size this time around. It’s 175mm longer and rides on an 85mm longer wheelbase, which means it has more useable space inside, particularly in the back seats and cargo bay.

The cabin is a very classy affair, from the affordable Sportage S ($35,690 drive-away with automatic) to the affluent Sportage GT-Line ($54,990 drive-away at the time of testing). This is one area where Kia has stepped its game up the most, making the Sportage interior a more desirable place to be than the once unbeatable Toyota RAV4. Technology integration and effectiveness are also markedly better than before, and arguably best-in-class in terms of visual impressiveness and ease of use.

Dare we say it, but the Sportage makes the RAV4 feel just a touch dated, and that car’s design is barely three years old! That’s a reflection of just how fast vehicles are evolving right now, especially in the areas of design and technology.

There’s no denying that the most expensive GT-Line gets all the goodies, but even the base Sportage S is generously equipped, boasting a touchscreen entertainment system, wireless smartphone connectivity, LED headlights and tail-lights, alloy wheels and a full-size spare. 

A full suite of active safety technology is also standard, including autonomous emergency braking with junction support, lane-follow assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. Variants with automatic transmissions also have adaptive cruise control, an electric parking brake, and the ability for the blind-spot and rear cross-traffic systems to brake for obstacles rather than just detect them.

Also standard is a centre airbag designed to prevent passengers' heads clashing in a side-impact collision.

We’ve test-driven all three of the Sportage range’s mechanical packages. The more potent 132kW 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol and 137kW 2.0-litre turbo diesel engines are both undeniably good, and they do take the spotlight away from the most affordable powertrain, the entry-level 115kW petrol four-cylinder, which is competent and economical. 

On the road, the Sportage is a treat to drive. Variants with smaller wheel and tyre packages ride the most comfortably, but even the GT-Line diesel delivers a relatively cosseting ride while adding a touch of sportiness to the suspension tune. The Sportage’s steering is light and well-weighted to balance higher-speed feedback with low-speed manoeuvring. 

Much has been made of the Toyota RAV4’s hybrid powertrains and their fuel efficiency, and even though the Sportage doesn’t offer a hybrid option, its suite of petrol and diesel engines are surprisingly efficient. During our 2022 Drive Car of the Year testing, the Sportage GT-Line diesel (the heaviest and most powerful variant) returned a 6.5L/100km fuel average, exactly the same as the RAV4 Hybrid on the same roads with the same drivers.

So there you have it, the previous king of the Medium SUVs – the Toyota RAV4 – has been dethroned. This category was one of the most hard-fought of all the Drive Car of the Year categories this year, and it goes to show that Australian consumers are benefitting from this intense competition with some of the best quality, best value, safest and most advanced cars that manufacturers can produce. 

The Kia Sportage is a worthy winner, but it was chased all the way by the Toyota RAV4 and another impressive newcomer, the Mitsubishi Outlander.   

Finalist: Mitsubishi Outlander

What we love
  • Quality and refinement
  • Loads of space, well equipped, easy to drive
  • Cheap to service, long warranty
What we don’t
  • Big interior can be boomy
  • Fuel economy can climb if you push it
  • Infotainment graphics look dated

Nine years is a long time in the automotive world, and, like grandfather’s axe, the previous-generation Mitsubishi Outlander had been sharpened and buffed many times during those years.

As it turns out, Mitsubishi’s engineers did not only keep the old car fresh during those years, they spent plenty of time developing this new-generation Outlander that launched in November 2021, because it is a huge step forward on the model it replaces. 

In fact, the Outlander is such a big leap forward that it almost landed the ultimate prize: Drive Car of the Year Best Medium SUV.

Just one vote separated it from the eventual segment winner, the Kia Sportage, and that’s because this Outlander is an exceptional vehicle that combines the latest powertrains and technologies with Mitsubishi’s always keen pricing and reassuring 10-year warranty.

Based on new underpinnings shared with partners Nissan and Renault, the 2022 Mitsubishi Outlander is one of the largest cars in this class and one of the few with a seven-seat option. That said, while the second row is cavernous, the third row is best saved for kids. 

The interior houses all the occupant comforts that buyers expect, and with a quality that will do a lot to reposition Mitsubishi as more than just a value-point player. Safety is another strong point, with eight airbags and numerous active safety systems, including traffic sign recognition that is not always a given in this class. 

The infotainment system is good, but the graphics don’t keep pace with the rest of the car’s newfound premium ambience. Still, the controls are intuitive and the active safety systems are unobtrusive, which, combined with the Outlander’s smooth powertrain and very light steering, makes it an easy and comfortable car to drive.

The Outlander’s basic powertrain mates a 135kW 2.5-litre petrol engine with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to give unbeatable smoothness, although fuel economy can climb if you have a heavy right foot.

If you want to minimise your fuel use, then the Outlander will add a hybrid powertrain variant sometime in 2022. Not just a hybrid, though, the Outlander goes further than the Toyota by offering the benefit of plug-in recharging for short-hop trips using no petrol.  

Ultimately, the new-generation Outlander beat the RAV4 and came so close to beating the Sportage because it combines Mitsubishi’s reputation for value, long warranty and affordable servicing while making huge advances in refinement, comfort, equipment and interior styling. All are qualities that Australian consumers hold in high regard.

Finalist: Toyota RAV4

What we love
  • Hybrid powertrain option is smooth
  • Generous interior dimensions, especially the rear seats
  • Toyota's early service costs are as low as you'll find
What we don’t
  • Interior outshone by newer rivals
  • Drivetrain can be noisy
  • Space-saver spare on all bar base model

History will show that the Toyota RAV4 did not win 2022 Drive Car of the Year Best Medium SUV, but don’t go thinking that’s because it’s a bad car.

The RAV4 is the best-seller in this segment for a reason – well, a few reasons actually. Firstly, buyers are attracted to its combination of space, hybrid power, high levels of safety, value and reliability. 

Those attributes are not unique to the RAV4 in this class, but don’t underestimate the power of the Toyota brand, and all that this triple-oval badge entails. 

Toyota is Australia’s best-selling brand by a long way; in fact, it outsells the next two brands (Mazda and Hyundai) combined. Australians have grown to trust Toyota’s honest vehicles and no-fuss marketing. Australians also like Toyota’s very affordable servicing costs, which are best-in-class among the assembled finalists.

Toyota’s cars also do exactly what they say on the box, sometimes more but never less. It’s as though Toyota’s product planning department has a huge chart on the wall highlighting the average score of all rival vehicles in every attribute. Then Toyota strives to build a car that beats every single one of them, not by a lot, but by just enough to ensure their car is better than average across the board.

That’s part of why the Toyota RAV4 has won this category for the last two years running. It is better than average in every way – or at least it was when it was launched in 2020. But now the competition has responded, and while the RAV4 has not slipped up, rivals like the Kia Sportage and Mitsubishi Outlander have overtaken the Toyota in a number of areas. 

That said, the Toyota RAV4 is a worthy finalist, and we highly recommend having it on your shopping list when you’re searching for your next Medium SUV.

In fact, your biggest problem may be actually buying one, because at the time of writing there was a waitlist out beyond 10 months for some variants.

Finalist: Mazda CX-5

What we love
  • Still one of the sharpest drives in the class
  • Strong on value
  • Decent interior space

What we don’t
  • Safety features are no match for the best in class
  • Infotainment system is behind the times

Mazda is fast becoming the master of the annual update. Every year, the Zoom Zoom brand trots out styling tweaks and technology morsels to keep its mainstream cars competitive, and the CX-5 is no different. In fact, as we write this some weeks after testing, Mazda has just launched the model-year 2022 update, which was too late for Drive Car of the Year, but the changes are all largely superficial. 

At its core, the Mazda CX-5 is an admirable five-seat SUV. Built to be more of a driver’s car than its main rivals, the CX-5 prioritises agility and dynamism as well as responsive engines. And while it did set the benchmark for these qualities when it first launched in 2015, that’s no longer the case in 2022. 

The Mazda CX-5 also puts forward a strong case for must-haves like practicality, safety and fuel efficiency, but again finds itself trailing newer, smarter, safer, roomier, more efficient rivals because there’s only so much Mazda’s engineers can do to keep a seven-year-old vehicle competitive. 

But that just goes to show how impressive this generation CX-5 is because, even in its twilight years, it trails only the RAV4 on the sales charts.

And who knows, if an all-new Mazda CX-5 arrives in time for testing, next year’s Drive Car of the Year might be Mazda’s turn to take home the trophy for Best Medium SUV. 

Until then, the MY2022 Mazda CX-5’s new look, updated interior (new seats and NVH improvements), Intelligent Drive Select feature, and more refined powertrain and suspension should keep this popular mid-size SUV competitive. 

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