The Road Ahead
Image 1 of 4
1st April 2010
THE POPULARITY OF compact/medium sized Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) seems to know no bounds. Even the apocalyptic arm of the Global Financial Crisis last year failed to pull the handbrake on sales of 'soft roaders' in Queensland.
But now buyers have been further spoiled for choice with the release of new offerings from Mazda, Hyundai and Kia, along with a model refresh from ŠKODA.
While the Korean duo ushered in a fresh range of re-engined, revamped diesel variants with familiar names, Mazda delivered an addition to its CX-7 ranks, the Diesel Sports. Powered by a 2.2-litre, common rail diesel (CRD), turbo, four-cylinder engine (with six-speed manual gearbox only) and Active Torque-Split all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, the Diesel Sports boasts a refreshed interior and exterior and more equipment.
Kia's Sorento is now a monocoque construction with multilink rear suspension and seven seats as standard. Its low-range transfer case has been dropped in favour of a torque-on-demand AWD system with lock mode, and a new 2.2-litre. CRD, turbo four-cylinder engine provides the motivation.
Sharing the same powerplant, Hyundai's latest Santa Fe R seven-seater also comes with a host of technical and cosmetic upgrades, as well as improved crash and rollover protection. Hyundai has reconfigured its line-up to three trim levels: SLX, Elite and Highlander, the latter two available with six-speed auto only. Santa Fe's AWD system is on demand, with centre diff lock for 50/50 traction front to rear.
Last September, ŠKODA's 2.0-litre turbo-diesel Octavia Scout joined its brothers in arms, the Octavia and Octavia RS, in receiving a subtle design update. The revisions included the grille (with its 19 vertically arranged ribs surrounded by a redesigned, chrome-plated frame) and larger, more dominant, headlights. Scout uses a Haldex clutch between front/rear axles and also comes with six-speed manual gearbox only.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Had all gone to plan, our four contenders would have fronted in six-speed manual specification. However, Hyundai presented its mid-range six-speed auto Elite instead of the base model manual SLX. At $43,990, this made Santa Fe $350 more than CX-7, while Sorento slipped in at $39,990 and Scout $39,490.
For the extra money, Elite buyers get roof rails, fold-down conversation mirror in the roof console (to keep an eye on the kids in the back), powered driver's seat, full auto dual-zone climate control airconditioning and a cooler box in the centre console among the extras.
With the Glass's Guide having no residual figures available yet for the new Diesel Sports, we turned to its petrol-powered Classic Sports 4x4 sibling for a clue as to likely depreciation Applying this percentage, a buyer might lose just on S7,000 after two years, compared with approximately $15,000 for the Kia, $17,200 for the Hyundai and $18,400 for the ŠKODA (based on residuals for the Octavia 2.0-litre TDI wagon).
But a CX-7 buyer can expect to pay more by way of servicing costs, due in part to Mazda setting its service intervals at 10,000 km, compared with the other three's 15,000 km. Based on figures supplied by the parent companies, over 75,000 km this would amount to nearly $3700 for the Mazda, a little more than $2100 for the Hyundai, just under $2000 for the ŠKODA and a tad less than $1700 for the Kia.
According to the official Australian Design Rules ADR figures, Scout (6.6-litres/100 km) is the most fuel frugal, ahead of Sorento (6.7), Santa Fe (7.5) and CX-7 (7.6). However, on test the Kia matched the ŠKODA (7.7), with the Mazda averaging 8.2 and the Hyundai 10.0.
Korean manufacturers take some beating when it comes to warranty, Kia and Hyundai's five-years/unlimited kilometre offering topping the Japanese duo's Sorento. The Mazda proved it has the measure of the ŠKODA, except in roll on where Scout got cracking to finish second.
The Hyundai and Kia are also good everyday drivers, around town and out on the road, with the former benefiting from the combination of a higher torque output and six-speed auto which shifts smoothly and kicks down freely.
The CX-7 seems a little lethargic to get going, let down by a combination of turbo lag and gearing which appears too high. Scout, by comparison, demonstrates athleticism from about 1500 rpm, though this doesn't last. Despite having the lowest kerb weight to haul, its 2.0-litre engine lacks the overall oomph of the others.
Sorento, in manual form, holds the aces when it comes to braked towing capability, able to pull 2500 kg to Santa Fe's 2000 kg, with CX-7 and Scout trailing at 1600 kg each.
Santa Fe possesses the softer ride of our quartet, making it the most agreeable in most situations. The down side is that it can become floaty over mid corner undulations out on typical Australian back block roads. There is little between the others in quality of ride. All are well tied down, if a little firm, the ŠKODA more so.
But for every action there's a reaction, and stiffer damping and suspension settings help endow Scout with the best handling dynamics. The Czech-built car steers, grips and turns in more like a mid-size station wagon than SUV with very little body roll, even when provoked.
The Mazda is not quite as adept, but responds capably to steering inputs and sudden changes of direction. Both Koreans can't match the agility of the other two, but are by no means unwieldy or inept. They follow the road capably, although we formed the impression better tyres would improve grip.
The ŠKODA and Mazda pulled up more than two metres consistently shorter than the other pair over foustons from 80 km/h.
Our noise meter tests produced a mixed bag, with Santa Fe quietest at idle ahead of Sorento, CX-7 and Scout. From 50-80 km/h, with the engine working in third gear, the Mazda took the honours from the Kia, ŠKODA and Hyundai. But cruising at a steady 80 km/h, CX-7 slipped to second behind Sorento. All exhibit some tyre roar over coarse chip roads, but we seem to be saying this about most cars these days.
We suspect not too many softroaders get their wheels dirty by going seriously off road. However, we exercised our foursome at the Scenic Rim Adventure Park near Beaudesert (www.scenicrimadventurepark.com.au) and along the unsealed Condamine Gorge Road above Killarney to see how they might cope.
The challenges of the adventure park quickly reinforced their limited off road capabilities by way of no low range, restricted suspension travel and road biased tyres. The Hyundai, by dint of its slightly superior ground clearance and auto gearbox, best handled the going. The Kia got caught out, literally, with its plastic rear body panel becoming snagged and split.
However, all managed the dozen or more shallow river crossings and myriad of ruts and washouts with ease out along the Condamine Gorge Road, making a statement that, provided the going is not too tough, you can have a lot of fun in this type of vehicle in the great outdoors.
Crunch the numbers and the Kia and ŠKODA have a fair bit in hand over the others for value for money. But the former dips out a little in design and function where it's line ball between the Hyundai, Mazda and ŠKODA. On the road, it's Scout's honour with Santa Fe, CX-7 and Sorento hard to split.
So it's a close run thing, but we continue to be impressed with ŠKODA's rollout of its ever-improving range and, for us, Octavia Scout was narrowly the best on test.