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Welcome, dear reader, to another edition of “What’s it Worth to Ya?” It’s a little game I like to play comparing the ever-shrinking gap between luxury and mainstream brands.

We’ve played this game before with the Audi A4 and Ford Fusion. The latter’s roomier, more powerful, more affordable design really makes one think twice about paying a $15,000 premium for a four-ring grille.

C’mon, Payne, no one will ever cross-shop such cars.

Stay with me and you may reconsider.

Affordable electronics like heated seats and head-up displays are as easy to replicate in Mazdas as in Cadillacs. Meanwhile, five-door SUVs may be sweeping the planet for their practicality, but the resulting box-on-stilts restricts the tools available to designers to distinguish one brand from another. SUVs have turned dealer lots into the automotive equivalent of tract housing. How do you make your house stand out?

Take our compact-ute testers this week: the all-new, $34,000 2017 Mazda CX-5 and the $54,000 2017 Volvo XC60.

I won’t beat around the bush. The Mazda is the superior vehicle.

The XC60’s 2018 successor — introduced at last week’s New York Auto Show and due on dealer lots later this year — will finally get a platform upgrade after eight years on the U.S. market. It comes none too soon when you consider how the $20,000 cheaper Mazda has caught up — and often surpasses — the Volvo in metric after metric.

This is not to shame the Volvo, which is a lovely sculpture chiseled out of Scandinavian beech wood. Few luxury makes can hold a candle to the CX-5 in handling and design, not to mention value. Like its big brother, the CX-9 — the best-looking large SUV on planet Earth — the CX-5 is the prettiest, most athletic small ute this side of the seductive BMW X1. Dip it in Soul Red Chrystal paint and it’s more tempting than Elizabeth Hurley playing the devil in “Bedazzled.”

You feel the Mazda difference the moment you seize the steering wheel: It feels rooted to the pavement. It’s a sensation more often associated with a performance sedan. Not that the outgoing CX-5, which debuted in 2012, was a dog. Like Porsche’s SUVs and Panamera sedan, Mazda’s entire lineup is inspired by a sports car – in this case, the Miata. It’s a little like Mowgli being raised by wolves: He’s got their instincts. The CX-5’s father is Dave Coleman, a motorhead veteran of rally and sports car racing who also happens to be Mazda North America’s chief engineer.

Throw the CX-5 into an interstate cloverleaf and its Haldex-like AWD system bites like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg. There’s push, sure — this is a front-wheel-drive biased chassis. But the finely tuned suspension (MacPherson strut up front, independent multi-link in rear) rotates with minimal body roll, tires protesting only at their limit. This little SUV thinks it’s a Miata.

The Mazda is not only the best-handling mainstream compact crossover, but it’s superior to everything short of high-performance crossovers like the Macan and Jaguar F-Pace. You’ll have to go a size smaller — subcompact utes like the BMW X1 or Audi Q3 — to find comparable handling. Yet even those vehicles are $10,000 north of the CX-5’s modest price tag.

The Volvo XC60, meanwhile, rolls leisurely through turns. Its steering chatters rather nervously as you approach the limit, then dissolves into a wail of tire screams as it senses the envelope’s edge.

Volvos have always been safety leaders and the XC60 is a Secret Service agent on wheels, always ready to protect with its state-of-the-art City Safety automatic braking. But the Mazda is hardly a potted plant: Using similar radar and camera tech, it is ready to intervene in perilous situations. The emergency-assist system isn’t standard like the Volvo’s, but the optioned Mazda still costs considerably less.

Volvo understands its brand is synonymous with safety and goes the extra mile. It boasts integrated child booster seats in the rear. Dogs are members of the family, too, and can be housed in a cage that has been crash-tested for safety.

But is the difference worth $20,000?

Perhaps Mazda’s most shocking accomplishment is in the beauty department. Design is what’s supposed to separate luxury from mainstream. The once-boxy Volvo has come into its own in recent years with sculpted lines and sultry grilles. Next year the new XC60 will get the cool Thor’s-hammer headlamps seen on the XC90.

But it’s the Mazda that has the luxury looks. Avoiding the grille clutter that defines many mainstream brands (I’m looking at you, Honda CR-V and Chevy Equinox), the CX-5’s face is a work of art. The headlights pierce the five-point grille like arrows; the LED work is evocative of Audi’s designer peepers. The body sweeps backward over high wheel-arches and deeply scalloped rocker panels — under blacked-out B and C pillars — to a chrome-punctuated fastback.

And did I mention it’s wearing a Soul Red Chrystal dress?

Inside, the Mazda is as whisper-quiet as the Scandinavian, but can’t match the Volvo’s carved-wood console. The CX-5’s design is more businesslike (think Audi) with attention to detail and material.

The XC60 and CX-5 both have meek infotainment systems that neglect Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. These oversights that are common among luxury brands. Despite these blind spots, the Mazda still one-ups its more expensive opponent with heated rear seats and a head-up display.

My favorite detail is the Mazda’s rear doors: They open to 80 degrees for easy rear egress. That solves a common ute challenge.

I have left the powertrains for last, because that is where the Volvo’s 300-horse, super- and turbocharged inline-4 clearly separates itself from the Mazda’s normally aspirated, four-cylinder 187-horse unit. But in practice, the CX-5 — though much buzzier under the cane — is a joy thanks to “G-vectoring control,” which cleverly manages engine-torque inputs for smoother acceleration and steering inputs.

Mazda execs call their strategy “moving to premium,” and it has all but eliminated the gap with more expensive SUVs. The high-tech Ford Escape and nimble Honda CR-V also play in the luxury league for thousands less. The pressure is on Volvo & Co. to justify their worth.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Volvo XC60

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front- and

all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Power plant

2.0-liter, turbo- and supercharged

inline 4-cylinder

Transmission

Six-speed manual or automatic

Weight

2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price

$41,945 ($53,555 Inscription

as tested)

Power

302 horsepower,

295 pound-feet of torque

Performance

0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy

EPA 20 city/27 highway/

22 combined

Report card

Highs

Vault of safety systems;

Scandinavian wood accents

Lows

Dull to drive; aging chassis has us

longing for update

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★

2017 Mazda CX-5

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front- and

all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Power plant

2.5-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Transmission

Six-speed automatic

Weight

2,875 pounds; 3,046 pounds

(with manual transmission)

Price

$24,985 ($34,060 Grand Touring

as tested)

Power

187 horsepower, 185 pound-feet

of torque (2.0-liter)

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds

(Car and Driver est.)

Fuel economy

EPA 23 city/29 highway/

26 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs

An SUV that handles;

premium features

Lows

Tardy off the line; Apple CarPlay

and Android Auto, please?

Overall:★★★★

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