Payne: Best bargains, Mazda CX-5 vs. Subaru Forester

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Henry Payne compares the 2019 Subaru Forester Sport, left, with the 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature.


The $30,000 price point is the meat of the U.S. market. It’s where America lives. The average cost of a new vehicle is just over $35,000 and the average vehicle is a compact crossover, the biggest segment in all of autodom.

So it figures that two of the best bargains to be found are at opposite ends of the $30,000-$40,000 aisle: the near-premium Mazda CX-5 and the blue-light special Subaru Forester.

If neither of these vehicles flips your switch, then you need to get your switch fixed.

Pound-for-buck, the Mazda CX-5 is the best SUV on the planet. With premium looks to rival any luxury entry, consider how my CX-5’s top grade, new-for-2019 Signature trim stacks up against luxury’s best-selling compact ute, the Audi Q5.

The $39,155 CX-5 offers the same high-tech standard features — all-wheel drive and leather interior — as a comparable $54,795 Q5, but has more interior room, more cargo room, more horsepower and more torque. That’s right, more horsepower and torque.

At a time when electronics have quickly narrowed the gap between first class and coach, there are many mainstream cars that exude a luxury vibe with premium accessories like adaptive cruise-control, digital instrument displays and sculpted bods. But power has always been the separator. 

Until now.

The 2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

In addition to its trusty 2.5-liter four-banger, the CX-5 is now optioned with the same terrific 2.5 liter turbo-four with 250 horses and 310 pound-feet of torque that's found in big-brother CX-9. That means two more ponies than Audi, 22 more pound-feet of torque, and .02 seconds quicker to 60 mph. For $15,000 less. Mazda drops the mike.

Through the twisties of Oakland County, the CX-5 is a joy. I flatten the throttle and the 6-speed — despite being a smaller-ratio box than the 8-9 speeds increasingly common today — effortlessly downshifts to the necessary gear, before popping off buttery-smooth shifts as I increase throttle.

The response is aided by that gob-smacking torque number — more than a $50,000 Porsche Macan — and a nimble, 3,825-pound chassis that is 300 pounds lighter than a BMW X3.

But I know what you are thinking, dear reader. That $39,000 is still a lot to pay for an SUV. Especially if exiting apexes under full throttle is not high on your list of ute priorities. You’re just looking for an attractive, daily commuter that can deliver you to your destination sun, sleet, or snow.

If the CX-5 is a bargain Audi Q5, then the Subaru Forester is a bargain CX-5.

Start with looks: The Sport model in my driveway has come a long way from the rough Subaru Tribeca that used to be the face of Subaru. The Forester isn’t in the Mazda’s league — long nose, athletic shoulders, narrow greenhouse — but the Forester is nice to look at.

The 2019 Subaru Forester Sport

Carrying Subaru’s standard, signature all-wheel drive, the Forester has the upgraded brand look that attracted Mrs. Payne to the Subaru Impreza back in 2014. An ugly duckling no more, Subaru finally settled on a wardrobe that wouldn’t scare customers. It gets them inside to experience the brand’s wholesome goodness.

My Sport model was aggressively outfitted with a blacked-out grille and red rocker-panel highlights. That sporty look doesn’t translate to the drivetrain, which is a familiar 182-horse four-banger mated to a continuously variable transmission. Though 250 pounds lighter than the Mazda, the Forester won’t inspire you to consume asphalt — but it might encourage you to leave the road entirely.

With multiple off-road modes, the Forester gives off a rugged vibe that will instill confidence in Subaru's core audience of weekend hikers.

I grunted around a sprawling construction site with the Forester — the Mazda’s pretty chrome kisser and Audi’s expensive price tag discourage such activity — dialing its mode selector to Mud.

The cloth-seat Forester comes standard with the same safety-assist goodies as its more expensive competitors — adaptive cruise-control, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, blind-spot assist — though the leather-wrapped Mazda’s refinement is a step above with its Audi-like dash. The QX-5 copies the Audi’s tablet-like infotainment screen controlled by a remote rotary knob — but offers better ergonomics versus the German’s overengineered console.

The Mazda’s i-Activsense driver-assist system is terrific. Located in the center of the instrument cluster, it creates an electronic cocoon that keeps you informed as to where other vehicles are lurking (in your blind-spot, for example). Premium looks, premium tech.

The Subaru's dash is chunkier, its touchscreen within reach for those who prefer jabbing with their fingers. What the Forester lacks in design sophistication it makes up for in customer-friendly ergonomics.

Subaru adds a second console screen above the dash with car-related details of your choice. That thoughtfulness abounds through the cabin as the Subaru bests the Audi and Mazda in nearly every interior metric (Mazda just nips the Subaru in rear leg-room) — most importantly, cargo room.

Where the Audi and Mazda opt for more athletic looks, the Subaru adds a fat caboose for more storage. It's a reasonable priority, given the five-door-hatch SUV advantage. Even with the shortest wheelbase of the three cars, the Forester’s roomier interior packaging is optimized for the SUV customer.

Brand matters, and the four-ring Audi Q5 has ridden its good looks, athleticism and German engineering to 69,750 in 2018 sales — second only to the iconic Lexus RX as best-selling luxury SUV.

But $55,000 is a lot of dough, and the Mazda and Subaru bring their own brand credibility at a much lower price. Mazda has invested heavily in motor racing over the years to polish a reputation for fun and sex appeal. The influence of the Miata sports car is everywhere, even in this SUV. The only thing missing on my Machine Gray CX-5 Signature tester was Mazda’s sexy Soul Red paint scheme. For another $595, it's worth it.

The Subaru looks better in mud than in red, and that’s a compliment. As the best compact SUV value money can buy, it sacrifices nothing in utility while still offering a distinctive personality.

Thanks to vehicles like the CX-5 and Forester, customers can shop for the average car without feeling average.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Mazda CX-5 Signature

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger crossover

Price: $37,885 base, including $995 destination fee ($39,155 as tested) 

Powerplant: Turbocharged, 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder 

Power: 250 horsepower (227 on regular gas), 310 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 130 mph

Weight: 3,825 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/27 highway/24 combined 

Report card

Highs: Luxury ute at mainstream price; terrific i-Activsense surround safety-assist

Lows: Less cargo room; could use a bigger console screen, but I'm reaching here

Overall: 4 stars

2019 Subaru Forester Sport

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger crossover

Price: $29,770 base, including $975 destination fee ($31,815 as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder 

Power: 182 horsepower; 176 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.5 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,531 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA: 26 city/33 highway/29 combined 

Report card

Highs: Standard features galore, tough off-road and on

Lows: Acceleration requires patience; chunky interior design

Overall: 3 stars