I’ve been tasked with predicting which mid-size SUV will be selected as the best in the 2019 Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards, and I’ve already accepted that there’s a very good chance my top pick won’t be the one that actually wins.
After all, I’m just one of nearly 100 automotive journalists from across Canada who are in the process of finalizing their votes in the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s annual awards, which have been gathered over months of testing and will ultimately be combined to present winners in each category and our overall victors to the Canadian car-buying public early next year.
As for mid-size utility vehicles, this very important category is, in my opinion, too close to call. The Mazda CX-5 is back to defend its category win – technically it won the small category last year, but it was shifted into the newly created mid-size category for 2019 to make room for the industry’s recent influx of smaller crossovers. It goes up against three competitors: the next-generation Subaru Forester and Jeep Wrangler, and the significantly updated Jeep Cherokee.
Picking a winner gets complicated among this bunch because I don’t feel that my own recommendations and priorities align with those of my colleagues. With that said, here’s my stab at what the Mid-size Utility Vehicle category will look like for 2019.
Fourth Place: Jeep Wrangler
Calm down. I’m not a Jeep hater. In fact, getting to fling mud around on an excellent off-road course is one of the main reasons I show up to AJAC’s annual TestFest vehicle evaluation event at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park each October, and no one needs to be told that the Wrangler is among the best tools out there for that job. I took the new Wrangler JL through the toughest mud and rut challenges our course had to throw at it, and I think I heard it quietly sobbing when I was done because it’s just capable of so very much more.
Therein lies the problem, though: the Wrangler is by all accounts a specialty vehicle, and the Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year voting system tends not to be kind to those. We’re looking for the vehicles we’d recommend to the average Canadian family, not only for crawling across washed-out cottage driveways but also for carting home the groceries with the kids in the back seat.
While the new Wrangler moves it ahead in leaps and bounds in the latter on several points, it still can’t and shouldn’t compete with mainstream vehicles in this segment on things that get weighted heavily in AJAC scoring such as cabin noise, interior comfort, and price (our Sahara Unlimited tester clocked in at a whopping $59,310) – factors that confirmed Wrangler buyers have long accepted they’re compromising on to get themselves into one of the most badass off-roaders on the market.
So, feel free to ignore this result. If it’s a Wrangler you want, you already know it and you don’t need any affirmation from us. Moving on.
Third Place: Jeep Cherokee
No, really – I don’t hate Jeeps! In fact, there’s only one thing keeping the Jeep Cherokee from being my top choice in this category, and that’s the price tag.
It has so much going for it: a great new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that, granted, is a little noisy but capably delivers 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque; in the Trailhawk trim that I tested, a versatility that may not fully match the Wrangler but is still more than enough to handle any conditions the average Canadian might throw at it; and a Uconnect infotainment system that’s so well-designed and intuitive that I got out of the car and immediately missed it.
But the problems arise when you start looking at how you’ll kit one of these out. Take the Trailhawk I drove for example: it starts at $38,995, and then it costs another $995 for the upgrade to this new engine, plus many of the exterior colours cost extra, and ring up another $995 for the cold weather package to get heated front seats and steering wheel, and the list goes on. All told, the unit I tested clocked in at $50,030 for a car that in most ways is an equivalent performer to the ones that finished ahead of it in this category. Unless you’re deeply committed to the Jeep brand or to the extra off-road capability the Cherokee provides, it’s just too hard to justify the added expense.
Second Place: Subaru Forester
This is where things get murky: the car I scored the highest and that I’d recommend to most people shopping in this class is not the one that I think will win.
The list of reasons to opt for a new Forester is a long one. Its 2.5-litre flat-four-cylinder engine’s 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque get a smooth delivery from the natural feel of the continuously variable transmission. It’s quiet, well-balanced, and very capable in varying conditions thanks to Subaru’s all-wheel drive system and suite of off-road assistance features, equipped with desirable standard features like heated front seats and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, and in its top trim even takes a stab at a new technology called DriverFocus that attempts to combat the growing problem of distracted driving.
So, why don’t I think it will win? To be very frank, it’s because people are disproportionately attracted to things that are shiny and beautiful, and that’s one area where the Forester is consistently outdone. My very fashion-forward cousin once described it to me as looking like an old man in a cardigan, and this next generation’s styling does nothing to aid that situation. On the inside, the design is clean and functional but staid, and there are small details like the plasticky feel of the steering wheel that persist even into the most expensive trims. When paying $39,495 for the top-of-the-line Premier with EyeSight, one hopes for finishes that are just a little bit more special.
If you can get past that level of superficiality and choose something very functional, you can comfortably pick the Forester. If not…
First Place: Mazda CX-5
…Go ahead and follow your heart. My prediction is that the Mazda CX-5 will take an overall category win for the second year in a row.
As crossovers go, this is easily one of the most attractive ones, inside and out. And it’s not just a pretty face: it may not have some of the fancy drive modes and off-roading features of its competitors, but it still got through our rough-cottage-driveway off-road simulation effortlessly. Its steering and handling are on point, and Mazda’s heavy priority on ergonomics is one that those who drive often will appreciate. Not everyone loves the dial-input infotainment system because it takes a lot of twisting and clicking, but I love that it saves me from leaning back and forth to interact with a screen or reach for distant buttons. And the 2019 model year will be the first to hit showrooms equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The reason this isn’t my own top choice in the segment comes down to nitpicking. I find that the 2.5-litre four-cylinder Skyactiv-G engine’s 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque doesn’t feel like quite enough for this vehicle’s heavier frame. The transmission likes to hold onto gears, and the ride is a touch too stiff for rougher Canadian roads.
In practice, though, these are factors that are unlikely to deter people from choosing the CX-5 – or, at least, won’t play as much of a role in their decision as the features that will draw them – and I expect AJAC journalists to consider that in their scoring. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either the CX-5 or the Forester come out on top in this category, but my best guess is that the CX-5 will hold just enough of an edge to reign victorious once again.
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