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Comparison: 2021 Mazda CX-5 vs 2021 Toyota RAV4

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Auto123 compares the 2021 Mazda CX-5 and 2021 Toyota RAV4 compact SUVs.

Everyone loves a rivalry. Ali v Frazier. Leafs v Habs or Oilers v Flames. Kim v Kanye (is that a thing?). We love them because they tap into our animal instincts, our drive to succeed and, if we’re honest, they’re entertaining.

As far as rivalries in the car world go, one of the most heated we see these days occurs in the compact crossover segment between the Mazda CX-5 and the Toyota RAV4 – you could throw a vast number of other vehicles into this mix but we’re looking at these two today because at one time, they represented the opposite sides of the CUV segment. There was the stylish, sporty Mazda in one corner, and the massive-selling but fairly conservative RAV4 in the other. The rest of the group – the CR-V, the Tucson, the Escape, the Rogue – all kind of fall somewhere in between these two on a spectrum between the two.

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2021 Mazda CX-5

2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, front
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, front

Not a lot changed for either of these two for 2021, but the Mazda received not one but two special versions in the form of the Kuro and 100th Anniversary models. We’ll talk more about those in a minute, but know that they sit at the higher end of the model range, with the Kuro starting $7,900 above the base GX ($30,581) and the 100th starting at a little over $15,000 from base.

The CX-5 is Mazda’s biggest seller so it should come as little surprise that the model choices and drivetrains are varied. You can have either FWD or AWD depending on trim, and the choice of either a naturally-aspirated 4-cylinder good for 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque or a turbocharged version of that engine making 250 hp and 320 lb-ft (if you use 94-octane fuel). That latter engine is punchier than anything Toyota offers for the RAV4, and more than any other rivals can offer as well.

Thing is, that’s not entirely, 100 percent accurate, because at higher trim levels, the CX-5 has certain qualities that lift almost to the luxury category, and then it’s a different ball game, one that has the Mazda’s power figures batting about average.

2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, interior
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, interior

Interior XXXX
Put those figures aside for a minute, however, and you’ll be treated with a fit and finish that is tops in the segment. High-quality sift-touch materials and real leather replace hard, scratchable plastic in high-traffic areas, the lighting is good, the responsiveness of the climate and infotainment controls is spot-on and the seats are deep and supportive. Mazda has no luxury line; it wants the top-spec versions of its vehicles to steal some sales away from the other guys’ luxury offering.

It's not all roses, however. The CX-5 still has Mazda’s older infotainment interface, while the newer CX-30 and Mazda3 get a newer system. Here we’re stuck with the slow, somewhat boring-looking interface we already know, although there is support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The other mild deterrent is that while it’s got some very comfortable seats, the CX-5 doesn’t offer the roomiest cabin in the segment, in fact it’s eclipsed by most of the competition. You have to love the front seating position, however, which is right on the mark.

Handling the wet, the dry and everything in between
Like the rest of Mazda’s AWD models (which include all but the MX-5 roadster), the CX-5 uses an always-on AWD system, meaning there’s always a little bit of power being sent to the rear wheels, as that allows the system to quickly react to changing situations below. It doesn’t offer any torque vectoring, but the inside wheel will get the brakes applied to help the CX-5 rotate through corners. It results in an ultra-nimble crossover that, coupled with a very responsive steering rack, drives much smaller than it is.

You’d think that all that taut handling would make for an overly firm ride, and while the harshest bumps will result in a slightly brittle feeling through the chassis, the ride is mostly a controlled and comfortable one.

To improve things even further, Mazda’s G-Vectoring Control is applied to add yet another layer to the handling. By automatically pulling back on the throttle as soon as it senses steering input, more weight comes over the front wheels, increasing the tires’ contact patch and the CX-5’s turn-in response. As a driver, you don’t feel the weight transfer, but you do appreciate the added front-end response.

2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, badging
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, badging

Turbo power we’ve been waiting for
It’s a few years now since the CX-5 first received turbo power, but it’s still worth pointing out that this is an ultra-peppy engine that easily makes mincemeat of any equivalents in rivals’ models. Having driven the likes of the Acura RDX and Infiniti QX50, I can say with confidence that this CX-5 can go almost shot for shot with either of them in the acceleration department, both from stop and when at speed.

During the latter situation, you do need to get the revs up to get that full slug of power, and there is some turbo lag at low revs. Still, the CX-5 leaves little doubt this is one quick CUV that likes to be played with. If you do opt for the 100th Anniversary package, the turbo motor comes as part of the deal.

Transmission duties are handled by a standard issue 6-speed auto (your only choice, no matter the trim or drive type) and while that may seem a little old school compared to the CVTs and 8-plus ratio gearboxes now so prevalent, Mazda insists it makes cars that are fun to drive, and too much shuffling through cogs means too many instances of power interruption. The ratios of the 6-speed are tuned to work in concert with the engine and of course if you wish, you can shift the gears yourself via a pair of wheel-mounted paddles.

Walking the walk, talking the talk
Then there are the looks, and that’s where this start to get very interesting.

The CX-5 has always been one of the segment leaders when it comes to style thanks to its low-profile head- and taillamps, nice wheel choice and perhaps above all else, that glorious Soul Red Metallic paint option. It looks to be about 10 layers deep, and it falls over the slick bodywork like hot candy does over an apple. Far as I’m concerned, the CX-5 should come no other way.

Unfortunately, if you do select either the Kuro or 100th Anniversary, that red isn’t available - the first gets Polymetal Grey Metallic or Black colouring, the second can be finished in white only. Luckily, you can get it if you opt for the GT trim ($39,881).

Inside, though, both special editions get a very devil’s food cake-esque Garnet Red interior that looks especially rich on the carpets. It may be a little too searing for some, however, so keep that in mind if you’re contemplating either one.

2021 Toyota RAV4

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail  TRD
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD

Style-wise, the once-conservative RAV4 has gotten a lot more adventurous for this latest generation, to the point where all of a sudden, it’s actually giving the Mazda a run for its money in the style department.

It starts with the two-tone roof option, and it continues with great squared-off fenders and if you select the TRD Trail version, all sorts of blacked-out detailing on the wheels, the grille, roof bars and badging.

All of a sudden, the RAV4 is looking like a junior 4Runner as opposed to a ballooning Yaris hatch and that’s a good thing. If the chosen finish is the “Lunar Rock” grey paint, you get a colour almost on-par with the Mazda’s Soul Red Crystal in terms of originality.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail  TRD, interior
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, interior

Insider trading
Inside, however, the RAV4 swaps the Mazda’s more luxurious digs for something a little more pedestrian, with more hard plastics and some slightly less expensive-looking switchgear and stylistic touches. It’s a function above form thing, an indication that Toyota hasn’t forgotten about the aspects that have always made the RAV4 popular, even as it makes the SUV more stylish on the outside.

There’s also more room here than there is in the CX-5, in fact the RAV4 remains one of the biggest vehicles in the segment and you do feel it in either row.

While Toyota’s infotainment is a step above that of Mazda’s, it’s a small step. The graphics are a little better, the interface a little more intuitive. But other than what’s on offer from the Nissan Rogue, these two rank at the bottom of the pile in the segment in terms of their respective infotainment systems. The systems put forward by Kia, Ford and even Honda make these seem very last-decade.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail  TRD, badging
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, badging

Trail Time
The addition of the Trail TRD version of the RAV4 adds a unique element to Toyota’s small crossover, with stuff like heavier-duty bumpers, skid plates, more-hardcore rubber and a number of off-road drive modes making this the preferable vehicle for owners looking to do a spot of backcountry skiing or hiking on the weekend – it’s just more “into” that kind of thing than the Mazda is. In addition to the drive modes, there’s also hill-descent control so you really have all the bases covered when it comes to AWD.

On the other hand, in day-to-day situations the Mazda has a little more to offer, especially when equipped with the turbocharged engine. There is no turbo option for the RAV4; you’re left with either a 2.5L 4-cylinder good for 203 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, or a hybrid model that makes a combined 172 hp and 149 lb-ft. So the Mazda has the power game all sewn up – right?

Well, yes and no. The RAV4 also gets a third plug-in hybrid model called the Prime. It provides up to 68 km of EV range (according to Toyota) thanks to the larger battery that comes as part of the Prime package compared to the Hybrid model. With 302 hp on offer it’s also the most-powerful RAV4 you can buy. Yes, that’s still a little less than the CX-5’s turbo but the fact that you can cruise in full-EV mode with the Prime changes the definition of power a little.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail  TRD, second row
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, second row

Better still is how the Prime loses almost no interior room to the RAV4 Hybrid (which itself doesn’t lose all that much to non-hybrid models), and what it does lose is in the cargo area; occupants get to keep all their space.

There is a catch, however, and that’s the fact that for much of this year, you’ll have had better luck winning the lottery than getting a new Prime. Waiting lists are long, due to demand but also a battery shortage issue, and now of course the global microchip shortage.

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail  TRD, profile
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, profile

Top-notch ride
The CX-5 might be special, but the RAV4 is no slouch in the ride-quality department, offering a smoother ride overall than the Mazda (an impressive feat, considering how good the latter is) with the ability to go about its business with very little muss and very little fuss.

For its part, the RAV4 is one of those CUVs that uses an increased ratio ‘box, offering 8 speeds from its torque converter automatic, although there are no paddles here, just the ability to bump the shift lever forth and back to change gears on your own). Which is a feature that you’ll want to make use of to take full advantage of the Trail’s special qualities.

2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition / 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, profil
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition / 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, profil

Advantage Mazda

That turbocharged powerplant is a bonus for sure, as it turns the CX-5 into a veritable performance-lite crossover. The 100th Anniversary with all its special colouring and badging is also a nice little slice of rarity as they are being built in smaller numbers. Plus, it’s not every day you get to celebrate the 100th anniversary of anything…

Advantage RAV4

The Toyota has the more-spacious interior, but the real benefit it provides is a more all-hands-on-deck AWD system, what with its various drive modes and so forth. Especially in Trail spec, the RAV4 is no longer the vehicular appliance it once was.

Similarities

Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m not so sure I can unequivocally say the CX-5 has a clear stylistic advantage anymore. It’s a different take than the RAV4 to be sure – the CX-5 is more lithe and European, the RAV4 more Jeep-like – but not necessarily a lock to win the beauty pageant.

Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD 2021 / Mazda CX-5 édition 100e anniversaire, front
Photo: D.Heyman
Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD 2021 / Mazda CX-5 édition 100e anniversaire, front

Verdict

At the end of the day, these are two compact utility vehicles that are huge sellers for their respective manufacturers. The RAV4 is the bigger seller overall, but that doesn’t mean it’s the better of the two. It has the more feature-rich AWD system, but the CX-5’s offering is responsive and well-engineered. We’ve got two slightly different vehicles here, one for the more urban-centric buyer, the other for the more adventurous one. And that’s a nice choice to have.

I’ll still take the CX-5, though. Especially in turbo spec and especially in 100th Anniversary spec, it’s so much more of an event than the RAV4, and that’s not often something you can say in a ultra mass-market, high-volume segment like this.

2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition / 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, three-quarters rear
2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition / 2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD, three-quarters rear

2021 Mazda CX-5

We like

Cool special edition models
Turbo power

We like less

Snug interior
Infotainment needs updating
No foot-activated tailgate
Average fuel consumption

2021 Toyota RAV4

We like

Off-road chops
Surprisingly burly looks
Spacious interior

We like less

Cheap interior materials
Prime model sold out for the foreseeable future

2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD / 2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2021 Toyota RAV4 Trail TRD / 2021 Mazda CX-5 100th Anniversary Edition, rear
.. 2021 Mazda CX-52021 Toyota RAV4
 Transmission6-sp auto8-sp auto
   CVT (hybrid)
 DrivetrainFWD/AWDFWD/AWD
  2.5L FWDFWD
 Fuel Consumption (city)9.7L/100 km8.8L/100 km
 Fuel Consumption (highway)     7.8L/100 km6.8L/100 km
  2.5L AWDAWD
 Fuel Consumption (city)10.2L/100 km9.4L/100 km
 Fuel Consumption (highway)8.2L/100 km7.1L/100 km
  2.5L Turbo AWDHybrid AWD
 Fuel Consumption (city)10.8L/100 km5.8L/100 km
 Fuel Consumption (highway)8.7L/100 km6.3L/100 km
   Prime AWD
 Fuel Consumption (city) 5.7L/100 km
 Fuel Consumption (highway) 6.4L/100 km
    
 Engine2.5L2.5L
 TypeGasGas
 Output187 hp203 hp
 Torque186 lb-ft184 hp
 Cylinders44
 Displacement2.5L2.5L
   Hybrid
 TypeGasGas/hybrid
 Output250 hp219 hp
 Torque320 lb-ft184 hp
 Cylinders44
 Displacement2.5L2.5L
   Prime
 Type Gas/hybrid
 Output 302 hp
 Torque 184 hp
 Cylinders 4
 Displacement 2.5L
    
 Capacities  
 Cargo space875 L / 1,687 L1,059 L / 1,977 L
   959 L / 1,790 L (Prime)
 Fuel tank56 L / 58 L55 L
    
 Dimensions  
 Length4,550 mm4,595 mm
 Width2,115 mm1,855 mm
 Height1,680 mm1,701 mm
 Wheelbase2,698 mm2,690 mm
..Warranty5 yr/100,000 km3 yr/60,000 km (basic)
   5 yr/100,000 km (powertrain)
 Pricing  
 MSRP$29,200$28,590
 Price as tested                  $43,550$42,910