For the second year in a row Subaru Outback has won this category by a mighty slim margin. The final scores for it and Kia Sportage were so close that either could have trumped the other with an extra point in any one criterion.
Although Sportage is the better value for money proposition, it is Outback's better overall design and function that really gives it the win, with a combination of space and practicality that's best in the class. So why are they so close? Australians love SUVs so much that recently total sales eclipsed those for sedans in Australia for the first time. In SUVs you need to have a great offering at a sharp price to stay in the game, and that cut-throat competition is reflected in the narrowness of the gaps between most contenders.
Subaru has a reputation for leading-edge safety, and for those who buy with the head and not the heart then the Outback safety package is a no-brainer, as it has the highest score in ANCAP safety tests of any Subaru to date. The latest generation of Subaru's EyeSight driver assistance technology is fitted to Outback, so it will keep a look out for potential collisions, and if the driver hasn't reacted to the danger it will kick in to brake the vehicle to avoid a crash.
The judges rewarded Outback's lengthy features list with a standard features score that was only bettered by Kia Sportage. This list includes Outback's infotainment system with its user-friendly touch-screen, plus the addition of Pandora connectivity, sat-nav and voice recognition for a range of functions.
Outback is a model of consistency when it comes to criteria grouped under design and function, with class-topping scores in each of the seven criteria. This means it has good seating, user-friendly ergonomics and the highly practical nature that's required of a SUV. It's also a high achiever when it comes to how well it is screwed together and the quality of the materials used.
The cabin and cargo space of the Outback is as big as the Aussie outback, making it one of the most usefully proportioned models in the class. Access to the load area is via a powered tailgate.
Although Outback isn't the quickest in the class, the way the 2.5-litre boxer engine delivers its power keeps the vehicle humming along. Its CVT is one of the best versions on offer and allows seamless delivery of the power with far less characteristic engine flare inherent to many of these transmissions.
This smooth power delivery is also important off-road, especially in mud and snow, as wheel spin caused by a touchy accelerator can be the beginning of a bogging event.
All vehicles in this category need to have the ability to get off the road, while on the hard top they need to drive like civilised city cars. Outback does this well, providing a comfortable and composed ride, while its all-wheel-drive handling is secure, confident and predictable whatever the road surface. It is also capable of tackling mild adventures off-road.
It's the whole package that makes Subaru Outback a deserving winner once again in Australia's Best Cars.
Kia is the value-for-money leader in a lot of vehicle classes, and while the top-of-the-range Sportage Platinum is the dearest car in this category it's loaded with features.
Certainly the likes of heated and cooled front seats, which are the best front seats in the class, are a pleasant surprise.
Of all the South Korean car makers, Kia really has its styling language sorted, making very classy-looking cars. So the combination of good looks, great value and Kia's industry-leading seven-year warranty will always have it towards the top of the shopping list for most people looking in this category.
Sportage also has one of the best small diesel engines around, and besides performing well it is also fairly fuel-efficient. And this is a diesel which is quiet even when lugging up the steep sections of the 4WD track used for off-road testing during the final judging at Anglesea.
Also a sign of the engineering maturity of Kia products is the level of both active and passive safety equipment, which in this Sportage includes autonomous emergency braking and blind spot monitoring.
Sportage was only beaten out of top spot by a nose but in the values for money stakes it's a clear winner.
Mazda's SUV range has gradually grown and Mazda's designers have cleverly been able to develop the same Mazda family "face" with the vertical five-point grille and defining body lines. Mazda calls it Kodo ('Soul of Motion') design, and CX-5 is a great example of this treatment.
Although the exterior design is SUV, there is nothing SUV-ish about CX-5's handling as it's equal best in class, and it drives with the nimbleness of a small sedan. The 2.5-litre engine, which is shared with Mazda6, is quiet and powerful. Overall the judges were very impressed with how well most of the engines in this category performed.
With the demise of the large stationwagons, Australian families can turn to the likes of CX-5 with confidence. It's roomy enough for the whole tribe and easy to park, and while off-roading is not its strong point it does have some capability for the odd camping trip. However what may be lacking in this category compared with the old stationwagons is towing capability.
While CX-5 is fairly well off the pace compared with Outback and Sportage, it is a stylish and practical SUV that will be a winner in the eyes of many modern Australian families.