The Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 are two of the most researched compact SUVs on ConsumerReports.org. These rivals are very close in size and price, and they are separated by just a few points in our road-test scores. The key differentiator: How they drive.

The CX-5 is the sportier one, delivering a more rewarding driving experience. But the CR-V is more reliable based on CR’s survey data. It’s also roomier and has better fuel economy.

It can be tough to choose between them. To help consumers make a reasoned purchase decision, we dove into the details from CR’s testing and surveys.

2018 Honda CR-V front three-quarter view.
2018 Honda CR-V

The Case for the Honda CR-V

Pros
There's a strong argument for calling the CR-V the perfectly sized compact SUV. It's small enough to navigate the tightest parking lots but roomy enough to comfortably fit five adults.

The CR-V also comes with a fuel-economy advantage. The base LX trim delivered 27 mpg overall and the uplevel EX returned 28 mpg overall in our tests. The fuel economy for each is the best among compact SUVs (not counting hybrids). It’s a little surprising, because the CR-V is among the larger models in that class. As a bonus, the EX’s 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is slightly more responsive than the LX’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder.

The Honda’s ride is firm. True, passengers will feel some impact from bumps and ruts, but the highway ride is better. Noise is now much better managed than it was in earlier versions, with road noise significantly reduced.

Our testers found the CR-V to be particularly family-friendly. Rear-seat passengers can easily get in and out through the wide-opening doors that swing out almost 90 degrees. We particularly liked the generous rear seat, which has plenty of leg, head, and foot room for two adults. Three adults can fit, but the center position has a very hard cushion, making it less comfortable on long rides.

Honda CR-V Infotainment Options

Honda CR-V LX infotainment system Honda CR-V EX infotainment system

The LX is equipped with a very basic infotainment system. It’s easy to use and not particularly distracting. Buyers who move up to the EX trim and above get a more comprehensive system with a 7-inch touch screen and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility. (Check out the differences in the photo slider above.)

The CR-V has plenty of cabin storage, which makes it very functional. The cargo area has plenty of room, and the rear seats fold totally flat, which is great when trying to carry large items.

Finally, the CR-V has stellar reliability according to our Annual Auto Survey, placing it among the most reliable compact SUVs, trailing only the Toyota RAV4.

2018 Honda CR-V interior.
2018 Honda CR-V
More on Compact SUVs

Cons
All versions of the CR-V use a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Most of the time the CVT does its job unobtrusively. But the transmission holds engine revs high when the driver needs to merge or climb hills on the highway, which creates a droning whine.

When it comes to safety, Honda still insists on forcing customers to buy more expensive trims to get advanced systems. The Honda Sensing suite includes forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist. It is standard on the EX and higher trims. Neither Honda Sensing nor blind-spot warning are available on the base LX trim.

We like that the 7-inch infotainment system has a knob to control volume levels, but it still lacks a tuning knob. Changing stations is done by tap-tap-tapping on the touch screen (if they haven’t been programmed as presets). In addition, the touch-screen interface is distracting and requires multiple steps to perform common tasks, such as changing audio sources, manually tuning the radio, and adjusting the sound settings. It is also tedious to scroll through the fuel-economy and trip information in gauge display.

2018 Honda CR-V rear three-quarter view.
2018 Honda CR-V

The Case for the Mazda CX-5

Pros
Mazda accomplished a commendable feat when the CX-5 was redesigned. It largely kept the sporty, enjoyable handling characteristics of the previous model, but the ride comfort and noise isolation were vastly improved. That blend of agility and comfort makes the CX-5 one of the more desirable compact SUVs.

The CX-5 trumps the CR-V on the safety front, with standard forward-collision warning and low-speed automatic emergency braking on all versions.

Mazda improved the CX-5’s ride to the point that it’s one of the most comfortable-riding compact SUVs, and it easily soaks up bumps—at any speed.

At the same time, the CX-5 has a joie de vivre that just can’t be found in the CR-V. Point the Mazda into a turn and the well-tuned suspension and responsive steering help it willingly follow the driver’s chosen path. The experience is both engaging and rewarding—rare among small SUVs. The power delivery is smooth and feels more natural than it does in the CR-V. Although the CR-V EX is quicker all the way up to 60 mph, the Mazda jumps off the line with more urgency.

2018 Mazda CX-5 front three-quarter view.
2018 Mazda CX-5

Major improvements—such as more carpeting and seals in some areas, in addition to thicker glass—dramatically cut engine, road, and wind noise. The result is arguably the quietest cabin of all non-luxury compact SUVs.

The doors open wide, which makes it easy for adults and children to climb inside. Our testers like the interior’s soft-touch surfaces, detailed stitching, chrome trim, and high-quality plastics. The front and rear seats are comfortable and supportive.

2018 Mazda CX-5 interior.
2018 Mazda CX-5

Cons
There are a few things we would like to see improved. We would like to see the full-speed automatic emergency braking system become standard equipment. It’s only optional on the base trim, but it is standard on the Touring and Grand Touring.

As much as we liked the quieter cabin Mazda achieved this by adding noise reduction measures, including with thicker glass, that ultimately hurt the CX-5’s fuel economy. In our tests it lost 1 mpg from the earlier version, putting it at 24 mpg overall—3 to 4 mpg behind the CR-V.

Mazda’s infotainment screen works with a central rotary controller, which takes some practice to master. The screen's icons are not well-labeled, and simple adjustments that should be easy can take drivers several steps to complete, such as changing the audio source. The screen has touch capability only when the CX-5 is traveling below 6 mph.

2018 Mazda CX-5's rotary controller for infotainment system.
2018 Mazda CX-5's rotary controller for infotainment system.

The CX-5 has tighter proportions than its CR-V rival, and one result is that the rear seat isn’t as generous. And the sloping roofline and chunky rear pillars hurt rear visibility.

According to our members, the CX-5 has average reliability—not bad, but not the same as the CR-V’s well above average rating.

2018 Mazda CX-5 rear three-quarters view.
2018 Mazda CX-5

Which One Should You Get?

Overall, the Honda CR-V is a very competitive, highly functional, and economically sound choice in a highly competitive class. It can even serve as a viable alternative for a two-row midsized SUV. We think that buyers who favor the CR-V should spend the extra money to get the EX trim and all the goodies that come along with it.

The Mazda CX-5 is enjoyable to drive, its materials have a solid and premium feel, and the entire experience is more upscale than the class’s norm. For some, a loaded Grand Touring—which should come in at about $34,000—could be a viable alternative to a luxury compact SUV.

So here’s the choice: If you have a growing family and prize both space and efficiency, you’re likely to be drawn to the CR-V. Shoppers who crave an engaging driving experience and are willing to make some packaging compromises should jump for the CX-5.