Nissan’s Qashqai has been selling like hot cakes since it first appeared back in 2008, so you might wonder why it’s taken until now for rival Japanese manufacturers Honda and Mazda to come up with proper rivals.
Honda might be rather late to the party, but the new HR-V appears to have all the ingredients to challenge the mighty Qashqai’s supremacy in the small SUV class. It’s slightly smaller on the outside, but similarly spacious inside, and comes better equipped as standard.
Mazda’s new CX-3 is equally box-fresh, costs less again and comes even more lavishly equipped. The catch? It’s much smaller than both rivals, so clearly isn’t the ideal choice if you’re looking for a practical family car. Then again, if you’re not too fussed about space, the Mazda’s compact dimensions should make it that bit more entertaining to drive.
Honda HR-V 1.6 i-DTEC 120 SE Navi
Honda’s latest offering is packed with safety kit and has a usefully practical interior
Mazda CX-3 1.5D 105 Sport Nav
The smallest of the trio by some margin, but you get lots of standard equipment
Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi 110 Acenta Smart Vision pack
It’s been the small SUV to beat since it picked up our 2014 Car of the Year Award. Is it still the best?
What are they like to drive?
We’re testing all three cars in their most frugal forms, which means diesel engines, front-wheel drive and manual gearboxes.
The Mazda is shorter, squatter and lighter than its rivals, so it’s unsurprisingly the most car-like to drive. It responds the most eagerly to steering inputs and its body stays relatively upright along twisty roads. That said, the CX-3 isn’t as enjoyable to drive as it might be because its steering is rather vague when you begin to turn the wheel, before suddenly weighting up part way through the corner.
Meanwhile, the Honda behaves more like a traditional 4×4. There’s more of a delay between you turning the wheel and the car responding, and more lean when it does so. However, the HR-V is far from a wallowy barge, and its light but consistently weighted steering makes it easy to manoeuvre around town. We just wish it was a little more precise at speed.
The Qashqai isn’t that agile, either. However, it makes up for that with the most accurate and natural-feeling steering; you always know what the front wheels are doing. The Nissan’s body behaves in a similar manner to the Honda’s through bends, yet it generally feels that bit more composed.
Comfort is a priority for many SUV buyers, and again it’s the Nissan that impresses most. It rides bigger bumps smoothly around town and stays settled at faster speeds, although pockmarked surfaces cause it to shimmy around a little at low speeds.
Potholes aren’t dealt with anywhere near as well by the Honda; they send nasty jolts through the cabin. The CX-3 isn’t as jarring, but it fidgets around more on the motorway, which is equally annoying.
The Mazda has the least powerful engine, but with less weight to haul around the CX-3 is actually the nippiest. Mind you, the HR-V isn’t far behind, its gutsier engine all but making up for the car’s extra heft.
Straight-line pace isn’t the Qashqai’s forte. Getting up to speed always takes considerably longer, particularly when you’re accelerating from low revs in the higher gears. Mind you, the Nissan is easily the most refined; its engine is hushed and there’s little road or wind noise – even at higher speeds.
The Mazda’s engine is almost as smooth, but there’s lots of road noise. Meanwhile, the HR-V is let down by its gruff engine, which makes itself heard no matter how gently you drive.
What are they like inside?
You may not relish being behind the wheel of the Mazda if you’re a fan of the lofty driving position most SUVs provide. You don’t just sit closer to the ground than you do in either the Honda of the Qashqai, you feel like you’re altogether lower in the car.
However, this comes down to personal preference and, as with all of these SUVs, there’s a decent amount of adjustment in the CX-3’s seat and steering wheel to allow people of most shapes and sizes to get comfortable. All three have relatively supportive seats, too; the Mazda’s hold you in place best through corners but, like the Honda, it misses out on the adjustable lumbar support that’s standard on the Qashqai.
If you’re looking at these as potential family cars you’ll want to discount the Mazda. There’s plenty of space in the front, but anyone sitting in the back will have to put up with considerably less knee room than in its rivals.
Despite being shorter than the Qashqai, the HR-V has marginally more leg room. Our pre-production car had a glass roof fitted, which limited its head room, but this option won’t be available on SE Navi trim on UK market cars.
Officially, the Honda has the most capacious boot, although the tape measure says the Qashqai’s load bay is longer, wider and just as tall. The Nissan’s boot also has the widest aperture and the smallest lip at the entrance, although the HR-V has the most underfloor storage.
Overall, there isn’t a great deal to split these two, whereas the Mazda’s boot is much pokier; you’ll struggle to get a buggy to fit without folding the rear seats.
Each car’s rear seats fold in a 60:40 split and leave only a gradual slope in the floor of the extended load area with no ridges. The HR-V has an extra trick up its sleeve: its rear seats flip up cinema-style, leaving the rear cabin free for extra wide items.
What will they cost?
The Qashqai is the priciest of the trio to start with. However, dealers are willing to knock around £1500 off the price, which actually makes the Nissan the cheapest to buy if you’re paying with cash. The CX-3 is only a couple of hundred pounds dearer, while the HR-V will cost you a further £1000 because dealers aren’t offering discounts yet.
On the plus side, our depreciation experts predict the HR-V will hold on to its value the longest, which means you’ll recoup some of that extra outlay when you sell on. However, the Honda will still work out the most expensive to own over three years once you’ve factored in all the costs you’re likely to face.
All things considered, the Qashqai will end up costing you the least. Those sizeable discounts along with remarkably cheap insurance premiums and free road tax are just enough to outweigh the CX-3’s slower depreciation and superior real-world fuel economy.
Many buyers won’t pay upfront and will instead sign up to a PCP finance agreement. Put down a £5000 deposit and over three years the Nissan again works out the most cost-effective at £226 a month. The Honda adds a further £20 to that bill, while the Mazda is priciest at £290 a month. All of these deals require you to pay a hefty final ‘balloon’ payment at the end of the agreement if you want to keep the car, although at this point most buyers choose to upgrade and simply start a new PCP.
Company car drivers will also be financially better off with the Nissan, its sub-100g/km CO2 emissions qualifying it for a lower band of benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax than either of its rivals. As a 40% taxpayer, choosing the Qashqai rather than the Mazda will mean sacrificing around £12 less of your salary each month. The HR-V will cost £2 a month more than the CX-3.
The Mazda might be the smallest of the trio but it’s by far the most lavishly equipped. Like all of these cars it comes with alloys, climate control and automatic lights and wipers, but also adds keyless start, a reversing camera, rear privacy glass and heated front leather seats.
The Qashqai’s reign over this class continues unabated. Neither newcomer can match it on refinement, interior quality or all-round ownership costs, and the Nissan also remains the benchmark for ride comfort.
It isn’t perfect – its 1.5 diesel engine could do with a bit more oomph and it’s a shame you can’t upgrade to Nissan’s excellent Connect touchscreen sat-nav on Acenta trim. However, these are small criticisms in what’s otherwise a thoroughly brilliant package.
Second place goes to the HR-V. In some ways it’s actually more practical than the Qashqai, and you get even more active safety aids, including traffic sign recognition and a system that helps you reverse out of your driveway onto a busy road. It’s also predicted to hold on to its value well and comes with plenty of infotainment gadgets.
Sadly, the Honda’s touchscreen interface isn’t particularly user-friendly, its diesel engine is very noisy and ride comfort could be better. It’s also more expensive than the Qashqai in the long run, no matter how you’re buying.
The Mazda is harder to recommend. Yes, it’s the most agile of the trio and its engine delivers strong acceleration along with impressive real-world fuel economy. It’s well equipped, too.
The trouble is, even if you’re not bothered by the Mazda’s cramped interior, you probably will be by its so-so interior quality and its bumpy ride. It’s also the most expensive each month if you’re buying on PCP finance, as many choose to do.
Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi 110 Acenta Smart Vision Pack
For Excellent refinement; cheapest to own or finance; composed handling; classy interior
Against Very basic infotainment; so-so performance
Verdict A fantastic all-rounder and still the best small SUV on the market
Honda HR-V 1.6 i-DTEC 120 SE Navi
For Practical interior; great gearshift; strong engine
Against Noisy engine; fiddly touchscreen; crashy ride
Verdict No Qashqai, but the next best thing
Mazda CX-3 1.5D 105 Sport Nav
For Agile handling; decent performance; lots of kit
Against Cramped inside; steering; interior quality
Verdict Good in areas, but not enough of them