What separates a luxury car from a mainstream one? Is it the image of a premium brand, and the status that it conveys to yourself and anyone else? Or is it the flashier styling, the more elegant interior, the longer list of features, or the higher-grade driving experience that are commonly associated with such marques?
Most luxury cars draw from both lists, and some buyers will always treasure the cachet of a storied high-end product. But if you’re not particular about who makes it, you can sometimes find a solid luxury product from an unexpected source.
In the compact crossover segment, this rule is demonstrated by two recently tested mainstream models: the 2019 Mazda CX-5 and the 2019 Volkswagen Tiguan. Though they offer different flavors — the sporty, extroverted Mazda and the spacious, subtly styled Volkswagen — both of them offer considerable luxury appeal at comparatively reasonable prices.
Between the two, it’s the Japanese CX-5 rather than the German Tiguan that’s the most like a European luxury vehicle. It’s has the taut, responsive steering; firm, planted ride; and well-finished, minimalistic interior you’d look for in a BMW.
The current CX-5 generation came out as a 2017 model, heralded for its sporty driving manners and polished cabin — but facing some criticisms for its engine, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 187 horsepower.
That engine is competitive with fellow mainstream-brand compact crossovers, but it didn’t deliver premium-grade punchiness. Enter the updated 2019 CX-5, which adds a turbocharger to that engine on its upper-trim models. Output rises to 227 horsepower on regular-grade fuel, or 250 horsepower on premium. The extra power makes the CX-5’s acceleration as effortless as its handling; it complements the overall premium-grade package.
Most CX-5s will still use the perfectly serviceable non-turbo engine, and they’ll enjoy some fuel savings as well. The base engine achieves a respectable, but not amazing, 28 mpg in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive, or 26 mpg with all-wheel-drive; the turbo slips to 25 mpg and 24 mpg, respectively.
Inside, the CX-5 has comfortable seats and an upscale design. That’s especially true in the new Signature model, which we tested for this review; it brings richer materials to an already upscale package. You may notice rougher plastics on the turn-signal stalk if you’re coming out of an Audi, but the overall ambiance is compelling.
The CX-5’s passenger and cargo space compares well to premium compact crossovers, many of which sacrifice some volume for sportier styling. Similarly, the CX-5 lacks the extra-generous room of the boxier Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue or Toyota RAV4.
Perhaps the CX-5’s weakest point is its infotainment. While most luxury cars, and even many mainstream ones, offer big, feature-laden infotainment screens, Mazda’s is a diminutive 7-inch unit with sometimes-awkward controls mounted on the center console. Its graphics are sharp by mainstream standards, but nothing like the dazzling displays of a new Audi.
Then again, it’s priced nothing like an Audi. The base CX-5 starts at $25,395, compared to $43,945 for the Audi Q5. Even the top-of-the-line CX-5 Signature AWD that we tested cost less than $40,000, and that’s with a lot more equipment than the base-model Q5.
Not all of the details are quite Mercedes-level, but the overall feel of the CX-5 — the basics of its styling, interior design, driving experience, and list of luxury features — are luxury-grade, especially with the new turbo engine.
If the CX-5 feels like a European premium crossover, it’s the Volkswagen Tiguan that can look very much like one. Volkswagen and Audi have the same parent company and a similar design ethos, with straight, simple lines and clean details.
The interior is more traditional than the latest German luxury models, but its simplicity hearkens back to the recent-luxury past. VW also cleaned up the instrument panel by hiding the CD player in the glovebox, achieving a flat, smooth surface.
Like today’s Audis, the upper-trim Tiguans turn the gauge cluster from analog dials to a reconfigurable digital display, which presents electronic renderings of a speedometer and tachometer along with other information that can include the navigation system’s map. Its 8-inch touchscreen is bigger and more user-friendly than the Mazda’s.
So is the rest of the Tiguan’s cabin. While some city buyers will lament how much the Tiguan has grown — earlier models baked a premium feel into a much smaller package — others will welcome its extra passenger and cargo space. There’s even an available third-row seat, a rarity at the Tiguan’s size and price point.
Like other Volkswagens, the Tiguan has a composure to its ride and handling that helps it stand above the mainstream norm. However, the powertrain comes up short from a luxury standpoint; the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine’s 184 horsepower are overworked in this relatively heavy crossover. Not only does acceleration suffer, but the engine doesn’t sound great and returns disappointing fuel economy — no better than the far more powerful Mazda.
The Tiguan’s styling is appealingly premium if you prefer Volkswagen’s restraint over the exuberant details of an Acura RDX or Lexus NX. And it provides more interior space, and lower pricing, than a premium model.
But think of it less as a budget rival to a BMW than a European-flavored alternative to a Honda. The Tiguan doesn’t jump out and dazzle you, and the engine is a clear weak spot. But it’s a pleasant overall package with upscale styling details whose third-row seat — small as it is — makes it appealing as a city-friendly family car. Tiguan prices start at $25,290.
If you’re looking for even more focus on utility than the CX-5 or Tiguan offers, the extra-spacious Honda CR-V is a class standout — it’s not only astoundingly roomy for a compact crossover, but it also features above-average driving dynamics, interior quality, and fuel efficiency.
Meanwhile, if you’re cross-shopping these models against the luxury brands, standouts include the Acura RDX, BMW X1, and Volvo XC40 — all of which combine moderately affordable prices with useful interior volume and high-end build quality.