You don't need to pay premium prices for a luxury crossover.
Compact SUVs are big business in the United States. Don't believe us? The best selling non-truck on US soil is the Toyota RAV4, which proves there's money to be made if you have a solid reputation and good product to offer buyers. But while the RAV4 may steal the mainstream sales, there are others fighting for a slightly more niche slice of the pie. The Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Rogue are vying for that slice, providing luxurious alternatives to the mainstream without quite competing in the premium segment. That's never something that would've been said of any previous Nissan Rogue, but the 2021 Rogue is all-new, completely redesigned and riding on a new platform, bestowed with the latest in tech, safety, and comfort. This puts it right in line with what the Mazda CX-5 has offered for years, luxury with an affordable price tag attached. But the Mazda has been updated for 2021 as well, which begs the question: which is better?
You needn't worry about how a car looks when you'll be spending most of your time on the inside of it, but neither of these is particularly ugly looking things. That said, the CX-5 is vastly prettier. Mazda's latest design language looks as good on the SUV as it does on the MX-5 Miata. The LED headlights across the lineup look great, the various grille finishes ooze class, and the 17-19-inch alloy wheels fill the arches superbly. To top it all off, Mazda's Soul Red Crystal paint is one of the best-looking hues on the market, regardless of price.
Nissan's Scarlet Ember Tintcoat isn't bad, but it doesn't dress the Rogue's masculine exterior quite as well as Soul Red on the CX-5. The Rogue lives up to its name, comparatively, with a relatively chunky V-Motion grille and split headlights that give the Rogue the impression of size. A similar array of wheel options and some rugged body cladding look good, but overall, it's a far chunkier design language that lacks the Mazda's finesse.
Climb into either the Rogue or the CX-5 in one of their top trim levels, cover the badge on the steering wheel, and you'd almost certainly guess you're seated in something from BMW or Audi. These are premium, despite what the badge says, and the abundance of soft leather seats, stitched leather on the dash, and wood-look trim, as well as the stylish layout of both cabins, are well and truly on point and ahead of the competition. But the gloss trim in the Rogue attracts fingerprints more than the Mazda's finishes. Both seat five occupants, and both are supremely comfortable. The Mazda has the better driving position, but the Rogue's Zero Gravity seats simply can't be beaten for cross-country comfort.
In terms of space, both provide similar accommodation for all occupants with more than 39 inches of headroom. The Rogue has a couple of inches more legroom up front at 43.3 inches, but in the back, the CX-5 comes out king by more than an inch at 39.6.
In the cargo stakes, the Rogue is a clear winner with 36.5- and 74.1 cubic feet of storage behind the rear and front seats, respectively. This trumps the CX-5's 30.9/59.6-cubic-foot measurements.
No modern vehicle can have a hope to top the sales charts if safety and connectivity aren't fore of thought in its design. Both the Rogue and CX-5 deliver. Across the CX-5 range, you'll find radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Upper trims get more still, with front and rear parking sensors, a surround-view camera, and driver attention alert.
The Rogue delivers a similar suite of assists, but at the higher end of the spectrum, you get traffic sign recognition and ProPILOT Assist, a semi-autonomous driving system for use on freeways and in traffic.
In the infotainment stakes, the roles are reversed, where the lion's share of the features sways in the Mazda's favor, at least on the bottom end of things. Every model gets a 10.25-inch touchscreen for 2021, with full Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, albeit with four speakers on the base Sport. Up top, a Bose 10-speaker setup and SiriusXM integration are included.
By contrast, the Rogue gets an eight-inch screen by default with a nine-incher on upper trims. It has much of the same functionality, but on higher-spec derivatives, the CarPlay is wireless and there's a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Comparing base engines, both crossovers seem well matched. Under the hood of each is a 2.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine, outputting 181 horsepower/181 lb-ft of torque in the Rogue and a similar 187 hp/186 lb-ft in the Mazda. Both can be paired with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but while the Rogue uses a CVT transmission to achieve combined fuel consumption estimates of 30 mpg, the Mazda favors a traditional six-speed which drives better but returns a lower 28 mpg combined.
Mazda has a trump card, however, as upper trims slap a turbo onto the 2.5, dialing the wick all the way up to 250 hp and 320 lb-ft to leave the Rogue looking like it's in reverse. Combine this with the CX-5's better driving position, better steering, and lithe chassis that trades comfort for performance without being too crashy, and it's a driver's SUV for those who can't afford a BMW X3 M.
We've always been of the opinion that just having one semi-luxury compact crossover in the Mazda CX-5 has been a privilege, but for 2021, we're heaped with two, leaving us spoilt for choice. But picking one over the other isn't an easy affair. On the one hand, the Mazda boasts sensual styling, a more exotic interior, a bigger infotainment screen, a chassis that handles like a hot hatchback, and a turbocharged engine that delivers the goods. But the Nissan is a more sensible affair, with cross-country comfort, a larger cargo bay, more available safety features, and exemplary fuel economy. It's a true head vs heart affair, where logic dictates the Rogue is the smarter choice, but passion means you'll always itch for a drive in the CX-5. That's about as much of a choice as we can make, as each will have their own preferences. For us, the Mazda is still king at making you feel like you've made it, without costing an arm and a leg.