High five: top-selling SUVs

Sports utility vehicles are purpose-made for the quintessential Australian lifestyle.

The blend of flexibility and off-road versatility they offer are a perfect match for a spot of camping, a bit of sport and regular trips to the beach.

And it shows in the sales charts. Sales of compact SUVs are up by 32 per cent this year in a market that is up by only 10 per cent, and the boom is unlikely to end soon, as all-new entrants come in and some of the existing players bring in new versions of popular models.

As 2012 draws to a close, we’ve had a look at the five best-selling compact SUVs in Australia this year, and run the eye over a couple of new versions of once-popular models that could shift the market in 2013.

Nissan’s X-Trail has led sales in the category this year, ahead of Mazda’s CX-5, which is close behind despite giving its competitors a head start in the sales race by not hitting forecourts until February.

Toyota’s RAV4 and Subaru’s Forester are still selling well, despite the fact that new models are just over the horizon.

Nissan also has another hit on its hand with the more city-friendly Dualis, which was spun off the same platform as the chunkier X-Trail.

Here are the top five in order of sales:

Nissan X-Trail

The Nissan X-Trail is on track to be the top-selling compact SUV for this year despite the fact that the current model has been largely unchanged since late 2007.

The key to its success in recent months has been some radical pencil-sharpening. You can buy one for about $27,990 drive-away at the moment. That’s less than the recommended retail price and a saving of roughly $4000.

That’s a tempting incentive, but the X-Trail is showing its age against more polished newcomers.

It is the only top-selling compact SUV to have a four-star ANCAP crash safety score and its fuel economy can’t compete with its closest challenger, the CX-5.

The car received a mild facelift in 2010, but mechanically little has changed, which means its on-road dynamics are off the pace in 2012.

The job of staying on top will get even harder next year, with the Mazda CX-5 on track to overtake it and new versions of the RAV4 and Forester likely to give it a hard time.

Mazda CX-5

Mazda’s CX-5 gave its rivals a head start this year and has rounded up all but one in the sales race.

It has won fans with its combination of above-par road manners, sharp styling and fuel-saving features that helped it to win Drive’s Car of the Year trophy as the Best SUV Under $40,000.

The Mazda’s stop-start system and Skyactiv technology help the diesel version achieve 5.7 litres per 100 kilometre fuel economy, while the base petrol car uses just 6.4L/100km.

One of the few criticisms levelled against the CX-5 was that its 114kW, 200Nm, 2.0 litre, four-cylinder engine lacked grunt. But that engine has been discontinued for 2013, and replaced by a 2.5-litre four with 138kW 250Nm.

The other question mark against the CX-5 is linked to its diesel engine, which has problems relating to its oil levels, but Mazda assures us a fix has been found.

Toyota RAV4

Toyota revealed the look of its new RAV4 at the Los Angeles motor show in November. The new model shares elements of Toyota’s new look with the Corolla and Camry.

It will also have some significant mechanical changes, mainly under the bonnet.

The thirsty 200kW V6 used in the current RAV4 will be swapped for a fuel-efficient 2.2 litre four-cylinder diesel turbo diesel that should give the car sub 6L/100km fuel use figures.

Toyota has not yet revealed power figures for the diesel RAV4, which has never before been offered in Australia. The offer of a diesel option is sure to boost sales.

Front-drive models will also use a Corolla-sourced 102kW 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder, while the Camry will donate its 2.5 litre, 133kW engine for use in all-wheel-drive cars.

The all-wheel-drive versions are expected to offer a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, while the base car will carry the Corolla’s six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission.

Nissan Dualis

Nissan’s Dualis shares much of its underpinnings with the more rugged-looking X-Trail, but looks worlds apart with a hatchback aesthetic that has proved particularly popular with buyers looking for a smaller SUV.

Dualis is the smallest among the top five compact SUVs, but it has versatility that belies its size.

The car is available in two or four-wheel-drive and gives buyers the option of a third row of seats in the form of the Dualis+2.

The Dualis+2 blurs the lines between motoring’s traditional hatchback, people mover and SUV segments.

Despite its relative age, the Dualis beat the Mitsubishi ASX, Suzuki SX4 and Subaru Impreza XV in a small SUV shootout last year and continues to be popular with buyers.

Subaru Forester

Subaru has dumped conventional automatic gearboxes for CVT transmissions in its 2013 Forester range and like Toyota, it will offer a range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines.

The Forester has been the most successful car in Subaru’s Australian history, and the new model should bring customers back to the brand.

Unlike many of its rivals, Subaru has stuck to its guns and will continue to sell the all-wheel-drive Forester without offering a two-wheel-drive option.

Next year’s all-new Forester is larger than the current model and will feature improved engines as well as a six-speed manual option on the base 2.0 litre Forester X, though other models are likely to be CVT-only.

The existing Forester’s 108kW, 350Nm diesel uses just 5.3L/100km of fuel, a figure that the new car should be able to better.

Petrol-powered Foresters will feature stop-start systems to help them keep pace in the race to use less fuel and high-spec examples will be loaded with technology including electric assistance for off-road driving, and Subaru’s Eyesight system, which can alert drivers of potentially dangerous objects and brake to avoid them.

We’ve had a pre-production drive of the new Forester and found that it is still capable off the beaten track, though it is more suited to the city life.

Mitsubishi Outlander

Mitsubishi’s Outlander was a top-five seller a few years back and is another compact SUV that offers seven-seat versatility as an option.

The brand released a new version of its SUV in November and it could have a serious impact on the Australian SUV market. Run-out sales of the superseded model saw the Outlander soar above the CX-5 and X-Trail to be the best-selling SUV for October 2012, though it couldn’t repeat the feat in November.

Outlander has a new look that has not met with universal acclaim, and it doesn’t offer the driving dynamics of the Mazda CX-5 or the value of Nissan’s X-Trail.

As with many of its rivals, Mitsubishi uses continuously variable automatic transmissions in the Outlander range, but for the top-spec diesel which has a conventional six-speed auto.

The Outlander dropped its flagship V6 model in favour of a turbo diesel V6 with 110kW and 360Nm.

The all-wheel-drive diesel offers 5.8L/100km fuel economy and is the pick of the range, but it costs $12,000 more than the entry-level front-wheel-drive base car and the sticker price can reach beyond $50,000.

Honda CR-V

Honda’s CR-V was also a top-five seller but has slipped with the rest of the brand in the past couple of years.

The Japanese brand has sold more than 5.5 million CRVs since the car’s launch in 1995, including 130,000 in Australia. The Thai-built, fourth-generation CR-V was launched last month and is available for the first time with two-wheel-drive.

A 2.0-litre, 114kW four-cylinder motor puts power to the front wheels in the base CR-V, while a stronger 2.4-litre, 140kW engine gets four-wheel-drive models moving.

The new CR-V is about small changes under the skin rather than a revolutionary new approach to soft-roading.

It’s an approach that should be safe with buyers, who will have to make do without features such as stop-start fuel-saving technology that give competitors a green edge.

The five best-selling compact SUVs for 2012, and the deals manufacturers are offering:

* Drive away pricing for private owners in Sydney.

** Plus on-road and dealer costs

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