Honda CR-V 1.6 i-DTEC SE Navi auto (3 stars)
Engine size: 1.6-litre diesel
List price when new: Â£30,520
Price today: Â£17,500*
Torque: 258lb ft
Top speed: 122mph
Fuel economy: 55.4mpg (Official average)
CO2 emissions: 134g/km
The 2012 Honda CR-V was a capable car at launch, but not an outstanding one. The firm worked hard though, and a few years later, it rolled out a revised model with a nine-speed automatic gearbox and efficient 1.6-litre diesel engine. It was now a car more capable of taking on the class-leading Mazda CX-5.
Mazda wasnâ€™t standing still though, and itself launched a revised model in 2015, with better interior quality and improved infotainment. Even the oddball alternative, Subaruâ€™s Forester crossover, was improved, with a CVT automatic and its own infotainment boost. Three years on, weâ€™re looking at all three, to decide which is the best secondhand buy.
Despite having so many gears, the CR-Vâ€™s automatic is a sleek performer. Gearchanges can barely be felt and itâ€™s only a bit of hesitation when pulling away that lets the side down. Itâ€™s just a pity the engine isnâ€™t punchier â€“ although itâ€™s faster than the lethargic Subaru.
While the Foresterâ€™s CVT gearbox is smooth, itâ€™s keener on transmitting noise rather than actual performance. Which makes the Mazda CX-5 the best all-rounder. Its 2.2-litre diesel is strong and surge-free, and the six-speed auto is decent. Itâ€™s by far the quickest machine here.
Mazda CX-5 2.2d 150 AWD SE-L Nav auto (5 stars)
Engine size: 2.2-litre diesel
List price when new: Â£27,895
Price today: Â£14,500*
Torque: 280lb ft
Top speed: 121mph
Fuel economy: 51.4mpg (Official average)
CO2 emissions: 144g/km
The Mazda also handles well, with little body roll and well-weighted steering. This doesnâ€™t spoil its in-town comfort either, and itâ€™s only the occasional jar on bumpy roads that unsettles occupants. The CR-V is much sloppier through bends and reacts heavily to speed bumps and potholes. Speaking of which, its steering is also weighty.
Although it copied the Honda in washing out through faster bends, the Forester felt more natural through corners and it had easily the best ride in town. Itâ€™s a shame the steering isnâ€™t faster though, as itâ€™s a bit cumbersome at times.
None of them are particularly quiet at speed, but the Subaru fares the worst, because of the din its engine and gearbox make. Its seats arenâ€™t very supportive either, spoiling a comfortable driving position and good visibility.
The Mazda is the easiest to get comfortable in, as it has the best driving position, but itâ€™s the Honda that has the best seats and betters the CX-5 for all-round visibility. In the rear, they have the edge over the Forester for rear seat space; the Subaru has loads of legroom but its sunroof restricts headroom for adults.
Subaru Forester 2.0d XC Premium Lineartronic (2 stars)
Engine size: 2.0-litre diesel
List price when new: Â£30,995
Price today: Â£19,000*
Torque: 258lb ft
Top speed: 117mph
Fuel economy: 46.3mpg (Official average)
CO2 emissions: 158g/km
On paper, the Honda has the biggest boot. In practice, the Subaruâ€™s is better, as itâ€™s wider and doesnâ€™t have a load lip to lug stuff over. All of them have easy-fold rear seats; again, the Foresterâ€™s overall load bay is the longest, and the Hondaâ€™s is the shortest.
Subaru owners get clobbered for fuel economy though. It officially averages 46.3mpg, compared to the 55.4mpg of the Honda. The Forester trades a better standard spec, with that big panoramic glass roof, power tailgate and rear parking camera all standard. All of them have 17in alloys, climate control, cruise control, folding door mirrors and automatic lights and wipers.
The Mazda and Honda do have a safety advantage over the Subaru: they feature standard city braking systems that auto-stop them in an emergency. You canâ€™t get this feature on the Forester, even as an option.
Add in the fact it costs more than the others and a last-place ranking for the Forester is therefore inevitable; it gets a below-par two-star score. The Honda is better, but it has a hefty price even on the secondhand market, and its talents simply donâ€™t justify it.
This leaves the Mazda in the lead, by a clear margin. Itâ€™s a five-star car that has few weak areas. Itâ€™s nice to drive, roomy inside, well equipped and great value. Itâ€™s easily the best car here, making the decision of which to go for an easy one.
*Price today is based on a 2015 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing