Amanda is looking for a replacement for her Suzuki Grand Vitara. She wants another SUV and, while she isn't against another Suzuki, she's keen to see what else is available. She doesn't want a frumpy family-orientated SUV and is tending towards Japanese brands as she's owned European cars and wasn't keen on their high maintenance costs.
The budget: $35,000
Amanda is right to be looking beyond another Grand Vitara. It's great if you need serious off-road abilities, but there are more compact, more car-like SUVs that are better suited to urban life.
The question of just which alternatives to focus on isn't so easy to resolve, but we can probably steer clear of European options that aren't the cheapest to run, such as Skoda's Yeti and Volkswagen's Tiguan.
We're also probably safe to ignore SUVs that are either a bit ordinary (Hyundai ix35, Mitsubishi ASX, Nissan Dualis, Peugeot 4008) or have an overt family-car vibe (Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan X-Trail, Toyota RAV4).
Clear the floor of that lot and you're left with this select line-up of options, all of which offer an evenly balanced mix of style, talent and affordability.
Kia Sportage, from $26,990
Okay, it's not Japanese but Kia's Sportage is a perfect example of why Korean cars are now genuine alternatives.
Not that it's perfect. It's not the best drive in the class, the petrol drivetrains aren't exceptionally thrifty and diesel models are just out of reach at this budget. Some SUVs have better attention to detail inside, better vision and nicer plastics.
But this Kia looks sharp, drives more than well enough and is highly competitive on the value, safety, practicality and quality fronts, as well as having a five-year warranty. Amanda can also afford to sidestep the underwhelming 2.0-litre base petrol engine for more flexible 2.4-litre models.
Mazda CX-5, from $27,880
This Mazda has some crucial advantages over the Kia. It's more satisfying to drive, all models (rather than just on selected higher level ones) get a reversing camera and it uses up-to-the-minute technology such as auto stop/start to register impressive economy.
But it also costs more, has a three-year warranty and isn't the most comfortable SUV to ride in. Strident diesel versions are well out of Amanda's reach, kicking off at nearly $40K.
Elsewhere there's not a massive difference. The CX-5 offers similar practical potential, similarly limited visibility and – when a new 2.5-litre petrol model arrives in the first quarter – an out-clause for those who want to escape the base 2.0-litre petrol's indifferent performance but can't afford the diesel.
Subaru XV, from $28,490
The XV is less a proper SUV than a jacked-up Impreza hatch and – when decked out in funkier colours – it has sportier air than your average SUV. Yet unlike its competitors here it doesn't offer 2WD at the bottom of the range.
It could be the right mix for some buyers. It's more capable off the tarmac than most city-biased SUVs but is still easy to drive, park and – thanks to features such as auto stop/start – quite frugal.
The Subaru doesn't let the side down when it comes to value, quality, comfort or safety (all models get a reversing camera). But don't expect the same kind of boot space as the others, a Kia-beating warranty or an alternative to the mandatory, rather lacklustre 2.0-litre petrol engine.
Read Drive's Subaru XV reviews: Subaru XV road test.
The Kia's value, long warranty and all-round competency make it a standout choice for SUV buyers who want the job done well with minimum fuss and expense.
But there are rewards to balance the Japanese cars' higher cost and shorter warranties, such as superior economy, sweeter road manners and the benefit of a reversing camera even on the cheapest versions.
Which one? Well, you could make a strong case for the XV if you valued off-road ability, ride comfort or a funky colour palette. But we'd sooner be putting our money on the Mazda, which drives better and is that bit more practical. The impending arrival of a halfway house between the underwhelming base petrol and costly diesel engine seals it.
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