Driver's Seat: A closer look inside, from comfort to sound

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The 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen's functional interior features a black dashboard with silver trim and

2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen TDI vs. 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium vs. 2016 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring: Cargo competition.

This week: A closer look inside the vehicles.

Up to speed: Last week I introduced the three contenders.

Driver's Seat: As I noted last week, the Golf SportWagen looks and feels just like the Jetta and Golf I recently tested. Actually it ranks a little higher than the Jetta, which had a cheap-driving feel. The SportWagen shared the Golf interior, with functions that are easy to find.

Subaru's command pods tend toward the more traditional, too. The Outback was a little upgraded but also a little more difficult to follow. The clock is in an old-fashioned gray display near the heater. I tripped over the trip odometer and the mileage report.

The Mazda CX-5 has Mazda's typical straightforward instrument pod and controls. The steering-wheel controls impressed me as being particularly easy to adjust to.

Comfy: The Golf SportWagen is by far one of the best manual seats I've experienced in a long time. The recline adjust lever sits a bit out of reach, but fortunately I never had to move it once. No fancy lumbar support here, just well-made interior.

The Outback came with base-model seats that were comfortable and competent. I set the driver's seat once and never had to think about it again.

On the other cheek, the CX's leather seats seem designed by the Marquis de Sade. The hard bottoms and back left me fatigued.

The look: The SportWagen is typical Volkswagen, a black dashboard with some silver trim and square heater vents. Functional.

The Subaru falls along this same line: square heater vents, mostly black with touches of silver, although the silver meshy materials on the doors and dash hearkened back to a different Marquis, that from a 1970s Mercury.

The Mazda features the basic black interior, as well.

Keeping warm and cool: Heat comes to occupants in typical simple Volkswagen fashion, via three dials. One for temperature, one for blower speed, one for where the air lands. Simple.

The Outback looks like a three-dial setup, but two of those control temperature and one is a pair of buttons disguised as a dial. Buttons also control fan speed and whence the air blows. These required my eyes to be off the road for too long.

Mazda follows the Subaru pattern, with the added drawback that the display providing temperature and fan location is too far and low to be useful.

Friends and stuff: Legroom, headroom, and foot room in the rear seat are all generous in the SportWagen. Owners should try not to invite someone who needs to use the middle seat; a raised seat and tall floor hump make this location miserable.

The CX-5 matches the SportWagen for roominess. The middle spot is encumbered by a tall hump and an invading front console, but the corners are pleasant enough.

The Outback is the biggie of the three for cargo space and also offers generous room for three passengers in the back. All-wheel drive creates a fair-sized hump in the center, and the center passenger's seat sits up far too high for total comfort. But, the legroom is stretch-out spacious so the center console does not interfere with that passenger's spot.

Play some tunes: The Golf SportWagen sound system cannot be much different than the sound systems in the Golf and Jetta, but the sound quality was the best of the three; I hadn't been too impressed by the Fender sound system until now. It somehow even improved a song I never cared much for. Hmm. Neat trick.

I had a SportWagen without navigation. The small touchscreen is used only for specific settings; buttons and dials control the rest of the functions. The CD player is tucked away in the glove box but still is reachable from the driver's seat.

The Outback's upgraded sound system with touchscreen and navigation offered a large display. Many of the functions fall to the touchscreen. Knobs for volume and tuning help. And though buttons outside the touchscreen get drivers to the home screen or map, sensitive touch-pad buttons right next to the volume knob often meant I accidentally changed the screen while trying to raise and lower volume.

A full graphic equalizer can be preset into two different modes, which is a nice touch, but it added a level of complexity that probably isn't worth it for the average owner. Sound was better than average.

Mazda rocks the premium sound system, as always. A+ for clarity and rich sound. A dial controls the screen, but no separate source button? How inconvenient.

Next week: Taking 'em to the streets, and picking a winner.