Small cars used to be small cars. Now, they're compact crossovers and are largely unexceptional... until now. Ford's new Puma has arrived, and is here to take on the small-SUV stalwart Nissan Juke and the chunky VW T-Cross. Bring on the funk.
This comparison is sourced from our mates at CAR magazine in the UK, and while the cars reviewed are very representative of the versions that will arrive in Australia, we'll have to wait a couple of months until all three of these three compact SUV competitors arrive locally for price and spec information.
Ford Puma - from $29,990, due second half of 2020
Why is it here?
This, Ford hopes, will be a riotously successful compact crossover.
There are practical touches – you get an under-boot storage area for wet and filthy clothes, and a mild-hybrid system – but Ford's shooting for your heart with the Puma's design and dynamics.
Any clever stuff?
The hybrid system isn't a powerful one (the battery's tiny and there's no plug-in capability or EV-only range) but it is handy, helping the already punchy 1.0-litre triple feel punchier still and gently massaging fuel economy in the right direction.
There's also plenty of handy stuff like auto-dip main beam headlights, adaptive cruise and auto parking.
Which version is this?
A 1.0-litre Puma Titanium with blue paint, comfort pack (heated seats and steering wheel) and the driver assistance pack. On-the-road price is £22,945 (approx $42,000 - price not indicative of Australian RRP) for this car.
Nissan Juke - from $27,990, available June 2020
Why is it here?
Because you can't put together a group test of compact cross-overs without the Nissan the kicked off the phenomenon, a class VW reckons will grow from today's 6.4 million units per year globally to more than 10 million over the next decade.
Bigger, lighter and better than Juke 1, can Juke 2 hang onto its crown?
Any clever stuff?
Not really, though the Juke's well-equipped in the higher trim levels. Those Bose headrest speakers are worth splurging for, giving your sanity a fighting chance against the Nissan's at times onerous road noise.
A twin-clutch 'box has replaced the old Juke's ponderous, frustrating CVT, making going automatic an actual option now.
Which version is this?
It's a 1.0-litre DiG-T Tekna+ from £23,895 ($44,600), hence the big wheels, the standard touchscreen and Bose seat speakers.
There is no hybrid powertrain option (yet), no all-wheel-drive option and the twin-clutch auto adds a whopping £1400 ($2600) to the list price. Manual gearbox and front-wheel drive it is, then...
VW T-Cross - from $27,990, available now
Why is it here?
Because you can't have a group test of mainstream small cars without a Volkswagen in it, and because the boxy, conventional T-Cross provides a no-frills antidote to the likes of the swoopy, wish-I-was-a-small-sports-coupe-like-the-old-Puma Puma.
Priced from just over £17k ($31,000), the MQB-based T-Cross can be specced right up to a posh R-Line with a meaty 1.5 petrol or 1.6 diesel engine.
Any clever stuff?
The 10.25-inch Active Info Display digital instrumentation is pretty and works well once your brain's worked out which of the 18 (18!) steering-wheel buttons (nine per spoke) does what. It's an option you should go for.
Elsewhere there's little that breaks any new ground, but you get a thoroughly modern engine with cylinder deactivation and handy tech like active cruise, front assist with emergency braking and rear traffic alert.
Which version is this?
One-from-the-top SEL trim level with a 115PS engine and seven-speed twin-clutch 'box, further buffed with 18-inch wheels.
Ford Puma: it's like a baby Porsche Macan!
Maybe it's the early start. Maybe it's the mind-scrambling effects of both an early start and a McDonald's breakfast. Whatever, I definitely just uttered those words.
The visual similarities between Ford's new B-segment SUV and Porsche's oh-so-capable sports SUV don't exactly slap you around the face. You're not going to confuse the two in a car park, let alone on the road. But there are echoes of the Porsche in the Ford.
Those rakish looks make for a snug feel inside (though rear visibility is almost Lamborghini-esque; Huracan, not Urus) and the driving position's good.
The sun was barely above the horizon as the Ford and I parped out onto bright, windswept and deserted tarmac, the going a mix of truck-laden main routes and fiendishly bumpy back roads of the kind to give chassis engineers insomnia.
The Ford's ace powertrain and keen chassis made it an unlikely weapon on both.
This is the less punchy 123bhp (91kW) option, but it's still the standout powertrain here. On the A16 the Ford gleefully leapfrogs trundling freight, the triple's efforts bolstered by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system.
The Puma's desperate for you to clock that it's a hybrid, from the badge proudly displayed on its rump to the power meter on the dash, slap bang between the clocks, that swings back and forth as you veer from regenerative braking to e-boosting.
And desperate as you might be to dismiss such tech as a gimmick, a mile in the Ford is all it takes to appreciate that it works, the car's modest e-shove sharpening throttle response, helping mitigate lag (all these engines are turbocharged) and burnishing its numbers with a little extra economy (the Puma turns in the best economy figure on the test).
By contrast, the VW's engine feels inoffensive but ordinary and the Nissan's a touch crude.
The Fiesta-based Puma, with the best-powertrain gong already bagged, then makes a play for best chassis. The steering – a touch light in Normal; weightier and plain better in Sport – is the best here, as you'd expect of a company that also turned out the rather excellent current Focus.
While the Puma's ride height means it can't quite summon the same beguiling cross-country fluidity, it is very good, the suspension set-up (a touch jiggly in town, despite this car riding on modest 17-inch wheels) coming into its own as you work it a little harder.
The Puma doesn't exactly relish being driven like you're charging home to clear your browsing history. Not like a Focus or, better still, a Fiesta ST.
But it is the only car here interested in the task at hand. Here too the mild-hybrid system scores points, the off-throttle regen effect tugging the nose on-line and helping tip the car usefully onto its nose as you turn-in.
Fun to drive, then? Yep. Best chassis, best engine. A baby Macan? The most Macan of these four, certainly.
Your winner? Depends how much you like Fiesta interiors. The Puma has one, for better (it mostly works, and you intuitively know how it works) and for worse (lacking in feelgood design, poor lateral support to the seats, poor rear legroom).
Still, before we've even sunk the first sausage and egg McMuffin of the day, the Ford's off to a flying start.
Nissan Juke: king for yesterday
You have to hand it to Nissan – it looks like nothing else on the road, eye-stingingly bright winter sunshine pinging off the car's deep metallic red paint and handsome 19-inch rims.
The first Juke looked like nothing else on the road but – problematically given how popular it would be – also looked nothing like a handsome example of modern automotive design. Juke 2 puts that right; this thing's cool.
First impressions are all good: great bucket-style seat, snugly comfortable cockpit, plush feel to the fabrics.
There's something old-school about the Juke: big steering wheel, with an unfashionably slim and hard rim; slightly cantankerous six-speed manual gearbox you have to work relentlessly to get anywhere; gruff, generally reluctant 999cc triple.
Later, on the blast home chasing the setting sun, the Juke will struggle to keep up with the Ford, but the Nissan (same platform as Renault's Captur and Clio, of course) is no slouch when you just need to get somewhere.
The Juke generates an unlikely amount of grip, refuses to wash into the epic understeer you expect of it and, as still-damp corners come at us like frisbees on a beach, the Juke clings to its composure in the face of some quite extreme provocation.
This second-generation Juke is undoubtedly a far better car to drive than its predecessor, and its chassis systems – integrated under a banner Nissan's daubed with the words Trace Control – deploy brake-based torque vectoring and modest ECU-decreed lifts of the throttle to help keep the car on the line you had in mind, rather than the one bald physics would otherwise have you describe.
They work well and with admirable subtlety to make the Nissan a capable if hardly engaging cross-country tool.
Better drivers reckon the Juke's interventions are inconsistent and frustratingly intrusive but, to the seat of these pants, they're a lot smoother than the T-Cross's clumsy, very obvious brake-dragging efforts.
As if all of this hooning matters anyway. The first-generation Juke sold a lot better than it drove (or looked...) and, in 2018, when a first-gen Juke rolled out of the factory every 105 seconds, Nissan's Sunderland plant built its one-millionth example of the controversially styled compact crossover.
The Juke all but invented this class, melding the apparently mutually exclusive crossover and coupe gene pools to deliver something like the desirability of Range Rover's equally game-changing Evoque on a fraction of the budget.
The new car is a steady evolution, with less polarising (if still pretty left-field) styling, more interior space (legroom's up nearly 6cm, and the boot 20 per cent bigger) in a larger but lighter (by 23kg) and more rigid body. There's more tech, too, with ProPilot now available on the Juke, offering lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise.
Perhaps the biggest leap forward is inside. This – at the risk of damning with faint praise – is the best interior of any Nissan to date, with some plush, decidedly un-Nissan materials and just enough quirky design to elevate the space beyond that of a more workaday Qashqai or X-Trail.
The VW feels airier, but the Juke's cockpit is a strong combination of sound ergonomics, appealing design and quality materials. If only the manual gearbox was as sweet to use as the Ford's.
The Juke, then, is the original. The best? It's come a long way since its flawed but outlandishly successful debut. But, up against far fresher, more ambitious rivals, it hasn't come as far as it needed to.
VW T-Cross: honesty is the best policy
Given the car's likely usage and buying demographic, you'd plump for something fairly, well, plump, no? Some barely-there spring rates to soak up the urban lumps and damping like an old sofa? Perfect.
Apparently not. Instead the T-Cross prizes body control above all else – hang the crashy ride! – and loves being flung at lumpy, bump-riddled byways like a WRC car. And if the boot full of hardy perennials ends up looking like a scale model of the Battle of the Somme, well, so be it. Weird.
This firm, almost unyielding suspension calibration feels accidental (the big 18-inch wheels on this car surely don't help the T-Cross's paucity of pliancy) – not an accusation you can level at any other aspect of the Volkswagen.
A touch forgettable it may be, and certainly the T-Cross is almost painfully derivative next to the others, but it feels every inch the holistically conceived, thoroughly engineered and well-resolved product the badge suggests it should be.
Where the Puma drops you low, giving hot-hatch pilots a reassuringly reclined driving position, the T-Cross is unapologetically a small SUV.
You sit bolt upright, with more rear legroom than the Juke or the Puma (VW is convinced this is what buyers want, and it'd know), and survey a cockpit which, while cheap-feeling in places compared with other, bigger VWs, feels fabulously well-crafted and luxurious in this company.
The eight-inch touchscreen is glossy and responsive and the upper dash surfaces, with their faux carbon fibre sheen, help the car feel about twice as expensive as it is. And the driving position, while remote and lofty for roundabout antics, is sound and immensely relaxing.
Remember when small cars were thrashy tin boxes about as relaxing to pilot as the Wright brothers' first flyer? They're gone. You could put in a solid day in this, no bother.
Crash! Bang! Maybe it's the lack of investment in local infrastructure, maybe it's the boy racers shaving tenths, but roundabouts are rough like a badger's backside, ruthlessly highlighting the T-Cross's only significant dynamic foible: that entirely un-SUV ride quality.
What's the point of sitting high, with miles of suspension travel, only for wheel movement to pass almost unchecked to the cabin? Weird.
The VW's only significant dynamic foible? Pretty much, though the dual-clutch gearbox isn't the syrupy unfair advantage you might think.
In Drive, the throttle response is painfully lethargic and dim-witted, with what feels like whole centimetres of pedal travel failing to elicit anything from the little triple in the engine bay.
So you try the S transmission setting, which replaces that lethargy with a light-switch take-off so hard to modulate that the aforementioned boy racers take your every traffic-light departure as an unlikely challenge from Postman Pat's smart new VW.
As ever, the right spec will help. This T-Cross looks fabulous, with its crisp surfaces, Cayenne-esque rear light bar and mini-Touareg air of sophisticated refinement.
The sweet spot? This engine, the 1.0-litre TSI with 115PS, and the six-speed manual. Go with the standard 17-inch rims, leave the handsome range of 18s well alone and you'll be laughing.
As is often the case with VWs, the longer you spend in its company, the more you think he might be right. Where the others try hard to make your little SUV look and feel like a weird kind of high-rise coupe hatch, there's a refreshing honesty to the T-Cross.
It's boxy. It sits high and four-square like a sculptural shipping container. It's roomy inside, front and rear. The rear screen doesn't slope, so you could persuade a dog into the boot. It is the full ready-for-anything family SUV, just with town-friendly dimensions and a wallet-friendly price.
It's almost like VW's really good at making cars, with the economies of scale to elevate the ordinary to something a little more polished and desirable...
The final reckoning
In essence, the compact crossover is a very practical proposition; compact enough to be easy to drive and park, ergonomically suited to high-mileage bodies, and with a boot to swallow a hard day's hedge trimmings.
But the compact crossover's gone mainstream, and the mainstream demands a decent wedge of desirability with its practicality.
The winner's the Ford; a car to enjoy driving, even if most buyers won't care. It's also clever, efficient and practical – qualities to help you overlook the entirely uninspired interior design. Sure, it's not a Porsche Macan. But for half the money it's not a bad impression of one.
Duking it out for the right not to come last are the VW and the Juke. The T-Cross is not one of Wolfsburg's most inspired machines but there's much to commend it, not least the beautiful build quality, the nicely executed interior and the fact that, uniquely in this company, it's a proud SUV – four-square, immensely comfortable, laudably honest and, in the right spec, a mini-Touareg for a fraction of the outlay.
The Juke's not a bad car but it also does nothing better than the myriad alternatives, not least these three rivals. Most will buy on the exterior design alone. Waverers who make it to a showroom will sign up when they sit in it. But the rest of us are better off looking elsewhere for our ready-for-anything, not-four-wheel-drive baby SUV.
Puma vs Juke vs T-Cross: verdict
First place: Ford Puma
Great powertrain in a car far better to drive than it needs to be. Not special, but very good.
Second place: VW T-Cross
Unrepentantly a mini-SUV, so bang-on if you're not into the crossover/coupe vibe. Tepid but capable.
Third place: Nissan Juke
Brand new yet already feels short on ambition. With any luck, future derivatives will put that right.