Ever noticed how perceptions of size change over time? Suitably spacious and tasteful homes of the 1950s are often deemed unworkable shoeboxes in this era of the McMansion, seeing they need to accommodate super-sized kids that tower over their bread-and-dripping ancestors, plus all the ‘stuff’ people need these days. But what about the machines filling their multi-car vehicle holes?
That’s where the rather clever small SUV steps in. In architecture terms, it’s a modernist slice of neat space utilisation versus the McMansion-esque slab of excess that is many medium to large SUVs. Born in the back alleys of Europe, yet honed by the Japanese, the baby SUV has become the little darling of 2014/15.
‘Fashion-forward’ is a rare phenomenon in the automotive world, but if the newest contenders in the baby SUV brigade are anything to go by, being cool doesn’t mean you have to act dumb.
FIVE KINDS OF COOL
Renault’s Clio-based Captur is a striking example of small SUV sculpture, especially the test Dynamique with its metallic orange and cream two-tone paint playing up deeply scalloped flanks and its pert, Euro-chic rear end. Yet beneath all that Champs-Elysees glitz hides an incredibly well thought-out package.
With almost the longest wheelbase (2606mm, just 4mm shy of the HR-V’s) but by far the least overall length (4122mm), it’s admirable what Renault has squeezed into its compact little Captur.
By building up instead of out, and fitting a neat rear bench that slides fore-aft through 160mm, Captur’s cabin is far more accommodating than a Clio’s. Ample leg and head room, 1.5-litre bottle holders in the front doors (though only 600ml slots in the rear) and a removable bin between the front seats that looks like it could double as a container for crook kids headline the Renault’s utility.
Captur’s removable, washable seat covers must be like the second coming for clean freaks, and likewise its Tardis-like boot for anyone into carrying stuff. Depending on the rear-seat position, it can vary between 377 and 455 litres in size, and has a removable floor that is rubberised on one side, and can be used as a partition to stop stuff sliding about.
Similarly arresting in style, yet arguably even more of a head-turner than the Captur is Mazda’s CX-3. Sired by the Mazda 2 but sharing the 3’s 2.0-litre petrol engine, the CX-3’s cab-rearward shape was clearly prioritised by Hiroshima’s fashionistas. Walk around the multi-surfaced Mazda and its shape constantly changes – making it difficult to convey on camera – yet it has a visual identity that almost makes it classless.
Longer and almost as tall as the Captur, the CX-3 favours sporting style over spacious accommodation. On the plus side is a vibrant, individual interior that blends interesting trims and textures with Mazda’s usual high standard of build and trim quality. CX-3’s soft, yet supportive chairs take the ‘best seat’ gong in an extremely close fight with the cushy Captur, even though the sTouring variant’s ‘Maztek’ trim is a not-so-fancy title for sweaty vinyl. Even Mazda’s traditionally ice-cold climate control can’t compensate for man-made ‘pleather’ on a 30-degree day.
While clearly space-deprived compared to its expansive rivals, the CX-3’s plush rear seat is entirely liveable, though it’s the front-seat package that has received the most attention. The CX-3’s 264-litre boot is unable to fit even the smallest Mountain Buggy pram (what happened to good old strollers?), necessitating a folded backrest, and while there’s quite a bit of depth beneath its removable false floor, CX-3’s loading lip is high and its divider isn’t as useful as the Renault’s.
Given some of Honda’s recent efforts, like the malformed Honda Jazz/City and the dorky Civic, it’s quite a surprise to feel drawn to an H-badged design, espcially an SUV. But the new-generation Honda HR-V is that car.
Sweeping the body-side crease up and the window down to meet at the hidden rear doorhandle creates a coupe-like effect that really works. Unlike BMW’s distasteful X6, the HR-V manages to pull off a coupe look without compromising rear headroom because it’s all a visual trick. And even though we’re meant to ignore the test car’s 17-inch ‘sports’ alloys – Honda could only provide a $32,990 VTi-L, not a $27,990 VTi-S with less attractive 17s – they’re so cleverly styled, we had to check they weren’t 18s.
The HR-V continues its revival of Honda’s fortunes inside. A beautifully rendered dashboard with the finest plastics quality, acres of space and a commanding rear seat package with a fabulous view forward raise the Honda to a level its rivals can’t match. Likewise its vast boot with ‘magic seat’ flexibility that is both breathtakingly simple, yet supremely effective in using the rear-seat folding mechanism to maximum effect.
Yet the HR-V is a bit hit-and-miss. Its tailgate is heavy, its doors won’t take bottles any larger than 750ml, its front seats have short, flat cushions and inadequate adjustment, and its flimsy, mesh-like faux parcel shelf is a tragedy. Exactly why it’s so rubbish we can’t say, but you should at least be able to twist it and fold it away. Or pour kero on it and burn it.
From left field in this five-star crew comes Suzuki’s underrated S-Cross. This replacement for the ageing SX4 has been with us for just over a year, yet it has hardly set the market ablaze. And part of the reason for that could be its relative normality. Unlike the slinky CX-3, coupe-like HR-V, catwalk-ready Captur or Holden’s tall-boy Trax, the S-Cross is simply a small mini-wagon, just like Peugeot’s 2008 but without that car’s visual flair.
Riding on a 2600mm wheelbase, the S-Cross is admirably spacious. Up front, you feel like you’re driving a car, albeit a Swift with a high seating position, while in the rear, a roomy, supportive bench, accompanied by doors that take 1.5-litre bottles (front as well), plus a dual-level 430-litre boot with near fold-flat capability add to its multi-purpose dexterity.
But – and it’s a big one – the S-Cross GLX tested here costs $30,465 driveaway, and that’s a sizeable wedge for what feels like an XL Swift inside. The S-Cross might be roomy, but its interior pales in comparison to the HR-V’s luxury, or the CX-3’s character, or the Captur’s colour. Given that so many parts are shared with its light-hatch sister, it’s no wonder the S-Cross struggles to escape its upbringing.
Likewise the Trax. It’s almost two years since Holden’s Barina-based small SUV launched here, and it’s done quite well. But the Trax must’ve spent too much time sunbaking on the Gold Coast because some wrinkles are starting to appear.
Outside, its chunky look remains a love-it-or-hate-it prospect, though at 1674mm tall, it clearly fulfils the faux-wheel-drive visual brief better than its more car-like compatriots. But at $29,990 for the range-topping Holden Trax LTZ with its new 1.4-litre turbo engine, there’s a lingering sense of wanting more for the money, not just a neat set of 18-inch alloys.
Inside, the cost-cutting scalpel is all too evident. While the Trax’s cabin is littered with useful storage compartments – some with rubberised mats – and cupholders aplenty (four in the centre console, two in the rear armrest, plus decent bottle holders in the doors), it’s the execution of its interior design that lets the side down.
Unlike the S-Cross and CX-3’s hard cabin plastics, the Trax’s are horribly scratch-prone, like pretty much every other sub-Commodore GM product since the 90s. And the sticky, cloying feel of its ‘Sportec’ vinyl trim is barely mitigated by the push-button air-con’s effectiveness – the sole non-climate-control system here. It’s a shame, really, because Trax packs plenty into its compact shape, including decent seats and a well-shaped boot with a double-fold rear seat that forms a fully flat floor.
CRUISING CORNERS ON STILTS
Where the Lang Lang-tuned Holden fights back big time is in the dynamic department. Riding on excellent 215/55R18 Continentals, the Trax’s chassis is taut and sweetly balanced, with inch-perfect steering precision and a newfound level of throttle adjustability thanks to the extra torque of its chubby turbo four.
While some might find its relatively tall seating position initially a bit disconcerting in corners, the Trax imbues a level of confidence that allows you to push as hard as you please. Gone in too hot? Simply lift your right foot and the Trax obediently brings its Koala nose back into line.
Similarly sporty but not quite as polished is the CX-3. It also has turn-in, balance and grip by the bucketload, though it feels a bit skittish over bumps at times and its steering suffers kickback through lumpy corners. Then there’s the matter of its damping, which doesn’t quite feel in unison front-to-rear, though four-up ride quality is excellent, offering arguably the best combination of comfort and control.
The Trax is similarly well-disciplined, but a bit firmer, while the Captur is even cushier, though perhaps too supple for those who like a sporty ride.
Refreshingly, the Captur feels very French at speed. The faster you go, the better its ride gets, absorbing bumps that upset the unladen Mazda, yet around town, the 17in-wheeled Captur Dynamique can feel quite firm. And quiet.
The Captur’s forte is tackling big distances with all-pervading smoothness. Wafting on cushy seats, its supple ride blotting surface irregularities and its unobtrusive engine conjuring every ounce of mid-range torque, the Captur is a great mile-eater. Yet when the road starts to turn, its innate sense of poise reminds you of the excellence of its underpinnings. Refined, too, except for an unusual, whizzing whine from the drivetrain under hard acceleration that can be heard inside and out.
Given the depressingly low dynamic base of its showroom buddies, it’s a surprise to discover the HR-V is decent to drive. While its steering can feel disconnected and anaesthetised unless loaded up, the HR-V lacks the vagueness that blights the CR-V and Accord. Despite some roll in the front end, there’s a keenness you can coax from it that dispatches winding roads quickly, and quite confidently. But, unlike its better rivals, you have to set the HR-V’s chassis up for corners. Drive it badly and its handling becomes slovenly.
The HR-V rides pretty well, though, with acceptable quietness and composure, and none of the CR-V’s nauseating body-control issues. But compared to the plush Captur and the polished CX-3, the HR-V’s ride can feel lumpy, and there’s noticeable tyre noise on some surfaces, probably because its cabin is otherwise library-quiet.
Unexpectedly, the S-Cross is the dynamic duffer in this company. In isolation, when driven briskly the S-Cross feels like it’s blessed with Swift DNA, thanks to the suspension’s underlying suppleness and the adjustable nature of its rear end. But the more you ask of it, the worse it gets.
Pile four adults into it and the Suzuki’s ride becomes unsettled, in contrast to how it behaves with just a driver. While its chassis balance and handling ability can both deliver some fun, there’s a lack of consistency and cohesion to its body movement that exposes its lack of dynamic finesse. By far the worst offender is its steering, which feels sticky and gluggy around straight ahead, yet sharp and over-light once you apply lock.
FLEXING THOSE BABY MUSCLES
Also lacking in driveability polish is the Suzuki’s CVT. The transmission lacks smoothness when accelerating from rest, and gives the impression that the drive belt is slipping occasionally under full-throttle acceleration.
Yet there’s plenty of goodness. At decent speeds, Suzuki’s seemingly undernourished 86kW/158Nm 1.6-litre atmo four is smooth and unobtrusive when whisking the lithe 1125kg body along, though its quietness may have something to do with being drowned out by road noise. Then there’s the HR-V-beating acceleration to 60km/h, and its excellent test fuel consumption of just 9.0L/100km.
But the economy prize goes to the Captur. While its 88kW/190Nm 1.2-litre turbo four has to lug 111kg more muffin top than a Clio Dynamique using the same engine, the Captur proves similarly exceptional in its frugality. And that’s with the test car being filled after it hammered through Sydney’s afternoon traffic to the northern beaches, whereas the others were gassed up at Marulan on the Hume.
Renault’s 1.2 turbo is an admirably smooth and low-stressed engine, and doesn’t need revs to perform. In Drive, the six-speed dual-clutch ’box upshifts from first to second gear just under 5000rpm, and at 5400rpm thereafter, yet it’ll hit 6000rpm if you put it in the manual gate… and go slower. What spoils the fun, though, is the transmission’s lethargy. From standstill, Renault’s Getrag-developed dual-clutcher takes too long to engage, while at other times its throttle response has the immediacy of a cadaver. Captur’s plump mid-range is some compensation, though you often drive it flat to the floor.
Next up the accelerative ladder is the HR-V. Its 105kW/172Nm 1.8-litre four can be quite vocal as the CVT sets max attack at a consistent 6500rpm, but it’s no slingshot from a standing start, and would be better served tied to one of Honda’s sweet-shifting manuals. Still, the HR-V has an effective Sport mode, which ramps up revs quicker and provides some engine braking, though neither transmission mode works well with the cruise control in hilly conditions. The speed inconsistency and flaring engine revs will soon have you doing your own throttle control.
Decent economy of 9.9L/100km from the HR-V, though, given that at 1366kg it weighs quite a lot more than the S-Cross, Captur and CX-3.
The 1226kg Mazda is not only more economical (9.3L/100km), but much quicker. A 0-100km/h time of 8.9sec and the standing 400m in 16.4 cement the CX-3’s sporting credentials, as does its excellent transmission with highly effective Sport mode. But the downside to the engine’s induction growl is the vibes you feel through the wheel and pedals as it spins the tacho needle all the way to 6700rpm.
Revs are something Holden’s direct-injection 1.4 turbo certainly doesn’t need, seeing maximum power arrives at just 4900rpm. The 103kW/200Nm donk in the Trax LTZ isn’t as refined as it could be, but it transforms the Trax’s accelerative ability compared to the loud and coarse 1.8. The boosted four slices over two seconds from its 0-100km/h sprint, though the drivetrain isn’t without its flaws. On light throttle at low rpm, there’s a torque hole that the driver can pedal around, but the cruise control certainly can’t as it puts the gearbox into ‘ditsy’ mode, hunting up and down on hills like a madman. And then there’s the awful pseudo-manual shift on the side of the gearlever, which only works when you shove the selector into ‘M’.
What ultimately kills the Trax LTZ 1.4T, however, is its economy when driven hard. It might be semi-competitive when crusing with economy in mind, but if you attempt to use any of the available power, fuel use skyrockets, as its 11.1L/100km average proves. As in Barina and Malibu, the trade-off for Trax’s strong body is weight, and its ageing drivetrain struggles to cope.
SO WHICH WERE OUR FAVOURITES?
But the Trax is a better car than the S-Cross, and arguably better value at an inflated $30K. While its plasticky interior, vinyl trim and equipment shortfalls put a big question mark next to its list price, no one can dispute the excellence of its handling, or its grunt and space.
What Trax is crying out for is a facelift, and fast. The longer GM rests on Trax’s rapidly fading laurels, the more desperate its hand-waving will become as it watches newer competitors surge ahead.
Unfortunately for the Suzuki, there’s no way its interior feels like 30 grand’s worth, certainly not after experiencing the sizzle of its best rivals for less money. But there’s an unpretentious charm about the S-Cross. While it isn’t perfect, we could understand why someone would buy one, keep it for a fault-free 15 years and love it. But that person would probably be buying the GL manual for $22,990 driveaway, not the overpriced and out-of-its-depth GLX.
Which leaves the Captur, CX-3 and HR-V. Three highly impressive small SUVs, all with their virtues, but the Renault’s smoothness, comfort and efficiency aren’t enough to overcome the slothfulness of its transmission response. If Renault can find a fix, the Captur has a chance of nailing the brief. Its great style, intellectual interior and soothing dynamics certainly deserve as much.
So, CX-3 or HR-V? Hate to say it, but it depends on your priorities because they’re so different. If the Honda offered the Mazda’s seats and dynamics, it would win because it’s such a versatile, stylish, beautifully built SUV. But the CX-3’s all-round ability, innate driver appeal and cool, classless design keep drawing us in.
If you’ve been avoiding contraception and can only afford one car, the HR-V’s fabulous practicality walks it. But if your small-SUV fetish is in lieu of a regular hatchback, not a larger 4WD, then the CX-3’s blend of sex and sense scores.
At present, the only diesel-engined variants among Australia’s burgeoning baby SUV brigade belong to the Mazda CX-3 (auto-only, front- or all-wheel drive), Peugeot 2008 (manual-only, front-drive) and Skoda Yeti (dual-clutch, all-wheel drive), though more are coming. The one we’re super-keen to drive is Honda’s HR-V diesel. Sharing its strong 88kW/300Nm 1.6-litre turbo-diesel with the Civic, the HR-V oiler will also bring with it a manual. We reckon it’ll be the HR-V to have when it lobs around Christmas.
SUV OVER MPV
Small-SUV sales have jumped almost 35 percent this year, on the back of a 16 percent rise in 2014, and the imminent Jeep Renegade, Peugeot 2008 update and quirky Citroen C4 Cactus (January 2016) can only add fuel to that fire. The casualty, of course, is the small MPV, whose popularity is waning in Europe and has dropped like a stone in Australia, despite being a more logical option for space-challenged families. Unfortunately for the baby MPV, the masses think they’re about as sexy as an orthopaedic sandal, though some find functional utility quite arousing.
WHY NO PUG?
Having won our January 2014 small-SUV comparo by a whisker, we chose not to invite Peugeot’s likeable 2008, simply because the game has moved on. And its decrepit automatic drivetrain hasn’t. But good news is on the way. Late this year, the 2008 range (and the 208 hatch) will be transformed when PSA’s brilliant 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo migrates from the 308 in an 82kW/205Nm tune, tied to a new-generation six-speed automatic, and hopefully a manual. Unless you’re happy with the current 60kW 1.2 atmo five-speeder, which is a leisurely charmer, we’d hold off until the turbo-triple and new auto arrive.
This article was originally published in Wheels May 2015.