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Fun SUVs done dirt cheap

By Byron Mathioudakis | Photos; Alastair Brook, 30 Dec 2018 Comparisons

Fun SUVs done dirt cheap

Yes, people, cheap thrills can come in SUV shapes and sizes

Tiny dancers: Mazda CX-3 Maxx and Toyota C-HR 2WD

AUSTRALIA’S second-best-selling small SUV has much going for it – striking design, stylish interior, great seats, strong performance, quality engineering – but the Mazda CX-3’s biggest ace is choice. Nothing else in its class offers the dazzling smorgasbord of petrol, diesel, front-drive, all-wheel drive, auto and manual flavours. Sixteen all up, in fact.

Lots of choice, and within that lies some real gems – namely the AWD, since it upgrades the rear suspension from the FWD’s torsion beam to a De Dion set-up. Yes, it’s also auto-only, but in this case that hardly matters.

Read next: Should I buy a small SUV?

In late 2015, an sTouring AWD auto chase car in our Mazda MX-5 meets Toyota 86 GTS comparo astonished all with its ability to keep up with the hard-charging sports cars over demanding mountain roads, displaying un-SUV-esque handling and roadholding prowess, backed up by a punchy, rev-happy 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre heart and quick-shifting six-speed torque-converter auto that in Sport mode held on to each ratio right up to the limiter. 

We still talk about that CX-3’s athleticism in the office today. But it wasn’t without flaws. At the time, we complained about tiresome engine and road noise intrusion, but September’s Series II facelift – with its upgraded cabin finish, specification, power outputs and chassis tune – has quietened things down a tad on both fronts, while the $27,690 Maxx Sport AWD auto’s 16-inch rubber takes the edge off the firm ride as well. Lusty, lively and lovely to behold, Mazda’s littlest SUV upstart in this guise fits like a glove – a form-fitting fencing one for sparring with warm hatches.

Read next: The most fuel efficient small SUVs you can buy right now

In contrast, the Toyota C-HR manual’s coupe-on-stilts styling suggests a return to the superficial ‘form over function’ softness from the brand’s more comic back-catalogue tat like the ’90s Paseo, especially as the 85kW/185Nm 1.2-litre four-pot turbo seems incongruously tiny beneath that broad bonnet. A CVT with or without all-wheel drive are the only other options, too. So not exactly spoilt for choice. 

Yet the C-HR’s rigid body is underpinned by the company’s impressive all-new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) structure that elevates the other Japanese small SUV a league or two higher than most for suspension suppleness (there’s a double wishbone rear-end back there), steering connection and chassis refinement. If it wasn’t for the anime looks, you’d swear such fluency is only the provenance of the French. If only most premium SUVs offered such cultured manners.

There’s more. The son-of-’86 six-speed manual shifter is a joy (thankfully, as it needs to be rowed quite regularly to get the most from that slick turbo powertrain), the elegant dash is a statement in sparse, solid, contemporary design, the generous packaging provides ample space for adults as well as heaps more cargo capacity than the limited CX-3, while standard kit includes adaptive cruise control, auto-high beams and AEB.

A small-SUV comparison champion within these pages, the C-HR feels and drives like it’s been over-engineered. That said, as with most cars with well-sorted steering and suspension, the Toyota’s chassis always seems like it could do with a lot more power. That unusual upswept side glasshouse and shallow rear window also limit reversing vision, forcing an over-reliance on the camera sited within a very dated and fiddly centre touchscreen. The Corolla’s latest multimedia system cannot come soon enough. Never mind. It all still works fine.

In a nutshell, then, the base C-HR manual at $26,990 is fun to just let loose in, with an eager and willing powertrain, steering connection and reactions to carve through corners quickly and suspension travel to glide over urban bumps beautifully. Don’t be fooled by the bold and brash exterior looks; this Toyota small SUV is anything but superficial. 

Mediums well done: Ford Escape Ambiente and Holden Equinox LS

SLIGHTLY random fact: the Ford Escape and Holden Equinox are dimensionally roughly equal to their respective early Falcon and EJ/EH ancestors of the 1960s. And therein lies an amazing coincidence (or is it truth?) about medium SUVs – they actually represent the size and footprint Australians have always loved. No wonder families across the land are flocking to them.

Not these two, though. Both have struggled to gain traction with consumers despite keen pricing, very competitive packaging, progressive dynamic characteristics and above-average aftersales care. 
What gives, Australia?

Read next: Medium-size SUV Megatest: Introduction

We’ve long banged on about how underrated the German-engineered, Spanish-made Escape (and its pre-facelift Kuga predecessor) has been since launching in 2013, and in $28,990 Ambiente manual guise, few mid-sized crossovers are as delightful. The 2016 makeover ushered in a welcome dash overhaul with Ford’s excellent SYNC3 multimedia interface, topping a long list of features that also includes sat-nav, DAB+ digital radio, climate control and – since MY18 – AEB and alloy wheels.

That’s the basics covered and then some – and that’s before taking in the excellent driving position, fine front seats, spacious interior and sizeable cargo area.

However, the Ambiente 1.5 turbo FWD manual’s best-kept secret is its lovely, measured steering, providing the sort of crisp handling and balanced, secure roadholding that enthusiasts can sink their teeth into, coupled with superb damping, for a ride quality that – as with the Toyota C-HR’s – would embarrass most similarly sized luxury-badged medium SUVs. Ford’s engineering prowess is fierce.

Read next: New SUV models coming to Australia in 2019

Technically, the agreeable six-speed torque-converter auto (as pictured) is $500 over our limit, but we implore keener drivers to just try the rarely purchased six-speed manual as well before signing a dotted line. Working seamlessly with the quick and creamy 110kW/240Nm 1.5-litre four-pot turbo, it helps connect car and driver, for an inclusive, involving drive. The same DNA that makes the Focus and Mondeo so great behind the wheel is also all over the Escape. Just more so when there’s a clutch involved.

In some ways, the $27,990 Equinox LS 1.5 turbo FWD – based on the GM Delta platform that spawned the current Astra range – is an even more impressive effort, since it offers a longer, larger and more family-friendly body for less money.

Unlike the Ford, the Holden has benefitted from a generous dose of local Aussie tuning down at Lang Lang, providing a level of steering and handling alacrity and control that would be familiar to owners of the Commodore. Though not quite on the same finesse level as the Escape, the Equinox feels terrifically tied down. Much more than just a Mexican-made Chevrolet, then.

That sporty Astra connection is evident in the other car-like ways this big mid-sizer hustles along, from the peaky 127kW/275Nm 1.5-litre turbo’s love of revs to the long-throw shifter. Find an especially fast set of bends and this LS will soon have you forgetting you’re in such a family-focused machine. 

While on the latter point, you’ll struggle to find a more spacious contender for the cash, whether carting kids of all ages or cargo of all configurations, while the interior’s design and execution – while unexciting – is practical. The better-equipped Ford does feel more European inside, but the Holden’s hardier (and admittedly cheaper-feeling) plastics give it a wipe-down usefulness.

So, in a segment that is now the biggest-selling in the entire industry, why are Aussies ignoring these two? Is it the Escape’s awkward tippy-toed stance? The Equinox’s slightly watered-down styling that makes it look like an Alamo rental out of LAX? As the dynamic-duo Ambiente and LS demonstrate, both deserve better than that.