The growing number of subcompact crossovers tells us that the wonderful world of automobiles is many things, and “democratic” is undoubtedly one of them. That mix of a petite footprint with a higher-than-usual driving position — along with a helping of practicality, the option of all-wheel drive, and (occasionally) semi-rugged styling — is perfect for some people. And car companies are ever more willing to indulge those buyers.
Small crossovers are indeed the next big thing. And to back up that claim, here are 10 reasons why.
Subcompact crossovers are typically based on subcompact cars. In the HR-V’s case, it’s the versatile and well-thought-out Honda Fit. Which means the location of the gas tank is under the front seats, freeing up the interior for some genuinely useful combinations of folded seats (even the front passenger seat folds down) and appreciable load space. Maximum cargo volume is 58.8 cubic feet, more than some crossovers the next size up.
Straying from the Fit’s playbook, the HR-V’s interior uses better-quality materials. And, because it’s heavier, the HR-V relies on a 141-hp, 1.8-liter engine (as opposed to the Fit’s 1.5). Equipment levels are attractive, even the basic LX model gets 17-inch alloy wheels, LED tail lights and a rearview camera as standard.
Photo by Honda
The Encore was one of the first in this niche, starting with the 2013 model year. It looks like the 2016 model year will have a mid-cycle refresh. Being a Buick, it brings a little upscale ambience to the subcompact crossover, as illustrated by the seven-inch full color display screen for the infotainment system, blue ambient lighting, plus wood and chrome trim highlights. And those are just a few of the standard features.
The Encore’s 1.4-liter turbocharged engine makes 138 hp, a fairly conservative output that doesn’t make too many demands of the mechanicals. But the upside is advantageous fuel economy of 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. And for a small car, it packs no less than 10 airbags.
In that grand General Motors tradition of making the same car and putting on different badges, then tweaking the interiors to create some differences, the Chevy Trax is really a more accessible Buick Encore. No bad thing, as it happens, since the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine returns 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway while dishing out 138 hp.
The interior is more modest than the Buick’s, with things like cloth seats in the basic model and one-touch up/down function for the driver’s window only, but there is a difference of around $4,000 between the sticker prices of the respective base models. Even so, the Trax still has 10 airbags, gets five stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cars test program and named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
If any more proof were needed about the growing importance of subcompact crossovers, look no further than the Renegade. That this is the first real fruit of the merger between the Chrysler group and Fiat is indicative of where the trend is going. Where many cars of this class tend to be aimed predominantly at the city driver, the Renegade calls on its Jeep heritage to present a more rugged look.
It’s not just appearance, either. The kind of off-roading hardware we’re used to seeing in Jeeps — like full-time all-wheel drive, low-range gearing, skid plates and tow hooks — are also available in versions of the Renegade. Engine choices are a 160-hp 1.4 turbo or a 180-hp 2.4 (linked to a nine-speed automatic transmission). Ironically, the Renegade could be the city dwellers’ choice because of its character.
Photo by Benjamin Hunting
This is the other side of the Fiat/Chrysler/Jeep Renegade coin. If the Jeep version has outdoorsy appeal, the FIAT 500X (based on the same platform) will woo buyers with its more sophisticated personality. And it definitely has a personality, in contrast to some of the efficient-yet-cold offerings coming over from the Far East.
The styling has that familiar Fiat face (although this car is not based on the 500 hatchback) and the interior is similarly stylish with pleasant dashboard shapes — even if it is built to a budget. In common with the Renegade, engine choices are a 1.4 turbo making 160 hp or a 2.4 good for 180 hp and paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The latter will probably be the most popular choice in the United States.
Based on the newest generation of the Mazda2 subcompact car, the CX-3 (in front-wheel-drive form) was recently rated by the EPA at 29 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, which is better than anything else in its class. The all-wheel-drive version still gets 27/32 from the 146-hp 2.0-liter engine that powers the whole CX-3 range.
Current Mazda vehicles are winning fans because of their styling. Naturally, that’s a subjective call, but the way they drive — sharp, fun, peppy — usually seals the deal. Well, that and the pricing. The CX-3 goes on sale this summer and should be a typical member of the Mazda family.
In a democracy, even the people with more money to spend should be considered. Going upmarket in a BMW is still possible for the subcompact crossover buyer. The X1 is going through a transition. The current but outgoing version, which debuted in the United States for the 2013 model year, is based on the 3 Series sedan. Just like the X3. So that sort of makes the X1 too big to count. But it’s still smaller than the X3, so let’s keep it in.
When the 2016 model arrives (fall 2015) as a new generation, it will be based on the same platform as the Mini. But it’s said to be roomier than the vehicle it replaces, thanks to clever packaging. It’s also lighter, which will help with fuel consumption and performance. At first, the new X1 comes with all-wheel drive. And no doubt there will be a difference of at least $10,000 between this and non-premium offerings. But it will have more power as well.
It could be argued that Mini started off this whole trend by lifting and stretching the regular Cooper hatchback, then adding two rear passenger doors and sliding an (optional) all-wheel drive system underneath. The Countryman received a revamp for the 2015 model year: new design of grille and alloy wheels, a better infotainment system…the kinds of little things that keep a car fresh.
Not that any Mini has any real trouble staying fresh. The styling is always individual, inside and out, and the driving experience could even be described as bubbly. Options for personalization are many and varied. Mini occupies a notch above the mainstream in terms of premium touches and prices, so exercise some restraint when checking those little boxes.
Photo by MINI
Also in the vanguard of small crossovers, the Juke was updated for the 2015 model year. The cabin has an upgraded infotainment system. And the exterior sees a tweaked nose and tail, although that might be hard to discern since the Juke has such crazy styling anyway.
Crazy can be good or bad, depending on individual taste. But there’s nothing else that looks like it and there are more ways to personalize those looks. The point in its favor is the fact that the Juke has substance beneath the surface. It’s a fun drive, especially the 215-hp Nismo RS version. However, some have found the Juke’s ride a little too stiff and the cabin somewhat noisy for their tastes.
Photo by Nissan
Okay, this last one is a bit of a cheat. The EcoSport is sold in several parts of the world, but not the United States. The people at Ford aren’t dim, so there’s probably a good reason. But with the other two of the Big Three domestic car makers each offering a pair of subcompact crossovers, how long can the Blue Oval afford to stay away from this party?
It’s based on the Fiesta, which is but one of their great-handling front-drive cars — good enough to challenge the Mini. So the hardware is there. Even if the EcoSport as it currently exists wouldn’t pass federal regulations, to adapt a Fiesta platform in the same way that Madza has done with its CX-3 is well within Ford’s capabilities. All it needs is a better name.