Best of the latest mini SUVs put to comparison test
POPULARITY isn't everything but it must mean you're doing something right. The baby SUV market is booming at the moment, largely because these high-riding hatchbacks have almost universal appeal.
For young buyers, they are small enough to squeeze into tight city lanes and parking spots, while still offering the promise of adventure in the great outdoors. For the young at heart but creaky of joint, they are easy to get in and out of and can still carry a couple of grandkids.
Never mind the fact that they are generally overpriced and underdone - and a hatchback will do the same or better job for less money.
Hyundai, Australia's No. 3 brand, has just entered the fray with the Kona, which is based on the i30 hatchback. If history is anything to go by, it will be at the pointy end of the popularity contest. So what better combatants than the top two selling vehicles in this segment, Mazda's CX-3 and Mitsubishi's ASX?
It's rare that a Hyundai enters a contest against two Japanese rivals as the most expensive option but the Kona does just that, asking $1000 more than the Mitsubishi and roughly $800 more than the Mazda.
For that you get a seven-inch multimedia screen that will mirror your smartphone, leather-wrapped steering wheel, digital speedo and reversing camera with guidelines.
What you don't get is automated emergency braking, which is standard on the CX-3. Hyundai adds the technology to a $1500 safety pack that also includes lane departure warning, blind zone monitoring and rear cross traffic alert.
The Kona Active we're testing is a modestly powered 2.0-litre four-cylinder matched to a conventional six-speed auto. The combination provides reasonable acceleration, although it requires a healthy dose of right foot to get things moving.
A sports mode is claimed to sharpen the steering, hold lower gears longer and make the throttle more responsive but we found the steering feel was better in normal mode.
Of the three, the Hyundai has the best compromise between cornering ability and comfort, soaking up bumps and road imperfections well while making a decent fist of slowing and changing direction without pitching or leaning.
It feels more refined than the Mazda and Mitsubishi, due no doubt to the fact that it's based on the same underpinnings as Hyundai's impressive new i30.
Inside, the Hyundai is a mixed bag. The screen hooks up to Apple iPhones and Android smartphones, giving you access to voice-activated emails and Google Maps.
The seats are comfortable and there's a handy information display between the tacho and speedo, which also houses the digital speedometer.
Headroom, rear legroom and shoulder room are above average for the class, while the rear load area is reasonably generous.
However, hard plastics abound - there's no padding for the elbows on the armrests and no storage pockets on the backs of the front seats.
The CX-3 Neo is roughly $900 cheaper than the Hyundai but the cabin does little to disguise the fact it's the cheapest model in the range. Its competitors have touchscreens but the Neo does without - instead there's a thin strip on top of the dash with graphics that resemble the bingo number display at your local RSL.
The readout in front of the driver is similarly low-tech, with an old-style analog speedo, while there's no covered storage bin in between the front seats. The penny-pinching continues in the rear seat, where it misses out on its rivals' fold-down armrest with cupholders.
Rear leg, shoulder and headroom is tighter than the other two and the rear load area is smaller, with a higher load lip and narrower opening. The Mazda has steel wheels, its rivals have alloys.
The Mazda makes up ground once you hit the open road, where it is the most engaging to hustle through the bends. The steering is sharp and it feels more eager to change direction, sitting flat and stable through the corners.
Enhancing the driving experience, the intuitive six-speed transmission picks the right gear to keep the 2.0-litre four-cylinder on the move. Select sports mode and the CX-3 will drop down a gear when you brake for a corner, ensuring you have plenty of power on tap on your way out.
It's also the only one of these three that will hit the brakes if it senses an imminent collision. Unique in this class, it will also hit the brakes if it senses an obstacle when you're reversing, which makes up for the also unique lack of a reversing camera. It's also the only one with stop-start technology, which shuts down the engine when you're stopped at the lights, making the Mazda the most frugal of this trio.
The ASX is the surprise packet of the baby SUV market. It sells up a storm, thanks to a sharp drive-away price ($1000 less than the Kona) and a generous equipment list that runs to Apple CarPlay/Android auto and seven-inch touchscreen.
It's the only one here that lets you set the temperature in degrees, rather than simply choose between hot and cold, while it matches the Hyundai's five-year warranty.
The ASX also scores points for having soft-touch surfaces on the dash and doors, with padded elbow rests for front and rear passengers.
The cabin is spacious, with the most knee and headroom of these three, while the rear load area is also the largest. It's not perfect, though - the touchscreen is fiddly to use and some of the knobs and switches feel a little cheap.
Automated emergency braking is part of a $1500 pack that includes lane departure warning, auto wipers and dusk-sensing headlights with auto high-beam.
The ASX misses out on seatbelt warnings for the rear seats.
The ASX has bigger 18-inch wheels and they do it no favours on pockmarked city streets, where the ride feels busy at low speeds.
The continuously variable transmission does a good job of keeping the four-cylinder engine on the boil, but it is more intrusive than its rivals. Combined with more tyre and suspension noise, it doesn't make for the most serene of cabins.
The ASX is competent, if not overly engaging, on a winding road. The steering lacks the feel of the Mazda and Hyundai, but it settles well after big bumps and sits flat through corners.
In the rain, it doesn't feel composed when you accelerate out of corners, occasionally scrabbling for grip and tugging on the steering wheel.
It will also skip over corrugations, which can make it a handful in the wet.
The Mazda is the most fun to steer, with welcome driver assistance tech but lack of equipment, higher service costs and shorter warranty count against it. The Mitsubishi is great value, with the most comprehensive list of comfort features, but it lacks the others' on-road poise . The Hyundai's plastics look cheap but it combines value, impressive road manners and a strong ownership story.
PRICE $25,990 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/100,000km, $720 over 3 years
ENGINE 2.0-litre, 4-cyl, 110kW/197Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, rear-view camera
MAZDA CX-3 NEO
PRICE $26,100 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 years/100,000km, $1400 over 3 years
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 109kW/192Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, rear-view camera
HYUNDAI KONA ACTIVE
PRICE $27,000 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/unlimited km, $777 over 3 years
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 110kW/180Nm
SAFETY 6 airbags, not yet rated, rear-view camera