The best compact SUV with personality revealed
THE concept of a fresh and funky small car promising high-riding adventure is nothing new - Toyota gave us that option with the original RAV4 25 years ago.
But the recent rush to SUVs triggered a wave of compact crossovers for people who don't want another hatchback. Most major brands are on board with the trend, joined recently by Citroen's first attempt at the theme in the new C3 Aircross.
Keen to see whether the quirky new Citroen has what it takes to compete with the best in its segment, we pitch the Aircross into battle with Subaru's XV and the Toyota C-HR.
Toyota C-HR Koba
Toyota's "coupe-high rider" follows in the wheel tracks of the original RAV4 with eye-catching looks and young folks in its crosshairs. Longer and wider than the original, the C-HR is the smallest car in this trio and at least one size smaller than the family-minded RAV4 of today.
Controversial styling with folded origami creases, boldly rendered lights and hidden doorhandles helps the C-HR stand out in conservative Toyota showrooms.
Stepping inside, the C-HR's compact steering wheel and comfortable seating are joined by a sports car-style black headliner and interesting design details in textured diamond-shaped cutouts in the doors and roof.
The creatively sculpted dashboard accommodates one of the C-HR's weak points - its 6.1-inch infotainment screen looks and feels like a cheap accessory compared to better-integrated toys from rival brands.
You get satnav and a reversing camera but it misses out on Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity found in many rivals. The sole USB point sits awkwardly next to the touchscreen.
The other bugbear: the cosy rear seat with turret-like windows, which compromise outward vision for passengers and the driver. Over-the-shoulder blind spots are significant, if mitigated by a strong list of safety features including blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and front and rear parking sensors.
Other goodies include autonomous emergency braking and active cruise control fitted as standard on all C-HR grades. The mid-range Koba tested here in front-drive/CVT form costs $33,290 plus on-roads, bringing 18-inch wheels and heated leather front seats that the Subaru and Citroen can't match at this price.
Toyota's service prices are deeply impressive too - budget $975 for five years of maintenance, a good $1400 less than the other two.
Powered by a 1.2-litre four-cylinder turbo, the C-HR feels peppier than its modest 85kW/185Nm outputs might suggest. Impressively refined, the engine can be a little dozy at times and isn't helped by a need for premium fuel.
Riding lower to the ground than the Citroen or Subaru, the C-HR trades desert-crossing versatility for road manners to rival the best hatchbacks. A supple ride meets well-controlled bodyroll and decent bite from Yokohama rubber.
For our money, it's the best of this trio to drive.
The straight man of this trio, the conservatively styled XV takes pride in its versatility. It has high ground clearance, protective underbody cladding and highly regarded all-wheel drive (not available on the Citroen and a $2000 option at Toyota).
It will go further off-road than just about anything else in its class, save for the likes of Suzuki's unarguably compromised Jimny.
Subaru can also claim to build one of the safest cars in the category thanks to a combination of AEB, active cruise control and lane keeping assistance fitted to the XV 2.0i-Premium tested here.
Priced from $32,440 plus on-road costs, the Subaru is the cheapest to buy. Its eight-inch infotainment screen with satnav plus Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is the best of this lot, smooth in both form and function within a spacious cabin.
Dull at first glance, the XV's cabin draws you in with design details such as orange stitching, faux carbon-fibre trim and premium cloth seats with supportive bolsters. Superior rear seat accommodation includes the only arm rest here, though none has air vents aft.
On the road, the XV feels solid and stable. Heavy and numb steering combines with all-wheel drive traction to bring big-car surefootedness - it feels unflappable in everyday driving.
But the Subaru loses points under the bonnet for a hard-worked 2.0-litre engine that sounds wheezy and coarse compared with less powerful turbo rivals. Outputs of 115kW/196Nm look strong on paper but the car's mass and continuously variable transmission drag the chain.
Subaru's CVT isn't a great one. It dulls driver inputs, whines at high engine speeds and produces an unsettling rocking sensation on part throttle in stop-start traffic.
It's also the thirstiest car here and the one with the least boot storage.
Citroen C3 Aircross
Cargo space isn't a problem for the C3 Aircross, which benefits from a clever variable-height boot floor bringing more space than other contenders.
Other practical features include a clever shelf in front of the passenger and a wireless charging pad for modern smartphones - though a lack of cup holders upfront is irritating.
There's only one model to pick for the $32,990 ask, and it comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen with smartphone mirroring, reversing camera and dual-zone climate control. Citroen ditched dedicated aircon buttons in a bid to tidy up the dashboard, adding an extra step to simple functions such as turning up the fan speed. It wins back points with a head-up display rarely found in rivals.
The cabin looks sharp, with premium cloth material and a ubiquitous design theme of squared-off circles (or "squircles"). The theme continues outside, where the Aircross's funky looks divided friends at a Sunday barbecue.
It certainly stands out and is at least practical - with a big boot and huge windows flooding the cabin with light - compared to the Toyota. Australian models feature coloured trim for the mirrors, wheels and rear side windows, adding further funk to the visual jazz on hand.
A high roofline endows plenty of headroom in the front and rear, though Citroen's flat seats are the least comfy when cornering.
Top-heavy compared to its rivals, the Citroen pitches and rolls in the bends while comparatively narrow rubber can struggle for traction when accelerating.
The 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine plays an offbeat tune as when you make the most of its 81kW/205Nm outputs, feeling characterful if unrefined in this company. But its six-speed auto is jerky and can be reluctant to shift down on inclines.
Soft suspension thumps over big bumps, a $2727 bill for five years of servicing is high by segment standards, and a lack of active cruise control or idle-stop fuel-saving tech may disappoint.
As with the Toyota and Subaru, the Aircross benefits from a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty which has become the new standard for mainstream models.
Bringing design flair and a touch of charm, the C3 Aircross stacks up well though the C-HR strikes an impressive balance between style and substance for couples who rarely use the rear seat. The spacious, safe and practical XV wins by ticking the most boxes.
Toyota C-HR Koba
Price: $33,290 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $975 for 5 years
Engine: 1.2-litre 4-cyl turbo, 85kW/185Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, active cruise control, lane departure and collision warning
Citroen C3 Aircross
Price: $32,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $2727 for 5 years
Engine: 1.2-litre 3-cyl turbo, 81kW/205Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring
Price: $32,440 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $2407 over 5 years
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 115kW/196Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, active cruise control, lane keeping assistance