COMPARISON TEST: Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V
SALES of small SUVs continue to rise as buyers switch to high-riding hatches with a better view of the road ahead - and the promise of getting away for the weekend.
There are more than two dozen choices in this congested class but these three are among the top sellers - and they have just had a facelift. Here's how they compare.
The idea of a city-sized SUV might seem new but Mitsubishi's ASX is an old hand. It arrived in 2010 and is now one of the oldest in the category, yet age has not wearied it - it's the top seller. The ASX has received numerous updates over the years but the most recent is also the most significant.
Mitsubishi has added city-speed autonomous emergency braking to all but the base model and engineers have put a spanner on the suspension to make it drive better than before.
We're testing the LS, second up from the base grade at $28,990 drive-away.
It comes with sensor key and push-button start, rear camera and sensors, tinted rear glass, power folding side mirrors, dusk-sensing headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
The seven-inch touchscreen has Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and digital radio, though not built-in navigation.
Under the bonnet is a familiar 2.0-litre four-cylinder matched to a continuously variable transmission. It's not the briskest among its peers but it's zippy enough for city and suburban driving.
According to the fuel rating label it's thirstier than the others but all three cars returned similar consumption figures of 8L-10L/100km on regular unleaded on test.
The driver's seat is quite high - even for an SUV, and despite being in the lowest setting. Tall drivers or those with long legs might find the seat doesn't slide back far enough.
None of these cars are limousine-quiet but the tyres on the ASX are a touch noisier than the others in this rowdy bunch.
The suspension tweak has endowed better control so that the ASX is less floaty and less prone to crashing through bumps. It's not class-leading but it's much more enjoyable and surefooted to drive.
The steering can be a bit too direct at cruising speeds or when tackling a winding road. However, the sensitivity is helpful in car parks and roundabouts.
Mazda hit the ground running when the CX-3 went on sale in 2015. It shot to the top of the class sales charts in its first full year in showrooms.
Buyers love its striking looks; most are surprised to learn it's a Mazda2 hatch under the skin. Even the dashboard and instrument cluster are shared.
The vast CX-3 range has petrol or diesel power. We're testing the second model up, the Maxx Sport petrol from $27,490 drive-away.
The recent midlife update is distinguished by a bold grille and subtle changes to the suspension.
Standard safety kit on this grade now includes city-speed autonomous braking, rear AEB, blind zone warning, rear cross-traffic alert and rear camera and sensors.
Comfort and convenience items include push-button start, digital radio, built-in navigation and Stitcher and Aha music streaming apps - but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not included.
As the smallest of this trio, the CX-3 has the least storage in the cabin and cargo hold.
Rear space is particularly tight - sitting behind my own driving position, my knees touch the seat.
Tall drivers, however, will appreciate how far the driver's seat can push back; it has the most travel of the three.
The interior presents well in the brochure but once behind the wheel the hard plastics on the dash and doors are apparent. Mazda has even penny-pinched by deleting lights from the vanity mirrors in the sun visors.
The biggest ace up the Mazda's sleeve is its perky performance - the most power delivered via a conventional six-speed auto in the lightest body makes for a zippy ride.
However, improvements to the suspension don't quite go far enough. The CX-3 still feels a bit floaty over bumps, in a way that at times doesn't feel reassuring.
The HR-V has taken a while to gain momentum since it arrived in 2015. Sales have see-sawed according to price.
Honda initially tried to charge big dollars for its smallest SUV but has since come back to earth.
We're testing the base VTi which at $27,490 drive-away lines up dollar-for-dollar with the Mazda and undercuts the Mitsubishi by $1500.
Standard fare includes city autonomous braking, rear camera (though not rear sensors) and electric park brake.
There's still an old-school ignition key rather than push-button start. The touchscreen lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, although it does have built-in navigation.
Visual changes include a bold new grille and premium headlights.
As with the others tested, there's no digital speed display but the instrument cluster is the clearest of the trio.
The steering wheel has a rubber rim rather than leather and the cabin plastics look and feel cheap. On the plus side the door pockets, centre console and glovebox are generously sized.
The rear seat space and cargo hold are best in class. The second row "magic seats" stow flat at the pull of a lever to create a mini van.
Vision in all directions is excellent thanks to the large glass area and large wide-view side mirrors.
Where the HR-V truly shines is the way it drives. It may share its underpinnings with the Jazz hatchback but Honda has done an admirable job of disguising its origins.
The 1.8-litre four-cylinder paired with a CVT is no slingshot but the steering feel is the most linear and intuitive of these three and comfort on rough roads is up there with the best. The HR-V deals with bumps before settling quickly, ready for the next hurdle.
Grip in corners is surprisingly good - it feels as if you're hugging the road.
The Mitsubishi ASX will continue to win buyers but it doesn't win this contest primarily because of price. Technology upgrades make the Mazda CX-3 a compelling proposition but there's still room for improvement in the way it drives. The Honda HR-V wins because it's the roomiest, best to drive and, long-term, would be the easiest to live with.
HONDA HR-V VTi
PRICE $27,490 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/unlimited, 12 month/10,000km service intervals, $1463 over three years/40,000km
ENGINE 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 105kW/172Nm
SAFETY 6 airbags, city autonomous braking, rear camera, lane departure warning, forward crash alert
THIRST 6.7L/100km (regular unleaded)
SPARE Space saver
MAZDA CX-3 MAXX SPORT
PRICE $27,490 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/unlimited, 12 month/10,000km service intervals, $1477 over three years/40,000km
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 110kW/195Nm
SAFETY 6 airbags, city autonomous braking, rear AEB, rear camera and sensors, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert
THIRST 6.3L/100km (regular unleaded)
SPARE Space saver
MITSUBISHI ASX LS
PRICE $28,990 drive-away
WARRANTY/SERVICE 5 years/100,000km, 12 month/15,000km service intervals, $720 over three years/45,000km
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 100kW/197Nm
SAFETY 7 airbags, city autonomous braking, rear camera and sensors, lane departure warning
THIRST 7.6L/100km (regular unleaded)
SPARE Space saver
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling