On Autos: Subcompact crossover class grows and improves

The 2018 Ford EcoSport is one of several newly introduced subcompact crossovers. Photo by Brady Holt.

Regular readers of On Autos have seen many subcompact crossovers reviewed in this space. These vehicles deliver the useful cargo space and elevated seating positions of an SUV, and are often available with all-wheel-drive, but they’re particularly small, easy to park and fuel-efficient.

Recent write-ups have detailed the pros and cons of the Hyundai Kona (flashy, affordable and fun to drive, but not especially roomy), Subaru Crosstrek (comfortable and hardy, but very similar to the less expensive Subaru Impreza), Nissan Rogue Sport (spacious and quiet, but unexciting), Kia Soul (extra affordable and spacious, but with no all-wheel-drive), Mazda CX-3 (sporty and relatively luxurious, but especially cramped), and Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X (brimming with personality but with disappointing fuel economy).

Many of these models rely on eye-catching looks to win buyers for whom a tiny size is more of a liability than an asset. However, here in Northwest, these city-friendly dimensions are a bonus when you park on the street or negotiate awkward garages.

The 2018 Nissan Kicks delivers a spacious interior and 33 miles per gallon at a starting price of just $19,535. Photo by Brady Holt.

One new model focuses more on function than form, bringing a relatively roomy interior, phenomenal fuel economy and an agreeable around-town driving experience. That’s the 2018 Nissan Kicks, which replaces the sporty, bizarrely styled and less-than-spacious Juke as the brand’s smallest and least expensive crossover.

The Kicks made a positive impression during a brief preview drive last fall, and a weeklong test this month confirmed that this is a standout city car that combines many crossover virtues with the low price and excellent fuel economy of a compact sedan.

It was all-new for 2018 and currently starts at $19,535 — exceptional for a decently equipped crossover, whose standard equipment includes a touchscreen infotainment system and automatic emergency braking. Even more impressive, it’s rated at 33 miles per gallon in mixed driving, and the tested Kicks did better still at 35 mpg.

The Kicks doesn’t force you to give up interior space for fuel economy. You sit up decently high on comfortable seats, and four adults can fit without feeling unduly pinched. There’s also 25 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat and 53 cubic feet with it folded down — better than some larger crossovers, and far more than you’ll get in most subcompacts.

The Kicks doesn’t feel like a luxury car, but it’s well-finished and pleasant to drive. Cabin materials aren’t built to dazzle, but there are enough pleasant textures — particularly in the spots you’ll most likely touch — to keep things from feeling aggressively cut-rate.

It’s not terribly powerful. The Kicks achieves its exceptional fuel economy via a little engine: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with no turbocharger and just 125 horsepower. The Kicks is light enough that it’s surprisingly peppy around town, only getting weaker on the highway. The vehicle’s lightness also makes it more susceptible to highway-speed crosswinds than most of today’s crossovers, but it’s nothing extreme. The steering is responsive and handling is agile, and the suspension absorbs potholes well. Only the highway ride gets a little busy.

There’s no all-wheel-drive, and it’s not as extroverted as some of its competitors, but the Kicks is a standout value overall.

The 2018 Ford EcoSport combines the height of a bigger crossover along with an extra-short length. Photo by Brady Holt.

A competitor with more personality is the 2018 Ford EcoSport. It comes to the U.S. after being designed for emerging markets such as India and South America, where a subcompact crossover is usually little more than just a tall hatchback.

The EcoSport has the flavor of a 1996 Toyota RAV4 of Geo Tracker — fun and hardy, rather than inoffensively smooth and quiet like most of today’s crossovers. It also reflects those models’ stubby proportions, and it’s even available with a ’90s-throwback spare tire mounted on the cargo door.

The EcoSport is taller than most of its subcompact competitors, so you get a more traditional SUV-like high seating position. However, at 161 inches, its length is one of the shortest of any crossover today — valuable for parallel parking.

Its suspension allows the EcoSport to bounce over bumps, and the tested vehicle’s four-cylinder engine is rough-sounding and relatively fuel-thirsty. Front-wheel-drive EcoSports use a smoother turbocharged three-cylinder engine that also gets slightly better fuel economy than the all-wheel-drive’s four-cylinder: 28 mpg versus 25 mpg. However, none of those figures are impressive for a small crossover.

Inside, the EcoSport’s generally plain cabin is spruced up with colorful trim pieces and, on most models, a large 8-inch touchscreen. The front seats look flat but are pleasantly supportive. The rear has a comfortable cushion but very little legroom, a consequence of the tiny length.

Cargo space is at least respectable due to the high roof: 21 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 50 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. However, folding the seat requires an extra step compared to most competitors, and the swing-out sideways-opening cargo door is a pain if you’re parked on the street.

EcoSport prices start at $20,990 — though can approach $30,000 — and advanced safety features like automatic emergency braking aren’t available. But if you like the little Ford’s personality, it can still be an agreeable vehicle at a decent price.

The 2019 Toyota C-HR trades maximum cargo capacity for concept-car styling. Photo by Brady Holt.

The same goes for another subcompact crossover: the Toyota C-HR.

The C-HR debuted as a 2018 model, getting attention for bringing concept-car styling to a relatively affordable price point. It’s relatively long and low — the opposite proportions of the Ford EcoSport — looking like a coupe that’s wearing lifts. Toyota hides the rear door handles to further the sporty-looking effect.

Rather than driving like a sports car, though, the C-HR keeps things pleasant but anonymous from behind the wheel. It feels more heavy and substantial than other subcompact crossovers, but it also loses the Kicks’ and EcoSport’s spunky agility. The weight does blunt acceleration and fuel economy from the 144-horsepower engine, though it’s still decent at 29 mpg in mixed driving.

Sporty styling doesn’t make the C-HR into a sporty car; rather, it cuts into the vehicle’s utility. Cargo space is a decent 19 cubic feet behind the rear seat — due to the Toyota’s relative length — but it expands only to a maximum of 36 cubic feet and is too low to fit the bulkiest items.

When The Current reviewed a 2018 C-HR, further complaints included a dated infotainment system, a tiny rearview camera display and a small range of optional features. Toyota did fix these issues for 2019, adding a larger and more sophisticated 8-inch touchscreen with an integrated backup camera display, and creating new base-level and luxury-grade trims. However, there’s still no available all-wheel-drive. Prices start at $22,400.

To see more photos of the tested 2018 Ford EcoSport and the 2018 Nissan Kicks and 2019 Toyota C-HR, you can visit Brady Holt’s Facebook page. Brady Holt writes weekly car reviews, too.