On Autos: Subcompact crossovers deliver city-friendly value

0
The 2018 Hyundai Kona is one of three recently tested crossovers whose scaled-down dimensions help them fit nicely into crowded city streets. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Hyundai Kona is one of three recently tested crossovers whose scaled-down dimensions help them fit nicely into crowded city streets. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

The subcompact crossover market segment has exploded with options in recent years, with more automakers providing mini-SUVs that are a size smaller than the best-selling Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, or Ford Escape. 

Such vehicles make perfect sense in D.C. Compact dimensions make for easier parking and maneuverability, even as SUV body styles offer useful amounts of cargo room. Higher ride heights than ordinary passenger cars can help cushion the impact of a potholed street. And available all-wheel-drive can help you get traction in your slushy alley.

But even as automakers scrambled to enter this class, many of the vehicles they created were either flawed or filled only small niches. There’s the spacious but cheap-feeling, noisy Honda HR-V.

There’s the upscale but cramped Mazda CX-3, a crossover without the utility. There’s the Toyota C-HR, that’s funky to look at but hard to see out of, and which doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive. The Nissan Rogue Sport brought a pleasant driving experience and spacious cabin but mediocre fuel efficiency. The list goes on.

Three new models aim to exploit the full potential of the subcompact crossover. None is perfect. But the redesigned 2018 Subaru Crosstrek, the new 2018 Hyundai Kona, the new 2018 Nissan Kicks all present appealing city-friendly options.

Subaru Crosstrek

Let’s start with the Crosstrek, which has become familiar on Northwest streets. Like the first-generation Crosstrek, the 2018 model is a modified version of Subaru’s Impreza hatchback with a higher ground clearance, bigger wheels and some extra decorative elements — creating the impression of a hardy little car that would happily scamper through snow or mud.

It’s not fluff. Subaru is known for its all-wheel-drive systems. And the Crosstrek’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance trounces most competitors. The Subaru’s comfortable on-road ride also stands apart from the subcompact crossover class.

Since it started life as an Impreza, the Crosstrek is shaped differently from most of its competitors, proportioned with a longer nose and lower roof. You also don’t sit high above the dashboard. But the interior trumps most competitors for comfort and cargo volume, even if it doesn’t feel much like an SUV on the inside.

The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek combines comfort and capability, even as some competitors edge it out for performance and affordability. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek combines comfort and capability, even as some competitors edge it out for performance and affordability. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Despite its complete redesign for 2018, though, the Crosstrek doesn’t look or feel especially new. The exterior styling changed little from the previous generation, and the cabin is drab — save for a slick-looking and useful touchscreen infotainment system. An available orange paint job does help the Crosstrek stand out visually.

The 152-horsepower engine delivers improved fuel economy over last year’s model (29 mpg in mixed driving) but isn’t especially peppy or quiet, even as a sensitive throttle makes the Crosstrek want to jump forward at the slightest touch. Nor does the Crosstrek match many of its competitors’ focus on sporty handling.

But as the previous Crosstrek’s success indicates, radical updates weren’t necessary. There’s still above-average roominess, comfort and capability bundled into this small, relatively affordable package. Crosstrek prices start at $22,710. And it’s the only crossover in its class with all-wheel-drive as standard equipment. Do shop it against the less expensive and more fuel-efficient Impreza before buying, however.

Hyundai Kona

If you’re interested in something edgier or less expensive than the Crosstrek, Hyundai’s new Kona brings generous standard equipment at a base price of just $20,480. Aggressively modern styling won’t suit everyone’s tastes. But some folks are bound to love the sporty smirk of its slim headlights and taillights, along with the take-a-beating image of its gray plastic cladding.

Aside from its funky looks, the Kona focuses on sensible user-friendliness and value. It also has an overall sense of solidity that belies its bargain pricing. The Kona’s cabin isn’t fancy. But it’s solidly assembled and has up-to-date technology and refreshingly straightforward controls. It’s not especially roomy. But like other subcompact crossovers, it offers more utility than a similarly priced sedan. Four adults can fit without much squeezing.

The Kona also boosts relatively sporty driving dynamics. Steering and handling are responsive, without an overly stiff ride. An available 175-horsepower turbocharged engine is smooth and punchy. But even the base 147-horsepower model gets the job done. From the driver’s seat, the Kona feels more like a hatchback than an SUV, for better or for worse.

Nissan Kicks

For slightly more of an SUV vibe — though from a vehicle that’s no SUV mechanically — the Nissan Kicks offers truly outstanding value and fuel-efficiency, along with a roomy cabin, a moderately elevated seating position and a less polarizing design than the Kona. It provides ample standard equipment for just $18,985. And it’s rated at 33 mpg in mixed driving. That’s better than many small sedans.

The 2018 Nissan Kicks combines outstanding value with unobjectionable competence in the bustling subcompact crossover class. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.
The 2018 Nissan Kicks combines outstanding value with unobjectionable competence in the bustling subcompact crossover class. Photo courtesy of Brady Holt.

Based on a brief preview drive, the Kicks has unremarkable performance from its little 125-horsepower engine. But it rides and handles pleasantly. While it’s not flashy to look at like the Kona, it similarly avoids seeming like a sad, basic car you’d have to settle for.

There’s no available all-wheel-drive, making the Kicks even more like a mere tall hatchback than its competitors. This is more of a useful car than an SUV. But it packs space for four adults to ride comfortably and carry some cargo, all into a package that fits easily into small parking spots. Overall, it shows promise as one of the best budget-friendly city cars on sale today.

If you want to see more photos of the tested 2018 Hyundai Kona and the 2018 Nissan Kicks, you can visit Brady Holt’s Facebook page. Brady Holt writes weekly car reviews, too.