On Your Radar: Sub-Compact Utilities

On Your Radar: Sub-Compact Utilities

By Randy Lioz, Editor, Car-ED.com | December 2017

Auto show season kicked off last Friday, when the LA Auto Show opened to the public. It features 20 world debuts and runs until December 10th at the LA Convention Center. If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, going to one of the shows in the coming months—whether it be one of the big ones in Detroit, New York or Chicago, or a smaller regional show—is a great way to see what’s out there.

Whatever segment you happen to be looking in, there are no doubt several vehicles that just aren’t on your radar. In a new series of posts, we wanted to take a look at some popular segments and point out a few entries that might not have caught your attention, but are definitely worth looking into. We start with one of the hottest segments in the industry, which has been growing quickly in both offerings and sales.

The Sub-Compact Utility Segment

What is it?

These cute utes are often based on subcompact cars—the Honda HR-V, one of the top sellers in the segment, is built off the Fit platform—offering the cargo room, increased ride height and aggressive styling of SUVs, but with reasonable fuel economy. They also usually offer all-wheel drive for buyers in colder regions.

Who is it for?

Younger buyers grew up during the explosion of the SUV market and appreciate the versatility and all-weather capability of utility vehicles, but they’re more likely to live in an urban setting—where parking is an advantage for smaller vehicles—and to be more concerned with the fuel efficiency of their chosen ride. Older buyers also tend to like the higher ride height, which offers easier entry and exit, and even a better vantage point for more confidence.

Why is it important?

This growing segment is getting more and more attention from carmakers who are seeking to capitalize on the shift from cars to utilities in the North American market. The intros continue to hit the market, with nearly every company fielding an entry within the next few years. These vehicles will capture more and more market share over the next decade.

The HR-V and the Jeep Renegade rule the roost, having each hit on a strong formula of style and versatility, for a modest investment. But there’s plenty of others to see in the segment on the LA show floor.

Nissan Kicks…up the value!

Nissan further expanded its presence among small SUVs in LA. The lineup started to gain traction in 2014 with the second-gen Rogue, and earlier this year the brand expanded a half step down in size with the Rogue Sport. But the Kicks, which debuted here at the LA Auto Show, is aimed more squarely at its Honda competition, with dimensions much closer to the HR-V, and a price tag that should actually undercut the Honda by at least $500.

Unique specs and content

Nissan has been very focused on its value story over the past several years, and the Kicks comes with a lot for its sub-$19,000 starting price, even including standard auto emergency braking, plus the option of several more driver assist systems that you can’t get on the Honda. You can also option up to a trim that gives you Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, missing on the HR-V.

Photo credit: Nissan

If you’ve avoided an SUV because you’re concerned that the parking task might be a bit tougher, Nissan has you covered. Not only do its compact dimensions make parking a snap, but Nissan has equipped the Kicks with its Around View Monitor, which gives you a birds-eye view to ease into your spot. Our experience with it has been excellent, and even the task of parking the fairly large Pathfinder proved a cinch.

The downsides to the Kicks include its modest power rating of 125 horses (compared to the HR-V’s 141) and the lack of available all-wheel drive. The flip-side is that you get a 33-mpg combined rating, which is best in class, and 2 up on the next-best Honda.

Pricing and availability

Word on the street is that the new Kicks will be bumping the quirky Juke from Nissan’s lineup, offering more than double the cargo volume and undercutting its price by more than $1,000 to start under $19,000. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until June of next year to get this very competitive and fuel efficient truckster.

Hyundai Kona – Surf’s Up!

Hyundai made a splash with the North American debut of the Kona, which is clearly making a play for the high-style buyer. Its front end has echoes of the Jeep Cherokee, with high-set LED accent lights and headlights placed lower in the front fascia. This was a controversial look when Jeep first introduced it, but Hyundai clearly thinks we’ve all gotten over it.

The Kona’s extroversion extends to its color lineup, with the two most outgoing shades being Surf Blue and Lime Twist, the latter clearly serving as the model’s “hero” color, meaning you’ll be seeing a lot of it in Hyundai’s ads.

Unique specs and content

Along with its visual attitude, the Kona has guts. The base 2.0L engine brings 147 hp to the party, but you can pull even further ahead of the competition with a 1.6L turbo that puts out 175 hp, and a segment-leading 195 lb-ft of torque.

The Kona has some cool features on it, too, like available wireless phone charging and heads-up display. And it will come standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, something that at this point pretty much every entry in the segment should have, but often doesn’t.

Like many of the other introductions at the show, the Kona offers several

Photo credit: Hyundai

Advanced Driver Assist Systems, though you have to go up to the SEL trim to get them. They include blind spot and rear cross-traffic warnings, and the Hyundai Smart Sense package, which can actually intervene to avoid a head-on collision or keep you in your lane.

Pricing and availability

Hyundai has said they’ll be shipping the new subcompact utility to dealers in the first few months of 2018, and pricing will be released closer to that time.

Toyota C-HR – From the big T

Toyota came into the segment earlier this year with the C-HR. It was originally slated to be a Scion before that brand folded, and is positioned as a sportier alternative to the more anodyne entries in the segment.

Unique specs and content

The C-HR’s aggressive roofline and beltline make it stand out from the crowd. They limit back-seat visibility—your passengers may get a bit claustrophobic—but the Toyota does actually manage to bring decent interior space to the game, including 19 cu. ft. of cargo room, which is on par with the more upright Kona.

The Toyota’s sporty handling matches its aggressive lines, but it also includes some surprising standard driver aids, including Toyota Safety Sense, which is included at no charge on most Toyota models. It ups the ante on the Kicks’ auto emergency braking with active cruise control and lane departure assist.

Pricing and availability

Toyota has priced the C-HR a level above, starting at $22,500, a full grand more than the larger Rogue Sport. And with its limited number of configurations, the resulting sales have been modest so far. But it does offer high doses of both style and safety, so the C-HR might be worth visiting on the show floor.

Ford EcoSport – Ford Tough…and Little

The Ford EcoSport checks in at the lower end of the pricing scale, and Ford has let this model fly

under the radar since it was introduced on Snapchat last year. But it has been at all the major 2017 auto shows, so there’s a chance to check it out in LA.

Unique specs and content

The diminutive Ford offers a wider range of pricing and equipment than the C-HR, and it’s very competitive with the HR-V in value. Unlike the C-HR and Kicks, the EcoSport is available with AWD, which also bumps its engine from a 123-hp turbo 3-cylinder to a 166-hp four, no turbo needed. Unfortunately, that drops the fuel economy from a competitive 28 mpg combined to a less-exciting 25, even with standard stop-start technology on both engines.

EcoSport doesn’t boast all of the newest safety tech, but it does come available with a blind spot sensor and rear cross traffic alert, and its SYNC 3 system—a big upgrade from Ford’s previous infotainment tech—gives you an available Wi-Fi hotspot and Connect app.

Pricing and availability

The EcoSport will hit showrooms early next year, and it starts at $19,995.

Segment and Competitors

If you’re looking for a vehicle with a modest price, decent fuel economy, and the cargo space and higher vantage point of an SUV body style, this emerging segment of subcompact utilities has a lot to offer, and the choices are expanding every year!

What else is out there?

  • Jeep Renegade – boxy and capable
  • Honda HR-V – versatile and efficient
  • Mazda CX-3 – sporty and stylish

What about the luxury set?

  • Buick Encore – the high-value choice
  • Mercedes GLA – there’s even an AMG version!
  • MINI Countryman – a quirky Brit, with AWD

More to come in the future…

  • Cadillac XT4 – aimed at the entry German competitors in price, but maybe slightly larger in size/space
  • VW small CUV – VW is considering a sub-Tiguan sized CUV; Concepts to-date have been called the T-ROC.  It will be either Polo or more-likely Golf platform based vehicle for N.A.
  • Acura CDX – an HR-V-based Acura already exists in China, and Honda may bring it to the US as a sub-RDX product; This certainly seems necessary given the expansion by other luxury brands into this category (e.g. BMW X1, Infiniti QX30, Mercedes GLA, etc.)
  • Would not be surprised to see more van-like, cargo-maximizing concepts in the future as that is usually the first thing done to “enhance” this size of product offerings.
2018-01-18T05:17:23-05:00Dec 2017|Car Reviews, News|