It’s an urban jungle out there and compact SUVs are fast becoming the vehicle of choice
When compact softroaders arrived, experts said they were a fad. Now the segment’s sales just keep growing. We pick the best for you
THE masses are migrating.
The meat-and-potatoes crowd and fleets are drifting away from the large sedan market in droves and the main beneficiary is the compact sports utility vehicle.
Jacked-up wagons, soft-roaders, shopping trolleys on steroids— call them what you will, but you can’t ignore the massive impact they have had— and will continue to have— on the car market.
Australia has taken to the little off-road wagons in growing numbers. They eclipsed the large car segment in 2009 and have hardly slowed since.
The idea of ‘‘ getting away from it all’’ has proven difficult to resist for new car buyers, who have entered the compact SUV market looking for the extra visibility provided by the higher driving position, the flexibility, towing and cargo-carrying capacity of a wagon, as well as the off-roader image— which is sometimes even matched by the vehicle’s ability.
Often, the most arduous offroading these vehicles will do is a wet grass-covered sports ground carpark or an unsealed national park access road, which explains the popularity of 2WD variants. They account for 50 per cent of sales in some models.
In the first five months of the year, the SUV segment has notched up 93,189 vehicles, or 2944 more than in the same period last year.
Among compact cars, by comparison, there have been 46,833 sales, up 2161 (or 4.8 per cent). Large cars have slipped by 23 per cent.
Last year, the SUV tally was 235,285 vehicles, a 25 per cent increase on 2009.
The compact segment improved by more than 30,000 to 114,761 for the year, while large passenger car sales stopped short of six figures, completing 2010 with 98,583, a 3 per cent decline.
The compact SUV segment has its roots firmly set in the mid-1990s, when Subaru and Toyota had small 4WD wagons on the market. Both claim kudos for launching the softroader craze, although Subaru had small, slightly raised 4WDwagons with dual-range transmissions as far back as the 1970s.
The range from Subaru has grown from all-wheel drive
You can’t ignore the huge impact they’ve had, and will continue to have, on the
versions of the Impreza and Liberty to include the Forester and Outback models, based on those passenger cars but now further removed than in previous generations.
The Forester, which recently overtook the Liberty as the brand’s biggest seller in Australia, is the segment leader and there are good reasons for that, chiefly price, value and ability.
Foresters kick off at $30,990 for the 126kW/235Nm 2.5-litre petrol and $35,990 for the 108kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo diesel. The transmissions are five-speed manual for the petrol, six-speed for the diesel, and a four-speed automatic.
The entry-level petrol manual model has a dual-range transfer case for more off-road cred. Fuel use in the petrol model is a claimed 9.3L/100km or 6.4 for the flat-four turbo diesel.
The Subaru wrested the sales crown from Toyota’s RAV4, for many years the segment yardstick.
A taller soft-roader, in keeping with Toyota’s larger 4WDs but with less passenger car heritage, the RAV4 started life as a fourcylinder but now includes a V6.
The current range starts at $28,990, for the front-driver with 125kW/224Nm 2.4-litre fourcylinder. The 3.5-litre five-speed auto-only V6 produces 201kW and 333Nm and is available only in 4WD.
Toyota has resisted a diesel dalliance while Subaru and others have embraced oilers.
The hidden gem in the compact segment comes from Suzuki, another brand with strong claims as the ground-breaker in the compact SUV segment, although it is unfair to label the bulk of its 4WDs as soft.
The Grand Vitara five-door range has 122kW/225Nm fourcylinder and 165kW/284Nm V6 petrol models and a 95kW/300Nm 1.9-litre turbo diesel.
They are built small but to oldschool 4WDrules. Their dualrange, decent clearance, short overhangs and underbody protection all point to a greater capability than just negotiating oversized speed bumps.
These SUV benchmarks now face growing opposition, from Japanese compatriots and more recently machinery from across the Korea Strait.
Hyundai kicked off its compact SUV campaign in 2004 with the Tucson, which has since morphed into the ix35. In volume terms, it is No. 3 in the segment but in some ways it has been been overshadowed by its Kia cousin.
The Sportage badge is a longrunning nameplate dating from 1996’s workmanlike little machine. Fast-forward to 2010, when the Korean brand took the components it shares with parent company Hyundai and built a better mousetrap.
A smarter all-wheel drive system (although it is not a serious off- roader) a suspensi mention improvin decent d to the Sp finding f
and better tuning of the ion and steering, not to n sharper aesthetics, an ng features list and a diesel, have all contributed portage and cousin ix35 favour in Australia.
Kia’s biggest problem is getting stocks of its diesel model. Sharing an engine plant with Hyundai has restricted supplies for Kia, which is waiting on a second dedicated engine plant to be completed to ease supply restrictions.