It’s an ur­ban jun­gle out there and com­pact SUVs are fast be­com­ing the ve­hi­cle of choice

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Inside - STU­ART MARTIN stu­art.martin@cars­

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

car mar­ket

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.

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