PARK LIFE

CITY-FO­CUSED BABY SUVS PUT TO THE TEST

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD BLACK­BURN

Pop­u­lar­ity isn’t ev­ery­thing but it must mean you’re do­ing some­thing right. The baby SUV mar­ket is boom­ing at the mo­ment, largely be­cause th­ese high-rid­ing hatch­backs have almost uni­ver­sal ap­peal.

For young buy­ers, they are small enough to squeeze into tight city lanes and park­ing spots, while still of­fer­ing the prom­ise of ad­ven­ture in the great out­doors. For the young at heart but creaky of joint, they are easy to get in and out of and can still carry a cou­ple of grand­kids.

Never mind the fact that they are gen­er­ally over­priced and underdone — and a hatch­back will do the same or bet­ter job for less money.

Hyundai, Aus­tralia’s No. 3 brand, has just en­tered the fray with the Kona, which is based on the i30 hatch­back. If his­tory is any­thing to go by, it will be at the pointy end of the pop­u­lar­ity con­test. So what bet­ter com­bat­ants than the top two sell­ing ve­hi­cles in this seg­ment, Mazda’s CX-3 and Mit­subishi’s ASX?

HYUNDAI KONA

It’s rare that a Hyundai en­ters a con­test against two Ja­panese ri­vals as the most ex­pen­sive op­tion but the Kona does just that, ask­ing $1000 more than the Mit­subishi and roughly $800 more than the Mazda.

For that you get a seven-inch mul­ti­me­dia screen that will mir­ror your smart­phone, leather-wrapped steer­ing wheel, dig­i­tal speedo and re­vers­ing cam­era with guide­lines.

What you don’t get is au­to­mated emer­gency brak­ing, which is stan­dard on the CX-3. Hyundai adds the tech­nol­ogy to a $1500 safety pack that also in­cludes lane de­par­ture warn­ing, blind zone mon­i­tor­ing and rear cross traffic alert.

The Kona Ac­tive we’re test­ing is a mod­estly pow­ered 2.0-litre four-cylin­der matched to a con­ven­tional six-speed auto. The com­bi­na­tion pro­vides rea­son­able ac­cel­er­a­tion, although it re­quires a healthy dose of right foot to get things mov­ing.

A sports mode is claimed to sharpen the steer­ing, hold lower gears longer and make the throt­tle more re­spon­sive but we found the steer­ing feel was bet­ter in nor­mal mode.

Of the three, the Hyundai has the best com­pro­mise be­tween cor­ner­ing abil­ity and com­fort, soak­ing up bumps and road im­per­fec­tions well while mak­ing a de­cent fist of slow­ing and chang­ing direc­tion with­out pitch­ing or lean­ing.

It feels more re­fined than the Mazda and Mit­subishi, due no doubt to the fact that it’s based on the same un­der­pin­nings as Hyundai’s im­pres­sive new i30.

In­side, the Hyundai is a mixed bag. The screen hooks up to Ap­ple iPhones and An­droid smart­phones, giv­ing you ac­cess to voice­ac­ti­vated emails and Google Maps.

The seats are com­fort­able and there’s a handy in­for­ma­tion dis­play be­tween the tacho and speedo, which also houses the dig­i­tal speedome­ter.

Head­room, rear legroom and shoul­der room are above av­er­age for the class, while the rear load area is rea­son­ably gen­er­ous.

How­ever, hard plas­tics abound — there’s no pad­ding for the el­bows on the arm­rests and no stor­age pock­ets on the backs of the front seats.

MAZDA CX-3

The CX-3 Neo is roughly $900 cheaper than the Hyundai but the cabin does lit­tle to dis­guise the fact it’s the cheap­est model in the range. Its com­peti­tors have touch­screens but the Neo does with­out — in­stead there’s a thin strip on top of the dash with graph­ics that re­sem­ble the bingo num­ber dis­play at your lo­cal RSL.

The read­out in front of the driver is sim­i­larly low-tech, with an old-style ana­log speedo, while there’s no cov­ered stor­age bin in be­tween the front seats. The penny-pinch­ing con­tin­ues in the rear seat, where it misses out on its ri­vals’ fold-down arm­rest with cuphold­ers.

Rear leg, shoul­der and head­room is tighter than the other two and the rear load area is smaller, with a higher load lip and nar­rower open­ing. The Mazda has steel wheels, its ri­vals have al­loys.

The Mazda makes up ground once you hit the open road, where it is the most en­gag­ing to hus­tle through the bends. The steer­ing is sharp and it feels more ea­ger to change direc­tion, sit­ting flat and sta­ble through the cor­ners.

En­hanc­ing the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the in­tu­itive six-speed trans­mis­sion picks the right gear to keep the 2.0-litre four-cylin­der on the move. Select sports mode and the CX-3 will drop down a gear when you brake for a cor­ner, en­sur­ing you have plenty of power on tap on your way out.

It’s also the only one of th­ese three that will hit the brakes if it senses an im­mi­nent col­li­sion. Unique in this class, it will also hit the brakes if it senses an ob­sta­cle when you’re re­vers­ing, which makes up for the also unique lack of a re­vers­ing cam­era. It’s also the only one with stop-start tech­nol­ogy, which shuts down the en­gine when you’re stopped at the lights, mak­ing the Mazda the most fru­gal of this trio.

MIT­SUBISHI ASX

The ASX is the sur­prise packet of the baby SUV mar­ket. It sells up a storm, thanks to a sharp drive-away price ($1000 less than the Kona) and a gen­er­ous equip­ment list that runs to Ap­ple CarPlay/An­droid auto and seven-inch touch­screen.

It’s the only one here that lets you set the tem­per­a­ture in de­grees, rather than sim­ply choose be­tween hot and cold, while it matches the Hyundai’s five-year war­ranty.

The ASX also scores points for hav­ing soft­touch sur­faces on the dash and doors, with padded el­bow rests for front and rear pas­sen­gers.

The cabin is spa­cious, with the most knee and head­room of th­ese three, while the rear load area is also the largest. It’s not per­fect, though — the touch­screen is fid­dly to use and some of the knobs and switches feel a lit­tle cheap.

Au­to­mated emer­gency brak­ing is part of a $1500 pack that in­cludes lane de­par­ture warn­ing, auto wipers and dusk-sens­ing head­lights with auto high-beam.

The ASX misses out on seat­belt warn­ings for the rear seats.

The ASX has big­ger 18-inch wheels and they do it no favours on pock­marked city streets, where the ride feels busy at low speeds.

The con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion does a good job of keep­ing the four-cylin­der en­gine on the boil, but it is more in­tru­sive than its ri­vals. Com­bined with more tyre and sus­pen­sion noise, it doesn’t make for the most serene of cab­ins.

The ASX is com­pe­tent, if not overly en­gag­ing, on a wind­ing road. The steer­ing lacks the feel of the Mazda and Hyundai, but it set­tles well af­ter big bumps and sits flat through cor­ners.

In the rain, it doesn’t feel com­posed when you ac­cel­er­ate out of cor­ners, oc­ca­sion­ally scrab­bling for grip and tug­ging on the steer­ing wheel.

It will also skip over cor­ru­ga­tions, which can make it a hand­ful in the wet.

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