Con­ti­nen­tal drifters

The Advertiser - Motoring - - COVER STORY - RICHARD BLACK­BURN CARSGUIDE EDI­TOR

IT WASN’T long ago that SUVs were con­sid­ered po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect in Europe. Govern­ments taxed them out of cities and rad­i­cal ecoac­tivists even van­dalised them.

But times have changed and last year the high-rid­ing wagons out­sold con­ven­tional hatch­backs for the first time on the Con­ti­nent.

We’ve gath­ered three of Europe’s lat­est SUVs to see what they pro­vide that the dom­i­nant Ja­panese and Korean brands don’t.

They are typ­i­cally more ex­pen­sive and doubts re­main about re­li­a­bil­ity yet they pos­sess a dash of flair and in­di­vid­u­al­ity that’s lack­ing in the top-sell­ers.

So if you’re look­ing for some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent and not afraid to let the heart rule the head, check these for size.

CITROEN CAC­TUS

Those bumps — you ei­ther love them or hate them. Citroen calls them air­bumps and they’re de­signed to pro­tect the side body­work from stray shop­ping trol­leys. They are part of a bog­gling ar­ray of colour and trim com­bi­na­tions — more than 23,000.

You don’t have a choice about the en­gine and trans­mis­sion com­bi­na­tion, though. If you want an auto, you’ll get a diesel. If you want a petrol ver­sion, you’ll be shift­ing gears your­self.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the auto weren’t such an odd unit. It’s called a robo­tised man­ual and if you treat it like an auto it feels like you’re be­ing driven by a L-plater in a man­ual, lurch­ing back and forth on ev­ery gear change.

The se­cret is to lift off in an­tic­i­pa­tion of each gear change — or buy the man­ual, which is a bet­ter thing.

The diesel en­gine, although the least pow­er­ful here, per­forms well. What it lacks in power it makes up for in torque. It’s not quick off the mark but once you’re on the go it feels strong, climb­ing hills and over­tak­ing with min­i­mal fuss.

Per­for­mance is also helped by the light weight of the Cac­tus — it weighs 160kg less than the Re­nault and 240kg less than the Fiat.

The lit­tle Citroen is a ca­pa­ble per­former through the cor­ners, too, feel­ing more com­posed and sporty than these ri­vals. The feel­ing of con­fi­dence is helped by com­mu­nica­tive steer­ing and sus­pen­sion that doesn’t wal­low over bumps. The down­side is that it’s a lit­tle firm at lower speeds around town.

Stan­dard equip­ment in­cludes rear park­ing sen­sors and cam­era, sat­nav, cli­mate con­trol air­con, dig­i­tal ra­dio and fog lights. There’s a gen­er­ous six-year war­ranty but capped ser­vic­ing is ex­pen­sive.

The cabin is well thoughtout and sur­pris­ingly spa­cious, with a de­cent boot.

FIAT 500X

Our 500X in Pop Star trim is eas­ily the most ex­pen­sive of this trio, $3000 more than the Cac­tus and $5000 more than the Cap­tur.

It com­pen­sates, though, with an en­gine that has no­tice­ably more punch and a safety arse­nal that in­cludes driver as­sis­tance fea­tures ab­sent on the oth­ers. As with the Citroen, fash­ion plays a part in the 500X’s ap­peal — it has the fa­mil­iar face of the re­born 500 hatch and al­lows buy­ers to add per­sonal styling touches.

The stan­dard equip­ment list is sim­i­lar to the Cac­tus, with sat­nav, power fold­ing mir­rors and cor­ner­ing lights. It lacks cli­mate con­trol air­con but has some deft touches in the cabin, in­clud­ing a re­frig­er­ated glove­box, leather gear knob and elec­tric park brake. It can also tow more than the oth­ers.

Safety gear in­cludes a re­vers­ing cam­era, blind spot warn­ing and rear cross-traf­fic alert for ex­it­ing drive­ways.

As with the Cac­tus, the 500X scored only a four-star rat­ing from Euro NCAP but both those rat­ings have more to do with the lack of driver aids than crash per­for­mance. The Cap­tur scores five stars be­cause it was tested be­fore Euro NCAP be­gan mark­ing cars down for not hav­ing driver as­sis­tance tech­nol­ogy.

The Pop Star has a more sporty bent than the other two here. The six-speed dual-clutch auto comes with shift pad­dles

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