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.
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.
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