Compact SUV comparison review

AUSTRALIAN motorists love compact SUVs which have taken over as the new family vehicle. The segment is one of the few experiencing growth and it's no wonder with 25 models available with a range of variants with diesel power, manual and automatic transmissions, plenty of cargo space and room for a family of five and even their pooch.

Today every maker needs a compact SUV in their range. Over at Volkswagen Australia managing director Anke Koeckler says:. "The Tiguan is one of the volume sellers in our plan to become a significant player in Australia."

The current Tiguan's about to be replaced by a second-generation model and is in short supply as is the Toyota RAV4 so they couldn't make this comparison of five compact petrol-powered automatic SUVs that includes top sellers, a European and the two emerging Korean models.

We asked the Tranter family - Ross and Julie and their children, Joshua, 7, and Samantha, 5 - to come with us for a drive through city traffic, highway touring, rural roads and a picnic in the country in our full-day comparison test. They own a Mazda2 and admit that in a couple of years they will look at an upgrade, possibly to a compact SUV.

VALUE

Pricing and feature fit-out is keen in this highly competitive category. Our five vehicles are mid to high spec, according to what was available from the manufacturer, but they only vary in price by $5000 from the Hyundai ix35 at $35,490 to the Subaru Forester at $40,490 which comes with a comprehensive info/navigation/entertainment system with reversing camera.

The Renault Koleos is listed at $36,990, but our test vehicle was fitted with a leather package ($2500) that includes black leather seats, electric driver's seat, heated front seats and quick-release rear folding seats. It also comes standard with a built-in Tom Tom navigation system, auto wipers, front and rear parking sensors, and a chilled glovebox.

The top-spec Kia Sportage Platinum is fitted out at similar levels to the Hyundai. It costs an extra $1230 but adds rain-sensing wipers. Both have rear parking sensors, sunroof, rearview camera, auto headlights, fog lamps (front only on Kia) and heated side mirrors.

In the middle is the X-Trail at $38,490 with roof rails, auto climate control and cooled/heated cup holders.

All come with what are considered essentials in a family car these days - remote locking, cruise control, comprehensive stereo connectivity for Bluetooth phones and iPods, fog lights and climate airconditioning.

Resale values are similar, but slightly better for the Renault and Subaru at 54 per cent and the lowest was the X-trail at 50 per cent.

TECHNOLOGY

At the heart of all these models are four-cylinder petrol engines of similar capacity. Even though the Hyundai and Kia share a 2.4-litre engine compared with the 2.5-litre units in the others, power and torque are almost the same across the group.

Power varies only 5kW from 125kW in the X-Trail to 130kW in the Koreans and torque 9Nm from 226Nm in the Koleos and X-Trail to 235Nm in the Forester. All models also offer a diesel variant which are worth considering for economy if you're doing long distances and for their driveability. The Forester transmission is an old-fashioned four-speed auto, while the Koreans have six-speed torque-converter automatics; the X-Trail and Koleos have continuously variable transmissions with six selectable steps.

Most are front-wheel drive switching to all-wheel drive when they sense rear-wheel slip, while the Subaru is permanent all-wheel drive. All have hill descent control and hill-start assist, but only the Renault, X-Trail and the Koreans have a locking diff function.

Economy is fairly close across the group but interestingly the X-trail is the best at 9.1 litres per 100km compared with 9.5L/100km in the Koleos which runs the same engine, but weighs about 80kg more. The Koleos also requires 95Ron fuel.

If towing is important, the X-Trail and Koleos have 2000kg capacity compared with 1600kg in the Koreans and 1400kg for the Subaru.

DESIGN

The group can be split into two on styling - the boxy Nissan and Subaru versus the more curvaceous Hyundai, Renault and Kia. It comes down to taste, but the Tranters liked the "modern" look of the ix35.

"I like a car with a lot of curves," says Julie.

To us the X-Trail and Subaru are starting to look a little old-fashioned, even though both have had major makeovers only a couple of years ago. Of the "rounded" models the Kia has a little more pizzazz with LED daytime running lights and coupe-like rear roofline.

Statistics for cargo space never give a real-world indication of how much luggage can be fitted, but with picnic baskets, esky and our photographer's kit bags loaded, all seemed to hold a fair bit of gear. The Renault is the only model with a split rear tailgate which Ross liked, but Julie thought it would make it more difficult to reach luggage items at the back of the cargo area. However she liked the underfloor storage area with slide-out tray in the Nissan.

"I'd probably use it as a permanent storage area for sunscreen, the kids' hats and snacks," she says.

The X-Trail's cargo floor was the only one in the group not carpeted, a virtue according to Nissan for outdoor types. In the cabin, the Nissan again looked a little tired, while the others appeared modern and fresh, although the Renault is a little quirky and difficult to get used to all those knobs and controls. The Tranters found cabin space good in all but praised the Subaru for having the best legroom space in the rear for the kids in their booster chairs.

SAFETY

As a fire and rescue officer, Ross Tranter places a strong emphasis on safety.

"There are things I've seen at crash scenes that I'd rather forget," he says.

The Tranters own a Mazda2 and bought the top spec just for the extra airbags in the back, so they were impressed that all models, except the XTrail, get a five-star safety rating with full-length curtain airbags and stability control.

They also commended all for their good forward visibility and praised the Kia and Hyundai for their reversing camera conveniently located in the centre mirror. There was high praise, too, for the high driving position of all, which at least gave them a feeling of safety.

All vehicles come with three anchor points in the rear, but the Tranters found the Subaru was the only vehicle that was easy to fit the seats as the belt clasps were not spaced wide enough in the others. On the theft safety front, the Subaru also has Data Dot protection.

DRIVING

It was the Tranters' ninth wedding anniversary but they enjoyed our test loop through Brisbane city and out into the country for a picnic, then later McDonalds for the kids. Stepping up from their Mazda2 to the compact SUVs was easy for the Tranters who commented that they liked the high seating position and good forward visibility of all models.

They liked the Subaru: easy to drive, plenty of room in the back for the kids, a big boot and a quiet and comfortable ride. They found the Hyundai a bit noisy on some surfaces, comfortable with a lot of extras they enjoyed but they didn't feel it was as stable as the Nissan in the dirt. Praise came for the Renault's handling and steering feedback.

"I didn't feel like I wasn't in total control at any time. It's not wanting for power either. I could put my foot down and it was there when I wanted it," Ross commented. Julie found the Renault's quirky controls a bit confusing to start with. And Ross didn't like the Kia's seat. "It has good support down low but not up high."

We found the Koreans' automatic gearboxes had to work hard to keep things humming along, while the Forester, Koleos and X-Trail felt more lively and responsive, even the Subaru with its four-speed box. We're no great fans of continuously variable transmissions, but the CVT boxes in the Renault and Nissan are among the best we have driven and kept the revs in the sweet spot for difficult terrain.

Most of these will tackle a rough bush track and even a beach, but be aware they are not meant for heavy duty off-roading. Subaru is fitted with Yokohama Geolanders which we have found the best compromise between highway and track. The Forester also has the best ground clearance at 220mm while the Koreans have the lowest at 170mm (Hyundai) and 172mm (Kia), but you should take into account a load and passengers will reduce these clearances.

VERDICT

If rough country roads were on our agenda, we'd pick the Subaru or X-Trail as both vehicles not only handled the terrain with poise but also gave a feeling of being solidly built and reliable. The Renault has the same X-Trail underpinnings and urges you to have a go at the rough stuff thanks to a pretty slick engine/transmission combination and slightly more compliant suspension. It is a much under-rated vehicle with only 310 sold fo far this year.

Most of the vehicles in this class are suburban run-arounds doing the grocery, school and sports ground circuit. Here, the modern styling of the French and Korean models look the part. For the record, the Tranters liked the style of the Hyundai but when it came to family practicalities their vote unanimously went for the Subaru for its space, comfort and quiet ride.

imageSUBARU FORESTER 2.5 XS PREMIUM
Price: $40,490
Engine: 126kW/235Nm 2.5L 4-cyl petrol
Transmission: 4-speed auto, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.3L/100km  CO2: 220g/km
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags
Towing: 1400 (braked), 750kg (unbraked)
Warranty: 3-yr, unlimited km
Service: 12,500 or 6 mnths
Resale: 54%

imageNISSAN X-TRAIL ST-L
Price: $38,490
Engine: 125Kw/226nM 2.5L 4-cyl petrol
Transmisson: CVT, 4WD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.1L/100km  CO2: 214g/km
Safety: 4-stars, 6 airbags
Towing: 2000 (braked), 750kg (unbraked)
Warranty: 3-yr/100,000km, roadside ass.
Service: 6 mnths/10,000km
Resale: 50%

imageHYUNDAI ix35 2.4 HIGHLANDER
Price: $35,490
Engine: 130W/227Nm 2.4L 4-cyl petrol
Transmission: 6-speed auto, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.2L/100km  CO2: 219g/km
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags
Towing: 1600 (braked), 750kg (unbraked)
Warranty: 5-yr, unltd km
Service: annual or 15,000km
Resale: 52%

imageKIA SPORTAGE 2.4 PLATINUM
Price: $36,720
Engine: 130kW/227Nm 2.4L 4-cyl petrol
Transmission: 6-speed auto, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.2L/100km  CO2: 221g/km
Safety: 5-stars, 6-airbags
Towing: 1600 (braked), 750kg (unbraked)
Warranty: 5-yr/unltd km
Service: 1-yr or 15,000km
Resale: 52%

imageRENAULT KOLEOS DYNAMIQUE
Price: $36,990 ($40,290 as tested)
Engine: 126kW/226Nm 2.5L 4-cyl petrol
Transmission: CVT, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.5L/100km  CO2: 228g/km
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags
Towing: 2000 (braked), 750kg (unbraked)
Warranty: 5-yr/unltd km, roadside assist
Service: 1-yr or 10,000km
Resale: 54%

SHOWROOM SUCCESS

SALES success in the highly competitive compact SUV category is fickle, changing every month. Nissan X-Trail was the leader in June, Hyundai ix35 in May, Subaru Forester in February, April and July, Toyota RAV4 in January and March.

So far this year Subaru Forester is the top seller with 7574, even though sales are down 13.1 per cent on last year. This repeats its top-selling success in the category since 2008. The new Hyundai ix35 was second with 6806, RAV4 third (6472), X-Trail fourth (6430) and Dualis fifth (5156). Despite the Renault Koleos being a Nissan X-Trail with French dressing, it has sold only 310 so far this year to rank 20th out of 25 models in the category.

The compact SUV segment is one of the few recording growth with an increase of 2.1 per cent so far this year while the SUV category is down 2.9 per cent and the total new vehicle market is down 5.9 per cent. The only faster-growing categories are luxury SUVs (317.4 per cent) and utes (6.2 per cent).

SAFE AND GREEN

OWNERS of any of our tested vehicles can rest assured they are safe and green. They all have six airbags, stability control and anti-skid brakes as a minimum, while some have more driver aids such as Hyundai's Vehicle Stability Management which adds steering assistance in low-traction situations. All get a five-star crash rating from the Australian New Car Assessment Program, except the X-Trail which was last tested in 2007 and scored four stars.

The Australian Green Vehicle Guide gives all vehicles better than average scores for greenhouse air pollution and economy. The Kia and Hyundai score closely because they basically have the same drivetrain. The Hyundai scores 6 greenhouse rating out of 10 and 8.5 for air pollution gaining four stars. The Kia scores a 5.5 greenhouse rating because its CO2 levels are 2g/km higher. Next is the Subaru with 6 for greenhouse emissions, 6.5 for air pollution for 3.5 stars and Koleos with 5.5, 6.5 and 3.5 stars. There are no results listed for the X-Trail.

Most of these models have been around for a while in some shape or form and are good buying second-hand. Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V are the only used compact SUVs rated as a "safe pick" by the Automobile clubs of Australia. In their recent annual buyer's guide to used car safety ratings, they gave five stars to the Forester (02-08) and CR-V (02-06). Four stars were awarded to the Kia Sportage (98-03), Toyota RAV4 (06-09), Ford/Mazda Escape/Tribute (01-06), CR-V (97-01), Forester (97-02), Suzuki Grand Vitara (99-05) and RAV4 (01-06).

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