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More and more small-car buyers are finding their $20,000-something budget can upgrade them from what they need into the SUV they really want.
A small SUV explosion is hitting showrooms and, as Mazda teases its CX-3 this week ahead of the Los Angeles show, it looks as if every brand that's serious about winning new owners is focusing on that segment. It's much easier to get a first-car buyer hooked on your brand than to win a convert later, which is why so much advertising is now aimed at on twenty-somethings and the SUVs they crave.
"People like them, they're practical, they're flexible, and you can sit up high. And there is an adventure element, even if you never use it," says Mazda Australia marketing chief Alastair Doak.
"With these vehicles, because they're priced from the low $20,000s and up, more people are realising they can actually afford an SUV." The boom has pitched the Ford EcoSport and Holden Trax against the Subaru XV, probably the best looker but limited by lacklustre performance and an undersized boot.
The two biggest sellers in the class, the Hyundai ix35 and Volkswagen Tiguan, will be punted out of the competition in 2015. They are both beyond the size limits for a 'small' SUV tag, something now recognised by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.
So the pecking order will change, even more with the arrival of the CX-3 and Renault Captur, denied to Australia for nearly a year as a result of booming worldwide demand.
"It's a big growth segment and we're keen to jump into that. This gives us an entry right at the sweet spot," says Doak of the CX-3.
He believes the new Mazda can change the rules in the class, just as the Mazda3 and latest Mazda2 are doing, with a combination of an efficient 1.5-litre SkyActiv engine and front-wheel drive, good looks and classy finishing. As to price, he merely says the CX-3 will be very competitive when it arrives next year.
"We are going to treat this with the respect it deserves," he says, "and make sure we have a full line-up of models." He expects the arrival of so many baby SUVs to create much wider ripples in Australian motoring, by winning sales from the small-car class rather than the cars with which they share platforms. So that could mean fewer people will buy a Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Corolla or Mazda3.
If that's true, it could tip the balance of power completely in favour of work-and-play utes in the fight for No. 1 in showrooms. The Toyota HiLux has topped the sales charts several times and, with a new model landing in 2015, it could become a longer-term leader in Australia.
Holden Trax - Three stars
Price: From $23,990
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 103kW/175Nm
Transmission: 5-speed man; FWD
Lowdown: Not the best in the class but a very strong seller thanks to the pricing, Holden badge and recent engine upgrade. It's the benchmark but doesn't set the bar too high for comparison drives.
Mercedes-Benz GLA - Four stars
Price: From $47,900
Engine: 2.1-litre 4-cyl turbodiesel, 100kW/300Nm
Transmission: 7-speed auto; FWD
Lowdown: Best of the new-generation Benz babies but also one of the dearest in the class. Works very well as a basic front-drive turbo diesel. The AMG 45 is the one to get if you have an unlimited budget.
Subaru XV - Three stars
Price: From $28,490
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 110kW/196Nm
Transmission: CVT; AWD
Lowdown: Good-looking, well-built with security of AWD. Not a great performer and small boot is a major flaw for kid-friendly motoring. Good for city singles.
It's the right size for most people, is well priced and drives well enough, and there is even a seven-seater if you need it.
The Dualis is not as sexy as newer arrivals, because it hit before the youth drive in small SUVs, but it still does most things right. Nissan's long-term warranty and the basic quality also make sense for the longer haul.