YOU KNOW THE spiel: ‘What costs as much as a high-spec hatchback but offers you the practicality of an MPV, the go-anywhere ruggedness of an off-road vehicle and, as a bonus, a higher, confidence-inspiring vantage point too?’ Compact crossover SUVs have run rife and in South Africa we can’t get enough of them. But which one is a question most of us journos are asked daily, and one we’re happy to answer based on a potential buyer’s propensity for Korean vehicles, their budget and required levels of durability. Unsurprisingly perhaps, off-road capability seldom features on the needs list.
To complicate matters, a string of all-new contenders has just clambered into the sales ring, namely the Subaru XV, Mazda CX-5 and the Citroën C4 Aircross. Also well deserving of a look-in is the new, monocoque-bodied SsangYong Korando.
I’m not calling previous SsangYongs ugly, but I can believe that the design team has pictures of hideous collisions between trucks and wildlife on its inspirational mood boards if past Stavics and Actyons are anything to go by. Britain’s Ken Greenley, former head of the transportation design school at London’s Royal College of Art, designed both the Stavic and Musso so it’s a something of a revelation that it’s used another European designer to pen the new Korando. Not just any oke though. No, SsangYong employed the services of Fabrizio Giugiaro of ItalDesign and the results are so impressive we’re almost certain the Renault design team must have cribbed the look when face-lifting its Koleos. I’m not convinced by the rear styling however, it’s a bit too weak and derivative for my personal taste, but I guess it finishes off the car, literally.
The Citroën too is a handsome thing – chunky and bold in black with subtle French smatterings to set it apart from the Mitsubishi ASX with which it is twinned mechanically. Citroën style signatures abound such as the upside-down shark fin on the C-pillar where the Aircross logo lives. DS3-like vertically arranged LED running lights offer another Citroën credential, as does the chevron logo on its ornate grille. The end result is oddly out of place on the dusty dirt roads leading us to Bredasdorp, just two hours outside of Cape Town.
More at home in this environment is Subaru’s XV, which can best be summed up as an Impreza hatch with an ‘off-road conversion aesthetics pack’ – the kind usually reserved for VW CrossPolos and Renault Sandero Stepways. Essentially it includes extra ground clearance and black plastic body addenda. To separate the XV from its Impreza sibling, Subaru has given it all-new metal and the end result is quite attractive, especially with the black-faced alloy wheels. It looks tough and modern, almost sci-fi – nerds are going to love it! Predictably, it is the one I’m most looking forward to drive.
The same cannot be said about the Mazda, which despite being a brand new vehicle looks too familiar, a bit like a redrawn Nissan Qashqai. Sharp creases and style lines dive and rise along its blue flanks, finished off with a bluff rump and equally steep nose. It’s a tidy job, but the miniscule steel wheels hiding in those massive ’arches look comical in this company – and indeed at this price point of just under R300 000.
Climb into the Mazda and you’re greeted with a pleasant combination of simple architecture, infallible ergonomics and great quality materials. This kind of unforced elegance is not as convincing in the more posh Citroën, although its darker cabin does feel premium even if heavily reminiscent of a Mitsubishi ASX. Truth is, just the steering wheel design separates them. The Korando cabin is a breath of fresh air for SsangYong, almost certainly the marque’s finest attempt at a car-like interior. I imagine that would be quite a challenging task when your entire vehicle line-up is comprised of bakkies and sport-utilities. OK, the fuel flap is a massive chock of plastic and the gear knob little more than a plastic ball, but at least it stays where you left it, unlike the shifter on the Subaru that rotated this way and that. I think it’s less of a feature and more an indication of build quality. I’m afraid those Mars Buggy aesthetics just haven’t translated into the interior, which closely resembles the WRX I had on long-term test three years ago. Ergonomics are typical Subaru – Japanese logic blended with light Fuji eccentricity, and are ultimately less intuitive than you’d expect.
The full array of mod cons such as air conditioning, multi-media and Bluetooth connectivity can be found across all the vehicles, and seating is similarly accommodating. However, the Citroën’s pews do the best job of gripping and features partial leather – all the others have cloth upholstery.
Thumb the Subaru’s start button and it’s the metallic thrum of a 2.0-litre boxer engine that fills the air. This unit is a distant cousin to the motor under the bonnet of Toyota’s 86 sports car (see page ??), so I was curious to see what it does when mated with a 4wd transmission. In this XV 110kW/196Nm application, I’m sad to report not much, with acceleration feeling lazy and a constant rowing of gears was necessary to keep the motor interested. But at least you have six cogs to swop around, so highway cruising can be done at a drone-inhibiting pace, trumping the five-speed Citroën. At idle, the French car has a slightly more agricultural note, not quite diesely in its rumble, but certainly harsher – dialled-in no doubt to humour the off-road enthusiast who dreads getting his loafers dirty. Acceleration feels linear, and torque delivery punchier from low revs despite having a similar peak outputs of 110kW and 197Nm, but you really miss a sixth gear when you reach highway speeds. The highest fuel usage of the group at 8.9ℓ/100km is the penalty.
Initial impressions of the SsangYong are good. A pleasant hum occurs at idle, with gentle prodding of the right-hand pedal bringing a clatter to a boil. Do the same in gear however, and be prepared to work hard for any forward motion. It’s not underpowered, just plagued by a lethargic torque delivery. ‘Feels flat’ was a common appraisal by all who had the pleasure of its drive. Along our test route the Korando managed a fairly conservative 7.7ℓ/100km, beating the four-wheel driven Subaru’s 8.29ℓ/100km figure.
The Mazda was better, virtually flawless in fact. Whether a testament to the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) damping levels or the great balance inherent of Mazda’s four-pot lump, at idle I initially wondered if the Japanese car employed a stop/start system – that’s how unnervingly quiet it was. Enhancing its refinement, this petrol engine managed a 7.2ℓ/100km average fuel consumption from its high-compression 114kW/200Nm Skyactiv-G drivetrain.
Despite their rugged stances and more imposing dimensions, handling set-ups across all these models have a clear road bias. The Subaru especially feels like a hatchback, a sensation amplified by a relatively low ride height as a result of being the smallest crossover in our test by some margin. On the left-right-left winding stretch of road through Hermanus, its soft suspension proved compliant on the best of surfaces but wallowed on the worst, a contrast to the firmer set-up in the Citroën. The French effort is clearly more road-oriented as a front-driver, if watching a fellow tester struggle up a mild, loose-surface embankment was any clue.
The SsangYong had no such hassle, impressing all of us with its comparative on-road sophistication and off-road tenacity. The more you drive it, the more you can appreciate the ride quality of a car that might have escaped our attention if not for its improved aesthetics. But the Mazda CX-5 trumps them all with a driver experience similar to that on offer in the Nissan Qashqai. It’s a predictable steer, a relatively flat handler, and with that effortless stream of torque, proved easy to keep motivated from one sweeping turn to the next. This translated well on the dustier hills where front-wheel driven SUVs usually tend to suffer, matching the Korando in the tractability stakes.
While the Citroën C4 Aircross feels well stuck together, its firm suspension can get tedious on a long distance journey. Ditto the lack of a sixth gear and the resultant poor fuel economy. I wouldn’t rate it for its off-road capabilities either, but it is a stylish take on the segment and has enough toys to keep you amused. The SsangYong does a better job: in fact, had its sticker price not been as high as its rivals’ it might have won this comparison. But amongst this crowd it feels a bit low-rent, coming as it does from a humbler parts bin. The Subaru XV – shew, this really feels the odd one out here with its C-segment dimensions and lacklustre WRX-inspired interior. Visually, it’s my favourite but overall there’s little to qualify it in this company despite being the only true all-wheel drive contender. That leaves us with the Mazda CX-5. It’s a pity about those steel wheels but for alloys you’ll need to take a pricier auto model. Look beyond them and it’s essentially a Nissan Qashqai by Mazda – and that’s a compliment since we’re big fans of the Nissan. Initially, this felt like a Miss Congeniality contest because as good as the Mazda CX-5 feels, I couldn’t recommend it over the Qashqai nor those Korean twins, the Hyundai iX35 and Kia Sportage. Weirdly, though – and this seldom happens – it changed my mind. It grew on me more and more as the fuel consumption kept tumbling, the ride continued to impress and the engine sang ever sweeter. It’s a great car, and it just gets better. Expect to see them all over your highways.