Honda HR-V VTi-L ADAS ($33,990)
Mazda CX-3 sTouring Safety Pack ($30,020)
Renault Captur Dynamique ($27,990)
The small SUV segment is booming, we know that much.
On percentage growth, month-by-month, small SUV sales are outpacing both mid-size and large SUVs by a hefty margin, and that trend shows no sign of slowing.
So, yes, small SUVs are now big business for car makers.
But when you look at the category, there are two distinct types of small SUV - the first, what you’d traditionally consider an SUV with AWD and a high-steppin' ride-height.
The second, this new wave of light FWD crossovers - jacked up hatches, with hatch-like prices - that has become such a hotbed of activity in dealer showrooms.
It’s the three newest entrants to that latter group that we’re going to examine here.
While all have their own appeal, we've pitted the higher grade variants of those three newest arrivals against each other.
So which is the best? Which is the most frugal, the most fun, the biggest, the most comfortable and the best value-for-money?
Quality and design: The CX-3’s interior is very pretty, and so it should be given it is based on the Mazda2’s cabin.
Originality aside, it boasts an attractive design, good quality plastics (even the harder surfaces, of which there are many) and the best infotainment interface of this trio.
Fit and finish is good, though a loose centre console cost the CX-3 a couple of points.
The Captur doesn’t fare so well.
Though we like its funky design and zip-off quick-change seat covers, the overuse of unappealing cabin plastics, a flimsy gear selector, undersized cupholders and rattly build-quality put the Captur behind both the CX-3 and HR-V for cabin fit and finish.
Which leaves the HR-V. Though the design is more sober than the CX-3, build quality is tight, there’s loads of soft-touch and trimmed surfaces and everything falls neatly to hand.
While the somewhat dull style won't appeal to everyone, the only blot we could find was an inconsistent panel gap between the glovebox lid and the lower dash.
Besides that, the HR-V has a very well put-together interior, and it wins this round accordingly.
Interior space and comfort: The HR-V also tops this section. For something so small it offers a huge amount of sprawling room.
The CX-3's front seats are the more comfortable, but it’s hobbled by poor rear legroom and a tall beltline that limits the view outside for little ones.
The HR-V, by contrast, has acres of rear legroom.
A pair of adults will find plenty of space back there and the HR-V also has the flattest floor, thus giving a reasonable amount of foot space to a centre passenger.
And those up front will also appreciate the high-set centre console, which forms a nice ledge to prop your inboard elbow on.
The Captur is somewhere in the middle. Its front seats have better lumbar support than the Honda, but while its rear bench slides fore and aft, it still can’t equal the HR-V for rear legroom.
The Captur also has the shortest rear doors, making it the hardest to get in and out of.
Equipment: Leading the pack for gadget count is the CX-3 sTouring, with high-tech gear like a head-up display, keyless entry and ignition, climate control, sat-nav, LED headlamps, LED foglamps and Mazda’s excellent MZD-Connect infotainment system all as standard.
And that’s on top of the segment-standard equipment of power windows, reverse parking sensors, reversing camera, cruise control, USB audio inputs and Bluetooth phone/audio integration.
But besides having the most toys, the Mazda wins extra points for having them so neatly integrated with the car.
The MZD connect system can be operated either by the seven-inch colour touchscreen or the rotary controller on the centre console, the head-up display is clear and easily read, and the Bluetooth transmits calls without fault.
The Captur Dynamique also has fully integrated sat-nav, climate control, keyless entry and ignition, dusk-sensing headlamps rear camera, rear sensors and rain-sensing wipers, but its R-Link Bluetooth system is slow to respond and occasionally refuses to play music when asked.
Another debit is that the Captur’s audio controls are clustered on a paddle that’s hidden behind the steering wheel.
Once accustomed to it it’s easy enough to navigate by feel, but what’s wrong Renault with simply putting them on the face of the steering wheel?
The HR-V is the most expensive in this group, but misses out on factory-fitted sat nav.
Its seven-inch infotainment display is sat-nav capable, but to enable it you need a paid iPhone app and the required plugs (two of them!) to allow the car to mirror your phone’s display.
Disappointingly, there is no support for Android phones yet either.
The rest of the spec sheet is solid though, with a glass sunroof, dual-zone climate control, LED headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, reversing camera, reversing sensors, cruise control and power windows as standard.
Storage: The CX-3 is the undisputed loser here. With a paltry 264 litres of seats-up boot capacity, it’s the smallest by far when it comes to carrying luggage.
It’s fine for the weekly shop or an average-sized pram, but if you want to haul anything bulky it’s certainly not ideal.
The Captur is better, and by a long chalk.
It’s got a dual-position boot floor that effectively doubles the available floor area (deep enough for plenty of shopping bags), and with the floor set to its lowest position it can swallow up a healthy 377 litres of your stuff.
But it's the Honda that is the standout when it comes to boot volume. Measuring in at 437 litres with the rear seats in place, the HR-V has a low boot floor and a rear-seat backrest that folds flush to create an even more sizable space.
It’s got a neat party trick too; thanks to the Magic Seats system that allows the rear seat squab to fold up, it enables the full height of the cabin to be used when carrying tall items like paintings, pot plants, bicycles and flat-screen TVs.
In-cabin storage is another HR-V forte.
The high centre console houses a deep storage box under the armrest, as well as a pair of the coolest cupholders we’ve seen.
All in this group have bottle holders/map pockets in each door, but the Captur suffers from an undersized glovebox and tiny cupholders.
MORE: VISIT THE GALLERY for a full view of each model's interior.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: With the most power and torque, it’s no surprise that the CX-3’s 109kW/192Nm 2.0 litre four-cylinder comes out on top for driveability.
It’s got ample pulling power and even feels a little sporty when compared with the Captur’s 88kW/190Nm 1.2 litre turbocharged four-pot and the HR-V’s 107kW/172Nm 1.8 litre.
Beyond the raw numbers, the CX-3 also wins this section thanks to its supremely well-sorted six speed automatic.
It never puts a foot wrong when it comes to gear selection, it never hunts up hills, it kicks down when appropriate and generally does a super job.
There’s a manual shift mode too, but this is a gearbox that’s best left to its own devices.
The HR-V’s CVT auto isn’t as dull we'd expected, but it does soften the engine’s response somewhat. Sudden demands for power are often met with some hesitation as the gearbox dials up the right ratio.
It will also 'flare' with revs if a sudden burst of power is needed while on the road. It's a CVT thing, though the HRV feels lively off the line and certainly capable of running with traffic.
The Captur’s transmission, while quite good on the open road, is least impressive in tighter city traffic.
The slow off-the-line response from this twin-clutch ‘box is compounded by the laggy power delivery of the turbo 1.2, making quick getaways from intersections impossible.
If you’re driving the Captur and need to pull out briskly, you’re better off waiting for a wider gap in the traffic.
Ride and Handling: This bunch couldn’t be more diverse.
The Honda is all about comfort, with a soft suspension that easily soaked up the heavily potholed part of our test route and being the kindest to our spines.
On twistier roads it exhibits a fair degree of bodyroll, but nothing you’d consider excessive. Nothing you’d consider exciting, either.
The Captur sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its suspension is firmer and provides great cornering grip, but which some will find a little too stiff for around town.
At lower speeds, corrugated roads can induce shimmying and it can jar over larger breaks in the tarmac. On the open road however it's quite an appealing drive, and, for a small light car, nicely settled at highway speeds.
The CX-3 is right in the Goldilocks zone. It’s neither too firm nor too soft, and it handled every surface we threw at it with ease.
It’s got a bit of initial firmness overs small bumps like expansion gaps, but on truly rough roads is fine.
It steers beautifully and exhibits the most grip too. It’s a more finely-honed chassis than the other two, and keen drivers will appreciate that.
For its balance of ride quality-vs.-handling, the CX-3 is the champ of this round.
And that’s discounting one thing that none of these cars have that’s kinda crucial for an SUV - ride height.
The Captur has 163mm of ground clearance while the CX-3 sits at an even more car-like 155mm off the deck. The HR-V is the tallest, with 170mm of air between ground and chassis.
(All are shamed by the Ford EcoSport which offers 200mm clearance and a properly tall seating position.)
Efficiency: Mazda’s SkyActiv engine tech isn’t just marketing guff, it produces tangible results in real-world driving.
Just look at the evidence:
After a 45km road loop in slow-moving weekend traffic, the CX-3’s engine drank an average of 7.2 l/100km. By contrast, the Captur needed 8.1 l/100km while the HR-V used 8.9 l/100km.
Given the Mazda has the most power and torque, those numbers may surprise some.
But it doesn’t surprise us. The CX-3 has auto start-stop (the only one in this group) along with a clever high-compression direct-injected engine that’s tuned not just for power, but efficiency as well.
The Captur’s turbo 1.2 has a different technological approach to maximising economy, but its peaky nature means it needs to work harder than the CX-3’s motor. Result: poorer fuel economy.
The Captur also requires 95 octane fuel at a minimum, while its Japanese rivals can get by on regular ol’ 91 RON.
It also was the most distant from its claimed fuel consumption figure. Renault reckon the Captur’s TCe 120 engine sips just 5.4 l/100km on average, but we fail to see how that could be achieved in real-world driving.
Is the SUV label a misnomer of sorts? Short answer: yes.
Certainly, for its roomy cabin and versatile load-space, the HR-V comes closest to fulfilling its role as an option for families needing something more practical and roomy than a hatch.
Sure, it lacks AWD and the ground clearance needed for even mild excursions into the bush, but that doesn’t really matter.
The majority of SUVs - even full-size ones - rarely stray off the beaten track, and FWD is absolutely fine for this group.
How do we rank these contenders?
We'll put the Renault Captur third. Its lower cabin quality, laggy engine/gearbox exposed most in city driving, firmer ride and iffy infotainment system have it behind the Honda and Mazda.
But it’s too small for the purpose - especially if you want to press it into family duties.
It’s little more than a jacked-up Mazda2 with better bodywork and a bigger engine, and its cramped rear quarters and tiny boot space can't match the bigger, roomier HR-V.
And that leaves the HR-V. It’s not without flaws, but it delivers on what many will be looking for in this segment: space, ease of driving and comfort.
It's substantially more expensive than the Captur Dynamique, but wins on versatility and comfort in this comparison. The CX-3 is an awfully close second.
So, the cigar goes to Honda's HR-V; the 'most rounded' choice, it wins for its versatility, comfort and space.
But each of these three is good buying. (You'd choose the CX-3 for its dynamic handling, and the Renault for its stand-apart style and funky charm.)