The march of the small SUV continues. Which is our pick?
Compact SUVs are the cars of the moment. They have usurped conventional saloons and premium five-doors as the must-have family holdalls, thanks to their blend of radical versatility, desirability, stylish looks, good all-round performance and all-weather capability.
Carmakers are falling over themselves to offer contenders. The Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Volkswagen Tiguan were among the first, but recently, the DS 7 Crossback and Volvo XC40 have joined the fray, not to mention the mainstream Ford Kuga and Mazda CX-5. So which way should you go? Weâ€™ve lined them all up, on a typically British grey winterâ€™s day, to find out.
They make quite a diverse bunch, despite all ostensibly being same-sector compact SUVs. The tallest is the Kuga, the lowest is the Q3, and the Audiâ€™s also the shortest, contrasting with the lengthy DS7 Crossback. All have turbodiesel engines, albeit of differing power outputs, and while some are four-wheel drive, others are front-wheel drive.
First, the car park test. And first to go, surprisingly, is the Audi Q3. Itâ€™s simply too cramped, and the interior of this ageing model is too dated. The Kuga follows it, because although itâ€™s roomy inside, its interior is dreadfully drab and cheap. Thereâ€™s none of the specialness you expect of an SUV.
The DS7 is a welcome contrast to the grotty Ford, although Itâ€™s not that straightforward to use: weâ€™d much rather have the classy Volkswagen Tiguan. The Ford grabs back a few points when it comes to the first round of on-road testing, but not enough, while the Volkswagen stumbles because of a rumbly ride, and the Audi and DS7 fail to impress.
That was easy: we strike all four off the list. Because there are three models we havenâ€™t yet mentioned, all of which are proving much more convincing than the others. Take the Mazda CX-5: itâ€™s practical, punchy, has a premium-level finish and is a delight to drive. For Â£33k, it seems a steal.
The Volvo, appearing here in fancy First Edition guise, is way more expensive, but we wonâ€™t hold that against it, because most will be sold for a price closer to the CX-5. And the appeal of the brand new XC40 is undeniable. Itâ€™s crisp, fresh and charismatic, with a top-notch interior thatâ€™s as comfortable and practical as it is premium-feeling and indulgent.
The BMW is the outsider, but itâ€™s an appealing one, because itâ€™s so good to drive. Lower and more compact than the others, it uses this to serve up eager handling, which is fully exploitable courtesy of a 228bhp turbodiesel engine that does 0-62mph in under seven seconds. Itâ€™s to all intents a compact SUV hot hatch.
Our decider drive get underway. Itâ€™s soon apparent that the Volvo is the most SUV-like, with the highest driving position and the comfiest, most luxurious interior. Its seats are superb, contrasting with the Mazdaâ€™s too-soft chairs and the BMWâ€™s hard, too-narrow pews. The Mazda is a bit better in the back, but the Volvo is still decent; again, itâ€™s the X1 thatâ€™s tightest. All three have a classy finish, but the XC40 is the one with the edge.
Unsurprisingly, with all that power, itâ€™s the sheer pace and refinement of the BMW that appeals out on the road. But the others donâ€™t feel short-changed, and youâ€™re left wondering whether the X1 doesnâ€™t have too much rather than the CX-5 and XC40 have too little. Thereâ€™s no such argument for cornering appal though, because the X1 is by far the best here, with loads of grip and composure.
It doesn’t have the ride quality to match, though. The Volvo does, with a beautifully refined composure over all surfaces â€“ and the lolloping, easily-striding suspension feels fine over all surfaces. It is wonderfully smooth and relaxing over meandering B-roads, instilling a tremendous sense of wellbeing into the driver. Itâ€™s simply more appealing than the BMW, even for eager drivers.
The Mazda is appealing in its own right, marrying decent ride and handling to create a fine all-round balance. Itâ€™s natural and relaxing, only losing marks over sharp-edged bumps. For a mainstream car, it has the class of a genuine premium machine.
But while the Mazda is very good, with enough talent to beat the BMW here, it still canâ€™t match up to what we think is the finest small SUV of all, the new Volvo XC40. The Swedish firmâ€™s first entrant into this booming sector is about as spot-on as can be. Itâ€™s a seriously good all-rounder and itâ€™s already clear this is one of the star cars of 2018. Right now, if youâ€™re in the market for a small SUV, you canâ€™t buy better.
3rd BMW X1 xDrive25d M SportÂ â€“ fun performance, but could be roomier and quieter
2nd Mazda CX-5 2.2d 175 4WD Auto Sport NavÂ â€“ Itâ€™s a premium-beater in all but badge
1st Volvo XC40 D4 AWD Auto First EditionÂ â€“ There is nothing more fit for purpose right now