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By Brady Holt
There are many reasons to consider the booming class of subcompact crossovers.
Speaking broadly, these models offer the high seating position, available all-wheel-drive and useful cargo space of an SUV, but with low prices and conveniently petite dimensions.
Many subcompact crossovers also offer more personality than their larger siblings. Witness the concept-car looks of the Toyota C-HR, the Kia Soul and the recently tested Hyundai Kona. The brands’ larger crossovers are handsome but stodgy by comparison.
Other models, meanwhile, focus on the basics of sensible value. Nissan has led this front since 2017 with the unexciting but pleasant and practical Rogue Sport, and it’s doubling down by introducing the even-smaller, even-less-expensive 2018 Kicks.
Let’s start with the Kona. With narrow slits for headlights and taillights, a great big grille, and swaths of plastic cladding on various body panels, this is a car that strives to stand out from the crowd — especially when it’s wearing the bright Surf Blue paint job found the tested vehicle.
But setting aside its extroverted exterior, the Kona looks and feels more like a well-executed economy car with some extra practicality. While many of its competitors have weak, buzzy engines; chintzy interior materials; and generally underwhelming experiences, the Kona fades politely into the background while you drive it.
The Kona is agile without being overly stiff. Its dashboard, while lacking in design flourishes, provides up-to-date infotainment and easy-to-use controls. The seats are comfortable. You wouldn’t confuse the humble Kona with a stretch-out-spacious, luxuriously finished Honda CR-V — but the Kona starts at just $20,480, with generous standard equipment. That’s impressive even for a subcompact crossover, and makes the Kona no more expensive than a compact sedan.
That’s what it feels like from behind the wheel, too: a compact sedan. You don’t sit up especially high, which makes it feel more natural to take a corner quickly, but also reduces the SUV advantage of towering visibility.
Of course, the Kona looks nothing like a compact sedan. And it has the versatility of an SUV or hatchback. It’s small, so there isn’t super-generous cargo space (19 cubic feet behind the rear seat, and 46 cubic feet with the rear seat, folded mostly flat), but that’s still more than you’d get from Hyundai’s Elantra sedan.
Slightly better fuel economy would be a plus. The Kona returns a respectable 30 miles per gallon in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive, whether you get its affordable 147-horsepower base engine or its peppy 175-horsepower turbocharged one. But all-wheel-drive drops the EPA estimates by 3 mpg, more than in most SUVs.
Nonetheless, the Kona backs up head-turning looks with sensible comfort, refinement and value.
The Nissan Kicks, meanwhile, has a more-introverted personality — but, based on a brief preview drive, perhaps an even broader appeal.
Rather than focusing on sporty handling or flashy looks, the Kicks digs down and delivers big on the most mainstream of virtues: a spacious interior in a tidy package, super-competitive pricing and outstanding fuel economy. And while some Nissan vehicles have been accused of feeling too cheap and basic, the Kicks keeps things pleasant with a smooth ride, comfortable seating, and an intelligent mix of interior textures. Like the Kona, it doesn’t scream “luxury,” but besides underwhelming acceleration from its 125-horsepower engine, it doesn’t feel like a budget-focused vehicle.
But with a base price of $18,985 and generous standard features, including advanced safety systems like automatic emergency braking, it’s definitely a screaming bargain. It rivals the Kia Soul as the value leader in this class, and the Kia is much harder to equip with the best safety technology. Moreover, the Kicks manages a stellar 33 mpg in mixed driving — the best rating of any crossover that doesn’t rely on pricey electric components.
You can’t get the Kicks with all-wheel-drive, and it’s missing a sunroof and some other luxury features. But as long as you don’t need those items and aren’t in a rush to accelerate, you won’t want to miss this little crossover.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.