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Do you miss the 1996 Toyota RAV4 or Geo Tracker?
These were tall, cheap, stubby little SUVs that bore little resemblance to today’s compact crossovers. They were cheeky and fun rather than polished, spacious andrefined.
Today’s RAV4 and its closest competitors are – comparatively speaking – big, soft and quiet. They’re functional, comfortable and fuel-efficient. But few are very exciting.
You might find a cure for your nostalgia in the new 2018 Ford EcoSport. At 161 inches long but only 65 inches high, it’s roughly the height of Ford’s best-selling Escape — but nearly a foot-and-a-half shorter in length. Besides sharing its proportions with the small SUVs of yesteryear, the 2018 EcoSport even has a swing-out cargo door with an optional spare tire on the back.
Ford brought over the EcoSport from developing markets, where such tiny SUVs never fell out of favor; it’s currently built in Russia, Thailand, Brazil, Romania, China and India — the latter being the source for U.S.-spec vehicles.
The EcoSport’s driving experience is as old-school as its shape. Most competitors in the subcompact crossover class — such as the Honda HR-V, Kia Soul and Chevrolet Trax — feel like the slightly taller hatchbacks that they are. The EcoSport instead uses its petite dimensions to allow a tight 35-foot turning circle, agile handling and easy parking.
You sit up high in the EcoSport, for such a small vehicle, and some drivers will even find the relatively stiff, bouncy ride an endearing personality quirk rather than a comfort issue.
Others will think the EcoSport just feels dated. The engines — a three-cylinder turbo on front-wheel-drive models and a four-cylinder naturally aspirated unit with the tested all-wheel-drive — deliver neither lively acceleration nor impressive fuel efficiency. The EPA rates the FWD and AWD models at 28 mpg and 25 mpg, respectively, which is worse than many larger, quicker crossovers, and the tested four-cylinder gets loud quickly.
The interior boasts a well-executed 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system on most models, and the orange trim brightens up the cabin, but many plastics feel cheap, and some edges have rough finishing. The rear seat is high enough to provide decent leg support, but legroom is minimal. And the swing-out cargo door needs a wide clearance to open.
EcoSport prices start at $20,990 and can get close to $30,000 with all the options. And advanced crash-avoidance technologies such as automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assistance aren’t available. While it’s not a killer deal, the EcoSport can be a good fit for buyers who value its petite dimensions, agile handling and 1990s-throwback vibe. Shop it against the Jeep Renegade, another boxy little subcompact with more character than refinement.
Two other recently tested subcompact crossovers take different approaches to the market: the value-focused Nissan Kicks and the high-style Toyota C-HR.
The Kicks is another developing-market vehicle that has also made it to the United States. Designed in Brazil and manufactured around the world (U.S. examples come from Mexico), it’s a straightforward approach to value that has great appeal even in the U.S. market.
The Kicks is priced from $19,535, with tons of standard equipment, including emergency automatic braking. It makes no pretensions to luxury or SUV-style toughness — there isn’t even an all-wheel-drive option — but it’s a marvel of comfortable, functional, and economical value without feeling relentlessly cheap and sad.
Fuel efficiency is in another world from the EcoSport’s: EPA ratings of 33 mpg in mixed driving. The little engine has just 125 horsepower, but it’s still peppy around town and acceptable – with some patience – at higher speeds.
The cabin is plain but highly functional, and it feels simple rather than junky. That is to say, it feels like Nissan set clear standards for a value-oriented vehicle, and then met them. Interesting textures dress up the dashboard and upholstery, and the places you frequently touch avoid feeling too cheap. The seats are comfortable, and the rear seat is decently comfortable for a subcompact vehicle. Cargo space trumps that of the EcoSport and most other subcompacts, at 25 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 53 cubic feet in total, though you don’t get a flush cargo floor.
The Kicks isn’t in its element on the highway, where the ride quality gets busy and the engine’s 125 horsepower approaches the limits of its kick. But it’s fine there too, and the responsive steering and handling are a pleasant surprise.
Overall, the Kicks combines exceptional value with impressive spaciousness and decent drivability, making it a highly rational subcompact crossover. But it doesn’t brim with character like the EcoSport.
Nor does it have the flashy styling of the 2019 Toyota C-HR. Introduced last year as a 2018 model, the C-HR has already been heavily updated to address some of our complaints from last year: few available luxury features and an outdated infotainment system.
From the outside, the C-HR looks like a concept car that’s escaped from an auto show. Relatively long and low — the opposite of an EcoSport — and abounding in edgy details, it’s styled to turn heads rather than maximize cargo room.
The driving experience remains much more muted than the expressive exterior. It’s significantly heavier than the Kicks, which creates a smoother, more-substantial ride but less agile handling and a less peppy engine. The C-HR drones under acceleration, and its handling responses are more muted than the eager Kicks or EcoSport.
The new 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system replaces last year’s 7-inch unit, which was both smaller and less sophisticated, with duller graphics and fewer capabilities. The display now includes a backup camera and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration (though not the equivalent Android Auto for other brands of phone).
You really need to love the C-HR’s styling for it to make sense, though, like a sporty coupe versus a sensible sedan. It’s not only less useful than most competitors, but it’s also on the pricey side, starting at $22,040.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-kicks-chr to see more photos of the tested 2018 Nissan Kicks and 2019 Toyota C-HR, and visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-ecosport to see more photos of the tested 2018 Ford EcoSport.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.