Do you want a small SUV but feel that today’s best-sellers just aren’t all that small?
The Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 offer tons of interior space for the money, so it’s no surprise that they’re broadly appealing. But they’ve grown to nearly the size of the original Ford Explorer. That’s why the subcompact crossover class has exploded, as automakers fill in new models below these favorites.
This market segment includes some models that are basically hatchbacks with slightly higher seating positions, more interesting styling, and available with all-wheel-drive. In some cases, the car may not even include those traits. Others look and feel more like larger “compact” crossovers, just scaled down in size and price.
We recently tested leading examples of each type: the 2019 Hyundai Kona and the 2019 Nissan Rogue Sport. Both models offer a lot of appeal for buyers who prefer a smaller, less expensive vehicle than the best-sellers. Like the rest of the subcompact class, they’ll lose many buyers who think it’s reasonable to pay a couple of thousand dollars extra for a much roomier model.
The Kona is the attention grabber of the two, and not just for its out-there styling — two levels of headlights; bulging, plastic-clad fenders; and an assertively hunched-forward silhouette. The model was all-new for the 2018 model year and still feels new and fresh.
Even more impressively, the Kona also stands out for its driving experience, which is perhaps the best in its class. While most subcompact crossovers are engineered cheaply to keep prices down, Hyundai created a well-sorted suspension and steering system for the Kona. It steers and corners with crisp precision for a crossover, feeling more solidly built and planted to the ground than some skittery, nervous-feeling competitors. The suspension is tuned for a firm ride.
Although you’ll feel bumps punch through, the Kona remains composed. It doesn’t feel like you’ve broken the car, and it doesn’t keep bobbling around, slowly recovering from the impact.
Upper-trim Konas have another exceptional selling point: a splendid turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers strong, smooth power and remarkable fuel economy. It’s the perfect complement to the car’s taut handling, and it’s far removed from the wheezing, overworked engines found in many subcompact crossovers.
The EPA estimates that the turbocharged Kona will achieve a competitive 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving with the optional all-wheel-drive, or a whopping 30 mpg with front-wheel-drive. During a weeklong test, a front-wheel-drive Kona averaged an outstanding 34 mpg — better even than its EPA highway estimate of 32 mpg.
Base Konas have a still-competitive but less-outstanding engine, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with no turbocharging. It’s noisier and less powerful than the turbo, all while achieving the same EPA ratings. An all-wheel-drive 2.0-liter Kona tested last year averaged 29 mpg compared to its 27 mpg rating.
Adding to the Kona’s value is its affordable pricing. It is well-equipped at its base price of $21,035, especially after Hyundai added more standard safety features this year.
And, unlike its sister brand’s subcompact crossover, the Kia Soul, the Kona does offer all-wheel-drive.
The Kona’s main downside is in the cabin. It’s not the sturdily constructed, user-friendly dashboard. It’s the cramped rear seat and smallish cargo hold. There’s no question the Kona is a subcompact crossover, even compared to the competition, and you don’t have an SUV-style high seating position.
For a more traditional flavor, the Nissan Rogue Sport offers the conventionally handsome styling of the best-selling Rogue compact, just baked into a smaller size.
With a smooth and quiet ride, above-average cargo space, a high seating position and decently agile handling, the Rogue Sport offer sunassuming competence in a class more defined by character and flaws. And, like the Kona, the Rogue Sport is newly updated with more standard safety features, as well as a new fully featured infotainment system that’s also standard equipment.
But the Rogue’s old-looking dashboard design will be too conservative for some buyers but it has relatively generous cargo space. Its rear seat though remains on the tight side. (The Honda HR-V is roomier, though not as smooth or quiet.)
Meanwhile, the Rogue Sport isn’t one of the least-expensive subcompact crossovers, leaving room for the super-affordable Kicks at the bottom of Nissan’s crossover lineup.
That means that it’s closer in price to compact crossovers even as it fails to create its own unique character. So, you’d have to really want the smaller size to give up the much more-spacious interior of the larger Rogue and its competitors, which even match or exceed the Rogue Sport’s fuel economy (EPA ratings of 28 mpg with front-wheel-drive and 27 mpg with all-wheel-drive, and 28 mpg observed from the tested all-wheel-drive model).
Prices start at $23,385, compared to $26,065 for the standard Rogue.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.