SUVs were once synonymous with adventure and the Great Outdoors. However, Jon Lim thinks the moniker better describes a lifestyle accessory these days...
Singapore – It’s the class of car every enthusiast loves to hate. “Ugly”; “slow”; “uneconomical”; “waste of space”; “poor handling”; those are the refrains some car guys have used to describe and decry Sport Utility Vehicles, but alas, us petrolheads are few in number in the greater scheme of things, and sales figures prove that the general public just can’t get enough of the things.
No manufacturer is sacred from the economic allure of the SUV, with even super luxury brands that have no business going off the beaten track adding some form of all-terrain vehicle to their lineup: Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce being the latest entrants, and Ferrari and Aston Martin soon to join the fray.
The origin and early history of the SUV is synonymous and indistinguishable from that of early off-road vehicles or 4x4s, such as the Willys Jeep and original Land Rover. It wasn’t long before changes were made to these go-anywhere mobiles to allow them to carry passengers, but by and large they were still unrefined and truck-like until about 25-30 years ago.
It was only in the ‘90s when cars that we’d recognise as SUVs today first started appearing, placing road manners and occupant comfort ahead of off-road prowess. Over the years, a lot of SUVs gradually got rid of their mud-plugging abilities, to the point where they’d be no more useful off the tarmac than any regular sedan, hatchback or MPV.
At the same time the segment also started shedding its rough-and-tumble image and shrinking in size, such that SUVs started to more at home in a crowded city than out in the wilderness.
Which brings us to this quartet: The Hyundai Kona, Citroen C3 Aircross, Toyota C-HR and Volvo XC40 aren’t direct rivals, but they all share a common theme. They are SUVs you might buy not because you want to go on adventures, or because you need the space, but because they are mould-breakers, and offer a unique style that stands out from the homogeneity of the saturated SUV market.
Kimchi Surprise - Hyundai Kona The Hyundai Kona is the cheapest way of getting yourself some high-riding style. Apart from a couple of decidedly acidic colour choices (this Tangerine Comet being one of them), you might not think there’s anything to get excited about a steadfastly sensible offering from an eminently sensible brand.
But the Kona is in fact a unicorn in today’s automotive landscape, particularly so for die-hard petrolheads, as it’s one of only three new non-performance cars you can buy in Singapore with a manual gearbox.
And funnily enough, no matter how nicely you ask, this lower-priced, Cat A COE-friendly 1.0-litre model can only be had as a stick shift – Hyundai does not offer a self-shifting 1.0-litre Kona anywhere in the world. Of course, you could have a two-pedal Kona (you bore), but that comes attached to the turbo’d 1.6-litre models, which although more powerful, also costs a whopping 50 per cent more!
As it is, the Kona’s drivetrain is a peach, and makes you wonder why manuals ever went out of fashion. The shift action of the 6-spd has a slightly notchy and pleasantly springy throw, and the clutch is so light that in a jam, your bum would go numb from the prolonged sitting long before your left leg ever tires out.
As with nearly all cars these days, the Kona’s tiny three-pot is turbocharged, packing 118 horses into its 1000cc displacement, along with 172Nm. It elicits a pleasing thrum when revved – like almost all three-cylinder engines – but it certainly doesn’t goad you into wringing its neck. The revs hang stubbornly at high rpms when you close the throttle, making smooth progress at full chat very difficult indeed.
However, to drive the Kona hard is to miss the point entirely. Dial things back a notch and revel in the sensations of being fully in control, and you’ll find that the chassis has enough fluidity to satisfy in the corners, as well as a pedal set up that is surprisingly natural feeling and well-judged for a flurry of heel-and-toe footwork.
At just over S$80k the Kona one of the cheapest models in the Hyundai range, yet nothing about it feels bargain basement. The body-coloured piping on the seats lifts a well-built but admittedly drab cabin, and there’s an extensive list of equipment thrown in as well.
A seven-inch touchscreen display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, cruise control, and reversing camera aren’t commonly found at this price range, while safety systems such as lane keep assist, blind spot detection and autonomous emergency braking are big boy toys that give peace of mind.
Say what you will about Korean cars, but stuff like the Kona show just how far they’ve come, offering a similar package as the Japs and Europeans whilst maintaining an incredible value proposition. And hey, if you want to put the Sport into this SUV, there’s always the 250bhp Kona N that’s currently in development.
HYUNDAI KONA 1.0M T-GDi Engine: 998cc, inline3, turbo Power/rpm: 118bhp/6000rpm Torque/rpm: 172Nm/1500rpm Transmission: 6spd manual Kerbweight: 1350kg 0-100km/h: est. 12secs Top Speed: 181km/h Fuel consumption: 5.4l/100km
Sacré Blue – Citroen C3 Aircross Ah, the French. Nobody else makes cars quite as resolutely individualistically as them, a trait best embodied time and time again by Citroen. Throughout its history (well, apart from a dank period in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) the company has had a distinctive and eccentric approach to building cars, and the C3 Aircross is no different.
For example, most other manufacturers tend to give their cars a more intimidating look, in the belief that a brooding scowl looks cooler than a beaming smile – such is the case with the rest of our quartet – but Citroen has given the C3 a deliberately unaggressive aesthetic, with gently rounded shapes being the dominant theme (we hope you like squircles). A quick flip through the brochure also reveals a bunch of cheery colour schemes; it’s simply impossible not to smile when you lay eyes on one of these.
And yet, for all its Gallic quirks, putting the C3 and Kona side by side reveals some surprisingly similar styling touches: check out the split headlamps, with the slit-like daytime running lights perched up high, as well as the extra-chunky wheelarch and bumper cladding. If ever there was an automotive coincidence that proves (parallel) evolution is real, this is it.
The C3 also differs in its engineering approach. While many other cars are marketed with sporting credentials they don’t deserve, the C3 seems almost proud of the fact that it has zero sporting pretensions whatsoever and has focused on pliant comfort instead.
Sure, the 1.2-litre three-pot engine redlines at a diesel-like 5500rpm, the 6spd gearbox is jerky at low speeds, and the steering is too light through the twisties, but that’s wholly in character for this car – it actively discourages you from rushing, so you might as well calm down, bask in the plushness of the suspension, and adopt a Zen approach to driving. It’s better for your health anyway.
One look at the C3’s silhouette will immediately clue you in to its lack of sportiness. It’s tall and boxy, almost like a mini-MPV, which means a spacious, airy, and family-friendly cabin.
There’s a colossal amount of legroom even though the C3 is the shortest car here, and the rear seatbacks can recline, allowing you to sink lazily into the broad, deeply-cushioned seats like your favourite armchair at home. Those rear seats can slide fore and aft too, taking boot space up from a decent 410-litres to a cavernous 520-litres.
All this while your eyes are treated to an interior that’s just as interesting to look at as the exterior; too many cars these days fall flat in this aspect. Some of the plastics may be on the stiff and scratchy side, but the flashes of colour and the squircular theme are a welcome distraction.
In all it’s nice to know there are some mavericks out there interpreting “style” in a whole different fashion, rather than going for the “same same but different” approach of everyone else. Best of all, the C3 Aircross shows that style needn’t come at the expense of versatility, which surely is the equivalent of having your baguette and eating it.
CITROËN C3 AIRCROSS 1.2 SHINE Engine: 1199cc, inline3, turbo Power/rpm: 110bhp/5500rpm Torque/rpm: 205Nm/1500rpm Transmission: 6spd auto Kerbweight: 1203kg 0-100km/h: est. 11.8secs Top Speed: 187km/h Fuel consumption: 5.6l/100km
Yellow Fever – Toyota C-HR The thing about style is that it’s subjective. Everyone is different, and so too will everything have their fair share of admirers and detractors. That said, there are some things which leave less of an ambivalent no-man’s land and crystallise opinions into a clearer love-it-or-hate-it division. The Toyota C-HR is one of those things.
I will admit, prior to the big day, I wanted to hate it. I loathed the pretentiousness and oxymoronic nature of a name that stands for “Coupe-High Rider”. In fact I loathe the unapologetic loss of functionality in all coupe-SUV hybrids.
And having sat in the back of one on an Uber ride, I most definitely loathed the experience of being a back seat passenger in it.
Annoyingly though, I found I could hate the C-HR no longer, the moment I took it on a spirited blast up 99 Bends.
First, a bit of background. Akio Toyoda, the company’s president, is a dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead. Toyoda was also aware that the company’s products were pretty much white goods, with nothing to stir the soul or excite the senses since the death of the Celica and MR-S in the mid ‘00s.
Hence, he wanted Toyota to start building cars “with stronger emotional qualities that will make owners fall in love with driving again”; the C-HR is one of the results of this new corporate direction.
First shown as a wild concept in 2014, then again in 2015, the production C-HR has stayed remarkably true to the original visions – a feat unexpected of most cars transitioning from show stand to showroom, not least from a company as staid as Toyota. Love it or hate it, you certainly can’t deny how much more striking the C-HR is compared to the rest of the lineup.
Fast forward to today and, well, the looks still haven’t grown on me. But a couple of passers-by did come up to me during shooting to tell me how nice they thought it looked, so clearly its style means something to some people.
Anyway, getting behind the wheel is what caused my C-HR-shaped epiphany. The 1.2-litre turbo four-pot is effective but nothing to write home about, and the CVT gearbox, well, is like all CVTs: smooth but slushy and fun-sapping. But the moment you get to a corner, WOW.
I think it’s fair to say that, apart from the 86 Coupe, the C-HR is the best handling Toyota of the past decade. The weighting of the brake pedal and steering are so meaty, it gives you great confidence to accurately push the limits through a turn. Better yet, body-roll is well contained, the front end is fairly darty on turn-in, and playing with the throttle mid-corner reveals a hint of playfulness in the rear end.
The sparkling dynamics are so good I could almost forgive the C-HR its biggest flaw – that sloping roof. Passenger space in the back is actually more than sufficient, but the low roof, high belt-line, tiny rear windows and acres of C-pillar means it still feels miserably claustrophobic, and also produces a blind spot so massive you could lose a lorry in it.
The C-HR was certainly one of my biggest surprises for 2018, but I think Toyota missed a trick. It may be excellent to steer, but it’s too compromised in practicality to be an effective SUV. What it is, is almost a sportscar. Lop about a third off the metalwork between the sills and windows and take out the rear doors, and this could have been a tantalising successor to the cherished Celicas and Corolla Coupes of yore.
Icy White – Volvo XC40 It feels a bit weird saying this, but with its current generation lineup, Volvo has become something of a style icon. Apart from a few exceptions like the P1800 and original C70, you can finally buy a Volvo not just because they’re safe, spacious or dependable, but because they actually look good.
A quick vid we did for the XC40... no bikes were harmed or kidnapped in the making of the video! Video: Lionel Lim
However, though the rest of the range looks exceedingly handsome, there’s still plenty of restraint to their styling. Given that its latest model, the baby XC40, is part of a younger segment and aimed at a younger buyer, such formality need not apply here, freeing the XC40 up to be the most chic offering in the stable.
‘Chunky’ seems to be the theme the designers stuck to in designing this car, its stubby shape and simple lines giving the impression it was chiselled from a solid block, as opposed to the more lithe, sculptural form of, say, the C-HR.
Much of the styling bears a minimalist aesthetic, but clock the square, upright grille, and scowling “Thor’s Hammer” headlights coming behind you in the rear view and you might be imposed to move over; small the XC40 may be, but it’s no shrinking violet.
The XC40’s importance to Volvo is two-fold. Firstly, it’s the brand’s first ever entry into the burgeoning and lucrative compact luxury SUV segment, and secondly, it marks the debut of a new compact architecture that will go on to underpin Volvo’s future small models.
This might be the funkiest car to come out of Gothenburg for a long time, but spunky it is not. It’s competent when hustled but we’d have preferred it to have a little more spirit to complement our spirited driving. The engine option in Singapore for now is the T5, which in Volvo-speak is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder with 250hp and 350Nm.
The shove you feel when you floor the throttle is commensurate with its acceleration figure of 6.4secs, but we’d have appreciated a little more aural feedback. In dynamic terms, there’s plenty of grip from the fat 235-section tyres and the four-wheel-drivetrain means cornering speeds are high, but there’s also a lot of roll and a lethargy to change direction. This is a heavy car (nearly 1.7-tonnes), and feels it.
Instead of raising pulses, the XC40 is much better at lowering pulses and stress values, just like its larger siblings. Once inside, you’re extremely well insulated from the outside world. Where the Citroen flows along with the bumps, the Volvo simply smothers everything beneath a layer of Swedish nonchalance. Combine the ride quality with Volvo’s trademark ergonomic seats and you have yourself the makings of a terrific highway mile-muncher.
Just like the exterior, the XC40’s cabin is clean and minimalist, yet exudes an air of solidity, and the materials look and feel premium. The reason the dashboard can look so sparse is because almost all the controls have migrated into the 12.3-inch central touchscreen, but though it looks neat, it’s atypical of Volvo in that it’s a bit too form over function – too many swipes and button presses are required to change things like the aircon and audio settings on the move.
If the infotainment is an oversight, at least it doesn’t get in the way of a traditional Volvo USP, practicality, as the interior is full of thoughtful storage spaces. The boot floor folds up to reveal hooks for your shopping bags, and another one pops out of the glovebox, to conveniently hang your packet of Teh-C siu dai. There’s also a little removable trash bin, massive door pockets and an inordinate amount of passenger space given the car’s small footprint.
Considering the XC40’s positioning, an extra injection of dynamic attitude probably wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it’s nice to know the regular Volvo traits are present in the XC40. The Swedish sensibilities have always been present, but now Volvo can finally inject some Swedish style to the roads.
VOLVO XC40 T5 MOMENTUM Engine: 1969cc, inline4, turbo Power/rpm: 250bhp/5500rpm Torque/rpm: 350Nm/1800rpm Transmission: 8spd auto Kerbweight: 1683kg 0-100km/h: est. 6.4secs Top Speed: 230km/h Fuel consumption: 7.7l/100km
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