During the past five years, a new segment has emerged in the South-African market, currently claiming a large chunk of vehicle sales in South Africa. Year to date, 23% of vehicles sold in South Africa fell in the crossover/SUV segment, of which 58% belong to this new segment, labelled by manufacturers as compact or B-segment SUVs. Having driven some of the most popular recent additions to this segment, Anton Willemse Jnr gives his impressions.
Living in a country that begs to be explored, it is no surprise that compact SUVs are hugely popular in South Africa. Not only do they ramp up the utility factor with more space and increased ground clearance, but they also offer some distinctive styling. Considering the sheer size of this segment across the world, it comes as no surprise that there seems to be a new kid on this compact block almost monthly.
Ford started the trend with the introduction of the EcoSport back in 2013 and has been a constant segment leader, but Toyota’s Urban Cruiser took the crown in its first month of local sales when it recorded 977 units sold compared to Ford’s 597 in the same month (March). Being part of the local market leader’s stable, the Urban Cruiser continues to impress with average sales of around 750 units, with its closest competitor during the past two months being the Haval Jolion.
The Twins: Suzuki Vitara Brezza & Toyota Urban Cruiser
Back in 2019, Suzuki launched the Suzuki Baleno and nearly a year later, Toyota launched its carbon copy named the Toyota Starlet. These two hatchbacks started the “twin trend”, which the Japanese brands seemingly repeated when – only a few weeks apart – both introduced a compact SUV player to the local market during the first quarter of the year.
Of course, this second set of twins is the Suzuki Vitara Brezza and the Toyota Urban Cruiser. Some critics might think it is unfair to call these two twins, but from my testing perspective, everything was identical apart from the badges, the front grille and a slight discrepancy in pricing (the Vitara Brezza is, in fact, the most affordable player in the segment, starting at R244 900).
Both are powered by a 1.5 naturally four-cylinder engine, developing 77kW of power and 138Nm of torque. These days you would expect a smaller car like this to have 1.0 -litre turbocharged engines to improve fuel consumption without compromising power, but the twins never felt lacking in that department. Both delivered a reasonably frugal fuel consumption of 7-litres/100km.
Drive comfort and handling on both vehicles impressed, apart from a bit of torque steer in tight corners at slower
speeds, though both felt stable at higher speeds. Generally, it was a pleasure to drive them in urban conditions and they were perfectly happy when hitting the open road. We took both to the Lowveld for a getaway in the Kruger National Park, where their utility was underlined as great game-viewing vehicles thanks to the higher stance.
From a driver aid and feature perspective, both flagship models (Vitara Brezza GLX and Urban Cruiser XR) come standard with push start, electric windows, air-conditioning, tilt-adjustable steering, power-adjustable mirrors, LED headlamps and LED Daytime Running Lights (DRL). For easy manoeuvring in town, they both have Rear Park Distance Control (PDC) and rear-view camera; as well as LED fog lamps, automatic headlights, cruise control, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and rain-sensing wipers, dual 12-volt power outlets and a leather steering wheel. On the downside, the twins lack the tech of their counterparts, being without wireless Apple CarPlay and Andriod Auto and are the only players without a digital heads-up display.
*The Vitara Brezza is priced from R244 900 and the Urban Cruiser from R247 900.
The pretty boy: KIA Sonet
Shortly after the release of the twins, KIA responded with an offering of their own. In fact, the introduction of the Sonet to the local Korean stable means that there is now a KIA available in every segment and price range and this little “pretty boy” is billed to be ideal to start your SUV life with (if you borrow from their marketing pay-off line). The all-new 1.5-litre engine develops more kick than the twins at a reasonable 85kW and 144Nm.
Sadly, the CVT engine in this model is not doing the brand any favours, sadly. For me, it felt underpowered, but I’m sure it is because of the CVT gearbox, which has a massive rubber band effect, making the throttle response a bit unpredictable at times. My colleague drove the manual through Sir Lowry’s pass during the launch and loved it, so my recommendation would be to opt for the manual as this contender is a definite favourite from a looks perspective. Fuel consumption on the CVT was the best of the four, averaging around 6.5 litres/100 km in mostly urban conditions.
The Sonet also scores high in the styling department, with its chiselled looks echoing the marque’s larger SUVs such as the Sorento and Sportage. The rear, specifically, is super sexy with its wraparound glass and chrome skid plate. It does feel larger than the other players and offers both comfortable legroom at the back and the largest boot space in the segment. It has a commendable 190mm of ground clearance, and a distinctive SUV silhouette, complemented by the rounded roofline and steeply-raked A-pillars.
While it does lack a lot of the luxuries you will find in some of the others (for example, it does not have keyless entry or push-start), it was the first car I drove with wireless Apple Carplay and Andriod Auto function. It certainly was enjoyable but did present a bit of a problem (similar to the Magnite) with your phone randomly disconnecting, which implies that the tech is not quite there yet for these more affordable entry-level models.
*The Sonet is priced from R264 995.
The diva: Nissan Magnite
The futuristic-looking Nissan Magnite was the final one of the four newcomers I drove. Approaching it in the driveway after it was delivered, the contrasting white roof and vivid lines immediately caught my eye as I tend to see Nissan as a more conservative brand when it comes to styling.
The Magnite’s front grille resembles that of the Datsun Go, a car I’ve always found decent looking, albeit on the cheaper price spectrum. Speaking of cheap, the Magnite is very competitively priced without compromising on any features. In fact, it’s the only one boasting wireless phone charging – a massive plus for a Gen X like myself.
Entering the rather snug (the smallest of the four we tested) cabin, it felt luxurious and bespoke (which is just a fancy word for different, which the Magnite is). I enjoyed the quirky design, but the quirky ergonomics not as much. When you climb in a Japanese car, you expect everything to be logical and easy to work and within easy reach, never even thinking of looking for that owner’s manual. That wasn’t the case here – everything was a bit confusing; for example, setting up the cruise control took us about 30 minutes (eventually, we had to break out the owner’s manual).
The Nissan Magnite boasts the new HRA0 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder engine, sourced from Renault. The newcomer produces the smallest amount of power of the four but is still well in the ballpark with 74 kW of power and 162 Nm of torque in the manual transmission, which shrinks slightly to 152 Nm in the CVT which is what we sampled. Not a fan of CVT boxes, I did find this one to be one of the better ones I have experienced as it was indistinguishable from a regular automatic gearbox.
*The Magnite is priced from R256 999.
Every single one of the newcomers to this popular has its pros and cons. Truth be told, they are all remarkably similar from both a performance and spec perspective, so I guess your choice will depend on personal preference. After spending a reasonable amount of time with all four contenders, my choice will probably fall with one of the twins, but it could be to do with the fact that I spent time in them in my favourite place in the world!
The other top players in the segment
The grandfather of the segment, Ford’s EcoSport, was given a boost earlier this year with an addition to the range – the
special edition EcoSport Black. As the name suggests, it boasts several dark-hued feature enhancements to give it a more dynamic appearance. Powered by the brand’s sprightly 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine and mated to a 6-speed automatic gearbox, it delivers 91kW of power and 151Nm of torque. The Black special edition complements the brand’s line-up which includes four 1.0-litre turbocharged engines. The EcoSport is priced from R302 400.
The facelifted Haval H2 arrived locally at the beginning of 2020, boasting a fresh new styling and some interior and safety upgrades. The H2 is powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol, developing peak outputs of 105kW and 202Nm and is paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The range is priced from R294 900.
Boasting what the Chinese brand labels as contemporary design, the all-new Jolion entered the market in early June and made quite the splash from a sales perspective. One of the largest options in the segment with a 2 700mm wheelbase, the 1.5-litre turbo kicks out 105kW and 210Nm, mated to a 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. It is set to replace the HT and is priced from R299 900.
A popular choice in the segment since its introduction in 2019, the Hyundai Venue offers attractive styling and is filled to the brim with safety features. Priced from R311 900, it makes use of a turbocharged 1.0-litre petrol engine with 88kW and 172Nm paired to a 7-speed automatic transmission.
Entering the market towards the end of 2020, the Honda WR-V offers quite a trendy design and a reasonably powered 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine which develops 66kW and 110Nm peak torque. The two-derivative range’s pricing starts from R289 900.
*There are, of course, several more powerful (and more expensive) turbocharged options available such as the VW T-Roc. At the lower end of the pricing spectrum, there are also players such as JMC Landwind 5 and BAIC X25. Our team has not yet tested these or the derivatives listed in our “other players” section.