Volkswagen is the compact-crossover brand of the moment but these rivals are here to assert their presence. We test the Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR...

If you live in an urban area, you’d likely have noticed a T-Cross around each corner, parallel parked on every street and occupying every third bay at the mall. Volkswagen’s rigorously practical and pragmatic compact crossover has been an unmitigated success and the brand looks set to expand its reach even further with the local introduction of the mite larger T-Roc. What the T-Cross and T-Roc arguably lack, however, is a dose of eccentricity. There is no doubt they are excellent vehicles but they’re also stoically Germanic…

Let’s look further east to three T-Cross/T-Roc rivals with a bit more brio. Considered here are the flagship models in a trio of vehicle ranges which have achieved their own impressive levels of sales success and are smart, stylish and distinctive. Two formed part of our long-term fleet – the recently launched Kia Seltos and Mazda’s perennially popular CX-3 – while our third entrant, the Toyota C-HR, is freshly returned from a light nip and tuck.

They’re a hodgepodge of drivetrain configurations; in the mix are two turbocharged petrol engines alongside the CX-3’s naturally aspirated unit of considerably larger displacement. Each has a different self-shifting transmission option but there are similarities, too. They sit at the pinnacle of their respective ranges and, as such, offer a wealth of standard convenience and safety features to persuade those looking to downgrade from their midsize SUVs (of which each manufacturer offers an equally popular option) into their lither frames. The price gulf (R50 000-plus) mirrors the power gap; the dearest, the C-HR, offers 85 kW to the Mazda’s 115 kW. Yet, in terms of driving pleasure, connectivity options and overall performance, they have more in common than not.

So, without further ado, which compact crossover offers the most for discerning buyers with a penchant for individualism?

Context

Let’s start with the least-expensive vehicle, the CX-3 2,0 Individual Plus AT at R433 900. Launched globally in 2015, the little Mazda received a refresh last year that included such updates to its Kodo design language as a revised grille, LED lights all-round, new dual-tone 18-inch alloy wheels on this and the lower-rung Individual derivative, as well as more extensive chrome detailing. It arguably has dated better than the more divisive Toyota and still looks contemporary as it nears the twilight of its lifecycle.

Helping to kerb the bloat are compact exterior dimensions – it’s the shortest, narrowest, lowest and the lightest – and taut surfacing, with little frivolousness in its detailing. Under the bonnet, all CX-3s boast the same engine: a naturally aspirated 2,0-litre. It can be coupled with a six-speed manual gearbox or this torque converter with half a dozen gears (the self-shifter is the only option offered on the Individual Plus).

Next up is Kia’s well-received Seltos and we’re testing the 1,4 TGDI GT-Line DCT. It, too, benefits from its flagship status by offering intricately wrought alloy wheels (17s in this case), a series of GT-Line adornments that encompass a lot of brightwork, a knurled patina on the grille that you’ll either love or loathe, and striking LED daytime-running lights stretching into the grille. Time will tell whether the design will age as well as the Mazda’s but the Kia certainly fills its brief of standing out from the crowd. Interestingly, despite appearing to be the largest vehicle in this trio, the more upright Kia is 45 mm shorter than the longest, the Toyota, and its wheelbase adds 30 mm less to the measuring tape. The Korean is the loftiest, however, and has the highest ground clearance at 190 mm.

Under the creased bonnet is a new engine we haven’t experienced in any other Kia. The Kappa III turbopetrol has the most torque of the trio; 242 N.m plays the Toyota’s 185 N.m, with the Mazda’s 206 N.m settling closer to the latter than the former. The Kappa mates with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Capping the price chasm is the Toyota C-HR 1,2T Luxury CVT. It offers a wealth of spec additions over the next model in the range, the Plus, but both share these 18-inch alloys, plus LED lighting tech front and rear. An equally mild facelift to the Mazda’s, the C-HR gained a wider, lower front airdam, higher-sited foglamps and a gloss-black spoiler aft. Think what you will of the C-HR’s avant garde design, it certainly diverts attention away from the other crossovers…

As mentioned, despite its rakish appearance, the C-HR is more closely aligned with the Kia than the Mazda in terms of dimensions, and it’s comfortably the heaviest vehicle, straining our scales at 1 397 kg against the CX-3’s 1 228 kg and 1 282 kg for the Seltos.

Performance capabilities

Due to lockdown restrictions on the movements of CAR’s editorial team, we were unable to performance sprint test this version of the Toyota. Instead, we’ll reference the manual-transmission model’s results when we discuss sprinting performance. All other test info and results are relevant to the CVT-equipped version as tested here.

As mentioned earlier, the Toyota has the smallest engine of the threesome tasked with hauling the most mass and it shows. It’s unable to dip below the 10-second barrier in terms of its best 0-100 km/h time, instead taking more than 11 seconds (our experience with the Corolla Hatch employing the same drivetrain showed the CVT model to sprint slightly slower than the manual). The Kia required a much more impressive 9,57 seconds but it’s dispatched by the Mazda, which sets off the timer at the three-figure mark after just 9,33 seconds. In-gear, the Kia and Mazda trade equal blows, with the Toyota a distant third.

The Mazda’s ability to match the Kia is mighty impressive if you consider its lack of forced-induction and the resultant lower maximum torque. That said, it’s telling the CX-3’s maximum of 204 N.m is delivered at just 2 800 r/min, which explains its surprising alertness. Helping its cause is the best transmission, an example of why a torque-converter and a humble six gears are all you need for a satisfying gearbox. It’s alert without being edgy – except in sport mode where its rabid excitement to hook the lowest gear possible soon turns wearisome – and spins the engine at a satisfyingly low 2 500 r/min at 120 km/h in top gear.

A good thing, if you ask us. Mazda claims to have done much to reduce friction and noise right across the SkyActiv unit’s rev range but it has the rowdiest powertrain and its coarseness can come as a surprise if you judge it according to the vehicle’s sticker price relative to other cars. Thankfully, the stop/start system is effective, firing up the engine instantly if the driver eases off the brake pedal.

The Kia’s engine is a more balanced companion. It can sound a tad strained as it enters the second half of its rev range but it’s nowhere near as intrusive as the Mazda’s, and it responds without much lag from very low revs. Overall, this is an excellent offering from Kia … if it weren’t for the irksome transmission. In normal, steady driving, the seven-speed DCT option shifts cogs quickly and smoothly. However, ask for a burst of speed from the engine and the DCT displays some notable tardiness. Low-speed manoeuvring is equally affected, clutch take-up too slow to lend the driving experience the fluidity buyers might be expecting.

Ironically, it falls to the leisurely Toyota and its continuously variable transmission to show how well a drivetrain package can be integrated. We’ve bored our readers sufficiently with our CVT criticisms but there isn’t much negative feedback to note with the C-HR’s version of this transmission. Despite its lowly power and torque outputs, the 1,2-litre engine feels lively and responsive, aided in no small way by the CVT. Toyota’s four-cylinder is also the most refined engine which carries as much clout in a crossover as overall performance.

Driving manners

As different as their engines and gearboxes are, under their skins these three rivals are entirely conventional. The Kia and Toyota offer a suspension setup comprising MacPherson struts up front and an independent arrangement aft, the latter replaced on the Mazda with a simpler torsion beam. Ostensibly, that should make the Mazda the least accomplished dynamically but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s unquestionably the best of the three to drive, offering a direct, excellently weighted power steering system (all three have electrical assistance), by far the best body control and a neutral chassis balance that’s a surprising joy to exploit on a mountain pass. In terms of its overall braking ability, while its test results were ultimately disappointing, the firm, easily modulated pedal response makes it easy to bring the CX-3 to a smooth halt.

It stands to reason the Mazda’s ride should suffer considering the trifecta of resolute body control, low-profile tyres and simpler suspension, yet the CX-3 manages to just-about pull off a successful ride/handling balance. Certainly, it’s firm, although the suspension recovers quickly, resulting in less of the head toss you’ll find in the Seltos. At 120 km/h, the Mazda is unquestionably the loudest vehicle yet not to such an extent as to be a deal-breaker.

Not that our comment on the Kia’s looser body control suggests it isn’t an accomplished performer, mind. Yes, its ride is a tad firmer than we’d like considering its plump 60-profile tyres and moderate levels of body lean; nevertheless, the Seltos is a satisfyingly responsive day-to-day machine. The steering system deserves credit, being well geared and noticeably more communicative than those of many Korean vehicles. On the highway, the Kia’s more hushed than the Mazda but road roar is a notable contributor of noise. The 1,4-litre engine fades away.

Most refined of all is the Toyota, both in terms of its ride quality and its ability to isolate its occupants from noise. The engine is the quietest and the C-HR displays little of the suspension thudding and bump-thump you get in the Mazda and Kia. The large alloy wheels and ribbon-thin tyres exert their presence but the Toyota strikes the best balance between body control and comfort. Only the steering isn’t as well considered: it’s too light and vague at the straight-ahead. The Toyota recorded the best braking results, halting in both the shortest distance and shortest time over 10 emergency stops.

Interestingly, all three recorded an identical 6,6 L/100 km on our mixed-use fuel route. Our experiences with the Kia and Mazda in our long-term test fleet have shown they’re thirstier than we’d like. Driving ranges aren’t particularly impressive on any of them owing to their comparatively small (48 to 50-litre) fuel tanks.

Standard spec

Considering they’re the flagship models in their respective ranges and that each test unit’s closing in on half a million rand, you’d rightfully expect a number of surprise and delight features, and you won’t be disappointed.

All three offer standard LED headlamps as well as feature-rich infotainment systems, keyless entry and start, auto-dimming rear-view mirrors and rear-view parking cameras, leather trim (with suede-like inserts on the Toyota) and cruise control (adaptive in the case of the C-HR). Although, there are interesting differences. The Kia’s the only one with manual air-conditioning (single-zone climate control for the Mazda, with a dual-zone setup in the Toyota); the Mazda has satellite navigation as standard but no smartphone screen-mirroring like the others; the C-HR boasts an electrically adjustable driver’s seat to the manually configurable pews in the CX-3 and Seltos; and the Mazda has a head-up display unit to supplement its instrumentation.

In terms of safety, all three have the bare essentials: six airbags (seven if you include the Toyota’s knee ‘bag), ABS with EBD and EBA, and electronic stability control. Unfortunately, that’s it for the Kia. Mazda and Toyota add blind-spot monitoring (coupled with cross-traffic alert on the C-HR), lane-departure warning and -keeping assist, and smart city braking should an obstacle be detected.



TEST SUMMARY

We rarely have such a closely fought comparative test despite vast on-paper differences in terms of price, power and performance. Each rival is a worthy contender to the crown and eminently sensible yet stylish alternatives to the more conservative rivals with which they compete.

Which one would we choose? Well, based on its combination of strong performance, a spacious, practical cabin, accomplished overall driving manners and bold styling, the Kia Seltos just edges it.

“Just” being the operative word. Both the Toyota and the Mazda were a single point adrift of the Kia’s score (which would have been even higher had it offered a more extensive safety package). The Mazda represents exceptional value considering its lavish standard spec and strong performance. However, its cockpit is too small for family use and its refinement is merely average in this company. It’s the enthusiast’s choice but might exclude more conservative buyers.

The Toyota, meanwhile, offers the most spec and is the most refined of the three, but a tiny boot and poor price-performance ratio shave off a point or two, ultimately handing the victory to the impressively well-rounded Seltos to stand as a beacon for compact-crossover excellence from the Far East.