They're small in stature and big in character, but which of these tough little SUVs is best?
Whether you see them as a genuine lifestyle companion or a marketing contrivance, SUVs and crossovers have become the automotive equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, dealing with everything from round-town duties to the school run, motorways and even, on occasion, straying onto dirt roads in search of adventure. Therefore, it’s understandable that the entrance of a new model into the hotly contested segment for small SUVs/crossovers is met with a ripple of excitement, growing to a veritable groundswell of expectation when said newcomer wears the Toyota badge. Forming the entry point to Toyota’s lifestyle stable, the Rush faces stiff competition from both established players in the field, as well as upstarts from Chinese firms such as Haval.
In essence, the gathered cars can be split into two categories: those based on MPVs from their respective stables; and those with car-based underpinnings. Falling into the former bracket are the Rush and BR-V. The Rush can trace much of its mechanical lineage to Toyota’s basic but venerable Avanza MPV, while Honda’s BR-V is essentially a rebodied and mildly reworked version of the now-departed Mobilio and has become the sole seven-seater in the firm’s local line-up.
Spun off the platform underpinning the robust Logan budget sedan, the Duster (which has, of course, since been replaced) treads closer to the small-SUV line than the others, especially when you bear in mind the 4x4 model is a particularly capable off-roader.
As for the H2, its roots are a little harder to trace but it’s one of a host of models based off Haval’s family of unibody chassis and can therefore be linked to any number of sedan and crossover models from the firm’s extensive global line-up.
Why is this relevant? Well, each family counters the others’ particular strengths and weaknesses – from packaging to driveability and everything in between – meaning buyers’ decisions won’t be based on looks alone. Even so, we’d be kidding ourselves if we were to exclude the aesthetic element.
Style vs. space
On paper, the Rush, with its bold nose, bulging bonnet and cross-over cladding, ticks the requisite styling boxes and looks reasonably rugged. Meet it in the metal, though, and there’s no escaping the fact that these elements have been applied to a decidedly Avanza-shaped frame. However, while its bluff sides and tall profile with a strong downward curve to its nose may not scream pseudo-SUV, it does play host to a particularly spacious interior.
In other markets, the Rush – also badged as a Daihatsu Terios – is fitted with a third row of seats but South Africa gets only a five-seat arrangement with a sliding second-row bench, likely in an attempt to keep the newcomer from treading on the seven-seater Avanza’s toes. Losing the rear bench does, however, create a load space which comfortably eclipses those of its rivals, albeit without the added security of a tonneau cover.
The BR-V contains its spacious innards in a frame that, with its two-box profile and roof rails, has a touch more crossover flavour than the Rush but still doesn’t quite manage to hide its dowdy MPV roots. The third row can be rolled away to free up a similar amount of luggage capacity to the Rush, although the boot becomes little more than a sliver of airspace with seven aboard.
Thumbing its nose at the others’ genteel curves and creases, the Duster is unapologetically chunky and utilitarian in its styling, and possessed of a handily proportioned boot.
Looking very much the sophisticate in this company, the H2 is evidence the Chinese have finally realised the correlation between chrome and class isn’t 1:1. Block out the badge and you could just as well be looking at any number of upmarket European small crossovers and, while its boot is the smallest here at 232 litres, it’s still decently proportioned.
Behind the wheel
Climbing into the Rush, you’re immediately aware of the commanding view of the road the seating provides, but that’s about where the benefits of the lofty perch end. With limited rake adjustment for the steering column and the lowest seat-height setting still rather high, taller drivers will find the wheel uncomfortably close to their lap. The chunky propshaft tunnel of this car’s RWD configuration eats into the footwell, leaving little space to rest your clutch foot.
Although hewn from hard plastics and finished with faux stitching, the Rush’s cabin feels well screwed together and the two-tone trim lends some liveliness to the atmosphere. The neat touchscreen infotainment/sat-nav (standard fitment) system sports a crisp interface and sits usefully high on the facia.
The Duster’s infotainment system, although function-rich and with an interface as chunky as the exterior, sits way down by the driver’s knee and forms part of a cabin that’s well enough constructed but marred slightly by the scatter-gun layout of some ancillaries. Thankfully, the driving position is a touch more natural than the Rush’s, if not quite as commanding.
With their closely set gearing and snappy (albeit in the Duster’s case, slightly rubbery) gearshifts, these two prove suitably brisk and wieldy round town but things begin to go awry when motorways beckon. That close gearing sees the Rush’s rev-happy 1,5-litre engine climb to about 4 000 r/min when travelling at the national limit, with intrusive differential whine accompanying the thrashy soundtrack.
It’s better at 3 200 r/min on the motorway in the Duster and, with a mite more torque and better NVH suppression, it doesn’t feel as strained as the Toyota’s frenetic-but-seemingly unburstable 2NR-VE engine. The consensus among the team is both of these cars would benefit from a tall sixth gear to make motorway driving less of a droning affair.
Although it’s only 11 kW up on the Rush and Duster, the BR-V’s 1,5-litre unit manages to be both free revving and acceptably refined. It’s also coupled with a pleasingly snappy gearbox and easily modulated clutch, making it a breeze to pilot.
Another Honda-ism is the interior, which is awash with hard plastics but ergonomically well considered and solidly put together. While it does feel durable, though, the BR-V has a certain light, slightly hollow overall feel to it, sitting at odds with its otherwise bulletproof build.
The H2’s turbocharged 1,5-litre inline-four is comfortably more powerful than its rivals’ naturally aspirated units and even bests them when it comes to refinement. This is especially apt, as the Chinese car’s cabin leaves the others’ interiors in the shade. Slush-moulded trim panels, quality switchgear and a design that’s both ergonomically sound and solidly constructed make the H2 feel a cut above the rest in its segment.
Unfortunately, the H2’s drivetrain is a chink in its otherwise polished suit of armour. The engine behaves a bit like an old-school turbo unit, wading through palpable lag before delivering the goods at higher revs. Lifting off the throttle sees it quickly drop out of the power band. Factor in a notchy gearshift that cannot be hurried and the result is sometimes laborious progress to the meat of the performance on offer, often necessitating extra revs to keep momentum going. The heavy 1,52-tonne H2’s 13,50-second 0-100 km/h sprint is the slowest in this company, while it (literally) lags anything from four to six seconds behind the others when overtaking from 60-80 km/h in top gear. With the turbo finally turning, the H2’s top-gear 100-120 km/h time sees it claw back some respectability, being the second-quickest.
The Rush’s ride, although sometimes choppy, doesn’t succumb to ungainly rebound and manages to iron out most obstructions in its path. It’s in the driving experience where echoes of the related Avanza begin to emerge. With its narrow track, long wheelbase and a profile that presents a good deal of sheetmetal, the Rush has a top-heavy feel to its demeanour. Brisk cornering unearths significant body lean, while a profile that presents a good deal of metal to crosswinds can make it feel a bit unstable when caught in a gust.
In fact, with its 220 mm of ground clearance, stability control (the only car here so equipped) and mechanical robustness, the Rush seems better suited to a leisurely pace on dirt roads. It’s only when the Duster makes an appearance that the Rush has to concede some rough ground. Although marginally down on ground clearance, the Duster’s impressive axle articulation and suspension is adept at taming rutted surfaces and tarmac, and make it a versatile go-almost-anywhere vehicle. Although its steering feels slower geared than the Rush’s, it’s nonetheless pointier and the additional weight lends the Duster a more substantial feel.
Although its 210 mm of ground clearance matches the Renault’s, the BR-V doesn’t have quite its dirt road-taming ability. That’s not to say it’s averse to straying off the tarmac but its real talents lie with its well-balanced on-road persona. The steering is typically Honda, being accurate and pleasantly weighted, if not feelsome, and the ride and body control are resolved to the extent of being more hatch-like-wieldy than its rivals here.
The first contestant to fall away is the Rush. Although itâ€™s the most spacious and is reasonably well equipped, the Toyotaâ€™s rough edges and compromised road manners do contrast with the near-R300k price it commands. Granted, that money nets you what should be a mechanically robust car (look at how many of its Avanza relatives ply our roads) with a six-service/90 000 km maintenance plan via a dealer network comfortably larger than those of its rivals. We were just left rather underwhelmed by the lack of mechanical refinement and road manners that feel clumsy when compared with the others.
As the oldest member of the group, the outgoing Dusterâ€™s third placing isnâ€™t a bad result. The R266 900 sticker price is something of a bargain, given its level of dirt-road ruggedness and a reasonable suite of standard features. Like the Rush, the engineâ€™s motorway manners would benefit significantly from a sixth gear, while the hodgepodge cabin ergonomics are irksome. It must be noted, though, a new (read: heavily facelifted) Duster will arrive here towards the end of 2018, bringing with it slightly sharper exterior styling and, most importantly, a cabin with significant improvements in ergonomics and materials.
Just two points separate the second-place H2 from top honours, testimony to the huge strides taken by the Chinese carmaker. Barring sat-nav, itâ€™s the most generously equipped and lavishly appointed member of this quartet, not to mention dynamically adept and refined. However, that engine/baggy gearbox combination mars proceedings somewhat. Itâ€™s worth mentioning that an additional R10k can net you the slightly less equipped City-spec model with a six-speed dual-clutch auto that not only plays nicely with the engine, but curbs the manualâ€™s 8,2 L/100 km thirst.
The BR-V isnâ€™t small-crossover perfection; standard specification is decidedly spartan compared with the others here and the two-year/30 000 km service plan is stingy. But, much as the Volkswagen Golf does in the hatchback sphere, the BR-V doesnâ€™t excel in one particular field; rather, it manages to ably tick more boxes than its rivals. Seven seats, spacious cabin, solid build and good road manners, not to mention what should be bombproof mechanicals, are all present and correct, making the BR-V a consummate all-rounder and the smartest choice in this company.
*From the September 2018 issue of CAR magazine