Small in stature and sticker price, but big in character, how will Suzuki's new Ignis 1,2 GLX crossover fare against the established players, the Renault Sandero 66 kW Turbo Dynamique and the Volkswagen Cross Up! 1,0?

In our automotive market, the terms “distinctive” and “sub-R200k” seldom appear in close proximity, much to the chagrin of younger, budget-conscious buyers who place those particular provisos high on their motoring wish lists, often in the guise of a mini-crossover. So the arrival of Suzuki’s eye-catching Ignis beneath said price point will no doubt grab their attention, not to mention that of established players such as the value-packed Renault Sandero Stepway and the premium-feeling VW Cross Up! The bold looks certainly count in the Suzuki’s favour, but does the Ignis have the substance to give these stalwarts a run for their money?

The quirky, the quality & the quiet

Subjective it may be, but the issue of styling is a particularly apt one when considering the more style-conscious clientele at which these cars are pitched. Those looking to make a particularly bold statement will no doubt be drawn to the chunky slice of oddity that is the Ignis. From the SUV-like stepped box profile, contrasting trim accents and a cinched tail that managed to divide opinion within the team, there’s no danger of the Ignis being lost in the sea of drab metal that’s most car parks.

Adding appeal to those really wanting to be seen is the myriad options for cosmetic customisation. From the surrounds for the grille and foglamps, to the trim adorning the alloy wheels, wing mirror caps, roof panel and such elements as the skid plates, it’s all configurable. In fact, download the Ignis brochure from Suzuki’s website and you’re presented with eight pages of trim permutations and accessories.

The bold, configurable motif is continued in the cabin, where dual-tone dash-panel treatment meets body-coloured elements on the gear-lever surround and door handles. In typical Suzuki fashion, the plastics feel a bit hollow compared with the Up!’s more substantial trim materials. It’s also a bit of a shame that the Ignis’s steering wheel rim and gearknob are not leather-bound, as they are in the other cars, as those tactile touch points can lend even a budget car a more upmarket air.

Everything feels well put together, though, and despite the car’s narrow appearance, the cockpit is the most spacious of the trio. In addition, the ample glazing, light-coloured trim accents and significant headroom lend the cabin an airy feel.

Unlike the purpose-built Ignis, both the Up! and Stepway essentially bump up the ride height and bolt crossover bits to stock donor cars that, in these cases, have undergone recent facelifts. The Up!’s revamp includes reprofiled front and rear bumpers, revised headlamps with LED daytime-running lights, indicator lamps integrated into wing mirrors that are larger than before and a segmented brakelamp-lens graphic. The model-specific alloy wheels and tastefully applied lower cladding and contrasting skid-plate details on the apron are classily executed and contribute to what most of the testers consider to be the pick of the Up! litter.

Inside, the updates are subtler, with the most noticeable being the replacement of the previous car’s rudimentary audio system with a more function-rich, TFT-screened item and an imposing slab of dash trim with integrated ambient lighting. The Up! cabin’s trump cards are its comparatively upmarket finishes and bank vault-like build quality, creating the impression that it occupies a class above its gathered rivals. An area where it falls in a class below is the overall dimensions of its innards, serving up the least head- and legroom here. The 160/768-litre boot and utility space also lags behind that of the others, but the removable boot board at least affords some protection for valuables stowed there.

Parked alongside its rivals, the Stepway looks positively gargantuan, and yet also the least attention-grabbing, with our test unit’s silver paintwork going some way to concealing most of the crossover’s model specific garnishes. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – some people just don’t do shouty – but given that younger buyers opt for crossovers to make a statement, the Stepway’s relative ubiquity seems at odds with its expected provisos.

Like the Up! it’s also recently undergone a very subtle facelift that sees such elements as the grille, headlamps and brakelamps sharpened up, along with the introduction of C-shaped graphics in the brakelamps and LED daytime-running lights. Updates in the cabin are similarly incremental, featuring a redesign of the centre console, a new steering wheel and a welcome migration of the electric window controls from the dash to the doors (for the front windows, at least; the ones in the rear can be controlled by the driver via buttons awkwardly placed on the facia). Although these revisions go some way to improving driver ergonomics, the lack of a rest for the driver’s clutch foot proves irritating. In the cabin dimensions stakes, the Stepway sits between the Ignis and Up!, but its 264/1 000-litre boot and utility space is the most generous on offer here.

On the road … and a little bit off it

Going into this exchange as the only turbocharged member of the pack, and with the highest outputs on offer, you’d expect the Stepway to excel in the performance department. But the languid manner in which the engine gathers revs, helped in no part by a particularly rubbery long-throw gearshift action, makes keeping the engine in its optimum operating envelope a slightly tricky task. Although its steering is rather ponderous at times, the Sandero’s fairly refined motorway manners and softly sprung ride count in its favour, although the latter does give way to noticeable body roll, even under moderate cornering speeds.

Looking at the Ignis’s performance figures, it appears the old adage that there’s no replacement for displacement seems to hold true, as its 1,2-litre, four-cylinder engine returns palpably quicker acceleration than its rivals’ sub-1,0-litre three-pots. But in the performance stakes, there’s just as much weight to the issue of, well, weight, and the featherweight Ignis tips the scales at just 851 kg, versus the Up!’s 954 kg and the Stepway’s comparatively portly 1 067 kg.

With less iron to shift, the Ignis’s free-revving engine feels the most responsive and punchy of the trio. It’s coupled with a snappy, accurate gearbox with close-set gearing, helping to make overtaking manoeuvres less of a plan-hope-and-pray affair than in the others. With its compliant yet reasonably taut suspension, the Ignis’s ride impresses and its cornering attitude is pleasingly controlled. Some of the Ignis’s less pleasing aspects include numb steering that doesn’t self-centre and its lightweight, bluff-sided frame’s susceptibility to influence from crosswinds.

It’s often said that the sign of a well-engineered car is that the driver is simply woven into the driving narrative without any need for adjustment or undue thought as to what’s going on. Viewed in isolation, the Up! has that effortless fire-and-forget ease of use, but when you step out of its rivals and into the German car, the contrast is a dramatic one.

The engine’s outputs are the most modest here, meaning that getting the best out of the 1,0-litre unit requires regular gearbox stirring. Thankfully, its willingness to spool up, along with the close-set ratios of the first four gears and easily modulated clutch, lend it a useful degree of round-town nippiness, while that tall fifth gear ensures that the engine doesn’t become overly frenetic at motorway speeds. That’s not to say everything is perfect on that front; although it doesn’t intrude too deeply into the Up!’s solid cabin, the engine note can become growly when worked and that lack of punch means overtaking requires a bit more forward planning than in the others.

Dynamically, the Up! sits in a class of its own, feeling utterly planted with steering that’s precise and responsive, and body control that’s more fluid than the others. This, combined with a kerb weight 100 kg north of the sylph-like Ignis, means that the Up! doesn’t succumb to the caprices of crosswinds as easily. The general feeling of steadiness, refinement and composure lend the Up! a genuine big-car feel that the others here cannot emulate.

Although the likelihood of these cars venturing too far from tar is remote, a brief scramble up a fairly steep, rutted dirt road as part of the photo shoot revealed that the Ignis and Stepway’s 180 mm of ground clearance and stronger low-end torque lend a bit more confidence and ability than the 95 N.m Up!’s more modest 162 mm.

Safe bets?

Given these cars’ slight frames and likely young clientele behind the wheel, the matter of safety is a particularly pertinent one. And, while the basics are present across the board, the European cars edge the Ignis in this category. All here feature dual front airbags, Isofix anchor points, ABS and brake assist, with the Ignis and Up! adding EBD to the equation. Despite its lack of EBD, the Stepway’s braking performance is the best of the three, with its average 100-0 km/h emergency stop time of 3,07 seconds narrowly besting the Up!’s 3,17 and the 3,30 of the Ignis.

The Stepway also throws side airbags into the mix, while the Up! features integrated side/curtain units. Traction and stability-enhancing features are the preserves of the Up! and Stepway, with the Ignis foregoing any electronic safety nets beyond ABS and EBD. Euro NCAP crash ratings see the Ignis trail its rivals here with three stars, as opposed to the Stepway and Up!’s  four- and five-star ratings.

Pocket crossovers – pocket-friendly?

Having taken a few hits from its rivals in most departments, when it comes to value for money, the Stepway is able to dust itself off and deliver a neat riposte. A glance at the standard specification will see most buyers wanting for very little. Dynamique specification means that such niceties such as electric windows all round (the Up!’s rear occupants are able only to lever their windows open a crack), electric mirrors and multi-format audio system with Bluetooth are all present and correct, with the only option being the R10 000 addition of leather seats. The Stepway’s value-added trump card, though, is its infotainment system. In addition to throwing sat-nav into the mix, its touchscreen interface and colourful graphics lend a spot of pizzazz to an otherwise rather staid cabin.

As appealing as the Ignis’s cosmetic configurability is, it’s worth acknowledging that it carries some costs. For example, opting for such extras as the grille detailing and colour coding for the roof spoiler edge, alloys and wheel caps adds around R7 000 to the price. Barring the infotainment system, the Ignis’ standard specification is fairly generous and roughly mirrors that of the Stepway, with the main differences being its LED projector headlamps and keyless entry and ignition.

By contrast, the Up!’s standard features list is modest, with the likes of cruise control and parking sensors – standard on the others – being relegated to a R4 250 optional driver’s pack. But the real black spot against the Up!’s name here is the omission of a standard service plan; the other two offer two-year/30 000 km items as part of their asking prices. Purchasing the closest equivalent service plan for the Up! (three years/45 000 km) adds R4 783 to the equation.



TEST SUMMARY

While we try not to enter any comparative test with set preconceptions of a result, our prior experience with the impressive Cross Up! loomed large in our minds as its rivals lined up. And while the Up!'s ultimate first placing may not have surprised most, it has to be said that this comparative test was more closely contested than we'd expected.

Although relegated to last place here, the Stepway is by no means a poor product. Its reedy-feeling engine, rubbery gearshift and certain ergonomic shortcomings count against it, making it feel rather old in this company. For those after a more subtly packaged and generously equipped mini-crossover, however, the Stepway fits the bill nicely.

Suzuki can be thoroughly proud of its latest crack at the mini-crossover segment. Its distinctive looks - not to mention a great deal of customisation on that front - and a lively four-cylinder engine that imparts a driving experience that's a touch more assured at motorway speeds are among its virtues. Factor in an affordable sticker price, as well as fairly generous specification and a service plan as standard, and the Ignis holds a great deal of appeal to the younger buyer looking to make a bold statement.

But while the Ignis impressed, there's a solidity of build, refinement and an assured yet engaging feel to the Cross Up! that makes it feel as though it occupies a class above its gathered rivals. It must be said, however, the lack of a standard service plan is a sticking point with an already pricey product, especially when the target audience is a younger, budget-conscious clientele.

While the Up!'s assets are difficult to convey here, stepping out of either the Ignis or Stepway and into the VW makes you all too aware of just how well engineered a small car can be. It's a tight finish between the Ignis and the Up!, but in keeping with CAR's approach to favour a more solidly engineered product over one that's better equipped, the Up!'s polish does just enough to secure it a narrow win.

From the August 2017 issue of CAR magazine