Written by James Hamel
It could well be argued, especially looking at the models tested for this 2017 subcompact SUV comparison test, that these are the latest cute-utes that we are told are not aimed at “manly men.” So, does this make these SUV’s “girly?” What century is this? Well, if by “girly” you mean totally off-road capable all while offering slick and enjoyable manual transmissions at various trim levels then we suppose that is true. So, if slipping your CVT into “D” in your hybrid is your idea of “manliness” in 2017, we think contemplating the gender of a vehicle is stupid. There, we said it.
So, on that note, we also think people who refuse to learn how to drive a vehicle with a stick shift are giving away yet more personal control over their lives. We have found that owning a manual transmission equipped car is usually more satisfying and enriching over a long period than if we went the alternate route. People who own them wouldn’t be so vocal and crazy if it wasn’t, generally, a special experience. Our last comment is this—a manual gearbox transforms the Toyota Corolla into an enjoyably eager, willing and fun to drive compact sedan. So essentially, yes, the manual transmission restores the soul to both the Corolla and its driver.
Now, onto our comparison of these three subcompact SUVs which is a market segment that recently has exploded in popularity with the Chevy Trax/Buick Encore twins as well as the Mazda CX-3 all vying for your hard-earned SUV buying dollar. The CX-3 rode a bit too roughly for our tastes on a long road trip so there we would recommend the segment leading Mazda CX-5 instead simply because you get more SUV for similar outlay. Ford also will soon be putting its hat in the ring with the 2018 Ford EcoSport along with Toyota’s rather bizarre looking CH-R. But none of these are on sale, right now, just waiting to get parked in your driveway. Which one do you think we picked?
First Place: Jeep Renegade Limited
Our Four-wheel Drive equipped 2017 Jeep Renegade Limited came to us in a not so subtle hue of fire engine red and to our surprise turned this smallest of all Jeeps into quite the attention getter from passer-by wherever we went. Everyone was quite complementary and interested in the details of this subcompact SUV which admittedly felt the most grown up to drive of all the models on test here. It should, however, as it stickered fully loaded at just over $30,000.
This is, of course, a subjective assertion but everything from the steering calibration to the well-judged chassis worked together with the peppy 2.4 liter 185 horsepower/175 lb. feet of torque Multi-Air 4-cylinder engine to make this just feel like a Cherokee that got hit with a shrink ray. With the rear seats folded the Renegade’s cargo area boasts over 50.8 cubic feet of cargo hauling ability and if $31,000 is out of your budget, Jeep offers trim levels that start at just $17,995 for a front-wheel drive Sport model. And if you can do without leather, 4wd, navigation, a premium beats audio system and other luxuries, we can attest that we enjoyed driving an entry level Renegade just as much as we enjoyed our week in the Renegade Limited.
The entry level Sport trim level and the $21,395 Lattitude both as standard come with a fun and powerful 1.4 liter 160 horsepower/184 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder turbocharged multi-air engine mated to a standard six-speed manual gearbox. The bigger engine and a 9-speed automatic are optional on both as well on all trims but do note that the base turbo motor does have more torque than its larger sibling which is noticeable especially in front wheel drive models as they are not as heavy so it is quite easy to get good performance and a whole lot of fun out of this powertrain.
We also appreciate that in every trim line, Jeep offers rather unique yet stylish interior color schemes made up of either leather or cloth seats. In Limited form you can get either a very traditional all-black leather interior or one that contrast grey leather seats with brown dash and door moldings set off by blasts of orange color for the speaker surrounds, the seat backs and around the transmission shift lever. This interior color scheme should not work but it does.
From a tech perspective, the 2017 Jeep Renegade does an admirable job although if you want a hardcore off-road Jeep with full skid plates, 4-wheel drive hi-lo/lock and the ability to do a nice low speed boulder crawl, order the Trailhawk variant. As for our Limited model’s infotainment offerings, well, our tester did come with a very nice 9-speaker Beats audio system with a cargo area mounted subwoofer that generated no complaints.
But the U-Connect 6.5 navigation system, itself the top of the line offering, felt somewhat lacking in features, capability and the graphics were not state of the art. Pity those who are forced to make do with either the base UConnect 3.0 which essentially allows you to plug your i-pod to it with an Aux/USB port or you can listen to the AM/FM radio. The Uconnect 5.0 is a much better system and only lacks the extra-large screen that the navigation equipped unit gives you. All, however, are not compatible with Apple Carplay and Android Auto.
Now, if you are a fan of unique, wacky tech features then check out Jeep’s My Sky Power Retractable/Removable sunroof panels. The front glass panel can be opened like an ordinary power moonroof to let in light or air only there is also a fixed glass panel above the rear passenger’s heads. But the best part is the fact that you can remove completely BOTH glass panels and store them in a custom designed sub cargo area floor storage spot. This feature is reasonably priced at $1,495 on Limited trims. Clever, oddball and very, very Jeep. Just like this SUV.
Second Place: 2017 Honda HR-V EX
We were fortunate enough to be able to test one of these downsized cute-utes with a manual transmission and better yet, we were lucky enough that it was a Honda as their self-shifters are historically some of the easiest and most enjoyable to use. The 2017 Honda HR-V’s six speed manual was no different, with short throws and a near telepathic ability to hit the next gear. Only LX and EX trim levels offer the self-shifter and if you want AWD with your HR-V you’re your only option is going with Honda’s admittedly quite capable CVT automatic.
What we loved most about this very well equipped 2017 Honda HR-V EX was that it stickered for just about $21,500 and came with push button start, automatic climate control, Honda’s excellent Lane Watch camera system, a back-up camera, a power moonroof, heated front seats and a well-executed 7-inch display infotainment system with Honda Link as well as a surprisingly pleasant sounding 6-speaker AM/FM/CD/USB audio system. That is a lot of car for not a lot of money and while the HR-V may not take up much space in your garage, its interior is nicely sized with a cargo hold that expands up to 58.8 cubic feet.
As a value for money proposition, the 2017 Honda HR-V is hard to beat with a fully loaded EX-L AWD NAVI model stickering for just over $26,000 with additional goodies such as leather seating, an intuitive in-dash navigation system, silver roof rails and, of course, the appeal of all-weather on-demand all-wheel drive. Our only caveat is this, the Honda HR-V is not exactly burdened with the most powerful engine in this test. Its standard 1.8 liter VTEC 4-cylinder puts out just 141 horsepower/127 lb. feet of torque which meant that on steep inclines we had to work the six-speed manual to full advantage. It’s a good thing that we felt that this was actually fun, even if we weren’t moving all that fast.
To sum up, the 2017 Honda HR-V is a bargain priced, roomy and relatively fun to drive tall hatchback. Build quality was superb and this little Honda just felt like it would still be with us 15 or 20 years down the road. And that’s no bad thing.
Third Place: Fiat 500X Trekking
Both the 2017 Fiat 500X and the 2017 Jeep Renegade are assembled on the same assembly line in Melfi, Italy which thanks to strong sales of both SUVs is currently one of the busiest in Europe. Prior to receiving a billion Euro investment Melfi only assembled the Fiat Grande Punto which it still does, 10 long years after its introduction. We are glad that the jobs of these Italian FCA assembly workers is not in question but we want to know something. Why did our test 500X Trekking model suffer from constant electrical gremlins whereas out test Jeep Renegade not only felt better assembled but also had no in-test malfunctions?
It is odd as well how very capable Fiat and Jeep engineers were in making sure these SUVs drove, rode and just felt very different. Consumers in the first year of sale of these two new baby SUVs saw fit to turn the Renegade into a mega-hit with 100,000 plus sold in the U.S. alone compared to a rather paltry 15,000 units sold of the 500X. Is that because the 500X has something inherently wrong with it? No, it just appeals to a smaller, more urban demographic than the Renegade which may be the most American, foreign built car ever made. And Fiat sells more of the 500X outside of the United States.
The 500X shares engines, transmissions, wheelbases, platforms and more with its Jeep cousin and to increase its appeal it finally now offers all-wheel drive with all trim levels. But where the Renegade feels like a high utility, off-road capable Jeep, the 2017 Fiat 500X drives much like a five-door hatchback with a tall ride height. The 500X, due to its more European shape offers 18.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place as opposed to a more impressive 50.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.
Oddly enough, our test 500X had the same engine/gearbox combination as the Jeep Renegade (9-speed automatic mated to a 180 horsepower 4-cylinder) but especially its gearshifts felt much less refined than those performed by the same transmission in the Jeep. This in turn made the whole car seem less refined as it forced the engine to work harder than it needed to while it waited for the gearbox to make up its mind.
Also, even if it was all in our heads the back seat of the 500X felt cramped and a bit claustrophobic perhaps partially down to the unique window line the mounting of the back-seat cushion. Oddly, while the thick brown leather seats in our test Trekking model were without question of high quality they almost felt a bit too stiff, thick and unyielding in such a compact interior space. Even with the admittedly quite nice dual pane panoramic sunroof. Luxuries like these also led to our front wheel drive test 500X Trekking model shooting just past the $30,000 mark.
Now, finally let’s talk about the electrical gremlins we found popping up in our tester. Much to our dismay most of the issues were centered around malfunctions with the active safety tech features as well as the Dynamic Control Selector. This round knob adjusts the traction control, gearbox, engine braking and other settings on front wheel drive 500X models like ours. You can choose from Auto, Sport or Traction + modes. We wound up, after finding our tester would just emit loud beeps when placed in Traction + mode to stop using it meaning we usually left this knob in Sport since Auto seemed to just confuse the transmission further.
But by far the scariest malfunction was with the Lane Sense Departure Warning Plus System which not only beeped warnings far too often but would then start tugging at our steering wheel moving the car into a different lane most often when making left turns at stop lights. At that time the system was convinced we were in the wrong lane and it was going to steer us into the right one. And into another car. After that, we decided not to test the overly sensitive forward collision warning system’s active brake function and instead turned both systems off each time we drove it. And what’s the point in that?