Believe it or not, 2018 is drawing to a close – where on Earth has this year gone, anyway? – and that means that close to 100 automotive journalists from across Canada are finalizing their selections for the category winners and overall victors of the of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s 2019 Canadian Car of the Year awards.
AJAC journalists test drive vehicles and log votes over many months that span categories ranging from performance cars to family haulers. You’ll find many of these categories broken down and analyzed in detail on these pages in the coming days as Wheels writers try to divine which entries will come out on top in each.
In the Small Utility Vehicle category – best defined as any SUV with only two rows and a relatively short wheelbase and small cargo area – there are four entries for 2019. Elsewhere in the competition, last year’s winners were invited back to compete in their categories; however, last year’s “small” SUVs were redefined as mid-size for this year and this category was restarted from scratch, so all four cars are competing in it for the first time.
Here are my predictions for how the Small Utility Vehicle category will play out for 2019.
Fourth Place: Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross
The Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, I predict, will place last in this category. Let me be the first to tell you, though, that that’s not so much reflective on the Eclipse Cross as it is on how much better the market has become more broadly in recent years. There’s rarely such thing as a truly bad car anymore, just some that are better than others, and this is a prime example.
For example, its styling is unquestionably polarizing – it doesn’t speak to me, but there are plenty of people for whom it will – and the journalists voting for Canadian Car of the Year will try to anticipate how the market will respond to it as much as reflect their personal feelings about it, which is likely to incur a scoring penalty.
On top of that, its on-road manners aren’t quite as refined as in the other entries. It feels just a tick underpowered at 152 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque from its 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine, the continuously variable transmission isn’t especially smooth, visibility is hampered by the split rear window, and it lets more exterior noise transfer into the cabin than most. And interacting with its infotainment system requires using a touchpad, a system that most other automakers are moving away from because it’s difficult to be precise with it while driving.
But that paints a pretty bleak picture of what could well be the best choice for the right person. Mitsubishi’s all-wheel drive system is widely hailed as being among the best, and the Eclipse Cross excelled in the off-road test at this year’s annual AJAC TestFest event, held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., in late October. Its steering precision is quite good, its handling is certainly acceptable, and standard 18-inch alloy wheels are a nice touch. Plus, perhaps its greatest selling point is its 10-year, 160,000 km limited powertrain warranty, a factor that doesn’t get worked into AJAC’s scoring system at all.
For what does get counted, though, the Eclipse Cross is largely outdone by its competition, which is why I predict a fourth-place result.
Third Place: Ford EcoSport
It’s so cute that you really want to love it, and the mere fact alone that it’s the smallest crossover available in Canada might attract certain buyers. But for most, the Ford EcoSport is just a little bit too small, and more expensive in key features such as all-wheel drive, for a lot of Canadians to want to live with.
Power-wise, the 1.0-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost engine doesn’t do too badly – its 123 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque doesn’t have all that much weight to get around, after all. But the engine is a bit rough, as is the transmission. There should be a trade-off in fuel economy, but a combined rating of 8.4 L/100 km by Natural Resources Canada suggests otherwise.
More importantly, I expect the EcoSport to lose a lot of marks in cargo versatility, not only for its sheer lack of space but for its side-opening rear door, which makes loading and unloading difficult in tight quarters. Its tall and narrow body shape makes it prone to some body roll, which could hurt its handling score.
The biggest issue, though, is value. All-wheel drive isn’t available with the 1.0-litre engine, so if that’s a must-have then you’ll need to upgrade to the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine at a total added cost of $2,500. This pushes even the SE trim very close to $30,000 with freight and PDI charges. For a little car, that’s a lot to ask.
Second Place: Nissan Kicks
Speaking of all-wheel drive, it isn’t available on the Nissan Kicks at all, which will immediately remove it from consideration for quite a few Canadians. But drivers who rarely leave the city will find that this car meets their cold-weather needs just fine with a good set of winter tires on it, and those buyers willing to consider it will be rewarded with a right-sized, nimble, and fun urban vehicle.
With 125 hp and 115 lb-ft of torque coming from its 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, it doesn’t exactly shoot off the line. But that’s made up for by its relatively light frame and a CVT that feels natural and easier to live with than most. Its agile dynamics are the bigger highlight, though, allowing it to hop in and out of traffic with ease. Cargo space is excellent for its size, too.
The younger buyers that Nissan is aiming for with the Kicks will love its affordability and bold colour combinations. What will prevent it from snagging the win, in my opinion, is that its infotainment system isn’t as user-friendly as others despite supporting both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the interior fit and finish will feel too economically built for all but the most budget-conscious buyers, and the complete lack of all-wheel-drive availability makes it, oddly, a bit of a niche vehicle in the eyes of Canadians as far as a crossover is concerned.
First Place: Hyundai Kona
The Kona, Hyundai’s brand-new entry into the subcompact crossover segment, is my pick to take victory in AJAC’s small SUV category, and that’s almost entirely because I’m guessing nearly all of the voting journalists will have tested the version with the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine.
I’ve driven both the 1.6T version and the one with the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated Atkinson-cycle engine with its 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque – and the latter I rate below the Kicks, in fact, because it feels heavier and relatively anemic.
The turbocharged rig, though? Now, that’s a different animal. Its 175 hp and 195 lb-ft, which is fully available in a very accessible band between 1,500 to 4,500 rpm, feels energetic yet solid and capable. With this engine, all-wheel drive is standard, and while the Kona wasn’t the top performer on the TestFest off-road course, it got through the rough-cottage-road simulation with few hiccups.
And this stout all-rounder comes at a very reasonable cost. The base model with the 2.0-litre engine and front-wheel drive starts at $20,999, while 1.6-litre turbo pricing starts at $26,899, and each package is very well-equipped for its price point – including heated front seats and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability as standard, which only the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross matches on all counts.
It may lose points for divisive styling – some people love it, while others are annoyed by the long (and fake) air intake on the hood, the ultra-thin headlamps, and the oddly positioned rear turn signals – but I can’t imagine it losing out significantly anywhere else. In the 2019 small SUV category, I expect the Hyundai Kona to be the winner.