Citroën C3 Aircross 1.2 Puretech 110 Feel
List price £16,200
Target Price £15,970
New Aircross is based on the C3 but is longer, taller and heaps more practical.
Kia Stonic 1.0 T-GDi 118bhp 2
List price £16,995
Target Price £16,995
Has a bit more power than its rivals here and is the only one with a six-speed gearbox.
Seat Arona 1.0 TSI 95 SE Technology
List price £17,545
Target Price £16,545
The most expensive, despite having the weakest engine. Can it make amends?
It’s funny how small things can have a huge impact on desirability. There’s nothing inherently alluring about a laptop, for instance, but wrap it in a slimline aluminium case, stamp a silhouette of a half-eaten piece of fruit on the cover and all of a sudden everyone wants one. And how many of us would spend £25 on a pair of flip-flops if they weren’t brightly coloured and adorned with a Brazilian flag?
It’s a similar story with small SUVs. Let’s face it: they’re really just small hatchbacks with mildly jacked-up driving positions and a few trinkets loosely inspired by what you’d find on a proper 4x4. And yet somehow they’re in a completely different fashion league than their lower-riding, more conventional compatriots.
But there’s always been a problem: no SUV south of £20,000 has ever been particularly brilliant. Sure, cars such as the Renault Captur and Suzuki Vitara have been easy enough to recommend, but we’ve always had to do so with the caveat: “You could have a better car for less cash if you’re prepared to forgo the chunkier styling and slightly raised driving position.” Could that finally be about to change?
Step forward not one, not two but three new models that could seriously shake up the small SUV ranks. The cheapest and tallest of the trio is the playfully styled Citroën C3 Aircross, an indirect replacement for the boxier C3 Picasso MPV, which we always rated highly. To shine here, the C3 Aircross will have to see off the altogether more grown-up and supposedly sportier Kia Stonic, as well as the sharp-suited Seat Arona, the Spanish brand’s second foray into the SUV market after last year’s hugely successful Ateca.
That leaves us with two burning questions: which of these new arrivals is best, and can any of them really prove to be a superb buy without any provisos?
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Our contenders may be dressed differently, but they have one thing in common: all have turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engines. The Arona’s tiny 1.0-litre unit pumps out the least power, so it’s ultimately the most lethargic performer, yet it’s never frustratingly slow and you’d need a stopwatch to tell the difference in acceleration compared with the more powerful C3 Aircross.
You can certainly feel the extra muscle the Stonic has over its European rivals, though. Whether you rev its engine hard or accelerate from lower revs in the higher gears, the Stonic steadily pulls away from the field and copes more easily with inclines and motorway slip roads. It helps that the Stonic is the only one of our trio with a six-speed gearbox, because it means there’s a smaller jump between some of the ratios.
Changing gear in the Stonic and Arona is a largely pleasant experience. The former requires a bit more effort, but both have precise shifts that are free from any irksome notches. The Arona has the more positive and feelsome clutch pedal, making it the easier car to drive smoothly around town, but the Stonic isn’t the slightest bit fractious in stop-start traffic. Sadly, the C3 Aircross is, due to its nasty cocktail of a heavy, numb clutch pedal, a light accelerator and a woefully vague gearshift. Driving smoothly at low speeds requires lots of practice and the sort of concentration you’d need to thread a needle.
Things don’t improve much when you pick up the pace, either, because the C3 Aircross has the grabbiest brakes and the most remote steering. It also leans the most dramatically through corners and feels the least stable and composed along bucking and bounding B-roads. At the other end of the scale is the Stonic; it’s surprisingly eager to tuck its nose in to bends and stays the most upright through them, while its quick, meaty steering is a good match for that relatively sharp handling.
Mind you, although the Arona doesn’t display such tidy body control, it hangs on at even faster speeds through corners and its steering, while slower, gives you more information about the relationship between tyre and road. Factor in the most progressive, smoothest brakes of the bunch and the Arona is the most enjoyable to drive.
It’s the most comfortable, too. It’s fair to say that none of these cars rides like a luxury limo – or even a Volkswagen Golf, for that matter – but the Arona deals with the kind of bumps and scars you find in most towns and cities with reasonable aplomb. It’s the most settled at motorway speeds, too.
Meanwhile, the more softly sprung C3 Aircross initially fools you into thinking it’ll be a comfortable companion, but above 30mph you become acutely aware of your torso bobbing up and down and your head tossing from side to side. Hit a pothole and there’s a sharp crash as the suspension struggles to cope.
The Stonic couldn’t be more different; its firm suspension keeps things more controlled over potholes and badly broken patches of asphalt. However, you’re continually jostled around over minor imperfections and the ride doesn’t even settle down on the motorway, making the Stonic the most annoying on long trips.
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