January 23, 2011

Confession #18: Small Cars Part 2 – Is this a country for super-small SUV?

2011 Mini Cooper S All4 Countryman
(Mini USA photo)
I walked past a Mini Countryman the other day. It was a strange sight in a snow-covered parking lot in Boston, mostly filled by weather-beaten small domestics, Saabs, Subarus, Volvos, and the occasional Audi A5 or Q5 that has somehow managed to stay cleaner than everything else.

There are even some standard Minis parked there and even then, the Countryman doesn’t blend in quite right, and not because this example looked pristine under the dim sunlight of a freezing January afternoon. It’s not small like a Mini or even another small hatch. But compared to the muddy Ford Explorer planted a few spaces away, it’s miniscule, no pun intended.

2010 Volkswagen Golf 3-door
(Volkswagen photo)
What never quite clicked with the Countryman and me was this: You buy a Mini because it’s compact, and you buy a small SUV/crossover either because it’s smaller than a big one or it’s all you can afford.

The Countryman is small. But at more than four meters (or 13 feet) long, it’s about the length of a Volkswagen Golf. And it’s at least 12 inches longer than the normal Mini, so it’s firmly into the “normal size” of a modern car.

Is it the normal length of an SUV? Hardly.

2011 Honda CR-V EX (American Honda photo)
A Honda CR-V, the (also no pun) yardstick of the small SUV class, is almost another two feet longer than the Countryman, and a good deal taller as well.

That puts Mini’s newest brand extension in a new league, the really small SUV class. And it’s joined by Nissan’s Juke. You’d know it if you saw the bug-eyed thing on the streets. It’s a strange look I’ll admit, but it’s also strangely likable.

2011 Nissan Juke (Nissan Motor photo)

The Juke has all of the makings of a hot hatch: a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, four doors with a small rear hatch and seats that fold flat to show off a usable cargo area. The Juke even has all-wheel drive as an option.

But like the Countryman, the Juke sits higher off the ground than a Subaru Impreza WRX or a Volkswagen GTI. That automatically means it’s not going to be as good to drive as these cars.

And it’s not as commodious as a small SUV, so I still can’t wrap my mind around why you’d buy one. Is driving something that sits higher off the ground and looks a bit macho really that important? Because, to me, it looks like you’re embarrassed to be seen in something that won’t allow you to look down (literally) on other drivers in their Civics or Focuses or whatever.

But when someone pulls up next to you in a Range Rover, a BMW X5 or even a CR-V, you’re still going to look small. And, as a matter of fact, a little like a poser.