Twin Test

THIS MONTHíS NEW COMER TAKES ON THE CLASS BENCHMARK

BEN BARRY

The contenders

Skodaís Karoq has been a bit of an unsung hero since its arrival in mid-2018, selling slowly against predominantly Asian rivals despite boasting a quality build, commendable size and a superb driving experience. However, while it launched with an attractive sub-$30K price tag, that value-oriented FWD manual offering has since been deleted to make the $32,290 dual-clutch auto the entry point. Does that diminish the Czechís showroom pull?

On the other side of the ring, Renaultís Captur is another small SUV that suffers from a lack of attention Ė but for different reasons. It doesnít quite align perfectly with the Karoq, given itís actually a size class below (the Renault Kadjar thatíll arrive in late 2019 will be the true rival), but a recent update now sees power, torque and equipment run very close. Also, the Captur Intensís $29,990 retail isnít all that far from the Skoda, making these two close match.

Equipment and value

The Captur naturally carries a value advantage courtesy of its sub-$30K price tag, and packs in a healthy standard equipment list that includes a seven-inch touchscreen, built-in sat-nav, a panoramic glass sunroof, keyless entry, single-zone climate control and leather upholstery. Itís a box-ticking exercise, however, with the infotainment feeling anything but modern, the upholstery looking, feeling and smelling very synthetic, and the overall build quality being below what weíd consider average at this price point.

The Skodaís standard spec is more bare-bones, with smartphone mirroring your only way of getting a map to appear on the (otherwise very slick) centre screen, but boasts things like frontal collision warning, AEB, active cruise and dual-zone climate Ė stuff the Captur simply doesnít have. You can pile even more equipment on top too Ė equipment the Captur isnít available with Ė that can quickly see the price explode into $40K-plus territory.

Space and comfort

Though both are priced similarly, the Renault and Skoda differ greatly when it comes to whatís underneath. The Captur sits on jacked-up Clio underpinnings, while the Karoq is built on VW Golfbased architecture. Although the wheelbases are within cooee of each other, the Captur measures significantly smaller for overall length and width. But sit in the Capturís second row and youíll find similar leg, foot and knee room to the Skoda Ė something of a surprise given its smaller footprint.

A double-decker boot floor and sliding rear bench adds some utility to the Captur, but Skoda goes further with rail-mounted bag hooks, additional side storage trays and completely removable rear seats that transform it into a quasi-van. Versatility, thy name is Karoq. Not only that, but the Karoq provides a taller vantage point from its driverís seat, and boasts superior over-the-shoulder vision compared to the Captur. Size matters.

How they drive

Both cars produce an identical 110kW and 250Nm of peak outputs, but the differences in their on-road behaviour couldnít be more stark.

The Captur suffers from an unusual combo of a floaty ride at high speed and steering thatís overly sensitive around dead centre, making for a car that never feels settled nor stable on the highway. Itís not helped by a six-speed dual clutch auto thatís indecisive and snatchy at low speeds, and though itís lighter than the Skoda it doesnít have the gearing to keep up with it. The Czech rival, despite its inferior power-to-weight ratio, is more than half a second faster to 100km/h thanks to its slicker-shifting seven-speed and more generous low-end torque.

The Karoq also feels secure and comfortable no matter the road or speed, and though its dual-clutch auto isnít perfect, itís nowhere near as unrefined as the Renaultís box. The Skodaís engine is more relaxed in nature too, versus the often frenetic Captur.

Czech this out

THE VICTOR

The Capturís age is its main undoing. Dowdy design on the inside coupled with in-car electronics that are woefully dated (just look at those nav graphics) instantly cost it showroom appeal, and its bouncy ride and ho-hum transmission fail to make up for that lost ground. Conversely the Karoq is a far more mature thing, and while it may not flaunt as much glitter on its spec sheet, the core offering is leagues ahead of the Captur.

HOT HATCH ON THE GRID

MINI COOPER SE

Model Mini Cooper SE

Powertrain single electric motor/ 92Ah lithium-ion battery

Max power 135kW

Max torque 270Nm

Transmission single-speed reduction gear

Weight 1350kg 0-100km/h 7.5sec (est) Range 230km (est)

Price $50,000 (est) On sale Q4 2019

LAST TIME Mini turned its three-door hatch fully electric, the rear seats vanished, boot space shrank and weight increased 300kg. That was back in 2008, just 600 were leased, but the Mini E did inform development of the BMW i3. Now the i3ís repaying the favour by donating its EV technology to a proper series-production electric Mini, the packaging compromises all but eliminated. Promisingly, ĎCooper Sí has been inserted between ĎMinií and ĎEí.

Weíre driving a prototype of the Mini Cooper SE on a coned airfield course.

It doesnít take long for a grin to spread across your mug Ė eager acceleration, pacey steering and nimble footwork ensure the Cooper S character is intact.

Improved packaging is key. Power electronics and the 135kW electric motor normally found at the rear of an i3s are located under the bonnet. The battery is most comparable to the MY17 i3, but rather than being square and rated at 94Ah, itís 92Ah and arranged in a ĎTí across the rear axle and down the spine of the floorpan.

PLUS MINUS

Feels like a proper hot hatch; low centre of gravity helps handling

Ití not fast; range anxiety may prove to be a problem, yet again

Thereís just as much interior and luggage space as a Cooper S Ė with a little foam removed from the rear bench so passengers sit equally low Ė and changes to the body-in-white are minimal. Itíll even roll down the same Plant Oxford production line as other Minis when builds start, later this year.

Like an i3, the performance figures donít spike your pulse Ė 0-100km/h in 7-8sec and a circa 145km/h top end are pretty middling Ė but thereís good, useable performance here. Standingstart acceleration is energetic enough, but itís in the mid-range where the Cooper SE feels engagingly wired and alive. Fierce re-gen braking requires acclimatisation, but a second mode offers more natural coasting, off-power.

Encouragingly, though, itís the handling that makes this the hot hatch of EVs. At 1350kg, the Cooper SE carries 120kg of ballast over a petrol auto Cooper S, and the suspension is raised Ď1-2cmí to give the low-slung battery more clearance.

But the centre of gravity is actually better, because more mass is mounted lower down, and despite weight over the nose remaining comparable, distribution shifts significantly rearwards due to the bulky battery Ė from a Cooper Sís 60/40 front-to-rear to the Cooper SEís 54/46. The suspension is re-tuned to suit, with the goal of retaining a Cooper S feel.

Accelerate hard through tight corners and traction borders on astonishing, especially given the instant slug of torque Ė itís like a combination of aggressive limited-slip diff and traction control thatís so subtle you canít detect it. Itís a shame the steering suffers, however, lumpily tugging about as torque surges through the front axle.

Through slaloms, the Cooper SE feels low, wide, short and reassuringly hunkered. It turns eagerly, pivots around its front axle, and dances through cones like an expert skier when you lift the throttle and slide the rear end. Itís an engagingly reactive and positive little thing.

So itís quick enough, extremely nimble and a lot of fun. The biggest question is how easy the SE will prove to own. Mini says an 80 percent charge takes 40 minutes on relatively uncommon 50kW DC chargers, or three hours on 11.2kW AC chargers.

The range isnít yet homologated, but the BMW i3 was good for around 250km, and was 105kg lighter. The Mini should fall short of that Ė especially when itís this enjoyable to drive enthusiastically. Letís hope it doesnít dent the chances of this charismatic electric hot hatch too much.

BEN BARRY

the facelifts Was it worth all the effort?

MERCEDES-BENZ GLC

WHATíS NEW?

Mercí best-selling SUV gets a new fourcylinder petrol and diesel engine family, the latest MBUX infotainment system and new design at both ends of the mid-sizerí body.

HAS IT WORKED?

There was little wrong with the last version, so these changes should only boost its appeal. Some might miss the six-cylinder engine choices, but they may yet make a comeback.

MITSUBISHI ASX

WHATíS NEW?

Mitsubishií ASX rolls into its 10th year of sales with a heavily refreshed exterior, while tech has been updated via a new 8.0-inch screen with CarPlay and Android Auto.

HAS IT WORKED?

People flocked to the ASX when it had all the tech of a wheelbarrow, so these changes will surely only aid its segment-dominating status.

FORD MONDEO

WHATíS NEW?

In a parallel universe the Mondeo nameplate must surely set pulses racing, but we doní live in it. A shame, because it is a solid steed. Changes include a new diesel engine, a refreshed grille, new fog lights and LED DRLs.

HAS IT WORKED?

The Mondeo remains something of an unloved stepchild in the Ford family. Happily, some Australians do realise how good it is to drive, and this little nip-and-tuck should only improve the proposition further.