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Best Light SUV

Best Light SUV 2022

They might be pint-sized, but there’s plenty of fight in light SUVs and they pack a strong value punch, as we were reminded during the 2022 Drive Car of the Year.

The light SUV segment has come a long way from the models that spurred its genesis such as the Mazda CX-3. While that vehicle still dominated the category in 2021 in terms of sales, it’s starting to fall behind in terms of safety, equipment and performance. 

2021 brought a sea of fresh faces, with newcomers like the Kia Stonic, Renault Captur, Toyota Yaris Cross, and Nissan Juke all arriving to swell the variety available to light SUV shoppers. Along with segment favourites like the Volkswagen T-Cross, Mazda CX-3, Hyundai Venue and Ford Puma, there’s plenty of choice.

But we only take the best of the best to Drive Car of the Year, so we looked for standouts in terms of included kit, drivability, and ownership value. This saw the return of the reigning champion, the Ford Puma, and the introduction of the Toyota Yaris Cross and Kia Stonic. 

The Mazda CX-3 and Hyundai Venue still do well in the sales race, but such is the competitive nature of the light SUV segment these days that cars as good as the CX-3 and Venue don’t make the cut for Drive Car of the Year Best Light SUV. 

Our three selected finalists were specifically chosen due to their respective performances in reviews and head-to-head comparisons throughout 2021, so they had earned their place in the most important comparison of the year.

Winner: Ford Puma

What we love
  • Engaging driving character
  • Well-equipped from base specification 
  • Quiet and insulated cabin
What we don’t
  • Tight second row for taller occupants
  • Must use 95-octane fuel as a minimum
  • Pricier end of the segment

A back-to-back category winner, the Ford Puma is the 2022 Drive Car of the Year Best Light SUV, and it’s not hard to see why. Every time we get behind the wheel of the Ford Europe-developed product, we come away impressed not only at how good it is, but how much of a massive leap forward it is over its predecessor, the Ford EcoSport. 

The Ford Puma does have one of the more expensive line-ups in the segment (the RRP ranges from $29,990 to $35,540 plus on-road costs at the time of testing), but Ford has equipped the Puma to a high standard that sees it compete convincingly with rivals. Not to mention the Ford Puma’s entertaining drive characteristics are a cut above the rest.

You do feel nice inside the Puma because every Puma comes with satellite navigation, wireless phone charging, LED ambient interior lighting, DAB+ digital radio, rain-sensing wipers, and some nifty LED puddle lamps that display a puma cat. 

The standard 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder drivetrain across the range punches above its weight grade with competitive 92kW/170Nm outputs, and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission behaves very well across multiple applications. 

The interior is presented in a modern and functional format and utilises soft-touch materials on most touchpoints. Both driver and passengers are afforded a good amount of space considering the body style’s tight constraints, while there are myriad storage options up front and a roomy 410L boot. 

On the road, the Puma is an involving car to drive with light and direct steering, a gutsy turbo powertrain, and a resolved ride that judges praised for its absorbent nature and refined ambience. 

Importantly, the Puma is equipped with wide-ranging safety features that will see new drivers in safe hands. The Puma has earned a five-star ANCAP safety rating and has an impressive suite of active safety features, including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist and traffic sign recognition.

All in all, the Ford Puma is a standout performer in the increasingly competitive light SUV field.  

Finalist: Kia Stonic

What we love
  • Strong ownership value proposition
  • Affordable pricing range
  • Very comfortable seats
What we don’t
  • For an all-new model, the interior feels a bit old
  • Car annoyingly starts in Eco mode
  • Some sub-par materials in use

The Kia Stonic took a few years to get to Australia, having launched into some overseas markets back in 2017. It slots in below the bigger Seltos and Sportage models, completing a comprehensive – and impressive – line-up of SUVs for the resurgent Kia brand. 

The Stonic might not boast the latest styling or features, but it is priced sharply to cut through the noise and snag buyers’ attention, from $21,490 to $29,990 before on-road costs at the time of testing. The top-spec and well-equipped GT-Line variant costs about the same as entry-level model grades of rival SUVs like the Ford Puma. 

So what it does have on its side is a low price of entry and a strong ownership value equation. The Stonic receives a full seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and sips regular 91-octane fuel frugally. 

The interior stocks a comfortable amount of room for both driver and passengers, an 8.0-inch infotainment screen with smartphone mirroring, rear-view camera, keyless entry, dusk-sensing auto headlights, and cloth upholstery. 

Storage-wise you’re well-covered with a number of nooks and crannies to store loose items in the front row, and durable hard plastics ensure it will withstand the kicks and knocks of everyday life. Boot space stands at a class-competitive 352L. 

The Stonic gets by with a good level of safety equipment including autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist recognition, lane-keep assist, lane-following assist, driver-attention alert, and leading vehicle departure alert. These features combine with front, side and curtain airbags to afford the Stonic with a five-star safety rating. 

Depending on the variant, the Stonic comes with a naturally aspirated 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine. Drive Car of the Year judges preferred the turbocharged engine’s 74kW/172Nm outputs, which fares better around town than the more economical but less flexible 1.4-litre engine with 74kW/133Nm outputs. 

Kia’s suspension localisation program ensures that the Stonic is at home on Australian roads, handling the bumps, lumps, joins and judders with composure and class. 

Overall, the Kia Stonic is a sharply priced light SUV that has a lot to offer the canny buyer on a budget.

Finalist: Toyota Yaris Cross

What we love
  • Funky interior materials and presentation
  • Extensive list of safety equipment
  • Runs on regular unleaded and is fuel-efficient
What we don’t
  • Cramped second row
  • Long emergency braking distance for a light SUV
  • Awkward door handle placement

Like Kia, Toyota was a relatively late entrant into the light SUV class with the Yaris Cross. This Yaris hatchback-based high-riding crossover brings new-generation Yaris styling with more interior space and enhanced ease of entry. 

The Yaris Cross range is one of the more expensive in the light SUV class, spanning $26,990 to $37,990 plus on-road costs at the time of testing, though Toyota offers a fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain as a strong point of difference. It is also one of the few manufacturers to offer all-wheel drive in a light SUV, though both these drivetrain features come at extra cost over entry-level variants. 

Judges were impressed with the high-driving position of the Yaris Cross, and its funky styling that sees choice materials included throughout. Some useability issues prevail, such as the hole you have to put your hand through to access the interior door handle and the door trim finishing that marks easily, but it’s a comfortable space inside affording good vision to the outside world. 

The back seat is a little tight for taller passengers, while the boot space in two-wheel-drive variants is an impressive 390L (but that shrinks to 314L in all-wheel-drive variants). Each Yaris Cross in the range is equipped with a colour touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone mirroring, keyless entry, and DAB+ digital radio. Safety is covered off by a suite of Toyota advanced safety tech, including a centre airbag to help keep driver and passenger separated in an impact.

While the standard 1.5-litre powertrain and its 88kW/145Nm outputs will ensure affordable running costs, the engine feels a little overstretched in some circumstances, and opting for the available hybrid helps alleviate the car's performance shortfall slightly. The car’s middling braking performance and emergency swerve results at Drive Car of the Year testing raised some judges’ eyebrows.

That said, running costs are a strong point for the Yaris Cross, with scheduled servicing pegged at a very competitive $205 per year up to five years or 75,000km. The Yaris Cross itself is covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, the drivetrain is covered for seven years, and the hybrid battery pack is warranted for 10 years – so long as you complete annual servicing with Toyota. 

Despite being a new addition to Australia’s favourite brand, the Yaris Cross is typical Toyota: practical, affordable, safe and reliable. That’s why it is a finalist in the 2022 Drive Car of the Year awards. 

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