When your starter car is a crossover
Middle-class parents have been asking their “car guy” friends the same question for decades: What car do I buy my newly minted, freshly scrubbed, hormonally hypercharged 16-year-old that’s inexpensive, safe, fuel-efficient, too slow to get into trouble, and quick enough to get out of it? The answer was always the same: an as-new-as-possible compact or subcompact sedan. We had our preferential brands, sure, but the segment held a certain reliability of choice.
No more. Sedan sales are while automakers trip over each other to invent new classes of crossovers and SUVs. Although that means screaming deals can be had on certain forgotten three-boxes, automakers have been putting much more emphasis into creating innovation in the crossover space. As a result, if you’re buying a cheap and cheerful first car for your kid (or yourself) these days, you’re likely buying a crossover.
Well, kinda brand-new. See, the Kona is the only one that’s actually brand-new. Both the Kicks and EcoSport were designed for other markets like South America and have been on sale there for years. With customers stampeding toward anything with a higher seating position, though, Ford and Nissan quickly homologated those developing-world products for America, rather than potentially lose U.S. buyers by taking the time to build a market-specific vehicle.
Although the paths they took were similar, the results are quite a bit different. The 5-year-old Fiesta-based EcoSport stands out with its tiny 1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine and sideways-opening tailgate, a relic of its developing-market roots where it mounts a full-size spare tire on the back. It’s the tallest and stubbiest vehicle present, not to mention the heaviest. It has the only turbocharged engine, yet it makes the least horsepower and has the worst weight-to-power ratio. Although it’s $25,685 USD as tested, you can spend nearly 30 grand on one if you try.
“The side-opening tailgate is not only inconvenient,” senior production editor Zach Gale observed dryly, “but it also has a gas shock that moans at the end of its travel, where it looks like it may break off.” This was only the beginning of a litany of criticisms against the new-but-old Ford.
The 2-year-old Kicks is a bit more conventional. Its 1.6-liter four-cylinder makes the least torque, but it has the least amount of heft to move by nearly 200 pounds (90 kg). The only continuously variable transmission present, it claims the greatest EPA-estimated fuel economy. Then again, the Versa-based Kicks is the only contender that doesn’t offer all-wheel drive.
The all-new Kona is conventional beneath its totally unconventional styling. Sharing a platform with the overachieving Kia Rio, its 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the most powerful, giving it the best weight-to-power ratio despite a curb weight smack in between the others. Like the Ford, it employs a six-speed automatic transmission; unlike the pricey domestic, it’s the cheapest at $20,605 USD as tested and less than $24,000 USD for a loaded AWD SE.
The EcoSport and Kona may have the same number of gears, but they engage them entirely differently. The EcoSport is slow to shift and never seems to be in the right gear. Putting it into “S” mode makes no material difference. Every editor who drove it complained about its ponderous acceleration, and it wasn’t just perception. Needing 11.2 seconds to hit 60 mph, it’s slower than a Prius while offering the worst fuel economy of our pack. Good for preventing speeding tickets, perhaps, but several editors worried about merging on a freeway.
“This car is too heavy for this engine,” features editor Christian Seabaugh wrote with the literary equivalent of a sigh. “This engine is great in a Fiesta and acceptable on the Focus. Unfortunately, there’s too much car here. The engine is really working hard all the time. I highly doubt any owner will come close to the 27/29 mpg (8.7/8.1 L/100km) rating.”
It’s quite the opposite matter for the Kona. With only 24 more horsepower, 7 lb-ft more torque, and a 190-pound (86 kg) weight advantage over the Ford, it gets to 60 mph in a perfectly acceptable 8.3 seconds. Fast enough to get on the freeway comfortably, slow enough to keep the cops away. Having the shortest overall gearing helps here while only dropping the fuel economy to mid-pack.
“Even with the base engine, the Kona feels quick and torquey,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “The engine and transmission work very well together, and that six-speed does a nice job downshifting when necessary.”
The Kicks splits the difference across the board. At 9.9 seconds to 60, it’s modern-era slow, but not as slow as the EcoSport. At the same time, though, it feels like it’s making the most of its effort. Ringing in under 2,700 pounds (1,225 kg) and packing Nissan’s best implementation yet of a CVT, the Kicks never feels as slow as it actually is. As a bonus, it murders the other two in fuel economy.
“With only 125 hp, the Kicks is definitely not a strong player in the performance game,” Cortina said, “but given its low curb weight, it feels a bit quick.”
Of course, we gather our numbers with just the driver and a few pounds of test equipment on board. You or your kid will have friends and stuff that will slow you down (while potentially encouraging them to speed up). How much depends on how much of each you or they can stuff in there.
If you’re looking to win the modern equivalent of the time-honored Volkswagen Beetle Full of College Students test, get yourself a Kicks. The open, airy interior boasts the greatest headroom, front legroom, and cargo space—with seats up or down. Then again, it also registered a number of complaints regarding seat comfort. If you want to transport your friends like people and not clowns, the EcoSport offers the most rear legroom and nicer seats. If you want to bring the whole football team, though, you may want to trade that legroom for the Kona’s all-around superior shoulder room. Plus, it has houndstooth inserts in the front seats, and that’s just cool.
With everyone in actual seats and buckled in properly, you’ll be pretty safe in any of these, but there are important differences. Bear with us here, because neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has individually tested all three vehicles, so we’re going to have to mix and match for a little bit. For example, only NHTSA has tested the EcoSport, which gets four of five stars overall but only three stars in the rollover test when equipped with FWD. Conversely, IIHS has tested both the Kicks and Kona but not the EcoSport. Over there, the Kona comes out on top with top Good ratings in all crashworthiness tests while the Kicks gets marked down to Acceptable on the passenger-side small-overlap front crash test.
IIHS also rates the Kona’s standard collision-avoidance system a notch higher than the Kicks’ also-standard system (the Kicks is dinged for its headlights). For the money, though, you get more safety features on the loaded Kicks SR we tested than this Kona SE has. You can even things out with the Kona SEL for about a grand more than the Kicks. Then there’s the EcoSport, which doesn’t offer a forward collision warning system on any trim, but hey, you can get blind-spot monitoring as part of an $1,800 USD package. The Ford also stops the shortest from 60 mph by 5 feet, so there’s that.
Thanks to new regulations for the 2018 model year mandating a rearview camera, they all get a reasonably large infotainment screen to show the myriad obstacles behind you. Pasting its Sync3-equipped system to the top of the EcoSport’s dash was the best move Ford made, matching the Kona for clarity, usability, and size. The Kicks’ screen is a bit smaller and the interface more cumbersome, but it’s connected to an SR-exclusive Bose stereo with speaker fidelity that blows the other two out of the water. Priorities, people.
You’ll get as much mileage out of that Bose as you do out of the Nissan’s engine because the Kicks is loud inside—wind, tires, engine, road noise, you name it. That’s not to say the Kona or EcoSport are whisper-quiet, though the problem in the EcoSport is all the creaks and squeaks that come to life on rough pavement. That, and the engine and tires begging for mercy in corners.
It’s mostly just noise, though. Despite being tippy, the EcoSport turns into a corner eagerly and, according to the numbers, hangs on about as well as the Kicks. The Kicks feels light and nimble because it is, but it doesn’t have much more tire grip, and the Nissan’s CVT doesn’t try to be sportier than the Ford’s automatic.
“The CVT provides simulated gears,” technical director Frank Markus observed, “but sadly it does not select those gears in a sporting fashion. At least the CVT is quick to acquire a ratio suitable for exiting a corner once you put your foot down, but there is still a lag time in that reaction.”
Here the Kona stands head and shoulders above the field, handling like a hatchback while simultaneously providing the best ride quality. If you care at all about how a car drives, go straight to Kona. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 USD (unless your Hyundai dealer is running a rebate or something).
“This is a huge difference compared to the Kicks or the EcoSport,” Cortina said. “The Kona behaves so much better on every single surface, and the engine response is better.”
For everyone else, how a car drives in bad weather is a much more pressing concern. Although good tires are always your best solution, we all get caught in the occasional freak storm. Using a sandpit to simulate deep snow, we’re happy to report none of our contenders got tow-truck stuck. The EcoSport seemed to struggle the most, but backing up and trying again did the job. Of course, if snow is a major concern in your budget-constrained purchase, you can always get winter tires or trade other options for all-wheel drive.
Unless you’re planning on buying the Kicks, of course. Not offering all-wheel drive at any price has led to a profound and protracted fight in the MotorTrend office over whether that disqualifies it from being considered a crossover. Seeing as we had an all-wheel-drive crossover get stuck in that same sandpit—and because snow tires can make a Miata a winter car—we’ve reached the tenuous compromise of letting the market decide.
The market can also decide which of our trio is the most attractive. We wouldn’t call anything in this class pretty, and among these three, well, it depends what you want. The Kona is wildly polarizing, with some judges comparing it favorably to a Citroën and others making less favorable comparisons. The Kicks is pretty conventional save the optional dress-up pieces like the two-tone paint, but the proportions are a bit off. The EcoSport is even more conventional (read: dated) in styling and even further off in proportions.
“A tall body on tiny wheels makes the EcoSport look like it was drawn by a 3-year-old,” international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie said.
As if you haven’t figured it out by now, the EcoSport did not win this comparison. More than a few judges took the opportunity to tee off on the little Ford, with Markus calling it “the Spirit Airlines of B-segment SUVs” and Gale dubbing it “Ford’s entry-level mistake, whether you pronounce it eek-o-sport or echo-sport.” For the record, Ford pronounces it echo-sport even though it has an eek-oh-boost turbo engine. Guys, really?
Fully loaded at $23,395 USD, the Kicks makes a heck of a case for itself. Stupendous value, best fuel economy, most cargo space, best stereo—it hits a lot of high notes. Unfortunately, it also stumbles on a few of the basics with uncomfortable seats, a loud interior, and a clumsy infotainment system. The no-AWD thing also sat poorly with a number of judges and also will, we suspect, with a number of potential buyers in northern states.
In a result that won’t shock longtime readers but wasn’t a foregone conclusion, either, the car whose maker tried the hardest wins. That the Kona is also the most fun to drive is just the gooey chocolate center of the lava cake. We’d have liked a bit more space in the rear seat and cargo area and maybe a couple more mpgs, but those are compromises we’re willing to make for the best safety ratings, the best warranty, and the confidence to merge in front of a big rig. It isn’t the cheapest when comparably equipped, but we’re willing to finance the extra grand on the car we’d rather drive.
Third Place: Ford EcoSport
Ford of North America didn’t to take the EcoSport seriously, and we have a hard time feeling any different.
Second Place: Nissan Kicks
Fantastic value and fuel economy can’t quite cover for the lack of comfort and the all-wheel-drive elephant in the dealership.
First Place: Hyundai Kona
It’s a bit longer on sport than utility, but you get so much else at such a competitive price, it’s a trade-off we’ll happily live with.
|2018 Ford EcoSport SE||2018 Hyundai Kona (SE)||2018 Nissan Kicks SR|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-3, iron block/alum head||I-4, alum block/head||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||61.0 cu in/999 cc||122.0 cu in/1,999 cc||97.5 cu in/1,598 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||123 hp @ 6,000 rpm||147 hp @ 6,200 rpm||125 hp @ 5,800 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||125 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm||132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm||115 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,500 rpm||6,400 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||24.8 lb/hp||19.5 lb/hp||21.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.8-in vented disc; 10.7-in disc, ABS||11.0-in vented disc; 10.3-in disc, ABS||10.2-in vented disc; 8.0-in drum, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.5 x 16-in cast aluminum||6.5 x 16-in, cast aluminum||6.5 x 17-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||205/60R16 92H (M+S) Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 Plus||205/60R16 92H (M+S) Hankook Kinergy GT||205/55R17 91V (M+S) Firestone FT140|
|WHEELBASE||99.2 in||102.4 in||103.1 in|
|TRACK, F/R||59.8/59.7 in||62.0/62.4 in||59.8/60.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||161.3 x 69.5 x 64.8 in||164.0 x 70.9 x 61.0 in||169.1 x 69.3 x 62.4 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||7.2 in||7.0 in||7.0 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||23.0/27.0 deg||17.5/16.7 deg||19.5/31.7 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||35.1 ft||34.8 ft||34.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,054 lb||2,864 lb||2,670 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||62/38%||62/38%||61/39%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||1,400 lb||Not recommended||Not recommended|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.6/37.5 in||39.6/37.8 in||40.7/38.5 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||39.6/36.7 in||41.5/34.6 in||43.7/33.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||53.3/51.3 in||55.5/54.5 in||53.0/53.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||50.0/20.9 cu ft||45.8/19.2 cu ft||53.1/25.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||3.8 sec||2.9 sec||3.5 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||6.2||4.4||5.4|
|QUARTER MILE||18.2 sec @ 76.7 mph||16.3 sec @ 84.6 mph||17.6 sec @ 77.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||128 ft||133 ft||133 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.74 g (avg)||0.81 g (avg)||0.77 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||29.3 sec @ 0.54 g (avg)||27.8 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)||29.2 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,050 rpm||2,200 rpm||1,450 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$25,685||$20,605||$23,395|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||10 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/Unlimited miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||13.6 gal||13.2 gal||10.8 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||27/29/28 mpg||27/33/30 mpg||31/36/33 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||125/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||125/102 kW-hrs/100 miles||109/94 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.70 lb/mile||0.66 lb/mile||0.59 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|