Canadians have gone crazy for small utility wagons – Canadians like Mac Stephen, a University of Calgary pre-law major who recently leased one of the newest and very best of the mini SUVs (sport-utility vehicles), the Mazda CX-3.

“I love it; it’s perfect for me,” he says, who has embraced the looks, the space inside for four, all-wheel drive (available as an option) and the flexible cargo space for holding skis and such.

Perfect for Mac Stephen and perfect for 43,432 other Canadians in 2015. The total number may seem small – Canadians bought 375,386 compact utilities like the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V in 2015 – but the trend to small SUVs is startling. Sales of the likes of the CX-3, Jeep Renegade and Honda HR-V – all sub-compact SUVs — exploded last year, up 66 per cent in an overall market that grew just 2.5 per cent last year, notes DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

What’s equally shocking: the increasing parade of mini-SUVs represent a segment that barely existed five years ago. Since 2010, the number of sub-compact SUV models has more than quadrupled, from two (Subaru RVR and Nissan Juke) to nine models with more on the way. Today’s list of mini-crossovers also includes the Chevy Trax, Buick Encore, Fiat 500X, and Mini Countryman.

And this is more than just a Canadian explosion. Subcompact crossovers are on the rise all over the world, even in the U.S. where sales more than doubled in 2015 to 389,960 vehicles. And while the sporty-looking and highly functional CX-3 and its ilk make sense for young buyers like Stephen, what is truly surprising is the widespread appeal.

A survey by Strategic Vision Inc. found that one-quarter of subcompact SUV buyers were younger than 45 and without kids. That compares with 19 per cent for the industry overall, reports Automotive News. At the same time, plenty of buyers are so-called empty nesters who will now and forever eschew minivans and larger SUVs, but who still need space, utility and a design with an easy entry point that is hip high and easy on aging backs.

Moreover, women love them. Fifty-four per cent of small crossover buyers are women, says Strategic Vision. Chevy says that nearly 60 per cent of Trax buyers are women, notes Automotive News.

So while the auto industry originally targeted younger buyers like Stephen with this crop of tiny utilities, the appeal has turned out to be much, much broader.
General Motors, interestingly enough, has been at the forefront of this shift. Both the Buick Encore and Chevy Trax went on sale for 2013, and both became hits almost instantly. Last year combined sales hit 13,071 in Canada. No automaker sold more small SUVs.

The Encore was Buick’s second best-selling nameplate in 2015 (behind the Verano) in Canada; in the U.S., the Encore was the most popular Buick of all, with sales of 67,549. GM says 60 per cent of those buyers were new to GM, so the Encore was what the industry calls a massive “conquest” vehicle.

Truth is, there is a real hunger for these little rigs. Case in point: the new HR-V. Last year Honda’s new entry became Canada best-selling small SUV nameplate. Sales hit 8,959 even though the HR-V was only available for a few months in 2015.

To stay current, GM plans a serious upgrade to both the Encore and Trax for the 2017 model year. GM says the 2017 Trax will get a modernized nose and interior upgrades that include a touch-screen infotainment system that supports Apple CarPlay. A freshened Encore will be shown in a few weeks at the New York auto show.

Meantime, the 500X, Renegade and Countryman are new designs for 2016, and Nissan updated the Juke in 2014. All these little rigs represent the latest designs and are equipped with the latest technologies. Count on all this continuing into 2016 and beyond.

“Almost worldwide we see an increase in desire for utilities and the segment that’s suffering the most is the sedan, whether it’s the CD sedans or even C and B sedans (midsize, compact and subcompact sedans),” Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair told Automotive New Europe, adding that crossovers and SUVs and variations of both are going to steal the majority of their sales from sedans.

We are certainly seeing that in Canada. Last year, compact and sub-compact car sales were way down (5.3 and 21.0 per cent, respectively), while sales of sub-compact (up 66 per cent) and compact SUVs (up 8.3 per cent) were red-hot.

“For the first time ever, compact SUVs were the best-selling segment in Canada, beating out compact cars,” says DesRosiers Automotive president Dennis DesRosiers in a note to clients.

DesRosiers believes compact SUVs will continue to dominate in 2016. They are more functional than a mini-SUV, only marginally more expensive and Canadians have 20 different compact SUV nameplates from which to choose. That said, buyers have nine options when shopping for the very smallest of SUVs, the subcompact. Here’s a close look at the nine available nameplates from most popular to least by sales in 2015:

Honda HR-V

2016 Honda HR-V.

2016 Honda HR-V.

2015 sales: 8,959

Pricing: $20,690-$29,990

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the HR-V “good” ratings for head restraints, seats, roof strength, a the front “moderate” overlap crash test. For side impacts and “small” front overlap crash the HR-V is rated “acceptable.”

Reliability: The HR-V is new to the market, so quality data is insufficient for a rating. However, the Honda brand is ranked fifth overall in the latest J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study. Honda is the No. 8 brand in Consumer Reports latest brand study.

The story: The HR-V is well built but it’s not the most nimble little SUV – certainly not in the same league as the CX-3. This is a safe choice for buyers looking for Honda basics – safety, reliability, quality.

Chevrolet Trax

2016 Chevrolet Trax

2016 Chevrolet Trax

2015 sales: 8,156

Pricing: $19,795-$31,295

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Trax “good” ratings in all areas — head restraints, seats, roof strength, overlap crash test, side impacts and “small” front overlap crash.

Reliability: CR ranks the Trax below average.

The story: The Trax seems a little crude compared to the newest entries in this segment – thus the mid-cycle facelift due for 2017. It’s not particular fun to drive, but it is very well equipped for the money. You’ll find noteworthy discounts if you shop hard.

Mazda CX-3

2015 sales: 6,861

Pricing: $20,695-$28,995

Safety: No rating yet from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Reliability: CR has made the CX-3 a “recommended” pick and reliability ranks above average.

The story: The CX-3 looks very sporty and drives like it looks. The handling is quick and responsive and the infotainment interface is simple and intuitive.
Mitsubishi RVR

2015 sales: 5,786

Pricing: $19,998–$29,698

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the RVR its Top Safety Pick rating based on results for head restraints, seats, roof strength, overlap crash test, side impacts and “small” front overlap crash.

Reliability: The RVR is not rated by major third-party organizations.

The story: The RVR is among the very safest small SUVs you can buy. The cabin looks and feels pretty stark. The AWD system is outstanding. Exterior styling is so-so. Call it bland and uninspired. The cabin is downright cheap looking.

Buick Encore

2016 Buick Encore

2016 Buick Encore

2015 sales: 4,915

Pricing: $28,505-$33,415

Safety: A Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) based on test findings for head restraints, seats, roof strength and front overlap crash tests.

Reliability: Excellent. The Encore is ranked among the top for among small SUVs in the long-term J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. The Buick brand is also top-rated. CR rates reliability above average.

The story: The Encore comes loaded with premium features for even the most basic model. The pricing reflects that. The design is quite sharp. This is a nice little city rig, but the ride and handling are quite close to what you get in the Chevy Trax. No surprise there. These siblings share all their underpinnings.

Nissan Juke

2016 Nissan Juke

2016 Nissan Juke

2015 sales: 4,473

Pricing: $20,698-$31,998

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Juke “good” ratings in every way except “small” front overlap crash (“poor”).

Reliability: CR rates the June “average” for reliability, while the Nissan brand ranks slightly above in the latest J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study.

The story: The Juke’s polarizing design is its signature calling card, though this little rig also ranks among the most entertaining to drive. The cabin is quite modern. The ride quality is fairly hard – the tradeoff you get in a rig with very good handling.

Jeep Renegade

2016 Jeep® Renegade 75th Anniversary edition

2015 sales: 2,261

Pricing: $21,495-$33,495

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) does not have ratings.

Reliability: Pick any study and you’ll find the Jeep brand at the very bottom for reliability.

The story: The Renegade shares its underpinnings with the Fiat 500X, though the two look quite different. Highway ride quality is good and the Renegade is quite capable at handling non-paved roads. The cabin is very modern and quite comfy for this segment. Seats are among the very best in the segment. The worrisome point is reliability for all Jeep products.

BMW Countryman

2016 Mini Countryman

2016 Mini Countryman

2015 sales: 1,412

Pricing: $29,950-$38,500

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the HR-V “good” ratings right across the board — head restraints, seats, roof strength, front “moderate” overlap crash test, side impacts and “small” front overlap crash.

Reliability: The Mini brand is rated about average in various third-party studies, from J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study to Consumer Reports.

The story: Here we have a premium entry that looks very modern and handles quite nicely. The cabin design is very interesting, very entertaining. Sold only with AWD, unlike the others here which are also available with FWD in the most basic models. This little rig makes a very clear statement – that you, the driver, care a great deal about branding and style.

Fiat 500X

2016 Fiat 500X

2016 Fiat 500X

2015 sales: 609

Pricing: $21,495-$32,690

Safety: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the HR-V its Top Safety Pick.

Reliability: The Fiat brand is ranked at the bottom of third-party reliability research.

The story: Style, value and tech? Sure. The Cinquecento design cues are in place, the available dual-panel sunroof is cool, and the 12 available exterior colours are bold and rich. This looks and feels like a premium offering. You will notice this little crossover bobbing along in a sea of rivals. But road manners? Ugh. The steering is numb and non-linear; it’s almost impossible to smoothly dial in even small turns through a wonderfully meaty steering wheel with that bold Fiat logo its centrepiece. The ride quality is jumpy and jittery. Through corners, little kids and many adults will need Gravol. Yes, the 500X is a star right up until it starts moving.

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