Once kings of the road, the modern SUV barely fills a lane. Mini, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Volkswagen all show off tiny SUVs at the 2010 Geneva auto show.
Mini's new Countryman, although bigger than any Mini to date and offering a higher riding position and all-wheel-drive, doesn't read like an SUV up close. At the Geneva auto show, it took us a couple of looks to affirm that it wasn't just a regular Mini Cooper. It stands just a little more than 5 feet tall, and is only about 13 and a half feet long.
Although the Countryman is offered with five engine choices in Europe--three gasoline and two diesels--it will most likely only be offered in the U.S. as the Mini Cooper Countryman and Mini Cooper S Countryman. Those names indicate a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine or a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Both use direct injection, with the turbocharged version putting out 184 horsepower.
The Cooper S Countryman's ground clearance with the standard 17-inch wheels is just less than six inches, not quite tall enough for off-roading. However, Mini makes an all-wheel-drive system optionally available. This all-wheel-drive system biases torque toward the front wheels, but you can push 100 percent of power back to the rear wheels.
The interior is very similar to the standard Mini Cooper, with a couple of exceptions. The rear seats can come either as two individual seats or as a bench at no additional cost. A rail for attaching Mini accessories, such as a cup holder or glasses case, runs down the center of the cabin.
The LCD in the speedometer, included when the navigation system is added, includes a new icon for Mini Connected, a feature to be launched with the Countryman that offers iPhone application integration. According to Mini, with an iPhone paired to the system you can tune in Web radio stations using the car's interface and hear the music over the car's speakers.
Nissan has a penchant for downsizing the SUV. First there was the Murano, then the Rogue, and now the Juke. The Juke's ultracurvy lines contrast with the current crop of wheeled boxes, although many will just find it strange. Its top engine, a turbocharged 1.6-liter direct injection four cylinder, produces 190 horsepower, one more HP than the Mini Cooper S Countryman's.
At 13 feet 7 inches long and 5 feet 2 inches high, the Juke is just slightly larger than the Mini Cooper S Countryman. It has an optional all-wheel-drive system that can only put 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, but it also does torque vectoring, improving handling by sending torque across the rear wheels, as needed.
Styling also seems to compete with the Mini Cooper S Countryman. The Juke uses two big, round headlights set next to the grille, reminiscent of rally cars. The lenses on top of the fenders hold parking and signal lights in a ridged form that echoes those of the Nissan Leaf electric car. the taillights use the boomerang shape pioneered on the GT-R and 370Z.
Although the Juke will definitely be sold in the U.S., the navigation module in the dashboard may not make it as an option, as these units have to be tailored to regions. In Europe, Nissan offers the Juke with either a six-speed-manual transmission or a CVT.
This unique color screen at the bottom of the Juke stack shows a variety of vehicle information, while surrounding buttons let the driver control the display and put the car into normal, sport, or eco modes.
Mitsubishi showed off the ASX, its new compact crossover, at the Geneva auto show. However, at 14 feet 1 inch in length, the ASX isn't quite as compact as the Mini Cooper S Countryman or the Nissan Juke. The ASX is intended as a smaller alternative to the Nissan Outlander, and matches its jet fighter grille styling.
The European ASX uses a turbocharged 1.8-liter diesel engine, a very different power plant from its Nissan and Mini competitors. In Japan, the car is already on sale as the RVR, getting a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter gasoline engine that produces 139 horsepower. If the car comes to the U.S., it would most likely get the gasoline engine.
The ASX has an available all-wheel-drive system similar to that on the Outlander. It lets the driver choose between front wheel, all wheel, or all wheel drive lock, the latter locking the differential to ensure power goes to all wheels at all times.
The cabin looks standard for Mitsubishi, using buttons nicely mounted in the steering wheel spokes and a modular double-DIN head unit. The European ASX gets a six-speed-manual transmission, while the Japanese RVR uses a CVT with six virtual gears.
Pushing the boundaries of what might be called an SUV, Volkswagen offers a new generation of the Cross Golf, a version of the Golf equipped with what Volkswagen calls its rough road chassis. The company even highlights the ground clearance of almost 4.5 inches. The Cross Golf is not destined to come to the U.S.
Volkswagen offers the Cross Golf with a choice of five engines, three gasoline and two diesel. The top of the line gasoline engine is a turbocharged direct injection 1.4-liter producing 160 horsepower. The top diesel is a 2-liter TDI. Both can be had with Volkswagen's double-clutch transmission, the DSG.