It's no secret that SUVs have become the dominant automotive form factor in the 21st-century. Once only available as unsophisticated, utilitarian vehicles better suited for off-roading or getting to places like fishing camps or backwoods ski chalets, rather than the daily commute. But today, the SUV formula—traction at all four wheels, hatchback rear opening, taller ride height—has infiltrated every automotive segment.
Witness the list of sporty and small SUVs we've gathered here. Essentially the classic sport compact hatchback formula, but with the extra room, utility and all-wheel-drive (AWD) many of today's consumers expect in any vehicle.
The question we're asking is: Which one of these sport compact SUV contenders is the one we'd recommend?
2021 BMW X2 M35i
BMW doesn’t offer its 128i hot hatchback in Canada. But the 2021 X2 M35i is the next best thing. As a sportier, more stylistic take on the boxier X1 small SUV, the 5-passenger X2 is less practical by design but still offers up to 612 litres of rear cargo space—the most amongst our contenders. The $43,275 CDN base X2 xDrive28i with 228-horsepower, 258-pound-feet of torque and 8-speed automatic transmission is a lot of fun to drive. But we think the more expensive $49,975 CDN X2 M35i is worth the upgrade.
Using the same turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine found in the X2 xDrive28i, the hotter X2 M35i’s 301-horsepower and 331-pound-feet of torque deliver the kind of performance once reserved for sports cars. If you’re good with this extra verve, know the BMW sport compact SUV is agile, fun, and quick. The flip side: the X2 M35i ride quality is on the stiff side. That’s what happens when German corner-carvers tune your suspension. This, combined with the BMW’s diminutive size, make the X2 M35i a true sport compact SUV.
2021 Hyundai Kona Turbo
Hyundai's sub-compact $37,799 CDN Veloster N is one of the hottest hatches you can buy. But if you need more room and AWD, we think the turbocharged version of Hyundai's Kona sub-compact SUV is a fantastic alternative. Kona pricing starts at $21,299 CDN for the front-wheel-drive (FWD) Essential trim with a 147-horsepower and 132-pound-feet of torque 2.0-litre 4-cylinder and 6-speed automatic transmission. But if you are looking for a hot hatch driving experience in a small SUV, may we suggest the $26,899 CDN Kona Trend.
With a more powerful 175-horsepower and 195-pound-feet of torque turbocharged 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine and a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the turbocharged Kona is arguably at its best in town, where it can slip through traffic and squeeze into small parking spots. But more extended highway tours are nothing to dread. As well as providing optimum traction, the AWD option also entails an independent rear suspension, which is a more sophisticated setup and improves both the ride and the dynamics. Opt for the topline $32,209 CDN Kona Ultimate, and you can enjoy features such as a power sunroof, leather seating surfaces, 8-inch colour touch-screen navigation system with premium audio system, LED headlights and wireless phone charging.
2021 Mazda CX-30 GT 2.5 Turbo
All-new for 2020, the Mazda CX-30 is a small SUV that gets its mechanicals from the Mazda3 compact. Base FWD CX-30 models start at $24,550 CDN. A 6-speed automatic is the only transmission found on the CX-30's menu. Four-cylinder engine options range from a 155-horsepower 2.0-litre to a 186-horsepower 2.5-litre, and our pick: the new turbo version of the larger engine in the $36,250 CDN CX-30 2.5 Turbo that delivers 350 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque , but only if you splurge for 93 octane gas.
The 2021 Mazda CX-30 GT 2.5 Turbo acts more like a taller version of the Mazda3 hatchback on the road. The CX-30's steering is accurate, and handling is the right balance of comfort and response. Its interior is arguably the nicest you'll find in a small SUV with a non-luxury brand badge. The Mazda's upscale interior is quiet and uses high-quality materials. Its front row is spacious, more so than you would expect in a vehicle this size. Plus, the CX-30 comes with a long list of standard safety features and advanced driver assists, as well as plenty of options for upgraded creature comforts and connectivity.
2021 Mini Cooper Countryman ALL4 John Cooper Works
From the auto brand that pioneered the hot hatch genre with its original Mini Cooper from the 1960s, it's no surprise to find the 2021 Mini Cooper Countryman ALL4 here. Even though the Countryman is the largest Mini (about the same size as a Volkswagen Golf), it blends the brilliant driving dynamics of its smaller companions with a roomy and versatile interior and more ground clearance than smaller Minis.
Despite its plus-sizing, the Countryman has the agility you'd expect of an SUV wearing the Mini badge. The steering is quick and responsive, and it takes only a few moments behind the wheel on a winding mountain road to fall in love. While the base 134-horsepower $32,990 CDN Cooper Countryman is sufficient for daily commutes, and the 189-horsepower $35,990 CDN Cooper S adds more spice, the $43,090 CDN John Cooper Works trim delivers a 301-horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque from the same turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder 8-speed automatic transmission combo found in the pricier BMW X2 M35i, making the JCW the hottest Countryman available.
2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 & 45
The GLA is Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level SUV that walks the line between a tall hatchback and a full-fledged SUV. For 2021, an all-new GLA arrives a hair shorter and slightly taller than the previous model to create more interior space. The base $42,450 CDN GLA 250 4MATIC gets a new 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine (that puts out 221 horsepower) and mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. But if you are looking for something a little warmer (or even hotter), Mercedes-Benz’s high-performance AMG sub-brand offers the $52,900 CDN GLA 35 and $60,500 CDN GLA 45 models.
Both of these AMG GLA sport compact SUVs are pulse-quickeners. Building on the GLA 250’s engine, the GLA 35’s enhanced motor produces 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. In comparison, the engine in the GLA 45 is hand-built by the AMG experts in Germany to the tune of 382 horsepower and a prodigious 384 pound-feet of torque. Inside, more aggressive AMG Performance seats and an AMG Performance wheel are available to dress up the exterior. Like all AMG models, the GLA 45 offers a confounding level of customization. There are five drive modes (six counting Race mode on the Dynamic Plus option).
Having your cake and eating it is what these sport compact SUVs have been designed for. All of our contenders offer a blend of utility and driving engagement that was impossible to find in a new car showroom only a few years ago. But which one would we recommend?
If a low price is a priority, the turbocharged 2021 Hyundai Kona is an easy pick. It may be down on performance, but at almost half the other contenders' entry fees, it's a fantastic sport compact SUV value. At the opposite end of the value equation are the pair of high-performance AMG models. Although both the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 and 45 offer outstanding amounts of power and high-performance equipment, the AMG sport compact SUVs are limited to those who can afford their luxury pricing.
As the 2021 BMW X2 M35i and 2021 Mini Cooper Countryman ALL4 John Cooper Works share a platform and powertrain, it comes down to the details when choosing. The Mini is less expensive, but the BMW offers 612 litres of rear cargo space, 114 more than the Countryman.
In the end, we'd choose the 2021 Mazda CX30 GT 2.5 Turbo. The Mazda's 572-litre rear cargo hold is only bettered by the BMW. Its power is similar to the pricier BMW/Mini twins. Yet, the mainstream Mazda's interior fit, finish and feature content are on par with its luxury brand competition.
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