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The two-wheel-drive crossover has spread like an epidemic across the landscape of cars from huge to compact. Lo and behold, it’s just now going viral among superminis. The advantages of the crossover formula do work well when applied to little cars. Added seat height helps offset the feeling of vulnerability small-car drivers feel in traffic. Extra internal space is never unwelcome in a supermini.

And if all crossovers get jeered at for the false premise of their rugged styling - the equivalent of getting togged up like Bear Grylls when you’re only foraging in the freezers of Sainsbury’s - well, the cuddly size of a baby crossover somehow dodges the insults.

The Nissan Juke was a very early adopter, and Peugeot and Renault waited until they saw it was a success before pressing the go button on theirs. Well, you can’t exactly blame the French, not after the epic failure of their other attempts at alternative small cars. Whatever you think of the Captur and 2008, we’re thinking you’d surely still take one over a Modus or that slidey-doored misfit the 1007.

Fiat isn’t yet ready to launch its true competitor, the 500X. So today we thought we’d try the FWD version of our favourite micro-SUV, the Panda 4WD. It’s called the Panda Trekking. It’s smaller than the other cars, but we couldn’t resist seeing if its cut-priced cheek could pull the rug from under them.

The manufacturers talk about them as urban. That’s urban as in “edgy and progressive”. For our part, we’ll take urban to mean “not driving very fast”. So we’ve used the low-powered engines, and gone for tinselly trim levels. Except for the Trekking, which is a one-trim car. Its options are relatively cheap, but if you add too many, you’re missing its point.

As toe-to-toe French rivals, the Renault and Peugeot have the most similar proportions. In the Captur, Renault has gone for soft, car-like surfaces and produced an attractive machine. The 2008’s cues are more SUV-ish. It looks good at the front but its sides are boxier - it achieves the unusual feat of looking better in pictures than it does in the metal. It’s got handy roof rails, but that raised rear roofline is actually a dummy. Could it possibly be a sly reference to the 2008’s predecessor, the Matra Rancho?

The Juke’s sloping rear, big shoulders and wild lamps are a lively sight, but you’ll curse its proportions if you’re having to ride far in the back seat or wedge something big in the boot. The Renault and Peugeot are obviously intended for family duty and have decent rear seats - the Juke is for the footloose. The Panda is even less habitable in the back than the Juke, because of a legroom deficit. And the Panda’s boot, while bigger than the last one, is still dinky compared with the other cars’. That’s because its basis is a city car, not a supermini.

We’ve said before that if you look at it in a rational way, the Trekking is a city car of unarguable and possibly unassailed excellence. Any Panda’s narrowness, shortness, panoramic visibility and vertical sides make it brilliant for stealing road gaps and parking spaces. The Trekking’s longer-travel suspension soaks up potholes and breezes over speed bumps, especially with the lightweight two-cylinder engine in the nose - an engine that’s torquey and well suited to urban squirting. The gearlever sits up by your fingertips. The municipal orange paint job and plastic panels would probably look even better with a bit of urban scarring. We get a smile from the way it takes traditional boxy styling codes, both inside and out, and rounds them off with a dose of cheek. It makes the most of its tiny footprint.

But it’s no good at pretending to be big. The Nissan, Renault and Peugeot are just about large enough to give the first whiff of that sense of entitlement and King o’ the Road dominance that SUV drivers crave. Yet they’re still small enough to be easily placed in town. The Nissan’s peaked sidelights act as good aiming sights, but otherwise its visibility is poor, and going backwards you’ll be glad of its rear camera.

The Renault and Peugeot have soft, leggy suspensions too, so, like the Fiat, they’re good over sleeping policemen. The fungal spread of speed bumps in town streets is looking a bit self-defeating: people choose cars that can swallow them. The Nissan, in contrast, is set up to be sporty, so it gives you a right bashing over urban bumps and holes.

In Allure trim, the Peugeot gives the best impression in terms of cabin finish. It’s down to nice materials for all the bits you touch - wheel, gearlever, handbrake, door pulls, plus a sewn strip of neopreney stuff across the dash. And it has great seats. The wheel is small and low, and you see the instruments over the top of the rim, provided you move the seat upright, which is fine in a crossover where you want to sit high anyway.

The Renault’s fascia plastics must have looked good on the CAD screen, but not in real life. We like the choice of seat fabric, but the front seats are hollow in the lower back. It’s got the most rear legroom and a sliding rear seat, and even when that’s slid right back, the boot’s still a decent size.

The Juke has a sort of motorbike binnacle with a hood over it, and also a dual-purpose screen among the climate controls that can show power, torque and economy graphs. It’s not as sophisticated as the system in the Renault. The Juke’s satnav screen is tiny, too. Both French cars came kitted with relatively cheap satnav upgrades with downloadable apps for other business. The Fiat has an optional TomTom that’s wired to show fuel data.

Which could be useful because, famously, the Fiat’s two-cylinder engine’s economy varies wildly with driving style. So it was in our convoy driving. In town, it was better than the rest; on brisk country driving, it was worse. Overall, it ended up the same as the Peugeot and Renault at 38-40mpg. The Nissan did slightly worse at 35. The official economy and CO2 numbers say the Panda should be slightly better than the French pair, the Nissan a fair bit worse.

But then the Nissan would be. It has the most power but, by some margin, weighs most too. Its claimed performance figures are roughly as per the Fiat, but it feels livelier than the Renault and Peugeot. The Panda’s chattery twin is more of a companion than an appliance, making different conversation (grumpy, contented, gleeful) depending on how you treat it to throttle or revs. The Peugeot and Renault have triples, also pretty sonically interesting, the latter with a turbo.

If you press the eco button on the Fiat or Renault, which limits boost, they feel as sluggish as the Peugeot. Unpress the buttons and, at middle-order revs, they pull ahead - just as their torque figures imply they will. The Renault engine isn’t only stronger than the Peugeot’s, it also sounds sweeter, and it has a better gearshift quality.

But let’s face it, none of these four cars is ever going to be any good for A-road overtaking in these low-power versions. The slowest, the Peugeot, takes 13.5 seconds to get to 62mph when it’s empty. Loaded, it’s going to be a roadblock. The Nissan has a conventional Japanese four-cylinder, rather dull in sound, but effective when you rev it. It’s noisy, an effect amplified by its low overall gearing.

So, on the motorway, the Juke is the loudest car, thanks to that waspish engine and insistent tyre roar. The Peugeot isn’t any too silent, either. Both these two are loud enough that their radios struggle at 80-plus. The Renault is quieter (and has a better stereo). So is the Fiat, which is a surprise given its chunky mud and snow tyres.

The Fiat’s tyres don’t seem to harm its handling, either. It turns sharply, clings on well, tells you what it’s doing, and copes well when bumps and bends are liberally mixed. Sure, it pitches and rolls a lot, but it’s fun.

The Peugeot is also quick-reacting and quite fun when it’s twisty, whether in the country or around town junctions. But it’s got the typical SUV characteristic, shared by the Juke, of overly stiff anti-roll bars, to prevent too much roll. Result is it rocks badly when a bump strikes one side or the other. The high-geared steering also makes it too likely you’ll twitch out of your motorway lane when you lean over to jab the touchscreen.

The Renault is better developed in most kinds of driving. It doesn’t assault you with so much side-to-side rocking or audible thumping, and has more progressive steering. It just feels more placid and grown-up. Its ride is less quivery than the Peugeot’s too. And it kicks up less road noise.

The Juke’s firm ride pays dividends on smooth roads, because it has the most naturally weighted steering and a chassis that takes well to being chucked at roundabouts. The snicky gearshift matches these intentions. But in the end, if driving fun were the be-all and end-all, you’d get something else at this price - something with more performance and a lower centre of gravity. Perhaps a Citroen DS3 Turbo or Mini Cooper. Or a Suzuki Swift Sport if you need five doors.

That leaves the Juke trying to justify itself on the basis of style, the height of its driving position and, of course, the reputation for the reliability of cars coming out of Sunderland. But here we’re looking for more of an all-rounder.

If your definition of all-rounder includes tackling bumpy tracks, remember the Fiat has a special ESP programme to improve its chances in slippery going, as well as those chunky-tread soft-compound tyres. Some 2008 models have a more sophisticated version of such grip electronics, so you can choose different settings for different terrains, but it doesn’t come with this puny engine. Still, the relatively soft suspensions of the Fiat, Renault and Peugeot should all be helpful for traction.

Back to actual roads. The Panda just about works outside cities and is outstanding within them. But it isn’t more than a 2+2. We find it charming, but we have a feeling most people will think our tastes are on the spartan side. They might have a point. The base-trim versions of the Captur and 2008 and Juke are the same price as the Panda, and they’re bigger.

The 2008 and Captur both came out of similar French thinking: they’re based on superminis that were lightened and livened up for their new generations. France was late to the crossover party, but fashionably so - Renault and Peugeot have been able to size up the market carefully. The Peugeot has a nice cabin, but the Renault is the overall winner. Its turbo engine, smoother chassis and greater refinement will do it for the driver. Its cleverer packaging and jollier looks will swing it for the passengers. And because we’re talking kids with pester power, the passengers probably have a greater say here than with any other kind of car this side of super-luxury limousines.

Pictures: GF Williams

This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

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