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Top Gear's big little crossover test

Seat Arona, Citroen C3 Aircross, Kia Stonic or Hyundai Kona: which is best?

  1. Welcome to the Now That’s What I Call Music compilation of the car world. Before us are four vehicles with broad appeal that’ll be lapped up by a huge amount of people, while potentially leaving enthusiasts pining for something more authentic.

    They’re popular music that everyone buys (well, streams) when the petrolheads all want a bit of jazz-infused hip-hop. Or a Porsche Cayman GT4.

    Images: Mark Fagelson

  2. Why these four? They’re simply the four most interesting ones to go on sale in the last few months. New crossovers are so abundant, there’s a sense we’ll merely crown ‘crossover of the month’ rather than discover a new class favourite.

    The copycat approach of the little SUV segment makes it a bit difficult to avoid ambivalence towards its many new entrants, at least for those who adore cars for the emotions they can give us. It surely also leads to confusion for anyone out there who wishes to try and buy one. How do you know where to start?

  3. Which probably explains why the makers of these cars are so keen to stand out. Here, we have a pair which favour loud, outrageous styling – the Citroen C3 Aircross and Hyundai Kona – and two that have gone for outlandish names – the Kia Stonic and Seat Arona.

    Don’t believe me? Unless you enunciate fully, there’s a very real chance someone will mishear you as “I have arrived in my Stomach” or “Should I leave my Aroma outside?”. Not cool.

  4. What is cool is the fact this is a four-car group test where every single contender has a manual gearbox. It’s been 15 years (or more) since a similar group of supercars could claim that.

    The best of the lot belongs to the Kona. There’s reason to its name (Kona’s a place in Hawaii, and Hyundai’s bigger SUVs are named after American places) and there’s some interest to its creation. It’s based not on an existing Hyundai hatchback, but an all-new platform that can also accommodate a fully electric powertrain, as well as all-wheel drive. It’s the only car here to actually put AWD on the options list.

  5. It also looks quite mad. I like it. If this genre was kick-started (if not actually invented) by the Nissan Juke, then this is like Juke mk2. In fact, had it arrived with rogue Nissan badges, I’d probably believe that’s what it is.

    For all its wackiness, there’s probably not much originality in it; the grille’s a bit Audi and there’s plenty of Jeep Cherokee cues, while at one point I spot a bit of Pontiac Aztek. And promptly worry about my aesthetic tastes. But if these cars are meant to be a bit of fun compared to the hatches they sit above – both in height and price – then Hyundai’s hit the nail on the head.

  6. The feeling continues beneath the skin. It’s actually fun to drive. I’ll concede it rides quite firmly in town – all but the Citroen in this group do – but the pay-off is that it’s quite entertaining when you’re out of town.

    Its 118bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine is keen, making the same appealing little warble most of these sorts of engines do when pushed, while its steering and suspension feel like they’ve been set up by people who ‘get’ driving.

    Hyundais are usually pretty good at feeling thoroughly developed, but until last year’s i30N hot hatch, rarely were they ever much of a laugh. The Kona is the next car to buck the trend. It’s notably more fun than a basic i20 or i30, and the second most appealing Hyundai to drive. Just imagine if they went a bit mad and put the i30N’s 271bhp 2.0 in it. A KonaN, if you will…

  7. If you’re sitting there wondering what the relevance of ‘handling’ is in a hiked-up hatchback that’s meant to swallow families and/or shopping, then all it takes is a hop into the Kia Stonic (it’s a combination of ‘Sporty’ and ‘Tonic’ - seriously).

    Silly name aside, it seems to be missing any sense of quirkiness. If you don’t like the Kona’s looks, that may be cause to rejoice, but once you’ve got past how similarly designed and laid out their dashboards are – Hyundai and Kia are part of the same company – the two feel very different. The Stonic feels barely any higher than the Rio supermini, and in fact borrows its underpinnings rather than being related to the Kona.

  8. It’s not bad to drive, but it has a similarly firm ride to the Kona without feeling sufficiently fun to make up for it. Occasionally you’ll get in a VW Group product not made by VW and sense a glass ceiling has been placed upon its ability to keep the family hierarchy in order. I wonder if there’s a bit of that here.

    For all the sense of familiarity between the Kona and Stonic when you’re first adjusting your seat and prodding their buttons, the two head in different directions on the move. This Stonic struggles for a USP over the Kia Rio.

  9. The Seat Arona encourages similar feelings. The current Ibiza is a cracker, Seat’s best ever small car. It’s sharp to drive, classily put together… and the Arona is those things too. But nothing more.

    If anything, it doesn’t look as nicely proportioned. Like the Stonic, it doesn’t offer any particular ride height benefits nor much extra interior room. Adults will feel squeezed in the back. Its engine is the best in this test – a lesson in how to make your 1.0-litre three cylinder uncommonly refined and grown up – as is its media setup, with strong smartphone connectivity, something Seat’s been on the ball with for a while.

  10. Again, it rides too firmly, but the quantity of ‘normal’ cars for which that’s true suggests most people mustn’t mind. There’s plenty to like here, but it offers nothing a £3k cheaper Ibiza doesn’t.

    Those left cold by the crossover craze sometimes think these cars just frivolously add roof rails, two-tone paint and a few grand to a regular hatchback. Neither Stonic nor Arona does enough to erode the stereotype; they’re pleasant enough cars, but so are a Rio and Ibiza.

    Neither wins this test; which one avoids last place depends on whether you prefer peace-of-mind (the Kia has a seven-year warranty) or polish (the Seat has the nicer engine and smarter connectivity).

  11. Ready to bat the stereotypes out of the (car) park, though, is the Citroen C3 Aircross. It actually looks like a little SUV, all tough and tall, and it’s usefully bigger than a regular C3.

    There’s more room inside, naturally, while the rear seats slide on runners, so you can divvy out passenger or luggage space in various ratios, and there are enormous door bins and lots of cubby holes. There is more flexibility and practicality than anything else here.

    The interior is quite quirkily laid out, and the most interesting to look at in this company, right down to the seat trim exactly matching that of the 1986 Peugeot 309 I was driven around in as a kid. It’s either wilfully retro, or there’s a roll of it knocking around the Peugeot/Citroen premises much like the surplus bathroom wallpaper you’re loathe to throw out. Either way, it lifts the mood.

  12. The quirkiness isn’t all good. Like other Citroens, you have to operate the air con through a touchscreen – not handy on the move – while the handbrake and gear lever are just plain odd to hold. It’s like they’re warning you not to get too excitable driving the Aircross, whose chassis has clearly been set up for comfort, not fun.

    Just how a car in this class should be, you could fairly argue. It’s easily the most stress-free of the lot to drive, with very light controls, while its slab sides make it a doddle to place in traffic or park in tight bays.

    It’s the easiest to see out of here and the one that’ll make everyday life the simplest. It has the most characterful engine, too; if you do feel like grappling that weird knob, it’s the most fun of all the three-cylinder turbo petrols in this test to work hard, even if they all have broadly similar spec sheets, offering around 120bhp and mid-50s claimed mpg.

  13. If you couldn’t tell, the Citroen wins this test, and quite possibly tops the class. It gets what a little crossover should be and actually makes use of the larger size, greater ride height and oddball styling too many of its rivals don’t fully follow through on.

    Honourable second goes to the Hyundai. While not notably more practical than a regular hatchback, it has a more obvious sense of fun to how it looks and drives. It’s the unexpected drivers’ choice.

    Ultimately, both elevate themselves above the Kia and Seat. Both physically, with tangible ride height gains, and metaphorically, by being genuinely likeable. After all, even the hardest critics enjoy a good bit of pop music every now and then.

What do you think?

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