Shortcuts: Quick tests

Today a quick look at four new cars, three on sale – the other still under local market consideration.

Jeep Renegade


SUCH is the demand for sports utilities that look as though they could tread anywhere but are actually pretty much seal-restricted that even the hardest of the hardcore brands have to play along.

In saying that, there’s no doubt much of what fuels the appeal of the Renegade Limited driven here, the entry level car whose $39,990 price is very much explained by it being front-drive and also having the smallest capacity engine in Jeep-dom, is that while tailored for Chic Street, it dresses as though it’s all set for traversing the Rubicon Trail.

That the visual message delivered by the chunky shape and boosted ride height is so entirely Call of the Wild-attuned might seem a cruel deception to some who hold that the term ‘soft-roader’ simply doesn’t translate into Jeep-speak.

But hey, that’s the world in which we live and, if you want a compact crossover that stands out in that hugely diverse pack, this one certainly lives up to that billing. Also, while this model is best suited as a mainly city, occasionally open road but not-really-open country runabout, one whose impact on the environment is measured solely in its carbon footprint (a quite commendable 137 grams of exhaust output per kilometre), it is very much heading down the right track.

The Renegade, of course, the Jeep that is built by Fiat. The Limited is the one that has the highest count of shared chromazones because it has an Italian driveline, too, that perky engine and six-speed dual clutch gearbox otherwise serving in the 500X car that provides this platform. With 103kW, the ‘Feep’s’ mill offers 20kW less power than is provided the all-wheel-drive Renegade Trailhawk 2.4-litre, but torque-wise, with 230Nm, it is an absolute equal.

Proving yet again it’s not always the size of a dog in a fight? Well, sort of. In reality, there’s a world of difference is how that muscle is flexed. The 2.4 delivers more in the way of low to mid-range heft; the 1.4 is a much fizzier operator, sometimes as busy around town as a pizza cook at rush hour. Strangely, it settles down more at cruise, though even then the tacho still resembles a seismograph. Still, it’s hugely characterful and, even when working up a sweat, still drinks modestly: As little as 7.8 L/100km on our drive (Jeep reckons it can hit 5.9).

Hitting the trail into town, the Jeep quickly established good cred as a metro macho model. It offers decent visbility and, being so short, is a cinch to park and u-turn. The comfort levels are reasonable – the driver’s seat seemed a bit on the narrow side for my (ahem) generous dimension – and, while it has plenty of equipment (and a good count of safety assists) the ergonomics are a bit of a mess. Those neat styling details, such as the wee Willys silhouette on the windscreen surround, are a bit of a good-time giggle, however.

If there’s any one thing that lets this car down, it’s the suspension tuning. Being street-bound has allowed Jeep to give it a somewhat firmer gait than it would usually get away with, but in eschewing need to provide enough compliance to allow comfort when rock-crawling they’ve actually made it too harsh. It’s rocky in the wrong way.

Kia Niro


Now that we’re into fully electric plug and play, haven’t non-rechargeable hybrids done their dash?

Toyota, which has invested so heavily in trad hybrids, probably knows the answer to that, and so far they’re not telling how much impact the growing influx of vehicles that are primarily electric powered is having on their petrol-electric volume. Prius, the car that started it all, is certainly not selling as strongly as it used to and, if you meet a Camry Hybrid owner, chances are you can assume he or she is also a taxi driver.

Kia clearly thinks there is still merit in petrol-electric playtime, because it has decided to test the local waters with a new car, called the Niro. And test is the right word because, officially, this car is still on trial. The local distributor has indicated that, if it were to go into the showroom, it would cost around $45,000, which would put it into the thick of the Prius pack.

Will they? Hard to say one way or the other. But here’s something to consider: Niro is built on the same platform, and has the same drivetrain, as the Ioniq from owner brand Hyundai. And Hyundai NZ, you will know, is leading its Ioniq charge with a variant that Kia here cannot yet match, a full EV. Later this year it will have a plug-in hybrid which, again, Kia locally says it cannot match. So, for now, they’ve the meekest and least technically-advanced pure hybrid, which Hyundai also presents locally in Ioniq, mainly because it holds a friendly price.

If you were totally Green-minded and flush, then an Ioniq that wholly rids itself of a globe-killing fossil fuelled engine has to be the dream machine.

But, were you budget-constrained, or not sure about giving yourself over totally to an electric driving future, or simply wanted to have a foot in both the future and the past, then you’d have a hybrid. But this one, not the Hyundai or the Prius.

Because? Several reasons. First, practicality. The Niro isn’t a bad-looking car, but what really strikes is that being shaped like a crossover (hich it isn’t) means it is roomier than the hunchback hatch look that the Hyundai and Toyota products affect. Second reason? Performance. For sure, this is not tarmac tearaway, but we were genuinely impressed by the step-off and that, when cruising, it still had plenty in reserve; beat, too, that it runs a proper six-speed automatic transmission. So much better than a CVT. Third reason? The ride quality. The others are better handling cars, but the Kia has superb ability to soak up bumps and ruts, which given the likely clientele, is just as crucial, if not more.

So what goes against it? Well, while a powertrain that blends a 1.6-litre petrol four with 77kW/147Nm and a lithium-ion battery pack with 32kW/170Nm, for a total system output of 104kW and, erm, something or other torque (because the mathematical logic for twisting force isn’t a simple matter of addition), gets it going along quite nicely, like all other hybrids, it doesn’t deliver much in the way of pure electric performance.

Basically, you can get it rolling on EV alone when driving at an absolute crawl – basically pedestrian pace – or for a moment when it kicks away from a standstill, and that’s about it. I’d have expected more, given that the battery set Kia uses is rather more powerful and complex than the nickel-hydrides Toyota generally sticks with. Otherwise, it’s just like a Prius and the rest of the hybrid lot, a petrol car pulling around a hefty battery set, at a best economy rate of 4.4 litres per 100km (because the one here is the high-spec car, on 18-inch alloys), though in our hands it was closer to 5.3.

So there’s that. Then there’s the feeling that it is being out-stepped by progress. As I said, we’re now looking increasing to full EV solutions. If you’re going to sell on tech, then the pitch requires the word ‘latest’. Which this isn’t. Kia doe have a fully EV Niro on its home turf. If Kia wants to be a player, that’s the one it needs.

Lexus IS200T


EVER-softening popularity of sedans of all sizes was something of a discussion point at this car’s local media launch; back then, passenger cars were still setting the sales pace but sports utilities were closing fast. 

Six months on, a bad situation for booted three-box cars has worsened. SUVs are now buyers’ top preference and, with every passing month, their ascendancy keeps strengthening.

So where does that leave the IS mid-size sedan from Toyota’s premier division? Already a select choice, it’s potentially in even more of a niche, now.

Which is a pity for the 200T on test; this four-cylinder edition, the most popular variant by far and especially good-looking in this $84,900 F Sport guise, was always pretty good and mid-life changes here – no just to the styling, but also the tech – make it better. And, yet … well, it’s clearly a hard road.

For those who do maintain interest, the key change now is that safety technology that was a cost-extra on some versions is also now standard across the range. Previously, the IS was only available with radar cruise control, but the entire line-up has been updated with Lexus’ Safety System Plus bundle, which adds active lane departure, emergency city braking and automatic high beam to an improved radar/camera cruise control system.

This on top of it providing 10 airbags, reversing and surround sonar, rearview camera with rear guide assist, heated and power-folding mirrors, daytime running lamps, automatic windscreen wipers, paddle shifters, digital radio, LCD multi-information display, a touch controller, satellite navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, voice-controlled infotainment and a tyre pressure monitor.

The test car, in a tasty racy red, also sported minor, if nicely-crafted, styling revisions; reshaped air vents on the front bar mimic those on the front of the RC; such is their prominence they lengthen the car by 15mm.

The trademark ‘spindle’ grille has been re-profiled and a set of narrower headlights and new-shape daytime running lights bring it up to speed with the latest look. It takes new LED tail-lights and new alloy rims.

The interior makeover is dominated by the addition of a 10.3-inch infotainment screen across the line, replacing a 7.0-inch unit. There are 15 other small changes inside. Can you pick them? Agreed, it’s a challenge even for salespeople. For those fearing this might one day become a pub quiz subject, they include the clock, thicker knee pads, heater control and audio panel, steering-wheel switches, shift lever, inside door handles and cupholders (now better-shaped for phone stowage and different cup types). They’ve also had another go at improving computer mouse-style Remote Touch controller, but that’s a waste of time. Rather than continually trying to refine this setup, they need to start afresh. For a start, they might like to consider lifting the restrictive on-the-go phone functionality. While we’re at it, I’m no fan of the foot-operated park brake, either.

The driving experience? It’s not that different to before, but neither should it be. Aside from the front suspension having been revised, with a stiffer upper mount and a new alloy lower control arm and different bushing, there’s not been a lot of dabbling.

The turbocharged 2.0-litre creates 180kW and 350Nm; not a huge amount but it has beautifully zesty manners and interacts well with the eight-speed transmission, not least in this F-Sport edition because it has an additional Sport Plus feature that allows it to rev all the harder.

However, on that note … it’s sporty, yes, but not seriously sporty. That’s the F-Sport ethos; you get additional liveliness, but mainly it’s about luxury, so even though the performance, ride and handling are all sharper, it’s not going to blow your socks off. Those seeking any semblance of rawness need continue shopping in the the German quarter.

All the same, it has a certain sweetness. There is pleasure from the steering, which delivers decent feedback, albeit with the occasional kickback if the front hits bumps too hard and with too much lock during cornering, and the dynamic feel is also pleasing, insofar that the chassis has a pleasing balance.

Even though the automatic features an auto blip on downshifts and full torque-converter lock-up from second to eight gears for clutchless manual shifting, overall you think of it being a gearbox zoning in more on refinement than racing. There’s just not quite the reactivity you need. Still, it nails 0-100kmh in seven seconds, which is pretty cool.

Mini Countryman Cooper S


EMBARRASSING admission: Two days into test, we chanced upon another one of these. Except, on closer inspection. It wasn’t. What we’d spied was actually a previous-gen Clubman, the one that whackily – and incomprehensibly - provides three side doors.

Obviously, I need to bone up on my Mini recognition, though in my defence I wasn’t the only one caught out on that day. But maybe it raises a problem with big Minis – that, at a certain distance, they all look the same, right?

The other confusion about this car is sorting out exactly what role it undertakes. Ostensibly, this five-seater is determined to be a medium sports utility, to the point of being meted a jacked-up stance and all-wheel-drive.

There’s no doubt that, technically, the car here could sustain clambering up snowy skifield roads and conquering rutted tracks to reach favoured surfing or fishing spots.

Yet, it’s difficult to imagine the largest car in the nameplate’s 57-year history becoming too mired in muddy activity – not just because the AWD system isn’t that hard-out (being able to offer up to a 50:50 front-to-rear drive split, but in most instances operating as a front-wheel drive) – but also simply because the new-gen Mini has so historically focused on seal-bound nip and zip fun.

The Countryman in that sense could easily be called Cityman. Such is its street swagger that you just don’t see it being naturally selected as a jolly jodhpurs’ alternate to, say, a Subaru Outback or something small from the Land Rover clan.

The overall design flavour is just as it comes with the hatch, a barista-blend from urban hipster beans, except in a larger serving and, in this instance, served extra strong to optimise that attention-grabbing shape and stance.

The Cooper S here carries an incredible $16,615 worth of extra-sweetness options – most all too swank for the country, man - that boosted the list price to a not-so-mini $70k. And that didn’t include the cost of the surely mandatory personalised plate.

Basing on the same platform as the BMW X1 means big looks are abetted by ... well, bigness. Being 30mm wider and 200mm longer than its predecessor and with a wheelbase stretched 75mm, it’s a Mini that truly fills a standard carpark and though roominess is always defined differently in a Mini, because the shape simply squanders special opportunities, it actually delivers surprisingly functionality.

Enhancements to head, leg and shoulder room are welcomed; the increase in rear-seat room is especially noticeable and, actually, it’s the front chars that demand a bit of extra attention. Not in respect to the driving position – that’s fine – but simply because they could do for better lateral support.

The biggest pleasant plus is discovering it’s a Mini with something most don’t have: Boot space. The high-set back seats slide longitudinally by 130mm, and fold 40:20:40 to increase cargo space from 450 to 1309 litres, an up-to 220 litre increase. This cargo area is, of course, accessed via an electric tailgate. Lifting can be so tiresome.

The interior imparts something of a full luxury feel and lots of flair. With Minis being among the most ‘designed’ cars on the road, you still immerse in a highly creative but relatively whacky cockpit packed with oversized, sometimes weird controls, occasionally sited in unusual places, and highly coloured, cartoonish displays. Think Swinging Sixties with a sci-fi, Steam Punk ambience. Good fun but not necessarily the kind of environment you’d enjoy cold-calling in the dead of night. You can spend minutes just working out how to make the thing start.

Taking time to fathom all the tech is worthwhile. Whereas the old one went a bit lite to the point where it lacked – and yes, this surprised me, too – a reversing camera (a box ticked now) the replacement has pretty much every assist you’d expect to find in a commensurately-priced BMW-badged product. Low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) is standard and a camera-based active cruise control, adopts pedestrian warning, high-beam assistant for now-LED headlights, an electric park brake, and road sign detection are also offered, as is Park Distance Control and head-up display..

Given that the body shape delivers some blind spots, it could do with cross traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, but Gen X’ers probably care less about that and are more interested in its having Mini puddle lights and how it can even liaise with your Apple iPhone or Watch, or keep track of small objects, pets or luggage via Mini Find Mate wireless tags. There’s also something called Mini Country Timer which makes also possible to track your progress over unsealed tracks and trails. As if!

Even in XXL format, the Mini ethos demands modest-capacity engines, all made big-hearted by TwinPower Turbo (single, variable geometry turbocharger) technology. You can start out with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol that snaps out 100kW and 220Nm, but there’s potentially going to be greater interest in the 2.0-litre four-cylinder Cooper S edition driven here.

With an additional 21kW and 60Nm, it’s currently the fastest and most powerful Countryman here, though only fleetingly. The petrol-electric hybrid landing later this year has a combined output of 165kW/385Nm, plus it can clock 40km on electric power alone, while there’s going to be a 170kW John Cooper Works.

The 2.0-litre is a smooth and flexible engine, but you’re going to always select the sportiest of the three drive modes if you expect this to be a motivated Mini. The default ‘mid setting’ is quite laidback the greener Eco mode all the more lethargic. Even in its racer setting, some turbo lag is evident from standstill and in low-speed roll-on acceleration, but it does become more enlivening from thereon. However, you should await the JCW if in need on a big Mini that can really monster.

The Countryman’s newly adopted eight-speed automatic adds a definite edge over the outgoing six-speed unit. The refined transmission shifts seamlessly irrespective of terrain and, if you want to stir it up even more, there are paddleshifters. Those drive modes, of course, adjust the shift points, throttle mapping and steering resistance. Sport is another word for sharp; the engine also revs more gruffly, too.

Mini loves promoting its cars as giant-sized go karts, which seems a bit twee, but it’s not without foundation here. The hatch models are the real little rippers, but the Countryman is also properly grippy in the corners, too. The steering can be a little twitchy on centre, but it’s definitely a fun car. The ride, though, is on the firm side, perhaps a bit too much for the family to abide. I’d say it’s just as much due to the stiff sidewalls of the run-flat tyres as the suspension tune. That rubber produces quite a roar on coarse-chip roads, too.

There’s no doubt that this new Countryman is better than its predecessor. It’s also going to present as a big time mover within the Mini movement. Looking outside of that crowd, however, it’s easy to find more value-weighted alternates.