At this year's Detroit auto show, you had your obligatory American performance-car debuts (a new Chevrolet Corvette) and big, pick-'em-up trucks (Ford's Atlas concept).
However, stuck between these traditional heavy-metal Motor City show bookends were hordes of car-based, crossover utility vehicles (CUVs).
The CUV market has been one of the fastest-growing for some time, from full-size right down to subcompact. For the smallest of CUVs, buyers are looking for something to drive that's urban-friendly yet tall-riding, where the utility part of the CUV equation becomes less important.
The Nissan Juke and Subaru XV Crosstrek are two of the better city CUVs we can think of. But which one is the better drive?
First place: 2013 Nissan Juke SV AWD
Between its Versa, Cube and Rogue, Nissan has the small utility-vehicle class covered. But the Juke, one part small hatchback and one part crossover, is the most fun to drive around town.
Although you can get a front-drive Juke for as little as $19,998, if you're going to buy a crossover, you may as well get one with traction to all four wheels, like our $23,478 Juke SV AWD tester. It comes with a continuously variable automatic transmission (front-wheel-drive Jukes start with a six-speed manual), yet rings in $2,271 less than its comparably equipped Subaru XV Crosstrek Touring rival.
We prefer Nissan's idea of a small crossover drivetrain to Subaru's. All Jukes come with a turbocharged 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine. It makes 188 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque and pulls like a larger engine over a wide rev range. We also like the way the Juke's CVT fired off sharp (albeit fake) gear changes.
Although the Subaru and Nissan both weigh around 1,400 kilograms, the Juke goes from zero to 100 km/h two seconds quicker than the XV Crosstrek's 10.4-second time. Yet both score similar Transport Canada fuel-economy estimates: 8.0 L/100 km in the city and 6.6 on the highway for the Nissan, 8.2 and 6.0, respectively, for the Subaru.
In addition to its snappy CVT, the Juke jukes around city streets like a hot hatch. Its steering is quick and responsive and its AWD system is better suited to off-ramps than mud bogs, with a rear torque-vectoring setup that can meter out torque from side to side.
The Juke's supportive front seats were appreciated, but its cabin is no match for the roomier and more premium-feeling XV Crosstrek. The Nissan's steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Silver accents abound, but hard plastics are everywhere, and the Juke's swoopy rear roof cuts into rear cargo space.
Objectively, the Nissan beats the Subaru on price and performance (without sacrificing fuel economy). Subjectively, it's way more fun to scoot around town than the sombre Subie, something we think small-crossover buyers without a lot to haul around will appreciate.
Second place: 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek Touring
While the Juke is a unique beast, the new-this-year XV Crosstrek is essentially a Subaru Impreza hatchback wearing hiking boots.
A taller ride height, flat black fender arches and black/silver wheels distinguish the CUV from the hatch it's based on -- kind of like an Outback Lite.
Also separating itself from the Impreza is the XV Crosstrek's pricing. Whereas an Impreza with a CVT and all-wheel drive starts at $21,295, Subaru wants $25,795 for our comparably equipped base-model XV Crosstrek Touring, but that extra money doesn't get you any extra power. The XV Crosstrek uses the same 2.0-litre, four-cylinder with only 148 hp and 145 lb.-ft., mated to a slow-to-react CVT as found in the Impreza, so don't expect to beat any Toyota Prius drivers off the line at a stoplight.
The XV Crosstrek's steering is accurate, if lacking feel. While the Nissan taunts the driver to have some fun behind the wheel, the Subaru is like Switzerland: Its handling is decidedly neutral. Its taller ride height and ground clearance (about 74 millimetres more than a regular Impreza) means the Subaru's ride quality is much smoother over bad pavement and potholes than the firmly sprung Nissan, but that also means more roll in tight corners. The Subaru's handling won't startle you, but it won't egg you on like the Juke.
Where the Subaru has it all over the Nissan is inside. Because the XV Crosstrek is based on a compact car (the Juke uses Nissan's corporate subcompact platform), it offers noticeably more passenger and cargo room. XV Crosstrek rear occupants will notice the biggest difference, and there's 633 litres of rear cargo room in the Subaru compared with only 297 in the Nissan.
As well, we found the simpler design of the CXV Crosstrek's interior buttons and controls easier to decipher than in the quirkier Juke.
Beyond the Juke, perhaps the biggest competition for the XV Crosstrek comes from within a Subaru showroom. Beyond its faux-SUV styling bits, it's hard to argue the compact CUV's premium pricing over a less-expensive and better-driving Impreza hatch.
-- Postmedia News