Mazda CX-3 AWD vs. Fiat 500X AWD, Honda HR-V AWD, Jeep Renegade 4x4, Chevrolet Trax AWD, Kia Soul

Mazda CX-3 AWD vs. Fiat 500X AWD, Honda HR-V AWD, Jeep Renegade 4x4, Chevrolet Trax AWD, Kia Soul Mazda CX-3 AWD vs. Fiat 500X AWD, Honda HR-V AWD, Jeep Renegade 4x4, Chevrolet Trax AWD, Kia Soul
Comparison Tests From the September 2015 issue

In the beginning, God may have created the ­heavens and the Earth, but it was Cambrian metazoan hookup culture that gave us the basis of most life-forms we know today. In the 550 million or so years since the Cambrian explosion, science tells us, just about every organism that ever existed has gone extinct. The lucky minority adapted, survived, and—skipping way ahead to the good part—became you and me. Automotive archeologists of the future will find in the fossil record of the early-21st-century evidence of a simi­lar explosion of new life-forms, with the emerging tiny-ute class being one bewilderingly diverse phylum.

All six wee boxes here bear traces of subcompact-hatchback DNA. The segment leader, the Kia Soul, shares its underpinnings with the Kia Rio. Renewed in 2014, the Soul took first place in a previous comparison test and is also the market’s favorite, with the American public annually snapping up more than 100,000 of these Korean parcels. Soul pricing starts just over $16,000, while the Soul + tested here—with its 164-hp 2.0-liter four, panoramic sunroof, keyless entry and starting, and heated and ventilated front seats—rings in at $24,750. It’s the only vehicle in this gathering that isn’t four-wheel drive, because Kia doesn’t offer it that way.

Like the Soul, the Jeep Renegade has the profile of a car drawn by a four-year-old—a short rectangle atop a longer one atop some circular wheels. All-new for 2015, the Renegade shares its platform with the Fiat 500X, right down to its 101.2-inch wheelbase. With the test’s most powerful engine—also shared with the Fiat—sending 180 horsepower through a nine-speed automatic transmission, our Renegade Latitude 4x4 stickers at $26,360.

Still upright, but less of a cubist’s delight, is the Chevrolet Trax. Buick, of all brands, was one of the pioneers in the subcompact-crossover class. After sales of the Buick Encore surprised the suits, General Motors made the call to start shipping the more affordable Chevy—already available overseas—to the States. The $15,000 Sonic lends its platform and its 1.4-liter turbocharged four. Our four-wheel-drive LT checks in at $25,540.

The Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, and Mazda CX-3 serve as the rectilinear subset’s foils. Their sculpted bodies suggest an athleticism that, if realized, ought to give them a leg up on the box-car set. From certain angles, the new-for-2016 Fiat 500X has the look of an embryonic Porsche Macan. The Easy trim level is just the second of five tiers, but this one is loaded with Beats audio, a panoramic sunroof, parking sensors, and a rearview camera. It rings in just shy of 30 grand, at $29,100.

It’s rare that a class of vehicle just explodes into being with such wildly divergent looks and characteristics.

If there’s such a thing as provenance in the $16,000-economy-car gene pool, the Honda HR-V has it. Based on the Fit, it boasts that seven-time 10Bester’s outsized interior-space measurements and flexibility. The Fit itself was redone for 2015, its already colossal (for the class) interior benefiting from a 1.2-inch wheelbase stretch. The HR-V tugs the axles an additional 3.2 inches apart, so we’re expecting positively limousinelike stretch-out space. Fully loaded at $26,720, the Honda verges on Korean value standards.

Or maybe the Mazda CX-3 has the chromosomal hot ticket. It traces its roots to the Mazda 2, a cannonball of underpowered fun that, as of the 2016 model year, is no longer sold in the U.S. So if you want one, this is the form it now takes—and what a lovely form it is. With its long hood stretching in front of a cab-rearward greenhouse, the CX-3 certainly looks the sportiest. Pricing starts at just over $20,000, but this moderately optioned, four-wheel-drive Touring model rings up at $25,500.

We don’t have a Nissan Juke here because that early (and weird) subcompact-crossover experiment already lost a comparison test to the Mini Countryman. And we don’t have a Countryman here because Mini was unable to provide a competitively priced example. Even without them, our roster is already teeming with life.