Executive wheels: The hot end of the market is cold

Despite year-over-year declines, small SUVs are popular

I just finished reading up on the U.S. April sales reports from the major automakers, and the news was not good. Nearly every company posted year-over-year declines in unit sales, with the lone exception being Volkswagen which last year was in the midst of the diesel engine crisis and had a bad year; VW had nowhere to go but up. Every other company – Ford, Nissan, GM, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, and Honda – saw sales drop this year, although it must be said that with expectations being that new car sales this year will be around 17 million units, sales remain much higher than in the depths of the Great Recession of 2008-10. In other words, it‘s not a disaster, just a cooling-off period.

And besides, what they all are selling – SUVs stuffed with options – are high profit units, so we’re still talking profits here.

I was surprised, though, that the news reports indicated that the hottest sector of the market right now is small SUVs. It surprised me because I recently drove these three small SUVs, and I wasn’t impressed. The pair of the 2017 HONDA CR-V 1.5T AWD TOURING and the 2017 KIA NIRO TOURING had me wondering how in the world these two car giants made any sales in the category at all.

The key word for both: “underpowered.” Lack of gerbils on the fly wheels. My notes for indicate a decided power shortage.


While both vehicles left me cold, I was particularly unimpressed with the brand-new Kia Niro, this winter being heavily advertised in a major campaign featuring the hot comic Melissa McCarthy, and centered on the vehicle’s supposed small carbon footprint. It features by far the best gas mileage of the SUVs here (it’s a hybrid) – 46 mpg city/40 mpg highway – so I suppose its environmental credentials are in order, but…. It wasn’t an all-wheel-drive vehicle, and as such was expensive, and even if I was interested in driving it to Save the Whales, I’m not sure I could get enough time off of work to make the trip because it would take this vehicle a loooong time to get anywhere.

They call the Niro a “small station wagon,” for unfathomable reasons, in that looks like an SUV, but that’s the big problem because if it was really a small station wagon I wouldn’t be so disappointed with the fact that is doesn’t have all-wheel-drive. As such, I just assumed from the way it looked – and the way it looked on TV – that it was AWD. This is a nearly $33k vehicle! When I realized it wasn’t AWD – and my research on the Kia website indicated that it is unavailable – and then looked at the price, I simply said to myself, “no way.”

I like hybrids as much as the next man, and I understand the market for them. I just don’t see a market for this vehicle. It has all the technology, of course, and it has a couple of wonderful features: e.g. when you lock the vehicle the mirrors fold in, which I like, and they unfold not when you unlock, but rather as you approach the vehicle; pretty cool. But other hybrids – the Toyota Prius comes to mind – have some guts, some power, especially in town, and I didn’t find that here. The Niro features a 1.6 liter four-banger with some 104 horsepower, plus an electric engine rated at 43 hp, for a combined hp rating of 139 hp (I know, I know; they’re math didn’t work for me either). It felt more like 60 hp whether it was electric, gas, or a combo.

Too bad, really. The Niro is attractive, it has a nice interior, all the stuff, and is a great size. It has plenty of potential, unrealized at this point. Niro starts at $22,890 for the FE and goes to $29,650 for this Touring edition, with 3 trims in between – all with the same engines. After that base price, they added on a technology package for $1,900, some upgraded white pearl paint for $395, and $895 in freight, and the bottom line was $32,840. Even if it had AWD, I would think that price is way too much, but in this configuration… I was going to say should be more like $23k, the FE base price, but I wouldn’t buy that either. I expected much more from KIA, but I guess they spent all the money on the ad campaign and not on the car.




I don’t get to drive many Hondas, so I was surprised they offered this vehicle in the press pool. When a company is relatively tight with offerings my experience tells me something is wrong when one comes: the limited press pool usually only comprises the models that aren’t selling, and they attempt to create a buzz by getting it in the hands of automotive journalists. The only “buzz” I can offer is a “ho-hum;” not awful, just not special. And that’s the reason it is in the press pool: I would think just about anyone in the market for a small SUV would drive the competition – Toyota Rav4, the Ford Escape, the Mazda CX-5, the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Chevy/GMC Equinox/Terrain, VW Tiguan, Jeep Cherokee, Nissan Rogue – and I would think they would choose one of the competitors. I have driven many of these vehicles, and the CR-V would be low on my list – in spite of U.S. News and World Report ranking the CR-V #1 on the list of Best Compact SUVs. It’s a thin line, I guess, and a matter of taste, but my list would be different (hint: Ford Escape and Jeep Cherokee would head it up). 

So, to be honest, I was skeptical right off the bat. I haven’t driven a Civic, Accord or the larger SUV Pilot for quite some time; indeed, the last Honda I test drove – and this was several years ago, was the Crosstour, a crossover/SUV that was discontinued last year for lack of sales. Interestingly, the Crosstour was based on the Accord, while the CR-V, in production since 1995 as a 1997 model, is built on the Civic platform. This latest version, the 2017 model I drove, is the vehicle’s 5th generation, and I noticed that it is somewhat larger than other CR-Vs I saw on the road, a fact confirmed by some research (e.g. 4th generation 103.1” wheelbase; 104.7 in the new one). Almost every car that’s been on the market for many years has undergone growth over the last few years, so it’s hard to think of original “compact SUVs” and see it is these larger vehicles. The older ones look tiny.

This CR-V right from the get-go left me disappointed. Oh, there was nothing terribly wrong, of course – all the stuff is here, the package is well-done if a little uninspired, and this would be a perfectly practical all-wheel-drive vehicle to run around in. The size is fine – being larger than the old ones it’s better on the highway – so it is an easy vehicle to maneuver in the city and park in tight spaces, and it has more than adequate space to take some skis and gear and head to the hills.

But the 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine, rated at 190 horsepower, leaves much to be desired. It’s sluggish. Every time I got into the CR-V I expected it to be zippier, like it would change overnight, then I’d go a block or two and realize that, no, it has no guts. I didn’t take it into the mountains, but I can only imagine it would be a right-lane-only proposition going up Floyd Hill. You’ll get to your destination, just not quickly. On the plus side, I guess, it is rated at 27 mpg city/33 mpg highway, so it isn’t a thirsty vehicle. The fact is that I have been in many of these so-called compact SUVs, and I found most of the rest of them much zippier, and for the same price. Hell, this CR-V carries a base price of $33,695, which is the same price of the glorious Ford Escape I drove all tricked out, and for all of the practical things – performance, power, comfort, ride, etc. – the Ford wins, hands-down.  For the record, this CR-V Touring model had pretty much everything standard at this price, so the only add-on was the $900 destination charge for a bottom line of $34,595.

As usual, I am not going to go through all of the technology and safety equipment. Just about everything these days has all the app hookups, Bluetooth, blindspot and lane departure monitoring, yadda, yadda – it would be newsworthy if it wasn’t in there. So here’s what I didn’t like:

  • Maybe all Hondas have this, I don’t know, but others don’t and it put me off. When you stop the car the parking brake is set automatically, and it doesn’t release until you fasten the seat belt. I don’t like to be nannied.
  • The dashboard, the “wood” grain, the plastic – all of it looked cheap and felt un-sturdy, as if it wouldn’t go the distance.
  • Road noise. I couldn’t believe how noisy this vehicle is, especially considering the Ford Escape was a cathedral of quiet-ness. It was hard to hear the radio here when you’re cruising.
  • Only one knob for the radio, for volume. To tune the radio you have to go to the screen and scroll, which is annoying. I like volume/tune knobs. Either have knobs or don’t; here the scheme is half-, er, baked.

The model they sent me was Dark Olive M in color, which just looked black to me, with a black interior, and everything was black too — the wheels, the bumpers – and all of it sort of reminiscent of primer paint. I suppose they meant it to look mean and aggressive, which would have been fine if it was mean and aggressive. This particular model was just a dilettante.     


Categories: Industry Trends, Magazine Articles, Transportation