Downsizing does not necessarily mean going downmarket. By April next year, New Zealand will see a spate of pint-sized sophisticated crossovers from premium brands.
Peugeot is becoming a crossover specialist - albeit with help from partner Mitsubishi - and looks set to launch the new 4008 in New Zealand in the first quarter of 2012. That will make three crossovers in the line-up - the French brand already has the 4007 seven-seater and the 3008 wagon in showrooms. The 4008 might have the biggest model number, but it's the smallest: at a super-mini-like 4340mm in length, it's slightly shorter than the 3008 and will probably sit beside that model in specification and price (the 3008 ranges from $42,990 to $54,990).
If the 4008 looks just a little familiar, that's because it's a branch of a somewhat tangled family tree. The 4008 is the product of an alliance between Peugeot and Mitsubishi, and is based on the Japanese maker's ASX crossover. Which, in turn, is based on the larger Mitsubishi Outlander (the two have the same long wheelbase), the vehicle that also provides Peugeot with its 4007.
What's special about the 4008 then? Unlike the 4007, it's a fairly comprehensive restyle of the Mitsubishi source car - only the doors, roof and glasshouse are carried over. It boasts a muscular new look in line with Peugeot's latest design philosophy and is bound to have wider appeal than the curvy-but-controversial 3008.
Another major difference from the 3008: the Mitsubishi base gives Peugeot the choice of two- or four-wheel drive, allowing the 4008 to claim just a little off-road credibility. The 3008 is front-drive only.
As with ASX, the 4008 is available with a choice of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines. The former will be matched to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), while the latter is likely to be available with manual transmission to begin with.
For that reason, expect Peugeot New Zealand to focus on the petrol versions for launch.
Just to extend that family tree a bit further, the 4008 has a sister car within Peugeot's sister brand, Citroen: the Aircross, which could also be a starter for NZ, although it won't arrive until later in the year, with right-hand-drive production not scheduled until the second half of 2012.
Like the 4008, it's a major restyle of the ASX - this time with cues from the latest DS3 and C4 models, including an ornate headlight/grille and large vertical air vents bordered by LED daytime running lights.
Around the same time as the 4008 is launched, Audi will step into the compact-crossover space with the new Q3 - third and smallest member of a series that includes the Q5 and Q7. While it might line up beside the Peugeot/Citroen/Mitsubishi on size, the little Audi will be up a class on price: local importer European Motor Distributors plans a 2.0-litre turbo diesel version with seven-speed S-tronic gearbox here in April for about $70,000.
It'll be a direct rival to BMW's X1 ($58,500-$83,500) and perhaps even nip at the tailpipe of the Range Rover Evoque - which starts at $79,990.
While Volkswagen is happy to let Audi take the fight to the $70k market, it has just launched a heavily revised Tiguan, which comes with a 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine and a wealth of standard equipment for $53,250.
Mainstream brands are also rising to meet the challenge of compact crossovers with premium character - even if it's a case of better late than never with some. Ford NZ has finally launched the highly acclaimed Kuga here, in top-specification Titanium trim for $53,990. Kuga is based on the previous-generation Focus platform and has been on sale in Europe since 2008.
It's a model at the end of its run rather than the beginning, but an impressive one nonetheless: no diesel on offer for Kiwi buyers, but the petrol engine is the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo from the previous-generation Focus XR5.
Also in 2012, we'll see the Subaru XV and Mazda CX-5, two compact crossovers that showcase new design directions for their respective makers. The XV is based on the all-new Impreza, while the CX-5 will feature a host of new technologies including efficient SkyActiv engines. There's also an all-new Honda CR-V on the way, set for its first public outing at next month's Los Angeles Motor Show.
Is there room for all these new models? While none of the above is really about chasing huge sales volume, there's plenty of scope: the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) market is one of the biggest segments in NZ and growing. Small/medium SUVs alone currently account for 27 per cent of the passenger-car market. SUVs in total are a whopping 31 per cent.