Automakers betting on the mini-SUV

Two new entries have rolled up to the starting line for the upcoming sales race among subcompact SUVs. Shown at theLos Angeles Auto Show last week, the Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3 will go on sale next year.

They will join the Jeep Renegade and the Chevrolet Trax, shown earlier this year at the New York Auto Show in this suddenly booming category. Whether they're called mini-SUVs or small crossovers, the competitors all have similar dimensions to subcompact cars, but with greater hauling capacity. These vehicles are smaller than compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.

Americans have long since proved their love for vehicles that drive like a car but haul like a truck. With gas prices falling this year, even big, relatively thirsty SUVs have been selling strongly. Yet many of these burly haulers like the Chevrolet Tahoe start at list prices above $40,000.

Manufacturers believe young buyers -- and maybe downsizing baby boomers -- will be attracted to an easy-to-park, more affordable small SUV that can still haul a reasonable amount of stuff. These very small SUVs will have base models that start near, or even under, $20,000.

Executive editor and market analyst Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book foresees strong sales for the mini-SUVs. "Price, size, ride height and fuel economy are all positives," he said. "The tall profile enables these vehicles to tote more than a subcompact car and offer better rear seating."

Let's have a closer look that the two newest entries from Honda and Mazda:

Honda HR-V. Going on sale in the spring, the HR-V is based on the same mechanical platform as the Fit, the smallest vehicle Honda sells here. The HR-V also shares the Fit's Magic Seat equipment that lets the rear seat fold down to offer an impressive 58 cubic feet of cargo space.

The HR-V will be powered by a four-cylinder, l.8-liter engine that produces 138 horsepower, coupled with either s manual shifter or a mileage-boosting continuously variable automatic transmission. (No EPA mileage estimates are yet available for the new mini-SUVs.) The HR-V will come with considerable standard equipment, including a rearview camera for safer backing up. It also will have power windows and mirrors, a tilt steering wheel and Pandora radio.

Mazda CX-3. The CX-3 resembles a smaller version of the compact CX-5, often praised by reviewers for its sleek design. Inside, the uncluttered CX-3 dashboard features an iPad-like display for phone, music and other system details.

But the CX-3 shares the same mechanical platform as the subcompact Mazda2 car. It will be powered by a 2.0-liter engine with Mada's fuel-saving Skyactiv technology, although Mazda has not yet announced the official horsepower numbers for the engine. A six-speed automatic transmission will be standard, and all-wheel drive will be available as an option.

Billed as a 2016 model, the CX-3 will begin U.S. sales in mid-to-late 2015 after a sales roll-out in Japan next Spring. Car and Driver describes the CX-3 as "a fun and feisty runabout promising taut handling paired with edgy styling."

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.