Diesel engines of modest displacements do not always perform well here, where stop-start traffic is the norm.
But the French have shown that it is possible to be both petite and perky, now that their turbodiesels are suitably paired with better transmissions.
Ssangyong of South Korea is the latest to surprise. Its Tivoli 1.6 turbodiesel is a rare gem - extremely torquey all round, completely lag-free and as breezy in Orchard Road as on the Kranji Expressway.
The compact crossover's throttle response is light and linear, with acceleration delivered consistently across a rev band that seems as wide as in a well-tuned turbo petrol engine.
If not for an obvious engine chatter, you would not be able to tell the Tivoli was driven by diesel. Its vibration level is also admirably low.
SPECS/SSANGYONG TIVOLI DIESEL
Price: $129,888 with COE
Engine: 1,597cc 16-valve inline-4 turbodiesel
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual override
Power: 115bhp at 3,600rpm
Torque: 300Nm at 3,600rpm
0-100kmh: 13.3 seconds
Top speed: 172kmh
Fuel consumption: 5.5 litres/100km
Agent: Motorway Ssangyong
And because it has so much torque - 300Nm from 3,600rpm - the car feels quicker than it actually is. Ssangyong says it hits 100kmh in 13.3 seconds, but at the wheel, you would swear it does it in half that time. Certainly, it has no trouble sprinting away from the lights or overtaking the zippier denizens of the road. At no time does it display the stilted tendencies of a small diesel.
In fact, it behaves convincingly like a happy hatchback with a free-revving petrol power plant. And you get superior fuel efficiency along with its effervescence.
The car is 7 per cent heavier than its petrol sibling, but is 24 per cent more economical.
And it has all the trappings of a modern crossover. In fact, it has more than most in its price range.
Features include keyless access and ignition, cruise control, multi- function steering wheel, touchscreen infotainment monitor, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate control, tilt function for second-row seats, three steering selections (Normal, Comfort and Sport), reverse camera, one-touch powered windows and hill-hold function.
The last one allows the car to stay on a slope without you having to step on the brake pedal.
In terms of refinement, the turbodiesel Tivoli matches what the petrol version delivers - well, except for the engine noise. Its exceptional liveliness and enviable driveability more than make up for the noise, though.
As a crossover, the Tivoli packs a decent level of utility. You will find lots of storage compartments in the cabin, and the boot (which has a roller-type privacy cover) is sizeable for such a compact vehicle.
Whether you are the outdoorsy type or not, you will appreciate its pair of 12-volt sockets. They are always handy if you need to recharge power-hungry mobile devices.
It is pretty easy on the eye too. For a brand that churned out Mercedes-Benz copies and grotesque-looking SUVs not too long ago, Ssangyong certainly has transformed itself into a credible global player.
While various parts of the cabin are still abashedly plasticky, the Tivoli is on the whole a convincing proposition in an increasingly competitive SUV segment. And having a diesel option does not hurt either.