Looking for the best compact SUV on the market? Here are our top 10 picks.
If you want a car that fits your family's needs and have to handle rough terrain or tow cargo, a compact SUV could be right for you. You can also check out our guide to the top 10 crossover SUVs. Each of these vehicles is sturdy enough to weather all types of terrains and conditions, yet stylish and sleek when appearances matter.
On the compact side for crossover SUVs (technically, it's a station wagon) the Kia Soul has good handling, performance, cargo space, and unique styling. Baseline models come with a 1.6L, four-cylinder engine that delivers 130 hp. The Soul’s features range from basic to two trim upgrades which boost tech features and engine performance. You can choose from a 2.0L, four-cylinder engine with 161 hp or a 1.6L, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that gives you 201 hp — a pretty substantial power tweak. Other features include keyless entry and ignition, smartphone integration, and deluxe leather upholstery. There’s even an EV model that gives you close to 100 miles of range on a single charge.
The boxy shape of the Soul makes for a roomy interior, even in the backseat. If you're looking for a comfortable ride around town, the baseline engine should be fine. If you can upgrade, however, you'll enjoy having more power.
A CarMax senior sales consultant in Richmond, VA says the Soul is an SUV that functions more like a hatchback, which provides plenty of access to rear storage, and it’s got a lower ride height for an SUV. “But I did sell a Soul to a customer who was six-foot-one, and he had no problems getting in and out,” he says.Our consultant also likes that the Soul can be had with heated back seats (not just heated fronts, which is still the standard for most vehicles) and a top-shelf Infinity® sound system.
This mid-range option from Hyundai offers room for five — it’s smaller than the true Santa Fe SUV, but larger than Hyundai's small SUV offering, the Tucson. The Santa Fe Sport offers a roomy and comfortable ride, whether you're taking the family on errands around town or carving through mountain passes.
If you need a crossover SUV with lots of cargo space, you'll like the Santa Fe Sport. There are two trim options for this vehicle; one is the baseline SUV model with a 2.4L, four-cylinder engine offering 190 hp, Bluetooth® connectivity, Blue Link telematics, and 17-inch wheels. The Sport 2.0 T model comes with a 2.0L, turbocharged engine that gives you 264 hp, keyless ignition, a rearview camera, heated seats, and 18-inch wheels.
Some drivers have issues with the limited rear view, which makes backing up without the rearview assist more challenging. If fuel economy is a priority for you, you'll find better options elsewhere in the market.
If you're shopping new instead of used, you'll find little difference in older generations of the Santa Fe Sport, which first debuted in 2013.
If you're looking for a crossover SUV that’s on the smaller side, you'll love the GMC Terrain, which is very similar, mechanically, to the Chevy Equinox.
The Terrain is GMC's first entry into the small SUV market, a bit of a departure from its usual truck and SUV lineup. This comes through in the Terrain’s ride and handling, which helps the vehicle to feel larger than it is. Current offerings come with two engine options: A 2.4L, four-cylinder engine with 182 hp or a 3.6L, V6 engine with 301 hp.
Despite its small size, the Terrain gives you a roomy interior and many desirable features, even with the baseline trim. You'll enjoy a rearview camera, touchscreen interface, and satellite radio, for instance. If you're looking for lots of room for cargo, though, you can do better with other small SUVs. Even though the GMC Terrain has a large cabin, there isn't a lot of room for all your stuff.If you're shopping older models, you'll find a somewhat smaller engine. However, older Terrains offer many of the same features as the new models, save the touchscreen interface.
Toyota's RAV4 was one of the first crossovers to hit the SUV market. The automaker has been able to refine the model in the decades since its debut without sacrificing what car shoppers loved about the earlier models.
If you're shopping used models, the third and fourth generation RAV4s have more features than early models, but all hold up well. Some older models have a third-row seat, which may appeal to car shoppers with a big family. This feature was discontinued.
There are five trim levels in the latest version, and all come with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine delivering 176 hp. Baseline features include Bluetooth® connectivity, rearview camera, and touchscreen. The RAV4 has ample interior space for adults, good cargo room, and modern design. The RAV4 is an all-around solid pick for performance in the city, off-road, hauling cargo, and toting people, which is why it's so popular in the best small SUV market.
With its boxy look, the Jeep Patriot is a throwback, style-wise. If you're looking for a crossover SUV that evokes the classic lines of an older Cherokee or the Jeep Wrangler, this is it.
There are two trim levels for the Patriot, plus a range of fancy options, from tailgate speakers to heated mirrors. The baseline engine (if you're shopping front-wheel drive) is a 2.0L, four-cylinder engine with 158 hp. For four-wheel drive models, or as an optional upgrade, you can try the 2.4L, four-cylinder engine with 172 hp.
While the Patriot delivers on a certain style sensibility, its performance is only adequate. And it’s built on the underpinnings of the Dodge Caliber hatchback, a little-known, only-semi-loved model. The interior feels small and the performance is middling for the compact SUV class. You can find better performance and the same off-road capabilities from another automaker.
Jeep may have come to this conclusion on their own, as they retired the Patriot from their product lineup in 2017. If you're in the market for a Patriot, you'll need to clear out dealer stock or look for used Jeep Patriots.
A long-time favorite in the crossover SUV market, Honda's CR-V is a top contender that’s on our list of the top SUVs of 2016. This small SUV delivers a comfortable ride for the whole family plus a powerful engine and strong fuel economy. Newer models come with your choice of two engines, a 2.4L, four-cylinder with 184 hp or a 1.5L, turbocharged four-cylinder with 190 hp. Previous generations of the CR-V had a 2.4L four-cylinder, though with less torque and an automatic transmission instead of the CVT.
Three trim levels let you customize the interior and features to your tastes. Available upgrades include lane-keeping assist and blind spot monitoring, which busy families will appreciate.
The CR-V tends to be somewhat noisier than other crossovers, which is noticeable on the highway more than around town. There are more powerful engines on the market, if you're searching for something capable of lightning acceleration. Still, no matter the year you pick, Honda CR-V is a reliable small SUV that's popular with families.
Almost from the moment it launched, the Jeep Cherokee was beloved for its rugged performance, but the model was discontinued in 2001. The Cherokee's successor never really caught on, though, so Jeep brought the Cherokee back in 2014, with five levels of trim. The Cherokee 2.0, so to speak, has front-wheel drive rather than rear-wheel drive, and can capably handle plenty of off-road adventures you might dream up. You'll enjoy the smooth ride and sleek body styling that give this car a facelift without sacrificing what the first Cherokee got right.
You can choose between a 2.4L, four-cylinder engine with 184 hp or a more powerful 3.2L, V6 with 271 hp — a worthy upgrade if you want a strong, smooth engine. The Cherokee's backseat is large enough to accommodate adults, but the small SUV comes up a little short on cargo space.
The Nissan Rogue has one clear advantage in the best small SUV market: fuel efficiency. The standard model comes with a 2.5L, four-cylinder engine, or you can select the hybrid, which features a 2.0L engine and a 30 kW electric motor. The hybrid Nissan Rogue offers mpg in the mid-30s — excellent for the small SUV market.
You might add a third-row seat in the back, which is great for families. This is a feature that others in the market don't offer. In terms of passenger and cabin comfort, the Rogue is nicely situated for its class.
Downsides for the Rogue include reduced rearview visibility and lower cargo space. Aside from its hybrid power punch, the Rogue lacks a more powerful engine option that’s common in this market. If you anticipate hauling loads or do a lot of highway driving, you might prefer a small SUV with more power. If you want an SUV for size, but like saving at the gas pump, you might love the Rogue.
If you're more interested in toting passengers than equipment or luggage, you'll love the Chevrolet Equinox, which delivers an impressive amount of rear-seat legroom. The Equinox has less storage space than other comparable smaller SUVs, even though it's got a larger body. If you're looking for an SUV that lets you take everything on the road with you, this may not be your best fit.
The Chevy Equinox is due for an update later this year, which promises to deliver a more efficient engine and a freshly-restyled interior. Older versions of the Equinox stand up well to what's currently available on the market: a good V6 engine, occasional styling differences, decent around-town gas mileage (up to 26 mpg on the highway) and four different trim levels.
There are more powerful small SUVs out there, as well as models that use the interior space more efficiently. While not the most impressive on the market, the Equinox remains a solid pick, especially if you’re looking for a Chevy.
If you're looking to tow a small boat, RV, or other similar loads, the Ford Escape is one of your better bets. There's a six-speed automatic transmission on hand here, plus a handy button that gives you a Sport mode when you need an extra jolt of power. Some families may want to spring for the 2.L, four-cylinder engine rather than the 1.5L baseline powerplant. The Escape has some cool features, too, like the infotainment system and the auto parking assist, which help make family travel a bit easier.
“The Ford Escape can really give customers a good bang for their buck.”
- Richmond, VA sales consultant
One of our senior sales consultants at our Richmond VA CarMax location likes that the Escape “really gives you a good bang for your buck.” For the price of a midsized, base-model Honda CR-V, he says, you could have instead a loaded Ford Escape with all the goodies, like a panoramic sunroof, a backup camera, and the 2.0L EcoBoost engine that’ll give you lots of available pickup for highway on-ramps.
From a style perspective, the Escape was freshly restyled for 2017. You'll enjoy a roomy interior with comfortable seating and a zippy exterior with features that drivers want, like greater fuel efficiency. Passengers will enjoy the Escape’s quiet, comfortable ride. Older models are also stylish, and are strong contenders for the best small SUV, although their specs don't match the latest versions.
Choosing the best small SUV for you
If you're looking for a car that handles the roads in any condition, while packing enough room for your family or your business needs, a small SUV might be what you need. Smaller in size than an SUV, but with the handling and features these flexible vehicles can provide, crossover SUVs are the new station wagon. Whether you’re shopping for a new car or hoping to buy a used crossover SUV, you’ll find a lot to love in these 10 models. Narrow down your list by focusing on the features that are most important to you, whether it's passenger room or fuel economy. Then take a few models out for a test drive to see which one really suits you. Bring your family along to see how everyone fits inside and how they like them too!
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