beebs

SUV Size Guide: How Much Does Your Family Really Need?


Edmunds Author: Will Kaufman
Will Kaufman | Senior Writer & Content Strategist, Edmunds
December 5, 2023
Father and son unload a bin from the back of a blue Volkswagen SUV while daughter wearing sunglasses smiles in the backseat with the door open

Subcompact, compact, midsize and large SUVs compared.

With thousands of vehicles in our inventory, we’re here to help make car research easier for you. We’ve partnered with car-review experts from Edmunds to weigh in on what matters most when you’re looking to buy a truck or car.

***

SUVs come in sizes and styles ranging from the very small to the enormous. If you're in the market for an SUV, it's important to consider which size best fits your lifestyle and your budget. Buy something too small and you may have trouble fitting all your cargo. On the other hand, if you buy something larger than you actually need, it'll cost you more in fuel and can be more cumbersome to drive and park.

To help, we've broken the SUV world into four broad categories. Subcompact SUVs are the very smallest, with compact SUVs the next size up, followed by two-row and three-row midsize SUVs, and finally the biggest full-size SUVs. We explain what to expect as well as who they're best suited for.

Subcompact SUVs

Side-by-side images of White Hyundai on the roof of a parking deck with rolling hills in the background. Left image shows car exterior from the passenger side, right image displays car interior through open trunk with back seats in the downward position.

Subcompact SUVs are the smallest SUVs, and are sometimes referred to as extra-small SUVs.

While overall dimensions vary from vehicle to vehicle, most subcompact models come with small trunks and small back seats.

These extra-small SUVs work best as commuter vehicles or city runabouts, where their size allows them to easily fit into parking spaces and maneuver between lanes. Their limited space makes them less ideal for families or road-trippers.

But that doesn't mean they skimp on features. Driver aids like forward collision alert, automatic emergency braking, and lane keeping assistance are relatively common on most models built since 2020, and smartphone integration such as Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto is usually available on subcompact SUVs from around 2018 on. Be sure to check an individual vehicle's specs to confirm. Just note that fancier features such as ventilated seats, dual- or three-zone climate control, and even power liftgates remain rare.

Subcompact SUVs are the entry-level vehicle for many manufacturers and low-level trims tend to be pretty basic in terms of equipment, so look at higher-level trims to find these desirable features.

This class of SUV tends to rely on smaller engines that prioritize fuel economy over horsepower, although there are exceptions such as the turbocharged Mazda CX-30. In addition, many of these extra-small SUVS, such as the Toyota C-HR and Kia Soul, are only available in front-wheel drive. Even those with available all-wheel drive (AWD) are primarily focused on improved traction in wet conditions. If you want a subcompact SUV and off-road capability, the Subaru Crosstrek and Jeep Renegade (particularly the Trailhawk trim) buck that trend with enhanced ground clearance and capability.

Compact SUVs

Side-by-side images of grey-blue Toyota parked on the roof of a parking deck with rolling hills in the background; left image shows vehicle exterior from the passenger side, right image shows vehicle interior through the open trunk hatch with back seats in downward position
  • Pros: Good passenger and cargo space, high-end features available

  • Cons: Three-row models have limited cargo with all seats up

  • Best for: Families with small children, those who prioritize flexibility and fuel efficiency

  • Popular Models: Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4

Compact SUVs, also called small SUVs, are some of the most popular vehicles in America. They offer lots of practical room for passengers and cargo, a mix of engine options, and plenty of standard and optional features. While not as small as their subcompact cousins, they’re still small enough to be easy to park and drive in the city, making them a great pick for urban and suburban drivers.

With larger back seats, compact SUVs usually have plenty of space to accommodate adults or rear-facing infant seats. This makes them equally popular with new families as it does with those just looking for a bit more elbow room on their weekend adventures. Many models can easily accommodate adults and teens with adjustable rear seats that slide forward and back and have adjustable seatback angles. Cargo space is also usually generous, and with the rear seats folded down, some compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V can even fit furniture like dressers or love seats in their cargo areas.

If you need extra passenger space instead of cargo, there are some small three-row SUVs, like the Kia Sorento and Volkswagen Tiguan. Just keep in mind that, while these available third rows can come in handy in a pinch, they tend to be too cramped for adults and are better suited for children old enough for seat belt-positioning boosters. Additionally, you’ll have to choose between using the third row for passengers or cargo passenger space and cargo room. With the third row in use, cargo space shrinks to the size of just a few bags of groceries.

Since these tend to be priced higher than subcompact SUVs, you'll find more standard features and a lot more optional upgrades. Luxury touches such as ventilated seats, premium sound systems, multi-zone climate control, and technology like head-up displays can be found in the upper trims of a number of compact SUVs.

Most small SUVs offer adequate power and efficiency from their base engines, but almost all offer an upgrade with either better fuel economy or more power, or sometimes both. If you want better fuel economy, hybrid versions such as the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid are available, while turbocharged versions of the Mazda CX-5 are a good example of the power upgrades you can find.

All-wheel drive is available on almost every small SUV, making this segment easier to shop if you live somewhere with snowy winters or want to do some light off-roading. If you want something that's more aggressive off-road, models like the Subaru Forester, Jeep Compass, and Jeep Cherokee offer surprisingly good capability.

Midsize SUVs

Grey Kia Telluride parked on the roof of a parking deck with rolling hills in the background; left image shows vehicle exterior from the passenger side, right image shows vehicle interior through the open trunk hatch with back seats in downward position.

Midsize SUVs cover a broad range of vehicles, some with two rows of seats, some with three, and they're considerably larger than their compact counterparts. These larger SUVs will usually get you more interior space, more cargo room, and more horsepower.

Whether you're looking at SUVs with two or three rows, there are enough features available to blur the line between mainstream and luxury. Many come with a full complement of driver aids as standard equipment, including features like blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking. High-end audio systems are also available, as are luxury-grade touches such as leather dash trim, ventilated seats, large touchscreens, and even heated and ventilated second-row seats.

Midsize SUVs are also high-tech in a family-friendly way. For example, some Toyota Highlander models have a microphone that amplifies the driver's voice to rear passengers through the vehicle’s audio system speakers, so you can tell the kids to “keep that racket down” without yelling.

Because SUVs in this class are big, they have more powerful engines than compact and subcompact SUVs, usually turbocharged four-cylinder or V6 engines. While they have no problem getting up to freeway speeds, fuel economy isn't generally a strong point.

Two-row midsize SUVs

Two-row midsize SUVs can be divided into “around towners” and trucks that are aimed toward off-road enthusiasts.

Around-towner two-row SUVs such as the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, and Honda Passport focus on carrying passengers in comfort. Most offer all-wheel drive for better traction in slippery conditions, snow, or even dirt trails, but these vehicles are primarily meant for paved roads.

Two-row midsize SUVs like these offer excellent cargo and passenger space. Their additional width means the rear seats are accommodating for everyone, whether they're in infant seats, child booster seats, or adults. Cargo space is usually better than compact SUVs, too. They're a good choice not only for families with a small child or two in boosters or infant seats, but also for families with an older child who no longer needs one.

Off-roaders include the Toyota 4Runner, Ford Bronco, and Jeep Wrangler, all of which put a premium on off-road capability. These SUVs are on truck frames, with rugged suspensions, high ride heights, mediocre cargo capacity, and generally not-so-great fuel economy compared to the around-towners. While they might not be as family-friendly, the plus side is they're extremely capable in tough off-road situations, and that extra ride height is helpful when snow gets deep.

Three-row midsize SUVs

Three-row midsize SUVs have tons of space inside and are a good choice if you need to carry six, seven, or even eight passengers in comfort but don't want a minivan. Large midsize SUVs like the Volkswagen Atlas and Chevy Traverse offer a lot of room for passengers in all three rows, with enough cargo space behind the third row of seats for several days' worth of groceries.

In most, the third row is also equipped with one or two additional LATCH points for child booster or rear-facing infant seats, making them perfect for larger families. If you need more cargo space, folding the third row down opens up a tremendous amount of space. If you need a midsize SUV and want to tow, the Dodge Durango can handle up to 8,700 pounds when properly equipped

, but frequent towers might want to look at full-size SUVs.

Full-Size SUVs

Black Chevrolet SUV parked on the roof of a parking deck with rolling hills in the background; left image shows vehicle exterior from the passenger side, right image shows vehicle interior through the open trunk hatch with back seats in downward position.
  • Pros: Lots of space, excellent towing capacity, four-wheel-drive capability, high-end features

  • Cons: Poor fuel economy, hard to park, hard for small kids to get inside

  • Best for: People who need a lot of passenger and cargo space, people who like to tow

  • Popular Models: Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition, Toyota Sequoia

Full-size SUVs, also called large SUVs, are usually built more like trucks than cars. They generally offer three rows of seats, and you may find some that can seat up to nine passengers thanks to front bench seats.

Even though these large SUVs are much taller and longer overall than midsize SUVs, that doesn't always translate into more interior space. The trucklike construction means a higher floor, bigger engine, and beefier suspension, all of which eat into the available interior space.

Within the full-size SUV class, there are mega-sized versions, like the Chevy Suburban and Ford Expedition Max. These have massive cargo and passenger spaces, with tons of rear legroom in the third row. The downside is that these are giant SUVs, and at more than 18 feet long, a vehicle like the Suburban might be too long to fit into some residential garages or urban parking spots.

Luckily there are shorter versions. The Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition are both shorter than their mega-sized counterparts, and other models like the Nissan Armada and Toyota Sequoia fall into the same category. Because they're smaller, these vehicles tend to have more cramped third rows and less cargo space behind that third row. In fact, some full-size SUVs offer less cargo room behind their third row than many midsize SUVs.

The tall trucklike construction means it can be difficult for smaller children to climb in and out, and lifting an infant seat into the second-row passenger area can be difficult. The cargo floor is higher off the ground than in most midsize SUVs, which means it can be hard to lift heavy items to the cargo area.

Finally, because these SUVs tend to have big, powerful engines, fuel economy is poor. Even the newest Toyota Sequoia, which comes exclusively as a hybrid, only gets an EPA-estimated 22 mpg combined score, and its competitors are all in the teens.

With all that said, there are plenty of reasons to seek out a full-size SUV. Whether you go big or REALLY big, these SUVs are generally packed with features. Premium materials are used inside, along with high-tech features such as smartphone integration, rear-seat entertainment systems, and driver-assist systems.

Due to their bulk, many come with parking sensors and, in some instances, 360-degree camera systems that give you a bird's-eye view of your surroundings to make parking easier. Plus, these big SUVs are generally pleasant to drive, offering a premium experience behind the wheel that’s hard to beat.

The biggest practical reason to choose one of these vehicles is their towing capacity. With their trucklike construction and powerful engine options that frequently include V8s, it's common to find models that can tow 8,000 pounds or more. Although the added bulk may be a downside in the city, the added ground clearance can make traveling over deeper snow a snap. You can also get four-wheel drive and similar off-road equipment to pickup trucks, making these more rugged choices than most smaller SUVs. To learn more about the difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, check out our guide.

Conclusion

Which SUV is right for you comes down to your wants and needs. If you live in the city and need a little extra cargo room for your bike or dogs, a subcompact might be just what you need. On the other hand, if you have a boat and want to tow it to the lake on weekends, a full-size SUV might be a better call.

Edmunds Author: Will Kaufman
Will Kaufman | Senior Writer & Content Strategist, Edmunds

Will has been creating automotive content since 2017, but has been reviewing cars to anyone who'd listen since his dad first took him to an auto show in 1993. He combines his experience writing trustworthy reviews and timely advice with hands-on knowledge of the automotive retail space to plan and create content to help you make the best choice for your next car.

Edmunds is a wholly owned subsidiary of CarMax. 

* Price excludes taxes, title, registration, and fees. Applicable transfer fees are due in advance of vehicle delivery and are separate from sales transactions.

We hope you found this information helpful. This content is intended to inform and is not meant to indicate that a particular vehicle is currently available or recommended for you.​

Unless otherwise noted, information related to featured vehicles comes from third-party sources, including manufacturer information. Product and company names may be trademarks or registered trademarks of third-party entities. Use of them does not imply any affiliation with or endorsement by these entities.​

We make every effort to provide accurate information, but please verify before purchasing.