Compact SUV Buyer's Guide

By Editors on May 22, 2015 1:48 PM

For many, the best SUVs come in small packages.

For most of the people most of the time, it's not the size of an SUV that delivers the goods, it's the shape. It's about sitting above the traffic, lifting the tailgate and, sometimes, folding the rear seats for even more cargo room. So why pay more up front, pay more at the pump and have a more difficult time negotiating parking lots than you need to? The smallest SUVs are often the smartest SUVs.

And the compact SUV segment has grown into one of the largest, best-selling categories out there. Whether you're focused on efficiency, fun, roominess or even off-roading, there's a small SUV designed just for you. You'll find 13 choices below, six of which we drove from Southern California to Phoenix, Arizona, for our latest Compact SUV Comparison Test.

Honda CR-V

There's nothing particularly exciting about the Honda CR-V, except the fact that it's just so, so good at being a compact SUV.

Explore CR-V

Toyota RAV4

The roomy and refined RAV4 offers plenty of benefits, and still gets points for originality.

Explore RAV4

Ford Escape

Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4 are both common and commonplace, while the Ford Escape stands out as a singular example of visual and functional distinctiveness.

Explore Escape

Nissan Rogue

Totally redesigned just last year, the newest Nissan Rogue is among the most sophisticated and substantial compact SUVs on the road.

Explore Rogue

Mazda CX-5

Like so many of the cars Mazda makes, the CX-5 is arguably the most stylish, most fun-to-drive entry in its segment.

Explore CX-5

Subaru Forester

The 2015 Subaru Forester is more competitive with small SUV stalwarts like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, but it still offers a superior all-wheel drive system -- as standard equipment -- that makes it especially appealing to those who experience traction deficiencies on a seasonal basis.

Explore Forester

Chevrolet Equinox

Although not directly competitive with the category's elite (Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4), the 2015 Chevrolet Equinox delivers a plus-size platform, composed ride, capable 4-cylinder engine and (rare in the category) an available V6.

Explore Equinox

GMC Terrain

GMC is General Motors' venerable outlet for all things truck, and it had a big hit with the introduction of its compact crossover SUV, the GMC Terrain.

Explore Terrain

Hyundai Tucson

The Hyundai Tucson has been totally redesigned for 2016 and now it's far more competitive with segment stalwarts like Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. More room, increased refinement, improved driving manners and even more attractive styling are all part of the added appeal.

Explore Tucson

Kia Sportage

In a category dominated by me-too metal and derivative drivetrains, Kia's Sportage stands out for both what's under the hood (two 4-cylinder engines, including one boasting 260 turbocharged horses) and the hood itself. The Sportage serves as a forceful design statement from this manufacturer.

Explore Sportage

Volkswagen Tiguan

While big names like Honda CR-V and Ford Escape carve up the compact SUV segment from a sales perspective, the Volkswagen Tiguan is there to carve up canyons and do it with style.

Explore Tiguan

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Arguably one of the most attractive compact SUVs you can buy, the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport offers attractive sheet metal, adequate underpinnings and a quasi-competitive price.

Explore Outlander Sport

Jeep Cherokee

The Jeep Cherokee is the newest member of the compact SUV category, combining off-road credibility and capability with the daily drivability and practicality of the segment's best-sellers.

Explore Cherokee


50-state Appeal

In the snowier parts of the country, compact SUVs are popular for their available all-wheel drive and added ground clearance.  At lower elevations and further south, the elevated seating position and cargo versatility are a larger part of the appeal.

What's New

The 2015 model year brought us a significantly enhanced Honda CR-V, while the first 2016 model out of the gates is the impressively updated 2016 Mazda CX-5, featuring subtle styling tweaks inside and out, plus a significant tech upgrade. It was among several 2016 models unveiled at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show. At the 2015 Detroit Auto Show, Volkswagen showed its Cross Coupe GTE concept, a 5-passenger crossover that shows what an upcoming VW SUV could look like. And at the 2015 New York Auto Show, Toyota showed its updated 2016 RAV4, including a new hybrid version.


10 Best Winners

The compact SUV segment is represented by its best and brightest on our most recent lists of the 10 Best SUVs Under $25,00010 Most Fuel-Efficient SUVs and 15 Best Family Cars of 2015.

Standout Features

The Nissan Rogue is the only vehicle above to offer optional three-row seating, and the only one that provides a 360-degree bird's-eye view of the vehicle in parking situations, via Nissan's Around View Monitor. The Ford Escape is a shopaholic's best friend, giving double-fisted mall pirates the ability to open the stylish SUV's tailgate with a wave of a foot under the rear bumper. And the Subaru Forester's EyeSight Driver Assist system keeps an eye on the cars ahead to hit the brakes if the driver doesn't, while also providing smart cruise control functionality.

Compact SUV or Midsize Sedan?

It's an intriguing dilemma worth contemplating because the average prices paid for each are within about $1,000 of each other.

A compact SUV buyer might point to his car's superior cargo capacity — fold down the rear seats in a compact SUV and it turns into a small moving van — the increased visibility afforded by the higher seating position, added ground clearance and maybe all-wheel drive (a couple midsize sedans do offer AWD, but it's available on every compact SUV).

A midsize sedan buyer, on the other hand, might have come to her decision based on her car's superior fuel efficiency, better ride and handling, and roomier back seat. And generally speaking, you get a few more features for your money in a midsize sedan. If it sounds like you might lean the same way, check out your Midsize Sedan Buyer's Guide.

Unleaded Only

Compact SUV shoppers looking for hybrid power will soon have at least one option in the segment, with the scheduled arrival of the new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Diesel devotees are out of luck for the foreseeable future. The turbocharged, 200-horsepower Volkswagen Tiguan offers the most standard horsepower in the class, while the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain cousins each offer the same available V6 engine good for a segment-leading 301 horsepower. The Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Rogue offer the best available fuel economy, topping out at 33 highway mpg when comparably equipped.


If none of the core compact SUVs above are doing it for you, you might want to check out the extremely off-road capable Jeep Wrangler or the Subaru Outback tall wagon, a same-but-different compact SUV alternative. There's also a burgeoning sub-compact SUV segment starting to take shape with the forthcoming Honda HR-VChevrolet Trax and Mazda CX-3 joining the smaller but established Nissan Juke.

Compact SUV Gallery