Compact SUV Buyer's Guide

By Editors on February 16, 2016 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. We drove six of them from the coast to the desert to the mountains of Southern California as part of our most recent Compact SUV Comparison Test, but here are all 13 ranked by popularity according to our most recent look at category sales. 

2017 Toyota RAV4

The roomy, refined and newly updated RAV4 offers plenty of benefits, and still gets points for originality. It's also the only compact SUV available as a hybrid. Read More

2016 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. Read More

2017 Ford Escape

A well-focused mid-cycle revamp makes this mainstay of the segment even more attractive on every level. Read More

2016 Nissan Rogue

Nissan's Rogue is among the most sophisticated and substantial compact SUVs on the road. Read More

October Lease Deal: $189/month, $1,899 down

2017 Chevrolet Equinox

Offering a plus-size platform, composed ride and an available V6, the recently updated Equinox gets two special editions for 2017. Read More

2017 Jeep Cherokee

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

2017 Subaru Forester

The Forester's superior all-wheel-drive system -- included as standard equipment -- makes it especially appealing to those who experience traction deficiencies on a seasonal basis. Read More

2016 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. Read More

2017 GMC Terrain

Like its Chevy Equinox sibling, the GMC received recent tech and styling enhancements, plus a new special edition for 2017. Read More

2017 Hyundai Tucson

Totally redesigned last year, the Tucson offers more room, increased refinement, improved driving manners and even more attractive styling. Read More

2017 Kia Sportage

In a category dominated by me-too metal, the totally redesigned Sportage stands out for both its bold styling and the available 240-horsepower turbocharged engine. Read More

2016 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. Read More

2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

The segment's lowest starting price and one of its best warranties are two of the Outlander Sport's main selling points. Read More

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 all-new Hyundai Tucson is the category's only full redesign for 2016, and the Kia Sportage has been completely redesigned for 2017, but the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Chevy Equinox, GMC Terrain, Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander Sport all receive upgrades and enhancements. The RAV4's update includes the addition of a new hybrid model, the first in the class.

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 $25,000 and 16 Best Family Cars of 2016.

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 our Midsize Sedan Buyer's Guide.

Unleaded Only

Compact SUV shoppers looking for hybrid power now have an option in the segment, with the 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 -- RAV4 Hybrid notwithstanding -- topping out at 33 highway mpg when comparably equipped. The new-for-2016 Hyundai Tucson also offers an Eco trim that matches that number.


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 Honda HR-VChevrolet Trax and Mazda CX-3 joining the smaller but established Nissan Juke.