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 2014 Compact SUV Comparison Test.
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.
New for 2014
The Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester have been completely redesigned for 2014, and the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a brand new entry.
10 Best Winners
The new-for-2014 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 12 midsize sedan choices for 2014.
Buyers looking for hybrid or diesel power will have to look elsewhere: the compact SUV segment is essentially all gas, all the time. Some are hoping for a diesel-powered Mazda CX-5, but its future is uncertain.
The past couple years were big ones for the compact SUV segment — all-new CR-V, RAV4, Escape and more — and there are no big changes on the near horizon. But Honda will soon introduce a sub-compact SUV based on the next-gen Honda Fit, which will be interesting.
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, the smaller but quasi-premium Buick Encore, or perhaps the much smaller but far sportier Nissan Juke. The Subaru Outback tall wagon is another same-but-different compact SUV alternative.