Best Small SUVs: Compact and subcompact


It seems like such a simple question, right? What is the best small SUV? Really, we’d love to provide a simple answer. Buy the _______! Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple, though we’ll at least do our best to make it less complicated. First, like most folks, we’re defining “SUV” to basically be synonymous with “crossover.” We could go into the differences and definitions of those terms, but we doubt you care, so we’ll just move on.

Second, it’s important to ask how small do you want your small SUV to be? The number of choices exploded in recent years with many long-standing models growing in size while many new, smaller options debuted. For a while, this left us with three sizes, including one we dubbed “midcompact” because the selection of SUVs was clearly in between existing subcompact and compact models. After a couple years, though, most of those subcompact models grew to midcompact dimensions. As a result, we declared all those “midcompacts” subcompact again. 

Subcompact SUV | Compact SUV

OK, now with the housekeeping out of the way, let’s provide some answers to what are the best small SUVs, including what they’re especially good at and what they could do better. Hopefully this will be a helpful place to start your research. All are listed in alphabetical order.

Best compact SUVs

Honda CR-V

Why it stands out: Excellent hybrid option; high-quality and stylish cabin; refined driving experience
Could be better: No PHEV option; no outdoor adventure trims; simply average base engine

Read our full 2024 Honda CR-V Review

Consider the CR-V the baseline for any compact SUV search. Objectively speaking, it’s tough to beat due to its massive cargo capacity, voluminous back seat, superb hybrid powertrain option, well-balanced driving dynamics, competitive pricing and features, strong safety ratings and well-regarded reliability. It’s easy to see why it continues to be such a best-seller: for the vast majority of compact SUV buyers, and especially families, it checks every box. Of course, people don’t make buying decisions based solely on objective criteria. In the past, folks might’ve found it a bit dull to drive and ever duller to look at. Those issues were seriously addressed with the CR-V’s 2023 redesign, especially in regards to its knock-out interior that’s far cooler than anything associated with a CR-V in the past. Now, you may still prefer the looks or driving experience of something else, or wish it provided the sort of plug-in hybrid or outdoor adventure trim level options its top competitors do. But that’s why other choices exist, including those below. 

 

2022 Mazda CX-50 Turbo

Mazda CX-50

Why it stands out: Budget Porsche driving experience; luxurious cabin; powerful turbo engine upgrade
Could be better: No hybrid; less cargo, passenger and storage space; non-touchscreen infotainment won’t be for everyone

Our full 2024 Mazda CX-50 Review

The CX-50 is all about style and driving fun. It can also be considered an alternative to luxury compact SUVs. It all starts with its sporty-yet-rugged styling and carries inside where its handsome design and plush materials are a clear step up from others at its price point. Then, when you’re behind the wheel, the CX-50 impresses with engaging driving manners that we’ve routinely described as indicative of a “budget Porsche.” Furthermore, its available turbocharged engine even has as much or more power as several similarly sized luxury models. Now, it doesn’t have as much passenger or cargo space as the CR-V or RAV4, so it won’t be for everyone, but it should definitely be considered. Much of the above could also be said for the CX-5 that used to reside on this list, but the CX-50’s slightly larger proportions, improved off-road driving chops, nicer interior and arguably more attractive exterior design make it our preference between the two.

 

Kia Sportage Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid

Why it stands out: Exceptional hybrid powertrain; class-leading infotainment and safety tech; huge cargo area
Could be better: Base gas-only engine is weak and unrefined; X Line not available with Hybrid

Our full 2023 Kia Sportage Review

The Kia Sportage catapults to the top of the class after one of the most radical redesigns in recent automotive history. It’s substantially larger, going from one of the smallest in the segment to the largest. The cargo area in particular is vast and the back seat are very family friendly. The bold design also makes it easy to distinguish from other compact SUVs (it may be a bit too bold for some), while the interior impresses with sharp looks, strong quality and the availability of interesting color schemes, even on lower trim levels. Technology is one of its strong suits, with exceptional infotainment features and touchscreen interfaces, plus the best-executed suite of driver assistance tech in the segment. Finally, the Sportage’s hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains stand out for not only saving you gas, but also by being genuine performance upgrades that behave more normally than the typical hybrid. As is the case with the CR-V and RAV4, the hybrids are definitely the powertrains to get. Unlike those, however, the Sportage’s base engine is notably less appealing and we don’t recommend it. It’s unrefined and results in slow acceleration, even in a segment where swift acceleration is not expected.

 

Toyota RAV4

Why it stands out: Unmatched variety of models including two hybrids; spacious back seat and cargo area; reliability
Could be better: Engines could be more refined; tech interface can frustrate

Our full 2024 Toyota RAV4 Review

The RAV4 has more passenger and cargo space than most. It’s comfortable and surprisingly responsive to drive. Its interior is well built with quality materials, and offers user-friendly controls and abundant storage (though some may prefer the more premium ambience offered by its competitors). Its resale value and reliability should be better than almost anything on the road. Those are all the basics that the RAV4 nails, but the latest version really stands out by offering an unparalleled variety of models. From the run-of-the-mill RAV4 LE or XLE you can go in different directions toward the more rugged Adventure, TRD Off-Road and Woodland models, or toward the sporty XSE Hybrid and Prime. And those latter two are particularly significant, as the RAV4 is part of a growing cadre of small SUVs that are available not only available with a hybrid, but with a plug-in hybrid (Prime) as well. We like that there’s a little something for everyone with the RAV4.

 

Best Subcompact SUVs

Buick Envista

Why it stands out: Compelling design; ample space for the segment; quiet and refined driving experience; punchy and efficient engine; well-equipped; low price
Could be better: All-wheel drive is unavailable; armrests are a bit hard; technically slow acceleration (even if it doesn’t feel it).

Read our full 2024 Buick Envista Review

The Buick Envista is one of the best, most competitive and most relevant cars to come out of General Motors in a long time. It is wildly impressive and truly surprising. It has a modest, fuel-efficient three-cylinder engine, yet feels perfectly potent and refined when driving around town. The ride is composed and interior noise levels low. It looks expensive, yet stickers for well south of $30,000. That also price puts it well in the heart of this subcompact segment despite exterior dimensions and a back seat that rivals compacts. The lack of all-wheel drive may be a sticking point for some, but we think anyone shopping for a small, affordable SUV would be wise to check out the Envista.

 

2021 Ford Bronco Sport Outer Banks front in gray

Ford Bronco Sport

Why it stands out: Off-road capability; cargo space; clever storage and cargo features; distinctive style
Could be better:
Fuel economy; some cheap interior bits

Our full 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Review

Although its exterior dimensions and back seat space fall in between the compact and subcompact segments, one of the great things about the new Bronco Sport is that it actually has as much or more cargo space than models that are considerably bigger on the outside. So it can hold a lot of stuff for a weekend away, but the “Baby Bronco” does so much more for those looking for something a little more Swiss Army Knife than the typical small SUV. There are numerous clever features throughout, like zippered map pockets and campsite lighting in the liftgate, plus a vast accessory catalog. Every version is much better than usual off-road (though the Badlands is definitely the one to get for those going further afield) with its standard all-wheel drive, ample ground clearance and “G.O.A.T. Modes” that set the vehicle for a variety of road and terrain conditions. It’s also impossible to ignore the Bronco Sport’s distinctive style inside and out, plus a driving experience that’s a bit more SUV-ish … and in this case, we do mean that in the traditional, body-on-frame truck-based SUV way.  

 

Kia Seltos

Why it stands out: Surprising space; acceleration from Turbo models; class-leading tech; distinct design details
Could be better:
Some cheap interior bits

Our full 2023 Kia Seltos Review

The surprisingly good Seltos proves you don’t have to spend a lot of money for both function and fashion. Its price and exterior dimensions fall in between the subcompact and compact SUV segments, yet it boasts more interior volume than is expected and an abundance of special design details throughout that successfully counter some of the cheaper bits applied to keep the price down. It also looks pretty good, and the available turbocharged engine produces shocking acceleration for this segment. Basically, it provides even more value beyond Kia’s usual extra-long features list and warranty. Like the Bronco Sport and CX-30, we’d actually consider the Seltos before many of the compact SUVs that didn’t make the cut above. 

 

Kia Niro

Why it stands out: Slick design; three electrified engine options; surprisingly spacious; class-leading tech
Could be better: 
No AWD; questionable value for both the Hybrid and EV; no EV tax credit; mediocre handling

Our Kia Niro Review

The Kia Niro comes with a strong lineup of three electrified powertrains in one attractively designed package. All three, the hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full EV take advantage of the Niro’s surprisingly spacious, tech-filled interior and snazzy exterior styling. The distinctive “aero blade” behind the rear doors gives it a distinct look, but even without it, we love the hatchback shape and tall LED taillights. One downside of the Niro is that it doesn’t offer all-wheel drive with any of the three electrified powertrains. That’s fine if you’re just in it for the fantastic efficiency and are happy to buy some snow tires, but many will still miss all-wheel traction. The Niro is ultimately proof that you don’t need to drive around a miserly looking car to capture top-shelf efficiency, so if you want the best green option possible in the midcompact segment, head straight here.

 

Mazda CX-30

Why it stands out: Luxurious interior; best-in-class driving dynamics; good looks
Could be better: 
Interior space is more hatchback than SUV; dopey plastic fenders; non-touchscreen tech interface

Our full 2024 Mazda CX-30 Review

If the Bronco Sport provides ruggedness and versatility, and the Seltos value and style, the Mazda CX-30 provides driving fun and luxury. We actually consider it a smarter buy than luxury subcompacts like the BMW X2 and Audi Q3, and not just because of its lower price. Its interior doesn’t really give up anything to them in terms of luxury or features, and it can actually be more engaging to drive, especially with the turbo engine. Despite all this luxury talk, though, the CX-30 price still starts in the low $20,000s, and crests $35,000 when fully loaded. Basically, it’s a bargain without looking or driving like one. 

 

2021 Nissan Kicks SV in red

Nissan Kicks

Why it stands out: Tons of space and features for a low price; best-in-class fuel economy; well-executed safety tech
Could be better:
It’s really slow; merely average interior

Our full Nissan Kicks Review

This would be SUV on this list that aligns most closely with the original idea of a subcompact. It’s much smaller than the others here, at least on the outside, but it’s also much cheaper. Now, we wouldn’t blame you for not getting excited about the Kicks. It doesn’t have much horsepower, it’s not exactly fun to drive, and its tall hatchback body is still pretty gawky despite an attractive styling update back in 2021. That said, the Kicks does a really great job at the basics. It supplies a massive amount of space for a vehicle its size, comes with a wealth of safety features for a vehicle with its modest price, and doesn’t feel like a penalty box to sit in or drive. The interior is handsome and well-equipped with impressive materials in upper trim levels. For those seeking an efficient, inexpensive urban runabout that can swallow enough stuff for a weekend getaway, it just makes a lot of sense.

 

Volkswagen Taos

Why it stands out: Segment-leading back seat space; huge cargo area; strong power and fuel economy
Could be better:
Bland to drive; looks more rugged than it is

Our full Volkswagen Taos Review

The Taos is the most family-friendly of the midcompact SUVs thanks to a back seat that’s shockingly big enough to fit rear-facing car seats without scrunching those up front into the dash. There’s also a giant cargo area that only falls short of the Bronco Sport, which is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the Taos has more interior space than quite a few compact SUVs that are larger on the outside. When you can get that while enjoying the benefits of a smaller vehicle (better maneuverability and fuel economy, a lower price), that’s called a win-win. We also like that the Taos isn’t as conservatively styled, inside and out, than other recent made-for-America Volkswagens and has VW’s older, more user-friendly interior controls instead of the maddening ID.4 and GTI layout. Even its “could be betters” listed above are hardly what we’d call deal breakers. This is a winner.  

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