After stepping into our DeLoreans last week to spend 18,000 imaginary bucks in 1985, it’s time to come back to the future and be a little more realistic with our fake bucks. Small SUVs represent a gargantuan slice of the automotive market. If someone is looking for a new vehicle these days, there’s a very good chance they’ll be shopping in this aisle.
Now, I specifically meant to write “small SUV” as opposed to “sub-compact” or “compact.” This is because of the price point: with a budget of $32,000, our editors and real SUV shoppers alike will find themselves on the proverbial fence between those two SUV segments. Basically, you can have a well-equipped sub-compact (or midcompact as we have been known to call them) or a lightly equipped compact model. As an example, think of a Honda HR-V vs Honda CR-V.
There are some rules for this little game.
- The SUV must be within $1,000 of the price in question. You can’t say “I’d buy X for $25,000 and spend the rest on shoes.”
- The SUV must be new.
- Federal EV tax credits do not count / give you $7,500 worth of pretend money to play with.
Go ahead and let us know what you’d choose and why we’re ridiculous for picking what we picked. – James Riswick
Chevy Bolt EUV
Senior Editor, Green, John Beltz Snyder: I had at one point considered buying a Bolt EUV this year, so this is pretty close to what I’d have gotten. My wife drives a Hyundai Palisade, which makes easy work of our whole-family road trips, but something like this Bolt EUV would be a great second car for the household. It’s more economical, but still packs some utility, so it could pull double-duty for around-town errands and school dropoffs, and also for the times I need to take the solo 250-mile supply run to our cottage. The Redline, starting at $27,800, adds a little extra style, and leaves room in the budget for the Convenience, Comfort and Driver Confidence packages. I could even throw in the illuminated charge port and aluminum sill plates and stay under budget, at a total of $31,890 before destination.
Associate Editor Byron Hurd: I first drove the Kona when Hyundai launched it … in Kona, Hawaii. Despite the redesign, its basic proposition remains relatively unchanged. It’s peppy, comfortable and doesn’t mind being thrown into a corner or two. The N Line is juuuust too good of a deal to qualify for this challenge, but it would probably be my “money is real” choice. This Limited lands at $31,250 after a couple of accessories. Not bad.
Mazda CX-50 2.5 S Preferred
Senior Editor James Riswick: I would absolutely be open to prioritizing equipment over size and even interior quality, so I strongly considered a well-optioned SUV in the sub/midcompact segment. Hell, I literally own one from that class. Ultimately, I wanted to go the larger route here. I seriously pondered the Kia Sportage Hybrid EX due to its excellent hybrid powertrain and tech, and snazzy white-and-blue interior. It’s not that great to drive, though, and definitely not great to look at. The Mazda CX-50, on the other, is both of those things and then some. Lovely interior, too, even at this less-than-loaded level. Adaptive cruise is included along with other ADAS features, and this is one of only two Mazdas (CX-90 is the other) that turns the central display into a touchscreen for Apple CarPlay. Everything else is knob-and-display, but there’s merit to that setup. I would get the Soul Red paint ($595), the wireless charger ($350) and the accessory tow hitch ($500) so I could get a Yakima Exo system and use this as my road trip / outdoor adventure wagon. All told, $31,920.
Mini Countryman S
Road Test Editor Zac Palmer: It wasn’t easy, but I managed to find something “fun” that falls within the range provided with this completely base 2024 Mini Countryman S. It stickers for $32,900, which gets me in $100 under our maximum. Since the starting price was so high, I was stuck with the Chili Red exterior paint, but I’m actually not mad about that at all. A green or blue might’ve been my first choices, but the red paint combined with the red “S” badges all around make for a pretty neat look. I love that I get the more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 189 horsepower, and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic should be rather entertaining. A manual would be even better, but it’s not available for the Countryman any more. If you’re able to pony up a couple extra thousand dollars, the Hyundai Kona N would be an even more fun alternative, but at this low price point, a base Countryman S is quite the intriguing buy for someone who needs a cheap SUV and isn’t ready to give up that fun-to-drive quality.
Senior Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski: You can *just* squeak into a brand-new 2023 Jeep Wrangler without passing our self-imposed $32,000 budget. With a starting price of $31,195, a prospective buyer — in this case, that’s me — has just enough leeway to choose a color other than white (the Firecracker Red I selected here adds $495 to the bottom line). I’d personally spend another $875 to get rock sliders with integrated steps and leave it there. Jeep’s 3.6-liter V6 engine suits me just fine, and the standard six-speed manual is a happy little bonus. Obviously, four-wheel drive comes standard, and I don’t think I’d need anything else. It’s not the most comfortable choice, and it’s far from the most practical or efficient. But it’s the most fun, especially with the top removed as you see above. See ya on the trails.
Ford Bronco Sport
Managing Editor Greg Rasa: Let’s be honest, most people in this segment are going to buy a Honda CR-V, a great vehicle made even better in 2023. A 2WD EX starts at $31,060 before destination. Or they’ll buy a RAV4, or a Rogue. But clearly for this exercise we were all looking for cars with character, and what’s more characterful at $32 grand than a Bronco Sport? You’re not going to get the Heritage Edition shown here at that price; it costs just a bit more. But the Big Bend trim starts at $31,230. Adding the CoPilot 360 assist package puts you at $32,125. Maybe the baby Bronco won’t do the kind of gut-busting off-roading that Jeremy’s Wrangler will, or the big Bronco for that matter, but it is surprisingly capable. Plus it looks great, holds a lot of cargo, its cabin is filled with smart little design touches, and it’s a nice size for around town. It also, to me at least, evokes the little first-gen Broncos better than the big Bronc. You can get it in great colors like Cyber Orange, Eruption Green, or the Heritage Edition’s Robin’s Egg Blue or Yellowstone Metallic shown here.