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 has exploded in recent years with many long-standing models growing in size while many new, smaller options debuted. This basically leaves us with three sizes of small SUV: compact, subcompact and the growing sub-segment that fits in between them. It doesn’t really have a universally accepted name yet, so we’re going with the suggestion by Autoblog reader John Prince: the midcompact SUV.
Subcompact SUV | Midcompact 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
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 2023 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.
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 2023 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.
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 2023 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 Midcompact SUVs
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.
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.
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.
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 2023 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.
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.
Best Subcompact SUVs
Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV
Why it stands out: Two body styles to choose from; fun to drive; cheap price for an EV
Could be better: Limited cargo space in both; barely SUVs in look or functionality
Read our full Chevy Bolt Review
We’re grouping the revised Bolt EV and the Bolt EUV together here because, just in case the picture above isn’t illustrative enough, they’re basically the same car. The EUV has considerably more backseat space, a vaguely more SUV-ish shape, subtle styling differences and eight fewer miles of range. They’re so close together, including in price ($31,995 vs $33,995), we wonder why Chevy bothered revising and keeping around the Bolt EV at all. Either way, and most important, both are excellent electric cars made even better thanks to their shared interior, comfort and feature content upgrades (including the availability of Super Cruise for the EUV). They have ample ranges of 258 and 250 miles, respectively, to easily assuage range-anxiety fears. They’re roomy, well-equipped, quick to accelerate and handle shockingly well. Oh, and they’re far cheaper than most other EVs.
Why it stands out: Fun to drive; easy-to-use tech; powerful turbo engine upgrade; 258-mile EV option, N model rocks
Could be better: Small back seat and cargo area; the EV looks pretty weird; an all-new one is coming soon
Our full 2023 Hyundai Kona Review
The Kona continues to prove that a subcompact SUV can be fun to drive. It’s certainly not the most spacious model, but its sharp handling, distinctive styling and attractive cabin with user-friendly tech help it stand out from the crowd. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning what’s under the hood. The base four-cylinder is perfectly competitive, but the Kona offers other distinctive choices: a 195-horsepower turbo engine that actually gets nearly identical fuel economy as the base engine, the totally raucous N model with 276 horsepower and an all-electric version that offers competitive range for its price with 258 miles.
Why it stands out: Ample space and abundant features for the money; unique style; excellent tech
Could be better: All-wheel drive is not available; no more turbo engine option
Our full Kia Soul Review
The Kia Soul definitely didn’t start off as a small SUV, and the term “crossover” is probably better applied to it. Still, what started life as an undefinable funky tall hatchback now finds itself in its third generation with numerous vehicles of similar shape and size that are dubbed “small SUV” or “small crossover.” If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck … Call it what you will, but the Soul delivers the goods with tons of equipment and space for its price and size. We also think it’s pretty cool. All of the above helped it win our subcompact SUV comparison test (so did the turbocharged engine option, but that’s sadly been discontinued). Now, if there’s one area where the Soul does not satisfy a typical SUV requirement, it’s the lack of available all-wheel drive. That there are more such vehicles in the segment, including our next entry, only seems to further secure the Soul’s membership into the club.
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
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.
Why it stands out: Best-in-class ground clearance; standard all-wheel drive; cargo space and functional roof rails
Could be better: Slow base engine; CVT transmission; roly-poly handling
Our full 2023 Subaru Crosstrek Review
The Crosstrek proves just how all over the place this segment is. It’s basically just an Impreza hatchback with some styling tweaks and a massive lift (its 8.7 inches of ground clearance is way more than most crossovers), but that’s actually good enough to better many vehicles that were built from scratch to be a small SUV. Besides that ground clearance, the Crosstrek has become a darling of the outdoor adventure set for its manageable size, easy-to-use interior, sturdy and easily reached roof rails and a comfort-oriented driving experience that serves it well on longer drives. That it finally offers a more powerful engine option satisfies a long-held complaint among owners that the base engine was just too darn slow.
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