How to Buy a Small SUV

Updated June 30, 2011

Choosing a small SUV

Compact SUVs combine the stance and cargo capacity of an SUV with fuel economy that's better than larger SUVs and traditional truck-based SUVs. Small SUVs generally have standard seating for five, though some offer optional third-row seating (mainly suitable for kids). Four-cylinder engines are usually standard; sometimes optional upgraded engines are available. Compact hybrid SUVs are available, but the selection is very limited and, like their hybrid-car counterparts, they cost more. We cover these in our separate report on hybrid SUVs and crossovers.

Because compact SUVs are jacks-of-all-trades in the automotive world, we looked for reviews that evaluate small SUVs not only on performance criteria like acceleration and handling, but also on safety, cargo capacity, seating comfort, fuel economy and reliability. Towing isn't the strong suit of compact SUVs; if you need to tow large trailers or boats (or more cargo capacity), you'll likely need to check our reports on midsize SUVs and large SUVs.

Here is what the experts say to consider when shopping for a small SUV:

  • Compact SUV or station wagon? Most of the vehicles in this class can carry four or five people comfortably and have adequate-or-better cargo space. A third row of seats (which allows the vehicle to accommodate two more small adults or children) is optional on two models -- the 2011 Toyota RAV4 (Base MSRP: $22,475 to $28,785) and 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander (Base MSRP: $21,995 to $27,795) -- but those seats are going to be a tight squeeze. If you're thinking about a compact SUV or crossover, you might also consider a station wagon, which will have similar seating and cargo options, but will generally get better gas mileage and offer superior handling.
  • Acceleration, handling and braking are not an SUV's fortes, due to their weight and high center of gravity. The overwhelming majority of SUVs can't corner, brake or accelerate as well as most ordinary family sedans. Compact SUVs are better in these respects than midsize and large SUVs, but they still do not perform as well as cars.
  • Nearly all small SUVs and crossovers have optional or standard all-wheel or four-wheel drive. All-wheel and four-wheel drive are good for ensuring safety while driving, specifically for inclement weather and icy winter conditions. Many small SUVs come standard with two-wheel drive (usually front-wheel drive). Opting for two-wheel drive can save money, increase fuel efficiency, and reduce the weight and complexity of a vehicle.
  • Only 5 percent of SUV owners regularly take their vehicles off-road, according to If you're one of the other 95 percent, pay attention to the vehicle's on-road comfort and performance. The more nimble and car-like an SUV is, the better. In general, crossover SUVs based on passenger-car architecture -- including all of the Best Reviewed models in this report -- have the most car-like rides.