There was a time when station wagons were the go-to choice for transporting five or more people and their cargo. Now, the top options are compact SUVs and crossovers, whose popularity has made them ubiquitous on American roads. Shoppers can now find small SUVs that are simple, efficient, practical, sporty, luxurious and everything in between, making small SUVs the automotive world's jack-of-all-trades. Today's compact SUVs share their fundamental components and platforms with sedans, rather than trucks, giving them more agile handling and a sophisticated ride quality (though some models are better than others).
Unlike most station wagons, small crossovers and SUVs have an elevated seating position and generally offer all-wheel drive as a standard or optional feature. Fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines are commonplace, and a handful of small SUVs are available with more powerful (and more expensive) six-cylinder engines. Some small SUVs even offer third-row seats, like the 2011 Toyota RAV4 (Base MSRP: $22,475 to $28,785) . With the range of options available today, small SUVs blend practicality, comfort, value, and fuel efficiency -- unlike many other vehicle categories.
A few compact SUVs emerge ahead of the pack, according to the experts, as these models best combine so many desirable traits. The best-reviewed all-around small SUV, the 2011 Chevrolet Equinox (Base MSRP: $22,995 to $30,320) , is roomy, comfortable, efficient and safe. It accelerates well and rides comfortably. The Honda CR-V (Base MSRP: $21,895 to $28,095) is a perennial reviewer favorite, too, and is also known for its stellar reliability and strong resale value. A redesigned Honda CR-V is expected to debut for the 2012 model year.
Some models have particular traits that make them stand out, too: the 2011 Volkswagen Tiguan (Base MSRP: $23,720 to $35,090) has excellent handling and is the most fun-to-drive compact SUV, and the related 2012 Audi Q5 (Base MSRP: $35,200 to $42,500) is directly compared to luxury sport sedans for its upscale feel and superb driving dynamics.
The 2011 model year brings a variety of new designs and significant updates. The 2011 Dodge Journey (Base MSRP: $22,245 to $33,645) has been extensively refreshed and is notably improved over the previous version, especially in terms of interior fit-and-finish. In the luxury category, the 2011 BMW X3 (Base MSRP: $36,750 to $41,050) is fully redesigned, and the 2011 Saab 9-4X (Base MSRP: $33,380 to $48,010) is an entirely new model that's based on the 2011 Cadillac SRX (Base MSRP: $34,615 to $52,360) . The funky-looking 2011 Nissan Juke (Base MSRP: $19,570 to $25,200) and 2011 Mini Cooper Countryman (Base MSRP: $21,650) are sportier models that made their debuts in 2011. Finally, the new 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (Base MSRP: $18,495 to $22,995) , not to be confused with the larger 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander, is a smaller crossover that offers the best fuel economy ratings among its non-hybrid peers, with 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined.
ConsumerReports.org is the most comprehensive source for small SUV reviews, as it not only road tests most new models but also provides useful information like reliability, ownership satisfaction and depreciation. ConsumerReports.org also directly ranks models against other SUVs in the same category. Edmunds.com evaluates the important facets of every crossover and SUV on the market, although it doesn't directly compare each model against others in the class. Motor Trend and Car and Driver magazines periodically round up bunches of compact SUVs for head-to-head shootouts, and they're the sources most likely to test vehicles off-road. Other resources publish recommended SUV lists based on their own tests, most notably Cars.com and ConsumerGuide.com.
In all, we studied more than 30 sources for this report, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), government fuel-economy data at FuelEconomy.gov, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash-test data at SaferCar.gov.
While a few small SUVs get top crash-test safety ratings, SUVs in general are more prone to rolling over than cars or minivans, according to NHTSA -- and when some SUVs roll over, their roofs might not stand up to the impact. For example, the 2011 Ford Escape (Base MSRP: $21,240 to $27,920) and its twin, the 2011 Mazda Tribute (Base MSRP: $20,555 to $29,065) , have about a one in five likelihood of rolling over, according to NHTSA, with roof strength that IIHS rates as "Marginal". Features like electronic stability control are now common, and can help minimize factors that could contribute to a rollover.