The small-SUV category is a sweet spot in the auto market. The best models provide much of the convenience and versatility of larger SUVs, but with more agile handling, easier maneuverability and access, better fuel economy, and a more affordable price. In fact, you can get some of our top-rated models for only about $25,000 to $27,000 when typically equipped. And the more efficient models now deliver gas mileage that’s similar to many midsized sedans. All offer all-wheel drive, which is handy in slippery conditions.
Drawbacks: Don’t expect sedanlike ride comfort or cabin quietness in a small SUV. Also, the few models that can carry more than five people have third-row seats that are cramped and difficult to access.
After a 2014 redesign, the Forester is now our top-rated small SUV. Its large windows and doors make it particularly user-friendly, offering the easiest access and best visibility in the category. With the 2.5-liter engine, the Forester delivers best-in-class fuel economy, and even midtrim versions provide a lot of features for the money. It also has a spacious rear seat, an excellent driving position, and simple controls. But its firm ride isn’t as comfortable as the Honda CR-V’s, and infotainment and connectivity features are a bit behind the competition.
The CR-V is a sensible, family-friendly SUV that’s easy to live with, rides well, and is very reliable and competitively priced. It treats you to a roomy rear seat, lots of cargo space, easy access, and a comfortable ride. The quick, responsive four-cylinder engine and super-smooth five-speed automatic transmission deliver 23 mpg overall, which is decent though not as thrifty as some others in this class. The CR-V’s braking is excellent, and a backup camera is standard. Demerits include pronounced road noise, large blind spots in the rear corners, and sloppy handling when pushed to its limits.
The CX-5 is one of the more fun-to-drive SUVs we’ve tested, thanks to its taut handling and the spirited 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine in mid- and top-trim versions. Its impressive fuel economy also places it among the most efficient models in the class. Inside, the CX-5 has a surprisingly roomy interior and comfortable seats. But interior ambience is rather austere, and you’ll have to put up with a noisy cabin. In addition, the trade-off for the CX-5’s sporty attitude is a stiff ride.
You can expect about 23 to 24 mpg overall from most small SUVs. The champs at squeezing the most from a gallon of gas are the Forester and XV Crosstrek, with 26 mpg each. We’re currently testing the XV Hybrid, which should provide marginally better fuel economy. The CX-5 comes in just below them at 25 mpg, with either of its four-cylinder engines. Their excellent gas mileage also contributes to these models having some of the lowest owner-cost estimates in this category. The lowest mpg figures we measured in this class—21—were turned in by the V6 Jeep Cherokee; the Kia Sportage, with a 2.0-liter turbo Four; and the Volkswagen Tiguan.
As a rule, small SUVs work very well for families with children. They offer plenty of passenger space as well as room for kid stuff. Adults and older children can easily climb into and out of them, and it’s easy to put babies into child seats without having to bend over too much. The Escape, CR-V, and Sportage stand out as the best. Each one makes child-seat installation a breeze, with easily accessible belts, and LATCH and top tether anchors. Ford allows parents to install child seats in the center position, if the child-seat manufacturer allows it, by using the two inboard lower LATCH anchors. The Honda CR-V has a super-flexible arrangement with five lower LATCH anchors across the rear seat, allowing for installation of child seats in any position. In the Sportage, child seats should be secure in any rear-seat position, although the vehicle performed poorly in the IIHS small-overlap crash test.
For 2014, most versions received a six-speed automatic transmission in place of the annoying CVT. But the Compass still comes up short. The 2.4-liter engine is rough and sluggish, the front seats aren’t supportive, the cabin is cramped and cheaply trimmed, and visibility is limited.
The Patriot has a compliant ride and mostly simple controls. But little else stands out. Its 2.4-liter engine is underpowered, handling lacks agility, and the cargo area is small. In addition, its narrow cabin, wide center console, and small windows give the vehicle a closed-in feeling.
The Outlander is one of the few small SUVs that seats up to seven people, though its third-row seat is for kids only. Otherwise, the Outlander offers little reason to choose it over stronger competitors. It handles clumsily, the ride is fairly stiff, and the interior feels cheap. plus the sluggish acceleration is accompanied by raucous engine noise.
Although it's a fresh redesign, the new Cherokee feels half-baked. The four-cylinder engine is underpowered and not very fuel-efficient, and the nine-speed automatic transmission is unrefined and unresponsive. A better choice is the 3.2-liter V6.
Editor's Note: This article also appreared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.