SUV Buying Guide

Sport-utility vehicles have become more popular than cars in the U.S. They're available in a wide range of prices and sizes, and range from small models not much bigger than subcompact cars to extended-length giants that are based on pickup-truck hardware.

If you're drawn to SUVs for their elevated ride height, all-wheel drive, off-road ability, and/or image, there are appealing models to choose from for every budget, size, shape or intent.

SUV Types

There are car-based and truck-based SUVs. But that distinction is much less relevant today, because most models have converged into a design that has more in common with cars than traditional trucks.

Modern SUVs, sometimes called crossovers or CUVs, are built with unibody construction where the frame and body are unified, just as they are in today’s cars. These SUVs have a fully independent suspension, which helps provide better handling and ride comfort than truck-based models. Often, they offer all-wheel drive and can handle moderate off-road situations, but they aren’t designed for more challenging off-road conditions, such as rocks, deep water, loose sand, or steep inclines. Most car-based SUVs have modest towing capacity.

There are some truck-based SUVs left. Those use a body-on-frame platform (often sharing components with the automaker’s pickup trucks). They typically can carry and tow more than a similar-sized car-based model, and when fitted with four-wheel drive, they’re better equipped to tackle serious off-road terrain. But their handling is usually cumbersome, and the ride can be bouncy and unsettled. Most body-on-frame SUVs use a solid rear axle, as pickup trucks do, but some have an independent rear suspension, which gives those a more comfortable ride and more responsive handling characteristics.

We group SUVs by size in our comparisons and ratings.

Subcompact SUVs
One of the fastest growing categories, subcompact SUVs such as the Ford EcoSport, Hyundai Kona, and Mazda CX-3 share a platform with similarly sized cars. These are alternatives to a traditional hatchback car, with an elevated ride height, upright seating, and available all-wheel drive. Their small footprint makes them easy to park and maneuver. Buyers shouldn’t expect huge cargo volume or serious off-road capability.

Although technically not subcompacts, there is a growing niche of tiny SUVs from luxury brands such as Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Mini that offer upscale interiors and strong performance, but these models cost as much as a midsized SUV.

What You’ll Spend: A few basic subcompact SUVs start at less than $20,000, but most climb well into the $20s with popular features, such as all-wheel drive and key advanced safety systems.

Small SUVs
These are well-suited for drivers who are looking for more room than a small sedan can provide. Small SUVs offer a higher driving position than cars and flexible cargo space. Fuel economy is typically 25-28 mpg overall, although there are some thirstier models.

Most have limited off-road abilities but are sufficient for the occasional dirt road, muddy trail, or beach sand.

Compact luxury SUVs typically offer sportier handling, quieter cabins, nicer fit and finish, and more amenities than regular small SUVs, though buyers will pay more and get reduced fuel economy. Many luxury SUVs at this size offer much more thrilling performance than shoppers can get from mainstream brands.

What You'll Spend: Compact SUVs start in the low 20s and many pass $30,000 in their top trims, which are now more feature-rich than ever. Luxury models hover around $50,000.

Midsized SUVs
For many families, midsized SUVs provide the best balance of power, interior space, cargo room, and safety. Midsized models come in two- and three-row models, although the third row is usually meant for kids to ride it; they’re typically cramped and difficult for adults to get into. Models from mainstream brands typically are equipped with premium features that can rival some luxury vehicles. Fuel economy hovers around 18-22 mpg, and tow capacity is typically 3,500 to 5,000 lbs. Some models must have a trailering package to get that maximum towing capacity. Luxury midsized SUVs tend to rachet up the comfort, performance, and refinement.

What You'll Spend: Midsized SUVs span from the mid-$30,000s to more than $50,000 for three-row models.

Large SUVs
There is plenty of power, interior space, and towing capacity with large SUV, but they’re very often big, bulky, clumsy, and thirsty. They may be just the thing for drivers who need to haul a trailer. However, a midsized model can be better for passenger comfort and daily driving. Buyers who need more seating capacity, rather than work ability, should consider a minivan. It may not have an SUV’s adventurous image, but a minivan should get much better fuel economy, be more comfortable, and have more flexibility switching between people and cargo.

What You'll Spend: Large SUV prices now range up to $80,000 or more for top trims. Luxury-branded models for all sizes add considerably to the bottom line, essentially pricing them into the next larger size.

What SUV Buyers Should Consider

Seating
Almost all SUVs carry at least five people. Some midsized and full-sized models include a third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to six, seven, or eight. But many three-row SUVs have limited cargo space when the third-row seats are upright. Most third-row seats can fold flat when not in use, or nearly so, opening up additional luggage space.

Cargo
The SUV’s versatile seating configurations mean that all the space behind the front seats is available for cargo when the second- and third-row seats fold flat. The most convenient type of third-row seat is one with a split design, so one part can be folded for cargo while still allowing someone to sit in the other part. SUVs usually have a higher cargo floor than minivans do, which can make loading heavy objects difficult. Some luxury models come with air suspensions, so drivers can lower the vehicle for easier loading. On the other hand, truck-based models typically have higher maximum payload capacities, so drivers can carry more weight. Some even offer power-operated, hands-free liftgates, making it easier to access the cargo bay.

Safety and Advanced Driver-Assist Systems Technologies
Consumer Reports’ safety ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, our road tests detail issues regarding child seat installation and headlight performance.

Forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, and blind spot warnings (BSW) are crash avoidance technologies that CR believes should be standard on all vehicles. And these should be on the next new or used model you buy.

FCW technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or an object directly in its path. AEB responds to an imminent collision, braking if the driver doesn’t react in time. BSW monitors a vehicle’s flanks, warning drivers that another vehicle is alongside, where it may be difficult to see.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that can alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys, such as GM’s OnStar service; lane departure warning systems that sound an alert if drivers change lanes without signaling; lane keeping assist to center the vehicle in the lane if drivers start to drift; and rear cross traffic alert that monitors the sides of the vehicle when drivers are backing out of a parking spot, and can even apply the brakes if needed. (Learn more about car safety.)

2WD vs. AWD vs. 4WD
Most SUVs use a front-drive platform and are available with all-wheel drive. Truck-based models have a rear-drive configuration and are available with four-wheel drive.

AWD and 4WD provide power to all wheels, but even though they sound similar, they’re not quite the same thing. AWD is a lighter-duty system that stays engaged and ready to vary the power distribution between front and rear wheels at any time. AWD is usually fine for typical adverse weather conditions and tackling dirt roads.

SUVS with true 4WD are few and far between. They have low-range gearing for tackling difficult off-road terrain, such as rocks or steep dirt hills. Drivers who travel almost exclusively on pavement without snow or ice, should consider a two-wheel-drive model; it will save on the purchase price and likely provide better fuel economy. These configurations are common in southern California, Texas, and Florida. Drivers who choose 4WD should look for a system that provides full-time 4WD operation. Don’t drive vehicles with part-time systems in 4WD mode on dry pavement, because they won’t be able to manage the power distribution front and back, affecting handling and potentially damaging the mechanical components.

Towing
Truck-based SUVs offer much more towing capacity than any other vehicle except pickup trucks. Most larger models can tow up to 9,000 pounds, or the equivalent of a large boat. Some powerful midsized models can pull as much as 5,000 pounds, enough for a small boat or camper. Buyers should look at the tow-capacity rating and be sure they get a vehicle that can comfortably handle the load they need to tow. Midsized and larger SUVs often require an optional tow package to reach that maximum rating.

Choosing Between a New or Used SUV

Like with any type of car, the first decision to make in choosing the right SUV: Will you buy new or used?

Buying a brand-new SUV certainly has its benefits. New SUVs have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements, not to mention a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. With a new vehicle, you know what you're getting; you don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback to buying a new SUV is how quickly they depreciate. They've been known to shed half their value in the first two to three years. But the depreciation picture can change a lot from year to year, depending on competitive forces, fuel prices, new model introductions, and other factors. Financing a new vehicle with a small down payment can easily make buyers "upside down" on the loan, where they owe more than their SUV is worth.

Buying a used SUV can save money up front and over the long haul. Plus, the U.S. used-car market is more than twice than the size of the new-car market, so there are plenty of choices. One of the best strategies is to find an SUV you like that’s only two to three years old—likely a vehicle that’s been returned from a lease. Such a vehicle has already taken its biggest depreciation hit and should have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. Modern vehicles, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer.

Buyers should be wary of SUVs that have been heavily upgraded for off-roading. Modifications such as oversized wheels and tires, and steering and suspension changes can affect how an SUV will handle in a panic maneuver, such as an emergency lane change to dodge an unexpected road hazard. Improper equipment and installation can cause accelerated wear, leading to expensive repairs. Mud and dirt in crevices, under the hood, or in hard-to-reach places, as well as dents and scrapes underneath the vehicle, can be an indicator of severe off-road use.

Focus on reliability when selecting a good new or used SUV, even if the vehicle’s still covered by its original factory warranty. Check with Consumer Reports to find ones that have top-notch reliability scores. (See our guide to car reliability.) 

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