SUV Buying Guide

Sport-utility vehicles are available in a wide range of prices and sizes, ranging from small models not much bigger than subcompact cars to extended-length giants based on pickup-truck hardware. Midsized models typically provide the best balance of interior space, fuel economy, and engine power. Smaller SUVs are often less expensive and get better fuel economy, but they have less passenger and cargo space. Larger models provide more room and towing capacity but get poor gas mileage, are less maneuverable, and have a significantly higher overall ownership cost. 

Why Buy an SUV?

SUVs appeal to a wide range of drivers. They provide versatile cargo-carrying space (although generally not as much as minivans), a driving position higher than that of passenger cars, varying amounts of towing capacity, and, in models with three rows of seats, the ability to carry seven or eight people. With an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive system, they also provide extra traction in slippery conditions and the ability to tackle at least moderate off-road terrain. But because of their taller height, SUVs as a class are not as nimble as passenger cars and can roll over more easily in emergency-handling maneuvers. Generally, their added weight and higher profile compromises fuel economy compared with a minivan or wagon, which can often provide a suitable alternative.

Important Things to Consider
The powertrain choices for SUVs usually range from four-cylinder engines in most small SUVs to powerful V8s available in the largest SUVs in the class. Turbocharged four- and six-cylinder engines are increasingly popular. A few midsized and large models also offer diesel powertrains. The most fuel-efficient, nonhybrid SUVs return fuel economy in the mid-20s, but large nonhybrid models get very poor gas mileage, in the low to mid-teens. Three-row SUVs are alternatives to minivans in that they can seat up to eight passengers, but some models with third-row seats are cramped and are not well-suited to accommodate adults. If you need to transport more than five people on a regular basis, be sure to try out those rear seats before buying.

Determining the SUV size you need (subcompact, small, midsized, or large) helps narrow the field. Because each type has a spectrum of models to choose from, including luxury-branded SUVs, this is a useful step toward creating your shopping list.

What You’ll Spend
A few stripped-down subcompact SUVs start at less than $20,000, but most are priced in the low to mid-20s when typically equipped and can extend to the $30,000 neighborhood with all the bells and whistles. Midsized SUVs span from almost $30,000 to more than $50,000 for the upscale versions from manufacturers such as BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, and Volvo. Large SUVs can cost in the high-$30,000s range to more than $60,000 for a premium model such as the Mercedes-Benz GL. There’s even a class of luxury compact SUVs, such as the Porsche Macan, that can top $60,000. More expensive SUVs have added power but sacrifice fuel economy. Luxury-branded models typically require premium fuel, adding to the already high operating costs. An assortment of diesel and hybrid SUVs is available, though these models tend to command a significant price premium over similar ones with a conventional powertrain. The cost benefits of both depend on the fuel economy gains and fuel prices. 


Car-Based vs. Truck-Based SUVs
There are two basic kinds of SUVs: car-based and truck-based. Car-based SUVs, sometimes called crossovers or CUVs, are built with unibody construction, where the frame and body are bonded into one piece, or unit. Like regular cars, most such SUVs have a fully independent suspension, which helps provide better handling and ride comfort than that offered by traditional, truck-based models. They offer all-wheel drive and can handle moderate off-road situations, but they generally aren’t designed for more challenging off-road conditions, such as traversing high rocks, deep water, loose sand, or steep inclines and descents. As with cars, the towing capacity of most car-based SUVs is limited.

Truck-based SUVs are getting more difficult to find these days, as the market shifts to crossovers. These are built with a body-on-frame platform (often the same one used for a company’s comparable-sized pickup). They typically offer greater cargo and towing capacity than a similar-sized car-based model, and when fitted with four-wheel drive, they are better equipped to tackle serious off-road terrain. But their handling can be cumbersome and the ride can be bouncy and unsettled. Most body-on-frame SUVs use a solid (aka “live”) rear axle, similar to a pickup truck’s, though some have an independent rear suspension, which provides more refined ride and handling characteristics. For Consumer Reports’ testing purposes, we group SUVs according to size.

Subcompact SUVs
A growing category, subcompact SUVs such as the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade typically share a platform with similarly sized cars. Smaller than models such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, subcompact SUVs generally have less passenger and cargo capacity. But they do offer a similarly higher seating position and elevated ride height, and some can be surprisingly roomy inside. They are available with AWD, and their small footprint makes for easy parking and maneuvering. Just don’t expect huge cargo volume or serious off-road capability. Audi, Buick, Mercedes-Benz, and Mini Cooper offer near-luxury experiences within these smaller packages, but they command a premium price that can rival a midsized SUV’s.

Small SUVs
Well-suited for drivers who are looking for more room than a small sedan can provide, small SUVs offer flexible cargo space and a higher driving position than cars. Some small SUVs’ fuel economy rivals that of some family sedans, though others can be thirstier and have a rough ride. For more adventurous drivers, a few models have true off-road capabilities. If you are just looking for a vehicle that provides flexible cargo space, you might want to consider a wagon or hatchback because they provide better fuel economy and are more affordable. Some wagons are available with all-wheel drive and elevated ride heights, such as the Subaru Outback.

Compact Sporty SUVs
The upscale small, performance-oriented SUVs typically offer better handling, quieter cabins, nicer fit and finish, and more amenities than regular small SUVs, though fuel economy and price are common trade-offs. Most entries in this niche are from European or Japanese prestige brands.

Midsized SUVs
Midsized SUVs have become alternatives to minivans and might satisfy the needs of many shoppers considering a large SUV. For many families, midsized SUVs provide the best balance of power, interior space, cargo room, and safety. Although many midsized SUVs offer an optional third-row seat, these seats are often cramped and not easily accessible by adults. Just about every mainstream manufacturer offers a midsized SUV, which gives you an idea of how white-hot this segment is.

Large SUVs
Most large SUVs offer plenty of power, interior space, and towing capacity, but they’re big, bulky, clumsy, and thirsty. For hauling a heavy trailer, they may be just the thing, but if it’s primarily seating and cargo capacity you’re after, you might be better off with one of the larger midsized models (such as the Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot) or a minivan. While it may not have an SUV’s adventurous image, a minivan is apt to get much better fuel economy and be quieter, more comfortable, and more flexible for switching between people and cargo duties. But a minivan will not be as capable for towing and certainly isn’t meant for off-roading.


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing an SUV.

Engines and Fuel Economy
Budget-friendly small SUVs are typically powered by a four-cylinder engine, with some offering a turbocharger. While many of these small SUVs are thrifty, some four-cylinder models deliver lackluster performance, particularly when the SUV is fully loaded or ascending hills. Most midsized SUVs come with a V6 engine that generally provides a good balance of power and fuel economy. Some midsized and large models are available with a V8 that delivers effortless acceleration and is better for heavy towing, but the extra cylinders usually take a toll in gas mileage.

Manual transmissions are rare in the SUV segment, though they can still be found in some smaller models. Many automatic transmissions provide a manual-shift mode that provides functionality similar to a true manual transmission’s, allowing the driver to select a gear without using a clutch. Models with six-, seven-, eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions or continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) generally provide better fuel economy than a traditional manual transmission provides. Check our SUV ratings for specifics.

Drive Wheels
All SUVs are available with either all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, with most offering a two-wheel-drive option. Many truck-based SUVs still offer rear-wheel-drive versions, whereas crossovers tend to be front-wheel drive when only two wheels are operating.

AWD and 4WD provide power to all wheels, but they’re not quite the same thing. AWD is a lighter (and lighter-duty) system that stays engaged and ready to distribute power at any time. AWD is typically fine for normal adverse weather conditions and moderate off-road driving. Another difference is that 4WD includes low-range gearing for tackling difficult off-road terrain, such as rocks or steep off-pavement descents. If you drive almost exclusively on pavement without snow or ice, consider a two-wheel-drive model, which generally provides better fuel economy. If you choose 4WD, look for a system that provides full-time 4WD operation. Vehicles with part-time systems should not be driven on dry pavement in 4WD mode. (Here’s a look at which models have the best AWD systems.)

Truck-based SUVs typically offer much more towing capacity than any other vehicle type except for pickup trucks. Some larger models can tow up to 9,100 pounds, or the equivalent of a small mobile home, large boat, or sizable camper trailer. Car-based SUVs generally don’t tow as much, though some powerful midsized models can pull 5,000 pounds, enough for a small boat or camper. Look at the tow-capacity rating and be sure you get a vehicle that can comfortably handle the load you’ll be towing. Midsized and larger SUVs often require an optional tow package to achieve the maximum rating.

Most SUVs are designed to look like they are ready to tackle the wilderness, but if you’re serious about off-roading, you’ll need an SUV truly designed and equipped for that purpose. A proper off-road SUV should have a four-wheel-drive system with a low range, high ground clearance, and skid plates to protect the underbody mechanicals. The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most capable off-road SUVs, but its on-road manners and fuel economy suffer as a result. Larger Land Rover models are adept off-roaders, as is the Toyota 4Runner. Large models based on pickup truck frames often have low-range four-wheel-drive systems, and can often be readily modified with aftermarket parts, but the extra length of large SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition can be a hindrance on narrow trails.

Most SUVs offer wide front and rear doors and ample head clearance, which aids entry and exit. But because their ground clearance is higher than that of a car, it can be difficult for shorter people, children, and the disabled to climb into them. Third-row seats, if offered, are often especially difficult to access. If you think you will need to use the third row, look for models with wide rear door openings and be sure to try out the mechanism for moving the second-row seats forward.

Almost all SUVs carry up to five people. Some midsized and full-sized models include a third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to seven or eight. But third-row seats are typically tight and are suitable only for children. Plus, many three-row SUVs offer limited cargo space when the third-row seats are deployed. Most third-row seats can fold flat into the rear cargo floor when not in use, opening up additional luggage space.

The versatile seating configurations of an SUV mean that all the space behind the front seats can be used as cargo space, if needed. This is done with second- and third-row seats that fold flat or are removable. The most convenient type of third-row seat is one with a split design, so one portion can be folded for cargo space while allowing someone to sit in the other section. SUVs usually have a higher cargo floor than a minivan, which can make loading heavy objects more difficult. On the other hand, truck-based models typically have higher maximum load capacities, so you can carry more weight. Some even offer power-operated liftgates, making it easier to access the cargo bay when your hands are full.

Safety Features
Statistics show that SUVs as a class have a higher percentage of single-vehicle rollover accidents than cars do, largely because they’re taller and more top-heavy. 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 the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

Almost all new SUVs have head-protecting side airbags, usually in the form of a side curtain that covers front and rear side windows. These air bags are designed to keep passengers inside during a rollover.

Electronic stability control is a computer-controlled feature that automatically and selectively applies brakes to prevent a sideways slide. This potentially lifesaving feature is standard on all new passenger vehicles, including SUVs. If you shop for a used model, seek one with ESC. It can help reduce the risk of a rollover and other crash types. Another welcome feature, traction control, can help you to get going on a slippery road but doesn’t aid in a sideways skid. (Learn more about car safety.)

Rear backup alert systems, which warn the driver with an audible signal and visual cue when the rear bumper is near a solid object, such as a parked car or a signpost, are becoming more common. These systems are marketed as parking aids, and in testing, Consumer Reports has found that they work well for that. But they aren’t reliable enough for use as backup safety systems that can detect a small child behind the vehicle. A better alternative for backup safety is a wide-angle rear video camera, a convenient feature that is standard on all new vehicles. 

Advanced Safety Technologies 
Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking are two valued systems that are fast becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. Forward-collision warning (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. If a car equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) senses a potential collision and you don’t react in time, it starts braking for you. IIHS data show rear-end collisions are cut by 50 percent on vehicles with AEB and FCW.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys; lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling; lane-keeping assist to center vehicle in the lane if you start to drift; and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you.  (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and Convenience
The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio System
The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner with speakers left and right and fore and aft, with satellite radio and various inputs for external devices. CD players are becoming rare. An upgraded system typically has a more powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise canceling, and surround sound.

Many midsized and large SUVs offer a rear-seat entertainment system consisting of a DVD or Blu-ray player, screens that are mounted in the rear-seat head restraints or fold down from the roof, and wireless headphones. Some SUVs have outlets and video input ports that allow a video game system (provided there is also a power outlet) or other external device to be plugged in. SUVs at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smartphone or an iPod and for charging mobile devices.

Satellite and HD Radio
Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $11 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional subchannels that can be broadcast alongside a station’s main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content. Depending where you live, some systems work better than others. The better audio system interfaces have a convenient button to turn HD off if you find that the stations creep into and out of the HD signal.

Navigation Systems and Connectivity
In-vehicle navigation systems are a handy feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, that can add an additional $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the dashboard, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But portable dashtop GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. And, of course, smartphones can provide great navigation guidance. (See ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigators.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car’s audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream internet-sourced audio to the car using apps, such as Pandora and Aha.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM’s OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and GPS technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car’s built-in GPS receiver to give first responders your car’s location.

New vs. Used

When in the market for an SUV, the first consideration is whether to 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 rapid depreciation. A new vehicle can shed half its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you finance your SUV with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself “upside down” on the loan, where you owe more than the vehicle is worth.

Used SUVs can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there are plenty of vehicles from which to choose. One of the best strategies is to find an SUV you like that’s only two to three years old. 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. Rust isn’t nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

Beware of SUVs that have been heavily upgraded for off-roading. Modifications like oversized wheels and tires, and steering and suspension changes can affect how an SUV will handle in a panic maneuver, such as an emergency swerve. 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 can be an indicator of severe off-road use.

The key to selecting a good used SUV is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a vehicle that has done well in our reliability judgments. For many years, the reliability stars in our records have mostly been Japanese-nameplate models, especially those from Subaru and Toyota. But a handful of domestic models have been standouts, too. (See our guide to car reliability.)

Consumer Reports’ reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for an SUV with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful prepurchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do research and take care in the car selection, a used SUV can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research if you are to choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our new or used car Buying Guides

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