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The best small SUVs

Right-sized crossovers worthy of Consumer Reports’ recommendation

Published: March 27, 2015 10:00 AM

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Small SUVs make up the fastest-growing vehicle segment on the market. It's no wonder: These right-sized crossovers promise an affordable combination of commanding ride height, spend-thrift fuel economy, interior versatility, all-weather capabilities, and parking-lot-friendly footprint.

Because of the popularity of small SUVs, every major automaker now offers one, giving shoppers many choices. But, as our tests routinely show, they are not all worthy of your short list.

To aid your research, we have collected the seven best small SUVs. Each one meets the stringent criteria to be Consumer Reports recommended, meaning they did well in our road tests, have average or better predicted reliability, and performed adequately, if included, in government or insurance-industry crash tests.

The Subaru Forester has a commanding lead over these competitors. Based on overall road test score alone, the Ford Escape ranks second in this class. However, a low predicted reliability score prevents it from being recommended. The other models featured here score within a point of one another, and they are all listed in alphabetical order.

Looking to save money? Check out the best deals on SUVs.

—George Kennedy

Honda CR-V

Base MSRP price range: $23,445 - $32,895
 
If functionality and cabin space are what you seek, the Honda CR-V could be the way to go. Compact dimensions and responsive handling keep it maneuverable and easy to park. Plus, access, rear-seat room, and cargo space are generous. The popular EX trim gets standard heated seats, power driver’s seat, and Honda’s LaneWatch system, which uses a camera under the passenger side mirror to provide a video feed of your right blind spot when the right turn signal is engaged. The CR-V is available with other optional safety gear, including forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, autonomous braking, and adaptive cruise control. A recent freshening brought added equipment, a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and a complicated audio system.
 

Read the complete Honda CR-V road test.

Mazda CX-5

Base MSRP price range: $21,545 - $29,220

For enthusiast drivers looking for the versatility of a small SUV with  sporty handling, the CX-5 may be just what they're seeking. The CX-5 is taut and agile with well-weighted steering. Opt for the  the larger 2.5-liter engine; it’s punchier and gets the same fuel economy as the 2.0-liter. There is even the option of a stick shift, but for that you have to go for the base model with only front-wheel drive and the smaller 2.0-liter engine.

We say stick with the Touring trim level. You get power seats, backup camera, push-button start, and blind-spot monitoring system. Our only knocks on the CX-5 are the constant wind noise, so-so ride comfort, and the need to choose a costly, high trim to get conveniences like heated seats and dual-zone climate control. The new infotainment system takes some learning to master.

Read the complete Mazda CX-5 road test.

Nissan Rogue

Base MSRP price range: $24,490 - $29,630

The Rogue sets itself apart by being one of the only small SUVs available with a third row. This foldaway rear seat is snug, but in a pinch, it means the Rogue can accomodate up to seven. The Rogue is relatively spacious, with roomy second-row seating and easy access. Power comes from a 170-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers adequate performance, but it can get somewhat vocal under hard acceleration. Expect 24 mpg overall. Handling is sound, aided by prompt steering response and restrained body lean in corners. The Rogue is also one of the more comfortable riding of this bunch.A backup camera is standard; a clever surround-view camera is available, giving a 360-degree perspective—a real aid to parking in close quarters. Available safety gear includes rear cross-traffic alert and forward-collision, lane-departure, and blind-spot warnings.

Read the complete Nissan Rogue road test.

Subaru Crosstrek XV

Base MSRP price range: $21,595 - $29,295

Essentially a lifted Impreza, the Crosstrek XV benefits from the many positive virtues of the Forester, our Top Picks winner. Fuel economy is stellar at 26 mpg overall, even with standard all-wheel drive. Some may find the cabin and controls to be very basic, but that simplicity makes it easy to operate and keeps the cost down. And despite the interior simplicity, the Crosstrek XV features rugged styling and fun color options that makes a bold visual statement. The model to get is the mid-pack Premium trim. It comes well equipped without the need to tack on major options. The new, modern infotainment system is a welcome improvement.

Read the complete Subaru Crosstrek XV road test.

Subaru Forester

Base MSRP price range: $22,195 - $33,095

The Forester is our highest-scoring small SUV and a 2015 Top Pick. It represents everything that an SUV should have, focusing on practicality, fuel efficiency, easy access, excellent visibility, use of space, and safety. The Forester has standard all-wheel drive, and yet it still manages a class-leading 26 mpg overall. The trim to get is the 2.5i Premium, which comes standard with such features as a power driver’s seat and a massive power sunroof. We would also recommend getting the optional EyeSight safety system. This suite of safety features includes lane-departure and forward-collision warning. There is even an alert that sounds if the car in front of you has pulled away and you haven’t responded—a helpful feature at stoplights. Overall, if you're looking for a small SUV that's very functional and efficient, the Forester is hard to beat.

Read the complete Subaru Forester road test.

Toyota RAV4

Base MSRP price range: $23,680 - $29,850

Toyota pioneered the small SUV market with the RAV4 nearly 20 years ago, but it faces tough competition today. The 2015 RAV4 is a very practical vehicle, with impressive rear seat and cargo room. The 175-horsepower 2.5-liter engine provides adequate acceleration and returns a respectable 24 mpg overall.

Ever since a 2013 redesign, the RAV4 has regained much of the fun handling that has been missing since earlier generations. But ride comfort and noise isolation aren’t all that impressive. A backup camera is standard across the lineup, with blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert available. We recommend opting for the XLE trim, which includes automatic climate control and a power sunroof.

Read the complete Toyota RAV4 road test.

Volkswagen Tiguan

Base MSRP price range: $26,255 - $39,625

This Volkswagen comes with a bit of a sticker shock for a non-luxury nameplate, but it outscores several fancy-branded models that are more expensive. You can feel where the money went in the overall sophistication and refinement. Notably, we appreciated the quality cabin material and amenities; our SEL trim had a cooled glove box, heated seats, and a standard backup camera. It also has a significantly quieter cabin than its less expensive peers. Among this collection of Consumer Reports recommended models, the Tiguan is the only vehicle that delivers as much as 200-horsepower, developed from a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It also tackles corners with enthusiasm, and it is one of the few SUVs out there that feels capable and secure as you push the speeds around the track. You may be paying more for the Tiguan, but you get a truly upscale and fun-to-drive SUV.

Read the complete Volkswagen Tiguan road test.

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