Compact SUVs Test
The Best Compact SUVs: A Top 11 Shoot-Out
Large SUVs are difficult to maneuver use an inordinate amount of natural resources are more expensive to buy and maintain and have a higher incidence of serious accidents than other family vehicles. With this in mind many shoppers are looking for the positive traits of SUVs such as a high seating position ample cargo space and a more rugged look with those of better gas mileage maneuverability ease of garage parking and fewer maintenance items. To this end The Car Family has tested and evaluated the best selling compact SUVs on the market. They are easy to drive all get above 20 mpg and have four wheel drive either standard or as an option. In other words these are the station wagons of the 21st century.
Tested were the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute the Subaru Forester Toyotas RAV Hondas CR-V Mitsubishis Outlander the BMW X3 Saturns Vue Suzuki XL-7 Chevrolets Equinox Jeep Liberty and Hyundais Tucson/Kia Sportage.
Not surprisingly all of these vehicles came within a whisker of each other in almost every statistical area. Most of these are called crossover vehicles which is a coined name for the fact that they been created on a chassis that was originally intended for a family sedan. This type of chassis makes for better handling and a superior ride as well as giving them less heft so they can fit into snug garages and parking spaces better. Of course since most of these compact SUVs weigh a 1000 pounds less than their larger siblings they get much better fuel mileage. The best government test indicates that most any compact SUV would provide from 5 to 15 more miles per a gallon of non-renewable petroleum. In dollars that would make it easy to save $100 a month on fuel for the average driver and if gas prices continue to escalate that figure could easily top $2000 a year.
Handling braking utility and family friendliness were what we were looking for in this test and their pricing. Our methodology for testing was to evaluate the base models whenever possible with the least powerful engines and two wheel drive. We did not want to be swayed in our judgment by expensive options and concentrated more on fuel economy usable cargo space real world usefulness handling and safety features. The vehicles tested ranged in price room about $27000 to $45000 Australian dollars. We did not specifically list prices for each model because of the huge variation in options dealer incentives and reduced interest rate offerings.
To ease your pain the Subaru was our favorite. All of the others were highly competent but nothing felt as good as the Subaru or provided us with the utility we wanted. The BMW was an exceptional handler but expensive and its handling a bit rugged for us. The Ford Escape was very nice but we would recommend the Hybrid instead and get nearly 30 mpg without sacrificing utility. The Jeep Liberty was the most off-roadable vehicle and the best bargain was the Hyundai Tucson/Kia Sportage. Some compact SUVs bordered on greatness. If the Mitsubishi Outlander had a few more horses under the hood it could easily become the Evolution of the compact SUV field and be an instant top seller. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV are quality built but many of the others in this test have passed them by and are better priced.
However that perception of quality gives them high resale even when they have such notable negatives as having their spare tires hang off the tailgate. The Saturn Vue in standard trim is very slow and has some ergonomic limitations that offset the high dealer satisfaction ratings. The BMW had an exemplary chassis superior brakes a responsive engine and good interior room. However its pricing is dear and its styling creates concerns for some. The Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute are good choices and would have been considered the best in class before the arrival of the new Subaru Forester and Chevrolet Equinox. The Suzuki SUVs have a rough ride and their engine just doesnt have the steam for this outdated design. However it ranks with the Liberty and BMW for offroadability when properly equipped.
Before we start listing the models and their virtues two things standout from our viewpoint on these tests. First those SUVs that have been most recently redone usually rated higher usually because they rode better and made better use of the interior space. Secondly the Subaru Forester is in a class by itself. It comes with standard all wheel drive and yet it priced at the same level as many two-wheel drive competitors. It is the best riding of all the models and if you get the base engine it gives nearly the same miles per gallon figures as the gas sipping Toyota RAV with only front wheel drive. We were also impressed with the Chevrolet Equinox. On paper this is an unremarkable SUV. The engine is old fashioned and the exterior styling looks like most every other General Motors SUV. However the interior is very well done the rear seat fold down easily the cargo capacity is very good and the ride and agility are much better than any other General Motors SUV we have ever tested.
A final word about what we did not test. The Honda Element which is indeed very handy the Chevrolet Blazer which is not as good as the Chevrolet Equinox and Nissans Xterra whose gas mileage was too low to meet our requirements. Also of note the Kia Sportage and the Hyundai Tucson use very similar major components and so were rated together at this point as were the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.
A very important warning for buyers of these vehicles is the danger of having the spare tire mounted on the tailgate. This has no upside and is a definite negative. First it reduces badly needed rear visibility. Secondly it makes opening the tailgate extremely difficult to open and close when on an incline. In addition if the vehicle has a tailgate window that opens to enable you to place items inside the rear spare gets in the way making it very difficult to use without getting your outfits dirty. Finally it makes rear end collision repairs much more expensive. All of our best choices managed to engine a place for the spare tire to reside either inside the car or under it clearly indicating better thinking and engineering.
Good points: ride handling engine interior space visibility all wheel drive fuel economy and available turbocharged engine great crash test scores
Needs improvement: high price of parts rear legroom cramped manual transmission linkage expensive options
The winner by a wide margin the Forester was near the top in every category. It is fun to drive easy to park handles very well and just wins you over with it manners. If you drive the BMW and the Forester back to back you would be hard pressed to prove to yourself why the nearly ten thousand dollar more expensive X3 is worth it. And if you really want to have an enjoyable ride order the turbocharged version with the manual transmission and have yourself one of the fastest SUVs on the planet.
Good points: roomy great interior versatility proven engine nice ride.
Needs improvement: pricing can push it above larger GM SUVs rear cargo area can be a bit tight for large items turning radius it is too new to have reliable resale figures.
We found the Equinox friendly and very easy to live with in all types of weather. It did everything well and easily surpassed most of the competition in interior room. This was our second favorite compact SUV after the Subaru based on it ability to do so many things well. Of course it benefited from having the largest engine in the test but the gas mileage penalty for such a powerful engine was only about ten percent. If you tow this is the best engine in the test to have under the hood and also has the highest towing weight rating. The Equinox is the closest compact to the larger SUVs in looks but is far more nimble than it looks. Parking is threatening because of the large turning radius. A great compact SUV for those who are conservative.
Good points: engine brakes suspension interior space
Needs improvement: pricing tires uses premium fuel gas mileage turning radius
The question we pondered is why would anyone want to buy the super expensive X5 when the X3 does almost everything as well. In fact they look quite so similar one would need to be into BMWs to note the difference. In fact BMW has realized this and is busy redoing the X5 to make it more different than its upstart younger brother. Hopefully theyll do something about the poor fuel mileage but again BMW is the only manufacture that is seemingly willing to pay millions to the USA government for violating its mandated corporate fuel averages and apparently considers such a penalty a cost of doing business. On the other hand BMW is pushing the use of hydrogen-powered cars and more diesels to hopefully be a more environmentally friendly company. Regardless the 3 Series that the X3 is based on is the class of the industry one of our most favorite vehicles of all time and has been for many a year. So it is no surprise that the X3 would be our choice if we needed a compact SUV that could handle.
Nonetheless the Mitsubishi Outlander isnt that far behind the BMW and costs a lot less in this regard. BMW calls these sports activity vehicles and rightly so as the X3 is quite entertaining. It placed third in our ratings falling below the Subaru and the Chevrolet Equinox due to pricing. If cost were no object it would have placed second behind the turbocharged Subaru that is even more amusing.
Hyundai Tucson/ Kia Sportage
Good points: ride engine value gas mileage warranty
Needs improvement: brakes handling lacks 3.5-engine option
A great buy for a compact SUV that drives light on its feet and provides good gas mileage too. This newly designed Hyundai has a lot of standard features plenty of safety devices and a terrific warranty. The only real problem is that the Tucson steps on the pricing toes of its big sister the Santa Fe and is nearly as roomy. With the larger 3.5 engine this would be the best product in this Korean manufactures line-up. If you have a little more cash and need a little more room a new Santa Fe is only months away and looks pretty much like a Honda Pilot. The Kia has a better price point and is identical in most other statistical ways. We think the Tucson is going to have the better resale since the Sportage name has acquired a bitter taste to some.
Good points: Well priced 23 mpg vast cargo area easy to drive good resale quality
Needs improvement: engine lacks energy at low rpms old design spare tire mounted on rear hatch door no V6 engine option
A little old but nevertheless quite capable the CR-V represents good resale reliability and versatility. It has a nice ride but when fully loaded the four cylinder engine struggles in the hills. The spare tire hanging off the rear tailgate tells you that this model is due for a rethink as the more modern compact SUVs have eliminated this problem. We highly recommend you check out the Honda Element that is much easier to load holds more and is priced better.
Good points: interior appearance highway ride quiet interior
Needs improvement: rear mounted spare tire engine output soft suspension
This is a much more improved RAV over the smallish first version. Nevertheless it is the softest of the bunch meaning it is fine for computing but does not like curves reacts quite differently when fully loaded and has an engine that needs more power lower in the rpm range. The rear mounted spare tire is always a bother. Clearly the RAV4 design is functional but not the best despite the high price. Regardless it has the nicest interior of the bunch and it is very quiet on the road. Easy to love for those who enjoy the Lexus type ride it holds its value fairly well and does not offend anyone.
Ford Escape and its Mazda Tribute
Good points: usable interior room highway ride usable cargo room
Needs improvement: quality control roll over ratings ride interior appearance control layout interior noise level weak standard engine
We like the Tribute more than the Escape for its ride and extended warranty that covers you for an additional year even though both vehicles are priced within a few hundred of one another and have the same basic guts and suspensions. You do need to test both of these vehicles because they are different in their treatment of the driver. Recently we tested the more expensive Hybrid Escape and found it wonderful because of the gas mileage and the responsive nature of the electric motor and four-cylinder engine. Unfortunately the base four cylinder engine is simply not powerful enough to move a family loaded Escape in areas of hills or mountains without considerable strain. We highly recommend the optional V6 engine even though you are going to pay a premium price at the gas pump. As it now stands the Escape/Tribute stands in the middle of the compact SUV class with its standard engine. With the V6 it would be in the top four.
Good points: crisp ride 22 mpg nicely done interior warranty responsive engine. A good driving SUV.
Needs improvement: limited cargo room high lift over can be darty to drive not inexpensive with all wheel drive and most options resale lags.
This new offering from Mitsubishi has good safety scores handles well but does not offer a lot of cargo capacity or rear legroom. It would be good for a young couple with young children who enjoy a brisk ride. It is easy to get in and out of and still has a nice seating position although we did not like the seats. You get plenty of standard features such as power windows locks and mirrors a CD stereo air conditioning tilt steering cruise control and 16-inch rims as well as advanced airbags and four-wheel disc brakes. This is a real handler with a solid feel and BMW like ride. If Mitsubishi would only put that turbomotor in this chassis they would have more showroom traffic.
Good points: very offroadable nice ride responsive engine large fuel tank
Needs improvement: cargo space rear hatch closing handle not as car like as the competitors base engine is underpowered tight rear seats
The bumper crash scores were poor the roller over resistance is average side-impact testing resulted in an excellent five-star rating for both front and rear passengers the crash offset rating was marginal for the Liberty. So why do we bring these up for this Jeep? Because true to its heritage it is the most offroadable of the bunch and might be subject to a more dangerous lifestyle than its less adequately equipped brethren. Unfortunately it is also the heaviest and with the base four-cylinder engine only available with a manual transmission we would advise you to look at an optional larger engine if you need an automatic. Basically the Liberty suffers from old think as the interior does not have the usable space as the higher rated SUVs the spare tire hangs off the back and the gas mileage is unsatisfactory for such a new design. On the other hand it has a whopping 20 plus gallon fuel tank making 500 mile excursions a possibility and is ideal for off-roading where there are few services available.
Good points: comes with V6 as standard well loaded with standard features has an available transfer case for more serious off roading pricing and warranty are good.
Needs improvement: useable interior room harsh ride brakes seats gas mileage.
It is time for a redo for this Suzuki as it needs an improved ride more refined engine and more attractive interior. If you want to keep this Suzuki a long time the warranty length is five years/ 100000 miles on some items. That might be a good idea since resale isnt very good. In this price range this Suzuki is the least expensive SUV that can hold seven people. The V6 engine pushes the truck chassis along fine once underway but when loaded it struggles. The ride is harsh at times and its greatest grace is its ability to go off-road. The bottom line here is the price and the range of standard features that include superior headlights keyless remove in dash CD four-speed automatic transmission antilock brakes 16-inch alloy wheels power sunroof and more. The XL-7 version is the one to buy if you live where dirt roads and inclement weather are a daily event and you have need for extra seating. The foot longer wheelbase and third row seating is going to cost you about $2000 more for the XL-7 than the smaller Grand Vitara so you may want to consider that models too.
Good points: customer service record dent resistant panels handling good crash scores some panels are dent resistant very low initial price.
Needs improvement: underpowered without expensive Honda optional engine difficult to close rear hatch awkward rear seat release poor interior materials hard to close rear hatch transmission brakes.
We tried to like the Vue but we never could accept its limitations in this highly competitive market. The brakes and ride are not up to todays standards and the interior design needs a rethink. The electric power steering provides little feedback and isnt a joy to drive in traffic. If you want to be among the fastest of the compact SUV crowd order the 3.5-liter V6 built by Honda with its 250 horsepower. A good handler but not the best. Check the resale before you buy even though it has a very attractive price on its entry-level model.
Family conference: A good place to start looking for a new vehicle is by checking the resale guides. After that the three most important things to check for on a compact SUV is the interior room turning radius and fuel mileage. After that a good test ride at a dealer can provide you with the seat of the pants feeling that always makes the best decision. The reason that we selected interior room as important as people show up for these test-drives without a true measure of what can be stored in the vehicle.
The smallest cargo capacity on the Outlander looks nearly as large as that on the BMW when they are not side-by-side. A check of the statistics in this article reveals the startling differences that could amount to several suitcases or even having to rent a trailer. The turning radius is something you do not notice when driving on the road and few people practice mall parking on test drives. In the long run a large turning radius requires constant vigilance and is annoying. The large radius of the Chevrolet was it greatest negative.
As for gas mileage you are probably never going to get the government listed fuel economy but a quick look at the figures can give you some insight as to how much extra that car is going to cost you over a year.
The 10 Best Family Friendly Compact SUVs by the Numbers:
The Best of the Compact SUVs -
turning 34.8 ft.
gas mileage 21/27/430
cargo 64 cubic feet
luggage 32 cubic feet
towing 2400 lbs.
turning radius 42 feet
gas mileage 19/25/425
cargo 69 cubic feet
luggage 35.2 cubic feet
3.4 liter *
towing 3500 pounds*
turning 38.4 ft.
gas mileage 17/24/ 425 premium fuel
cargo 71 cubic feet
luggage 33 cubic feet
The Very Good Compact SUVs -
Hyundai Tucson/ Kia Sportage
turning 35.4 ft.
gas mileage 22/27/410
cargo 66 cubic feet
luggage 22.7 cubic feet
towing 1500 lbs.
turning 33.8 ft.*
gas mileage 21/28/400
cargo 72 cubic feet
luggage 33.5 cubic feet
Engine size 2.4 liters
Toyota RAV 4
turning 35.4 ft.
gas mileage 24*/29*/440
cargo 68 cubic feet
luggage 29.2 cubic feet
Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute
turning 35.4 ft.
gas mileage 24*/29*/480
cargo capacity 66 cubic feet
luggage capacity 29 cubic feet
The sort of good SUVs -
Turning 37.5 ft.
gas mileage 22/28/440
Cargo area 60 cubic feet
Luggage 24.5 cubic feet
Engine size 2.4 liters
Torque 162 ft-lbs.
Towing 1500 pounds
The Needs Improvement SUVs -
turning 35.9 ft.
gas mileage 21/26/533*
Cargo 69 cubic feet
luggage 29 cubic feet
turning 39.4 ft.
gas mileage 23/29*/375
Engine size 2.2 liters
cargo space 64 cubic feet
luggage 31 cubic feet
turning 38.9 ft.
gas mileage 17/22/370
cargo 75 cubic feet*
luggage 40.3 cubic feet*
engine 2.7 liter
* equals best in test
Written by The Car Family