Top 10 best small SUVs 2021
The UK and mainland Europe have something of a soft spot for SUVs. The segment has been growing steadily for years, but it has really taken off more recently. Manufacturers from across the spectrum have launched their own take on these high-riding, family-orientated cars, giving buyers more choice than ever before.
The ones listed here are just below average on the size chart, but are the most popular. Some even represent the best-selling SUV model for that particular brand. Customers expect Tardis-like space and premium-brand quality on the inside, as well as a commanding driving position and the compactness of an average family car to help keep palms dry in town and on narrow lanes. Here are our favourites.
1. Range Rover Evoque
Land Rover has seized the critical lead of the most important market segment in which it now plays with the second-generation Range Rover Evoque. Based on an all-new mixed-material platform, the car has adopted mild-hybrid engines and sits on a longer wheelbase than its predecessor for improved interior space without having grown significantly in any outward dimension. The Evoque derivative range has also recently gained an important plug-in hybrid entry, the Evoque P300e, which squeezes into the UK’s 6% benefit-in-kind company car tax band.
The car has taken big leaps forward on mechanical refinement, interior space, luxury ambience and technological allure. While it isn’t the most practical car of its kind, it’s very competitive on that score, with plenty of room for adults in the second row – albeit behind a fairly high window line that restricts visibility a bit.
The D200 diesel engine is the best pick, providing strong drivability and better refinement than we’re used to from Land Rover’s four-cylinder diesels. The P300e model is also seriously impressive, with an exceptionally slick plug-in hybrid powertrain, strong electric range and engaging handling.
Having rather come of age as a Range Rover, the Evoque now represents as luxurious-feeling a car as it’s possible to buy in this class – and that’ll help justify what’s a fairly high price to a great many buyers.
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2. Volvo XC40
Volvo’s first attempt at a compact sibling for its established XC60 and XC90 SUVs is a real success, and in the XC40, the Swedish marque has given us a car with the sort of instant kerbside appeal you’d expect of the class-leading act that it very recently still was.
With a design sufficiently charismatic and alluring to bring younger family buyers into Volvo showrooms, the XC40 backs up its funky exterior with a cabin of laudable richness, comfort, usability and quality. While this isn’t the most practical car in the compact SUV class, it certainly has plenty of luxury car ambience, not to mention all the in-car technology you’d hope for.
The engine range has been recently revised, with all diesel derivatives withdrawn. There’s now a choice of two plug-in hybrid models, a couple of mild-hybrid petrols, an entry-level T2 and a T3 petrol, and the fully electric, 402bhp P8.
The XC40’s ride and handling represents Volvo at its best and the small family 4×4 at its most relaxing. Rather than chasing other premium brands for driver appeal, the XC40 is happy to play the comfortable, refined, convenient and easy-to-use option – and it’s an effective one. If an SUV’s mission is to lift its driver above the hustle and bustle and filter out the pain from the daily grind, few do it better.
3. Mazda CX-5
This is easily one of the best-looking SUVs on the market and is objectively much more refined than its predecessor, with respectable fuel economy and an unusual level of handling verve for this class.
The CX-5’s interior is solid and quietly stylish and it offers plenty of passenger and boot space. A 2021 facelift introduces Mazda’s latest infotainment system, along with a new range-topping 2.5-litre petrol engine that previously appeared in the Mazda 6 saloon. Although it’s now a bit older than some of the other entrants on this list, the CX-5 hasn’t lost any of the handling pep that has made it one of our favourite compact SUVs.
The CX-5 offers a healthy mix of fun, frugality and family-friendly space, so it deserves serious consideration from buyers who want a car that does a little bit of everything.
4. Hyundai Tucson
The fourth-generation Tucson is something of a watershed moment for Hyundai. Stylistically, it’s a drastic departure from its handsome but slightly dull predecessors, and its cabin reaches new heights in terms of material appeal, too. Hyundai has long been trying to rebrand itself as an upmarket contender in Europe and the Tucson is its most convincing effort yet.
Dynamically, it plays things pretty safe, with a handling balance that prioritises ease of use over out-and-out dynamism, but it’s still enjoyable enough to pedal down a twisty road. Its hybrid powertrain offers strong performance and impressive efficiency, and — being a Hyundai — it comes incredibly well equipped and backed by a cast-iron warranty. More so than ever before, this is an impressively polished compact SUV that’s absolutely worthy of your attention.
5. Nissan Qashqai
Right up until the end of its life-cycle, the old Qashqai stayed doggedly at the sharp end of the sales charts in this class, and so with its new, lighter chassis, more commodious dimensions, and much-improved dynamics, you’d expect this new third-generation model to hit the ground running.
And, for the most part, it does. There’s little here for keen drivers, and the only engine currently available is a 1.3-litre petrol MHEV that’s a little breathless, but what did you expect? Performance and handling are not what this car is about, and as one tester put it, ‘it’s very thoughtfully designed for families, well-equipped, and costs peanuts to buy and run’. Convenience is everything, but while you have the Qashqai in two-pedal form and with a CVT gearbox, we’d go for the manual, simply because it improved the car’s rolling refinement.
A game-changing effort? Not any more, but a demonstration that Nissan knows it’s customer extremely well. It’ll be difficult to beat among the non-premium ranks.
6. Volkswagen Tiguan
The Tiguan is Volkswagen’s third-best selling model after the Golf and Polo hatchbacks. It’s flexible, spacious, solidly built, comfortable and refined. With just a little more driver engagement, it would be an even more formidable package – but even as it is, it takes some beating. It’s a slightly pricey option and its interior isn’t particularly interesting, but what it lacks in visual drama it more than makes up for in solidity.
A recent facelifted has added a plug-in hybrid version and a range-topping Tiguan R performance derivative, among other powertrain line-up tweaks. The car’s driving experience is a little spec-sensitive: with the better, more powerful engines and adaptive suspension, the Tiguan performs and handles very well, and rides with all the sophistication you’ll want, but the more basic versions are more dynamically ordinary.
A premium offering? Perhaps not in every sense, but it’s a cut above most cars in the growing compact SUV segment.
7. Ford Kuga
The new Kuga sits above the reinvented Puma in Ford’s SUV hierarchy, and happily shares a similarly impressive dynamic DNA with the smaller car. In short, it’s unusually good to drive by the standards of the class, although this has been a strong point for the Kuga since it was introduced in 2008.
What’s changed, apart from the heavy redesign, is the range of powertrains available, which now include a 222bhp plug-in hybrid that can travel up to 35 miles on electric power alone – for now, the only model we’ve tested. Ford announced a safety recall for the Kuga PHEV earlier this year, and has temporarily taken the car off sale while it rectifies the problem. The car remains available in petrol- and diesel-engined form and as a mild-hybrid.
Highlights are the rolling refinement – which does more to push the Kuga upmarket than the interior – and good levels of comfort and practicality. Performance could be stronger for the heavy PHEV version, though, and we’re eager to try ‘lesser’ petrol variants, which may prove to be the sweetest all-rounders in the range. All in all, the Kuga’s well worth considering.
Every 2021 Compact Crossover SUV Ranked from Worst to Best
New players including the Ford Bronco Sport and Nissan Rogue are putting pressure on the segment’s best.
Here it is, the vehicle segment (other than full-size pickups) that’s dominating vehicle sales in the U.S. Why is America scooping up more compact SUVs than cars? Well, what cars? Today, many companies no longer sell a sedan here, including Ford, which discontinued the Fusion for 2021. Compact crossovers are everywhere, and lucky for all of us, automakers have responded by making them more capable and fun to drive. Many vehicles in this segment offer more cargo space than sedans, and one even has a powertrain with 302 horsepower.
Of the over 100 different SUVs sold here today, the 17 current compact crossovers present a mix of new vehicles with the latest technology and models ready for a totally new generation. It can be overwhelming to shop through this maze of utility, so we’ve made it easier by ranking them from worst to best. Interested in something bigger or smaller? We’ve ranked those too.
More New SUVs Ranked from Worst to Best:
The Hyundai Nexo is the only compact crossover with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. It’s less like the Mazda CX-5 or Nissan Rogue and more like fellow fuel-cell sedans such as the Honda Clarity and Toyota Mirai. If you haven’t seen one, it’s probably because the infrastructure to support fuel-cell vehicles is limited to only a few areas, mostly in California. The Nexo is refueled with hydrogen which is then fed into the onboard fuel-cell stacks to generate electricity. Thus, the pricey, high-tech Hyundai drives like the electric car that it is, with smooth power delivery and generally quiet operation. Its 161-hp electric motor drives the front wheels only, as all-wheel drive isn’t available. The silver lining here is range. The Nexo Blue has an estimated range of 380 miles, and unlike other EVs sold today, it can be refueled in about five minutes. Hyundai is giving Nexo buyers three years or $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel for free.
- Base price: $60,120
- EPA combined: 61 MPGe (Blue)
- All-wheel drive: Not available
Compact crossovers aren’t typically known for their off-road chops, but the Jeep Compass Trailhawk is an exception. Make no mistake, it’s still not a Jeep Wrangler, but the Compass sits between the subcompact Renegade and the Cherokee and is offered with a low-gear crawler mode in Trailhawk models. The standard 180-hp inline-four doesn’t have much scoot, and the laggy six-speed automatic on front-wheel drive models is dated. Even the nine-speed automatic on the four-wheel-drive Compass feels somewhat sleepy when accelerating. It’s comfortable inside but doesn’t offer cabin materials as nice as what you’ll find in the Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5. Although the Compass has 27 cubic feet of rear cargo space; if you want that plus two more inches of second-row legroom in a Jeep, go for the Cherokee for a few thousand dollars more.
- Base price: $25,410
- EPA Fuel Economy combined/city/highway: 25/22/31 mpg (FWD)
- All-wheel drive: Optional
Updated for the 2022 model year, the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross has a new look, a bigger 8.0-inch touchscreen, and a single-window rear hatch that replaces the funky two-glass piece from before. It has the same powertrain, a 152-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). You can add all-wheel drive to any trim level for $1600. Every Eclipse Cross now comes standard with driver-assistance features including forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, pedestrian detection, and lane-departure warning. Passenger space is about average, but rear cargo space is somewhat limited at just 23 cubic feet. The Eclipse Cross certainly has a look now, but it needs more than that to really stand out in this highly competitive segment.
- Base price: $24,590
- EPA Fuel Economy combined/city/highway: 27/26/29 mpg (FWD)
- All-wheel drive: Optional
Unlike other models on this list, the Jeep Cherokee can be tailored from mild to wild across nine different trim levels. Similar to the Compass, the Cherokee can be outfitted for off-the-grid exploration, but the price of an off-road-focused Cherokee Trailhawk is higher than a more capable four-door Ford Bronco Big Bend. Front-wheel drive is standard on most trims, and four-wheel drive can be added for $1500, even on base models. For Latitude, Freedom, Latitude Plus, and Altitude trims, a 180-hp inline-four is standard with a nine-speed automatic. The bigger 271-hp V-6 is standard on Latitude LUX, Limited, and Trailhawk models. Recent updates added cargo room, but the Jeep Cherokee still lags behind the class leaders in terms of fuel economy and driving refinement.
- Base price: $28,005
- EPA Fuel Economy combined/city/highway: 26/23/31 mpg (FWD)
- All-wheel drive: Optional 4WD
Of GMC’s current selection of pickups and SUVs, the Terrain is the second best-selling model behind the full-size Sierra trucks. A refreshed 2022 GMC Terrain will go on sale soon, with new front and rear bumpers, LED headlights and taillights, and updated interior bits. The current Terrain uses a 170-hp turbocharged four-cylinder and nine-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is offered on SLE and SLT trims for extra. The ride is on the firm side and, like its Chevrolet-badged Equinox sibling, the build quality inside leaves something to be desired—at least given the GMC’s price point. A 7.0-inch touchscreen is standard, while SLT trims get a larger 8.0-inch display. While we appreciate the standard touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, including a 4G LTE data connection with a Wi-Fi hotspot, the Terrain interior is too much like a tundra of low-quality plastic and rubber.
- Base price: $26,195
- EPA Fuel Economy combined/city/highway: 27/25/30 mpg (FWD)
- All-wheel drive: Optional