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The Best Compact SUVs

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Khatir Soltani
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, Toyota's RAV, Honda's CR-V, Mitsubishi's Outlander, the BMW X3, Saturn's Vue, Suzuki XL-7, Chevrolet's Equinox, and Hyundai's 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 $18,000 to $30,000 US. 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 doesn't have the steam for this outdated design. However, it ranks with the Liberty and BMW for offroadability when properly equipped.
Khatir Soltani
Khatir Soltani
Automotive expert
  • Over 6 years experience as a car reviewer
  • Over 50 test drives in the last year
  • Involved in discussions with virtually every auto manufacturer in Canada