Chances are, if you’re shopping for a new vehicle, you’re considering at least one SUV or crossover. And these days, SUVs are money makers. However, you don’t need to spend a boatload of money on a full-size SUV to take home a versatile machine. Small or compact SUVs may suit your lifestyle way better. And if you want, you can splurge a little more to take home a compact luxury SUV. There’s a reason this segment of SUV is so darn popular.
Whether you want a SUV capable of getting all your dogs to the park or all your kids to baseball practice, compact crossovers are more than equipped for the task. Considering the sheer variety of vehicles on sale today, there’s something for just about everyone, whether your chief priorities involve tech, safety or towing capacity. Let’s take a look at some of our favorites.
The 2021 Mazda CX-5 knocks it out of the park. Mazda has been paying more attention to, well, just about everything. Tick the right boxes and the CX-5 will come with interior trimmings that rival some proper luxury cars, or keep the base price low and focus on the value play.
Whether it sports the base 187-horsepower engine or the uprated 250-hp unit, the 2021 CX-5 is an absolute delight to drive, blending exciting dynamics with sensible damping in around-town driving. Mazda’s compact crossover will keep spirited drivers engaged while packing the capability needed to get a family through the daily grind, and it does it with seemingly no sacrifices.
It’s hard to pick a winner among compact SUVs, and while the CX-5 deserves the top spot, there’s another small crossover that’s still plenty worthy of your attention: The 2021 Honda CR-V.
Honda’s ubiquitous compact SUV is all about taking it easy; it’s easy on the eyes, easy on the road and easy on your wallet — especially with its optional hybrid powertrain. Sure, the infotainment system is on the middling side, and its fuel economy isn’t top of the pops, but every other aspect of the CR-V positively shines for families who need something high on value and low on dramatics.
Honor roll: The 2020 Honda CR-V is one intelligent crossover
If you want a proper luxury experience, you don’t need to spend insane amounts of money on some land-barge behemoth. Instead, you can spend a more sensible amount on a smaller luxury vehicle that still puts the emphasis on comfort and convenience. In that arena, the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLC300 reigns supreme.
The 2021 GLC300 carries over many notable upgrades from its 2020-model-year midcycle refresh, including a fresher look and a host of new cabin tech. Most importantly, the latest version of the GLC300 now carries Mercedes-Benz’s excellent MBUX infotainment system, which is responsive, visually appealing and loaded with neat features like augmented-reality navigation directions. Throw some additional coin into play and you can kit the thing out with tons of advanced driver aids, too.
A luxury vehicle is nothing without a smooth ride, and the GLC300 delivers in that regard. Whether or not it rocks air suspension, this Merc eats bad roads for breakfast and returns nothing but comfort. Its base 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 makes a commendable 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, which in rear-drive guise approaches 30 miles per gallon on the highway.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLC300: Understated style, smarter tech
Porsche’s smallest SUV leaves quite the large impression. If you can muster up the cost of entry, the 2021 Porsche Macan provides one of the most rewarding performance SUV experiences.
The Porsche Macan lineup is positively huge, starting with a 248-hp base model for a shade over $50,000 and stretching all the way to the $85,000-plus, 434-hp Macan Turbo. But each and every variant is an absolute blast to drive, with a lively chassis that was built with spirited driving in mind. It’s not a 911, but if you have to move around kids, animals or just a healthy amount of cargo, this is about as close as you can get to a Neunelfer.
The Macan’s interior might be one of Porsche’s older layouts, but it’s still functional, with a welcome smattering of proper physical switchgear on the center console. Porsche’s latest PCM infotainment system comes standard on a 10.9-inch touchscreen, offering Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
Not every automaker offers multiple types of hybrid, but the 2021 Toyota RAV4 lets buyers choose from two different levels of electrification, each with its own benefits.
No matter what’s under the hood, the 2021 Toyota RAV4 is a stellar compact crossover, delivering a whole bunch of style, tech and capability under its many angled pieces of sheet metal. The traditional RAV4 Hybrid pairs a 2.5-liter I4 with an electric motor to push its city fuel economy north of 40 miles per gallon. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the hybrid hardware doesn’t have an appreciable effect on interior spaciousness.
And then there’s the RAV4 Prime. With an electric motor for each axle, the RAV4 Prime offers a net 302 hp, which gives this compact crossover some impressive hustle, reaching 60 in just under 6 seconds. It’ll net you around 42 miles of electric-only operation, taking about 12 hours to charge on a standard household plug, dropping to 2.5 hours if you pair a 240-volt Level 2 outlet with the optional 6.6-kW onboard charger upgrade.
2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime: The PHEV with power, looks and value
The best small electric SUV
2022 Chevy Bolt EUV
The 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV is brand spanking new, taking everything that was good about Chevy’s original Bolt and lifting it skyward a smidge. Throw in more attractive sheet metal and even more cabin tech, and Big Bowtie’s got an instant winner on its hands, as we noted in our recent first drive.
A 65-kWh battery works with a 200-horsepower, 266-pound-foot electric motor to provide an estimated range of 259 miles, which is about tied with the Hyundai Kona Electric and well ahead of the Nissan Leaf Plus. Its most impressive piece of kit is Super Cruise, which permits hands-off vehicle operation on premapped highways across the country. There’s nothing quite like it, especially in this segment, and its inclusion alone makes the Bolt EUV noteworthy. Thankfully, there’s a nice car wrapped around it.
If you want a hyper-efficient compact SUV that doesn’t dip its toes into complicated electrification, look no further than the 2021 Nissan Kicks, which is the most fuel-efficient SUV without a hybrid powertrain.
Equipped with its standard 1.6-liter engine, front-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission, the 2021 Nissan Kicks earns an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 31 miles per gallon city, 36 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined, coming in just a hair ahead of the Lexus UX 200 and the Hyundai Venue. If you want anything more efficient than that, you’ll have to reach upward and start plucking hybrid models off the tree.
But the Kicks’ value play doesn’t mean it’s riddled with sacrifices. Instead, solid fuel economy is one of many reasons to consider the Kicks. There are tons of standard driver assistance features, the ride is quiet and the seats are plenty comfortable for longer trips. A 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard, with higher trims receiving a larger 8-inch display. Heck, it’s not half bad to chuck around on some twisty mountain roads, either.
2021 Nissan Kicks packs a lot of features in a small footprint
The latest generation of Kia Soul might be a TikTok pariah, with legions of Zoomers lining up to riff on this boxy crossover, but while the youths are getting in some good owns, they’re missing out on one heck of a high-quality compact SUV.
The 2021 Kia Soul holds onto what helped the first Soul make its mark, looking like an actual box on wheels, but all those straight edges mean there’s plenty of passenger and cargo space on offer. Its impressive starting price of $18,765 — about half the average new-car transaction price these days — brings people in, but a variety of higher trims let buyers get fancier or sportier as they so desire. Even if you stick with the base model, though, you get an impressive lineup of standard creature comforts and safety tech.
Unlike midsize SUVs, a hefty majority of compact SUVs are all capable of towing the same amount, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 pounds. Few small crossovers go above and beyond that figure, but the 2021 Jeep Cherokee does.
When equipped with its optional V6 engine, the 2021 Jeep Cherokee is capable of towing 4,500 pounds. That’s about as much as an empty dump trailer weighs, or a large flatbed trailer with about 1,000 pounds of junk on it. That’s in addition to everything that comes in lower on the scale, like A-frame campers and enclosed utility trailers.
Despite not being the “big-boy” Bronco, Ford’s compact Bronco Sport has the chops when the going gets dirty.
In its beefiest Badlands trim, the 2021 Ford Bronco Sport offers up 8.8 inches of ground clearance and 23.6 inches of fording depth. The roof rack can handle up to 150 pounds of camping gear, and multiple vehicle modes tailor the throttle response and other inputs to work better across different kinds of terrain, with that last bit coming standard on every Bronco Sport trim.
Better yet, all that off-road capability doesn’t come with an on-road tradeoff. The Bronco Sport is just at home on pavement, with a pliant ride and gobs of power from its optional 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 (a 1.5-liter turbo I3 is standard). Style abounds, too, especially inside, where durability and versatility are doled out in equal measure.
2021 Ford Bronco Sport is ready for mountains and malls
Whiz-bang features are Tesla’s bread and butter, and its smallest SUV to date carries plenty of ’em.
If you like powertrain tech, great! You can have a Long Range Model Y variant that’s equipped for an EPA-estimated 326 miles of range, or you can sacrifice some of that for a Model Y Performance that offers just 303 miles of range alongside a powertrain that’s good for a 3.5-second sprint to 60 mph.
And then there’s Autopilot. Loaded up with radar, ultrasonic sensors and cameras galore, Autopilot is one of the more advanced driver aids available today, taking a great deal of traffic-jam tedium and making it easier on the person behind the wheel. A 15-inch touchscreen is standard, packing over-the-air updates, embedded navigation, games and more.
If you want a small SUV with loads of cargo space, curves are not your friend: The straighter a vehicle’s lines, the more stuff you can cram in there. The Subaru Forester might not be the sleekest car on the block, but its rectilinear silhouette means there are gobs of cubic feet available inside.
The 2021 Subaru Forester offers 31.1 cubic feet of space behind the second row, which is impressive, but it’s not best in class, with competitors such as the Honda CR-V coming in closer to 40 cubic feet of storage. However, when you fold down the second row, the Forester’s cargo capacity balloons to a best-in-class 76.1 cubic feet, besting the likes of the Toyota RAV4 (69.8 cu. ft.) and even the three-row Volkswagen Tiguan (73.5 cu. ft.).
The 2020 Subaru Forester is pragmatic if not passionate
For this category, we’ve outsourced our data collection to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which puts new cars through a battery of difficult tests that go above and beyond the five-star federal tests you see on window stickers. It might be as new as new can be, but the latest generation of Nissan Rogue has already risen to the top of the IIHS’ safety rankings.
The 2021 Nissan Rogue is one of the IIHS’ highest-rated small SUVs, earning the watchdog’s highest honor of Top Safety Pick Plus. The Rogue received the top Good rating in every single physical crash test, with more than commendable results in each test’s subcategories, as well. The new crossover also earned a Good rating on its headlight evaluation, in addition to a Good Plus score in an evaluation of child-seat hookups. Finally, in tests that assess crash-prevention systems, the Rogue earned the highest marks available for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian front crash avoidance.
If you feel like spending six figures on a small SUV, you might not think it’s possible, but it is. The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S Coupe, with options, can push its way up into that territory from its $84,500 base price with the checking of a few options boxes.
Then again, you get a heck of a lot of car for the money. Under the hood is a 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8 pushing out 503 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, which is sent to all four wheels and is enough to send this ship to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds, which is bordering on supercar territory. If you want a long-roof SUV, you can make some sacrifices in the power department, but the full-fat GLC63 S is only available in this cropped-top Coupe variant, silly spoiler and all.
The ride is on the harsh side, but fans of sporty SUVs will likely enjoy what the car’s adaptive air suspension can do, and avoiding larger wheels may help reduce some of that firmness. In addition to the clever dampers, the GLC63 S is loaded with all sorts of technology, from the excellent MBUX infotainment system to some of the most visually entertaining ambient lighting in the business.
Comparison of the best small SUVs for 2021
|Category||Name||Base Engine||Output||Fuel Economy (mpg, city/hwy/combined)||Base Price|
|Best small SUV overall||2021 Mazda CX-5||2.5-liter I4||187 hp / 186 lb-ft||25 / 31 / 28||$26,370|
|Best small SUV overall runner-up||2021 Honda CR-V||1.5-liter I4||190 hp / 179 lb-ft||28 / 34 / 30||$26,470|
|Best small luxury SUV||2021 Mercedes-Benz GLC300||2.0-liter I4||255 hp / 273 lb-ft||22 / 29 / 25||$43,495|
|Best small performance SUV||2021 Porsche Macan||2.0-liter I4||248 hp / 273 lb-ft||19 / 23 / 21||$53,450|
|Best small hybrid SUV||2021 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid||2.5-liter I4 hybrid||219 hp net||41 / 38 / 40||$29,675|
|Best small electric SUV||2022 Chevy Bolt EUV||Single electric motor||200 hp / 266 lb-ft||N/A||$33,995|
|Best small fuel-efficient SUV||2021 Nissan Kicks||1.6-liter I4||122 hp / 114 lb-ft||31 / 36 / 33||$20,650|
|Best affordable small SUV||2021 Kia Soul||2.0-liter I4||147 hp / 132 lb-ft||28 / 33 / 30||$18,765|
|Best small SUV for towing||2021 Jeep Cherokee||2.0-liter I4||270 hp / 295 lb-ft||23 / 31 / 26||$28,005|
|Best small SUV for off-roading||2021 Ford Bronco Sport||1.5-liter I3||181 hp / 190 lb-ft||25 / 28 / 26||$29,650|
|Best small SUV for tech lovers||2021 Tesla Model Y||Dual electric motor||384 hp / 376 lb-ft||131 / 117 / 125 (MPGe)||$50,190|
|Best small SUV for cargo space||2021 Subaru Forester||2.5-liter H4||182 hp / 176 lb-ft||26 / 33 / 29||$25,845|
|Best small SUV for safety||2021 Nissan Rogue||2.5-liter I4||181 hp / 181 lb-ft||27 / 35 / 30||$26,900|
|Best small SUV if money is no object||2021 Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S Coupe||4.0-liter V8||503 hp / 516 lb-ft||15 / 22 / 17||$85,550|
|Best small SUV worth waiting for||2022 Hyundai Tucson||2.5-liter I4||187 hp / 178 lb-ft||N/A||$26,135|
How we made our list
We drove them! Roadshow’s editors are constantly on the road, evaluating a wide variety of vehicles in all sorts of situations. It’s that collective experience that guides the decisions that turn into our best lists. The vehicles you see here represent our favorites from across the industry, broken down into categories that reflect what buyers are looking for in a compact SUV.
As always, it’s worth noting that your mileage may vary; every family has different needs, after all, and something as simple as a test drive can reveal preferences that may differ from those of our editors. But that’s a good thing. After all, a car is only as good as the purpose it serves, and if something is perfect for you, then go with it. Each dealership is different, too, so while base prices may work as a guide, the final dollar amount can vary from location to location.
Read more: Best truck for 2021