► The best small premium SUVs
► From Duster to Macan
► Plus our buying advice
Remember when we all thought small SUVs were a fad? When hot hatches became vehiculum non grata in the early 1990s, the likes of the Suzuki Vitara and Toyota RAV4 filled the void. Painted in pastel colours and accessorised with bull bars and ‘comedy’ spare wheel covers, they seemed destined to join the coupe-convertible in the scrappage scheme of history.
Yet the small SUV grew up, quit its job at the surf shack and settled down in suburbia. Suddenly, here was a mainstream alternative to a humdrum hatchback. And guess what? Its inherent dynamic limitations scarcely seemed to matter. Buyers loved its high driving position, cabin space and go-anywhere image. Even if many never ventured further off-road than a block-paved driveway.
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The 2006 Nissan Qashqai was perhaps the tipping point. Call it a crossover if you will, but it opened the taps to a torrent of family cars with outdoorsy attitude. Despite ever-greater environmental pressures, it’s a trend carmakers have readily encouraged: small SUVs mean big profits.
In 2018, the Qashqai was Britain’s fourth best-seller and – along with the Ford Kuga and Kia Sportage – one of three SUVs in the top 10. However, none of them make CAR’s top 10 list. Read on for our, more discerning, guide to the best small SUVs – and use the quick links below to learn more about our top choices:
- Porsche Macan
- Range Rover Evoque
- Jaguar I-Pace
- Peugeot 3008
- Alfa Romeo Stelvio
- Mazda CX-30
- Volvo XC40
- Dacia Duster
- BMW X1
- Renault Kadjar
A small SUV buying guide
First, a reality check: unless your nearest neighbours are a herd of Highland cattle, an SUV isn’t the most rational choice. A conventional car will usually be cheaper to buy, thriftier on fuel and more fun to drive. But sports cars aren’t rational either – and that doesn’t stop us wanting one. If you have set your sights on a small SUV, here’s what to bear in mind.
Think carefully about whether you need four-wheel drive. Unlike full-sized 4x4s, small SUVs are generally front-driven, but decent ground clearance means most can handle a green lane or muddy car park. Opting for 4WD – if available – adds cost, weight and complexity, and counts for nothing in genuinely treacherous conditions without the right tyres.
Diesel was the default choice for anything at the upper end of this sector, but poor publicity has caused sales to nosedive. Already, some cars here, such as the Porsche Macan, are no longer offered with a diesel engine. New alternatives include plug-in hybrid and fully-electric powertrains, although don’t rule out diesel entirely. Its torque-rich delivery still makes sense for SUVs, and the upfront cost can pay off for higher-mileage drivers.
Talking of torque, many SUV owners regularly tow a trailer or caravan. If that’s you, check the towing capacity before you buy – some hybrids aren’t authorised to tow at all. Equally, if your SUV will be family transport – or even if not – compare Euro NCAP crash-test ratings and safety equipment carefully. The perceived extra safety of an SUV isn’t always reflected in reality.
Best small SUVs 2020
The Macan puts the ‘Sport’ into ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’, refreshing parts other small SUVs cannot reach. While the 911 hogs column inches, it quietly gets on with the job of being Stuttgart’s best-seller – and the only car here to merit a five-star verdict. Handsome outside and pleasingly premium within, it offers space for a family of four and their luggage, plus slick infotainment and lots of optional tech.
That pedigree Porsche DNA never feels far from the surface either. Vivid steering, strong brakes and a biddable chassis make for genuine B-road fun, the low driving position putting you in the thick of the action. Avoid the entry-level 242bhp 2.0-litre four-pot (shared with the Golf GTI) and stretch to the 335hp 3.0 V6 S, ideally with air suspension. Turbo and GTS versions are coming soon, but the mid-range Macan is all you really need.
Read our Porsche Macan review
Range Rover Evoque
Don’t be deceived by the same-again styling; the second-gen Evoque is new and much improved. Its platform is designed to accommodate plug-in hybrid and electric drivetrains, but you’re limited to 2.0-litre petrols and diesels at present – most with four-wheel drive and nine-speed auto. There’s more space for rear passengers and 10% larger boot, while two 10-inch touchscreens (à la Velar) add welcome wow-factor. A convertible is on the cards, although the three-door Coupe has been quietly dropped.
On the road, the Evoque feels poised and planted – like a high-rise hot hatch – yet Land Rover hasn’t dialled out the ride comfort expected of an SUV. Off the beaten track, it still leaves rivals standing. Terrain Response 2 offers a setting for every surface, from sand to snow, and clever ClearSight tech lets you see the ground between the front wheels. Ideal for mounting the kerb outside Waitrose.
Read our Range Rover Evoque review
Browse Range Rover Evoque cars for sale
A high price and the limitations of EV tech mean the i-Pace isn’t for everyone. Still, that doesn’t stop us wanting one. Ian Callum’s svelte, aluminium-bodied SUV looks – and drives – like a vision of the future. Its 90kWH lithium-ion battery serves up 395bhp and 0-62mph in 4.8sec, plus a walloping 513lb ft from standstill. It also pulls stomach-churning G-forces when cornering: quick steering, a low centre of gravity and slingshot four-wheel-drive traction see to that.
A range of 298 miles, plus charge times from 0-80% in 40 minutes, are sufficient to take on Tesla, yet the i-Pace’s appeal transcends such practicalities. It’s an SUV coupe without the vulgarity, its four-seat cabin lush and luxurious. From behind the wheel, it really does feel supercar-special. Driving one daily could pose some challenges, but times are changing fast.
Read our Jaguar i-Pace review
The old Peugeot 3008 had all the charm of a belching bullfrog. This one simply looks a bit startled, but its loftier, SUV stance is very much du jour. There’s even a two-tone ‘Coupe Franche’ paint option if you must. Sharing its oily bits with the Citroen C5 Aircross and Vauxhall Grandland X, it offers the classiest cabin of the trio: all soft-touch surfaces, ambient lighting and surprise-and-delight details. It feels impressively robust, too.
Manage your expectations – this isn’t a 205 GTI, people – and you’ll discover a decent drive. The 3008 corners with a calm sense of composure, Peugeot’s trademark tiny steering wheel notwithstanding. It also rides well, even on the 19-inch alloys of the top-spec GT. Don’t rule out the efficient BlueHDi diesel engines, which feel a better fit than the PureTech petrols. There’s no four-wheel-drive option, although few buyers will miss it.
Read our Peugeot 3008 review
Alfa Romeo Stelvio
In the not-so-distant past, Alfa Romeo building an SUV seemed as likely as Silvio Berlusconi swearing a vow of celibacy. But diehards be damned: money talks and SUVs shout loudest. The Stelvio hit the ground running, with a typically dramatic visage and a name evoking the wonderful Stelvio Pass. More importantly, most of its hardware hails from the accomplished Giulia saloon, including the rampant 503bhp V6 in the Quadrifoglio. Two 2.0-litre petrols and 2.2 diesels make up the rest of the range.
Alfa didn’t scrimp on the Stelvio’s suspension, employing double wishbones at the front and a multi-link arrangement for the rear. Combined with super-quick steering and rear-biased Q4 four-wheel drive – plus the option of a mechanical limited-slip diff – it makes for one of the sharpest drives in the segment. The downsides are a jittery ride, perceived quality that lags behind rivals and a media system that’s more Atari than Apple. Even so, the Alfa’s bountiful brio encourages you to overlook its faults. Nothing’s changed there, then.
Read our Alfa Romeo Stelvio review
According to Mazda, its supermini-sized CX-3 suits young hipsters, while the larger CX-5 is ideal for families. The CX-30, which slots between the two, is for couples with perhaps one child – or those who enjoy outdoor sports. Because everyone who buys an SUV loves a bit of kite surfing. In the CX-30’s defence, it is available with four-wheel drive, although in most respects this is a pumped-up Mazda 3.
That’s no bad thing, however. It inherits a beautifully built interior – including oodles of safety kit – feelsome steering and a snappy manual gearshift. Mazda’s innovative 178bhp 2.0-litre Skyactiv-X petrol engine, which uses diesel-style compression ignition to boost efficiency, is also available. We found it slightly underwhelming, but preferable to the gutless 120bhp 2.0 Skyactiv-G. Inevitably, the 3 hatchback offers sweeter handling and a lower price tag, but the CX-30 counters with a bigger boot, more passenger space and a smoother ride.
Read our Mazda CX-30 review
The Volvo XC40 arrived in a flurry of five-star reviews and Car of the Year awards. We weren’t quite so bowled over, judging its dynamic performance ‘good but not great’, yet it still merits a place in our top 10. For starters, we love its mini-XC90 design, emboldened by a clamshell bonnet, sculpted sides and kicked-up window line. Its plush cabin is as relaxing as a Scandinavian sauna (Volvo seats are superb) and safety equipment is second-to-none. The large, portrait-oriented touchscreen does draw your eyes from the road, though.
There’s a good choice of petrol and diesel engines, with hybrid and electric versions in development, plus front- or four-wheel drive. Light controls and a pliant ride mean the XC40 feels well suited to the city. Venture onto rural roads and the desensitised steering and wobbly handling will make you wish you hadn’t. A nicer car to own than to drive, then, but one that ticks a lot of boxes.
Read our Volvo XC40 review
Peel away the posturing and marketing make-believe from SUVs and you’re left with the Duster. We’re tempted to say it ‘does what it says on the tin’, although it won’t actually shine your skirting boards. Still, as Skoda and Hyundai/Kia push upmarket, Dacia stands alone in offering unashamedly budget motoring. Front-wheel-drive versions are cheapest – and your only option if you want an auto ’box – but bare-bones Access spec is for masochists only.
As you’d expect, the Dacia majors on easygoing comfort rather than point-to-point pace; tall tyres, squishy seats and woolly steering all isolate you from the road below. There’s enough body-roll to graze the door handles, but the overall experience is far from unpleasant. Practical and pragmatic, the Duster hasn’t changed hugely since it was first introduced in 2010. It doesn’t need to.
Read our Dacia Duster review
We’re giving the X1 the nod over the Audi Q3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC – and indeed the Jaguar E-Pace – because it’s the best of the bunch to drive. In truth, the X2 crossover is sportier still, but at the expense of some versatility. Unlike the original X1, this is a bona fide family car, with sliding rear seats and a usefully big boot. And while it falls short of the Q3 and GLC for interior ambiance, it exudes a similar hewn-from-solid feel.
Most buyers opt for xDrive four-wheel drive, which delivers a continuously variable torque split for sure-footed traction. BMW has resisted the urge to build an M-badged X1 (sigh of relief), so engines comprise 1.5-litre petrol or 2.0 petrol and diesel, all commendably refined and efficient. The X1 corners keenly and fluidly, rewarding your efforts with a lucid helm and impeccable body control. It’s an SUV you don’t need to make excuses for.
Read our BMW X1 review
Cousin to the ubiquitous Nissan Qashqai, yet better in every respect, the Kadjar is a stoutly sensible choice. Its styling is more car-like than most – arguably it’s a crossover rather than a fully-fledged SUV – with road manners to match. It’s smooth, comfortable and amenable, if somewhat short on va-va voom. The TCe 140 petrol engine is a good all-rounder, but only the dCi 150 diesel is offered with four-wheel drive. We’d pick the EDC dual-clutch auto over the vague six-speed manual.
Inside, you’ll find generous space front and rear, along with cosseting seats (optionally trimmed in Alcantara) and ample equipment. Useful touches include a modular boot floor, giant door bins and remote-fold rear seats; shame Renault’s huge touchscreen seems more about aesthetics than ergonomics. Nonetheless, few cars are so suited to family life.
Read our Renault Kadjar review
We’ll be updating this page regularly, so keep checking back for our latest thoughts on the best small SUVs.
Further reading on SUVs