If you want a new family car, you’re probably considering crossovers and small SUVs from the best new car lists. It used to be the case that these small SUVs were perceived as a fad, back 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 questionably accessorised, 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 the top hatchbacks or estates. And guess what? Its inherent dynamic limitations scarcely seemed to matter. Buyers loved its high driving position, go-anywhere image, and perceived cabin space and safety. Even if, admittedly, even the best 4×4 variants never ventured further off the road than the edge of a pavement.
The best new small SUVs and crossovers 2023 at a glance
► Best-handling small SUV: Ford Puma – Find out more
► Best premium compact SUV: BMW X1 – Find out more
► Best all-electric compact SUV: Smart #1 – Find out more
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 popular family cars with outdoorsy attitudes. 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.
There are myriad choices in this automotive sector, however, and it can be hard to discern which might be the best SUV for you. So, we’ve pulled the data from CAR magazine’s GBU – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – data section, and added in the contenders from our latest tests, to come up with our guide to the best small SUVs on sale in the UK in 2023.
Best small SUVs and crossovers in 2023
One of the best small SUVs around
Pros: Enjoyable driving experience; smart styling; lots of neat touches
Cons: Not much in the way of engine options; not as practical as the alternatives
Buying a new compact SUV does not mean abandoning all semblance of driving enjoyment. The new Ford Puma, as a case in point, is a real joy to drive; it has responsive, eager handling, a finely honed chassis, intuitive controls and fizzy powertrains. There’s even a hot ST variant, for those who fancy something with a bit more spice.
The Ford doesn’t ditch all the essentials required for a small family SUV in favour of driving dynamism, mind. It packs a large boot, a decent amount of room in the second-row seats, and a good amount of kit. Some competitors are more practical and finished to a higher standard inside, admittedly, but you might judge the on-road character of the Puma to be worth the compromises elsewhere.
For a more in-depth look read our Ford Puma review
Fine-driving premium family crossover
Pros: Upmarket interior; high degree of practicality; refined on-road manners
Cons: Expensive; infotainment system can be annoying
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 out of the best small luxury SUVs. 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 ambience, it exudes a similar hewn-from-solid feel.
A wide array of options are available, including petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid variants, and there are also models with xDrive all-wheel drive, helping provide sure-footed traction in more challenging conditions. And for those wanting stout performance, BMW also offers a 296bhp X1 M35i xDrive version. But even in standard form, 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.
For a more in-depth look read our BMW X1 review
Updated Duster is good value for money
Pros: Great value for money; decent refinement; plenty of space
Cons: Three-star Euro NCAP rating; ride can be a bit rough
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. You’ve your pick of frugal front-wheel-drive petrol models, with manual or automatic transmissions, and a diesel in front- and all-wheel-drive configuration.
Okay, the basic Essential model is a bit light on kit, but the price jump to Expression isn’t that significant, and there are some great finance deals around. As you’d expect, the Dacia majors on easy-going 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, Duster remains an impressively appealing yet inexpensive choice.
For a more in-depth look read our Dacia Duster review
A convincing comfort-oriented EV
Pros: Lots of kit; enjoyable EV experience; practical cabin
Cons: Small boot; unintuitive infotainment; overpowered Brabus variant
Remember Smart, the brand that used to manufacture innovative and tiny compact cars and runabouts? Well, it’s back in earnest, with two new chunky all-electric SUVs – the #1 and #3, the former of which is the focus here. The Countryman-rivalling #1 is a 273-mile capable compact crossover, which is appealing, decent to drive and packed with equipment. It just feels and looks a whole lot different to the majority of mainstream offerings, while also hitting the key marks in the best small SUV sector, making it a tempting option.
If its premium nature appeals but you want something a bit more conventional, aside from the options here, you could take a look at the Mercedes-Benz GLA or Audi Q2. Or, if you’ve got a tighter budget but still fancy an EV, have a nose around an MG ZS EV, as well as the other best electric SUV contenders. What you shouldn’t do, though, is go for a Brabus #1 if you want more power. It’s quicker, but it just feels overpowered and unpleasant to push on in.
For a more in-depth look read our Smart #1 review
Polished Peugeot is a tempting choice
Pros: Spacious interior; good chassis and engines; striking styling
Cons: Disappointing E-2008 EV variant; won’t be to all tastes
Peugeot is on a roll at the moment, doling out eye-catching new model after eye-catching new model. But there’s more to the new Peugeots than just sleek exterior surfacing, intricate detailing and snazzy interior trims; the compact 2008 SUV, for example, serves up a decent slice of practicality, a sweet 1.2-litre petrol engine, and some impressive tech.
As is the case with other modern Peugeots, however, not all will get on with the i-Cockpit set-up, where a shrunken steering wheel is positioned below a slim instrument cluster. The 2008’s unquestionably worth a look, and more interesting than alternatives from the likes of Volkswagen, but you need to sit in one first to make sure you submit your order. And steer clear of the electric E-2008: there are better alternatives out there.
For a more in-depth look read our Peugeot 2008 review
Compact SUV is a breeze to live with
Pros: Classy inside; pleasant and easy to drive; good amount of space
Cons: Boot could be bigger; not engaging to drive; Recharge EV is expensive
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 compact SUVs list. 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.
This isn’t one for enthusiasts, though; light controls and a pliant ride mean the XC40 feels well suited to the city, but 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. A very competent all-electric version is also available, called the XC40 Recharge, which sports a range of up to 333 miles.
For a more in-depth look read our Volvo XC40 review
Toyota Yaris Cross
Minimise worries with a ten-year warranty
Pros: Ease of ownership; economical; spacious interior
Cons: Uninspiring infotainment; a bit charmless and dull
The Yaris Cross, which employs Toyota’s petrol-electric hybrid system, is a smart choice if you’re looking to keep hassle to a minimum. Aside from Toyota’s high standard of reliability, and excellent real-world economy, the Yaris Cross comes with a ten-year, 100,000-mile warranty, provided you service it at an authorised Toyota facility.
It gets better, though; the Yaris Cross is also a neatly styled and practical compact SUV that is far better to drive than you might expect. It also comes with a lot of equipment and, a point that may swing the deal entirely for some, it has a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. It’s only a shame that it doesn’t have a little more flair, inside and out, in terms of personalisation.
For a more in-depth look read our Toyota Yaris cross review
A relaxing, refined option
Pros: Good array of options, small footprint; refined and practical design
Cons: Only petrol models; getting on a bit; less exciting than some
If you want a smartly styled and more mature-feeling experience, the Seat Arona should make its way onto your list. It’s been around for a while now but its blend of sensible interior space, sharp yet unobtrusive styling, good kit levels and pleasant on-road performance still lend it a considerable amount of appeal. It’s also a good choice if you regularly have to tackle tighter parking areas, given that it’s only a little over four metres long.
Admittedly, some competitors are more engaging to drive, or more interesting or practical, but the Seat’s line-up of kit, customisation, engine options and credentials make it an option well worth considering. And if it doesn’t hit the mark, you could consider the Skoda Kamiq, Volkswagen T-Cross or Volkswagen Taigo, which all share the same underpinnings.
For a more in-depth look read our Seat Arona review
Small SUVs buyers’ guide
First, a reality check: unless your nearest neighbours are a herd of Highland cattle, an SUV, even a small one, isn’t the most rational choice. A conventional hatchback or small estate 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 all-wheel drive – 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 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 and efficiency still makes sense for SUVs, and the upfront cost can pay off for higher-mileage drivers.
What is the best small SUV?
It depends to some extent on what you need from your new SUV but, overall, the Ford Puma is one of the most appealing compact crossovers around. It ticks the major boxes, such as practicality, equipment and styling, but also serves up an enjoyable driving experience. The entertainment it provides is what really gives it an edge over its competitors, and it ably proves that you don’t have to ditch all hope of driving fun if you buy something from this class.
What is the best used small SUV?
Because there have been so many small SUVs offered in recent history, there’s a wide array of choice on the used market. There are options such as the Renault Captur, the Suzuki Vitara, the Skoda Kamiq, and the Citroen C3 Aircross. And, truth be told, you’d not go far wrong with a lot of those options. But, already, there are an array of good used Ford Pumas on offer, with sensible examples available for less than £14,000 now.
Which small SUV has the biggest boot space?
The small SUV sector encompasses a wide range of vehicles, so there’s quite a wide variation in terms of interior practicality and boot space. Out of those here, it’s the BMW X1 that trumps the competition on the practicality front, offering up to 540 litres of storage space. The XC40 and Duster aren’t far behind, though. Don’t forget to measure the length of the load bay and check to see how high its lip is, either, if practicality is essential – sheer size isn’t the only consideration when it comes to how useful a boot is.
Which small SUVs have the best towing capacity?
If you’re looking for an affordable option, then the compact Dacia Duster is probably your best bet for towing duties. Opt for the Blue dCi 115 4×4 model and you’ll get a practical SUV with a maximum braked towing rating of 1,500kg, while its comparatively inexpensive nature means you probably won’t be as precious about its paint and panel work when pressing it into service. Its additional traction will also come in handy on campsites and on rougher roads, too.
What is the most economical small SUV?
Overlooking the zero-local-emissions electric options, there are plenty of fuel-sipping options in the small SUV market. Unsurprisingly, it’s the petrol-electric hybrid Toyota Yaris Cross that’s one of the most economical small SUVs around. But many contenders here, thanks to their lower weight and efficient engines, are capable of averaging in the region of 50-60mpg. However, what you average in the real world will depend on the conditions and your driving style.
Why are small SUVs popular?
Many find their styling and presence desirable, and many also perceive small SUVs to be more practical and safe than their conventional counterparts. And, to be fair, many small SUVs now offer an appealing blend of comfort, practicality, efficiency, equipment and driving dynamics in an affordable package. But, in many a case, a regular hatchback would prove more practical, better to drive, and less expensive to run. That’s not to say they’re completely without point, though; the higher hip point of many compact crossovers improves egress and ingress, and can make things such as fitting child seats much easier, while their higher ride height, vantage point, shape and body cladding can make them less nerve-wracking to drive on potholed roads and in urban areas.
What is the best automatic small SUV?
Pleasingly, there are a lot of good automatic options in this sector of the market. If you want a premium compact SUV with an automatic, go for the BMW X1 or Volvo XC40. If you want something majoring on reliability and frugality, go for the Toyota Yaris Cross, the E-CVT of which helps the car to deliver an effortless driving experience.