Small SUVs: The Yays, Okays, and Nays

SUVs and crossovers are a very hot market. Manufacturers are trying to cram more of these all-purpose vehicles into their lineups every year to satisfy customer demand. Over the last few years, the submarket for small SUVs has seen major growth. But with so many choices, where do they rank?

Keep reading! To start, I’ll go through the small SUVs that earn a nay vote from me. This is not to say that they’re bad vehicles, but in this market, there’s no reason to settle for a mediocre choice. Next, the small SUVs that earn an okay vote, which means that they’re good choices, but not the best in the class. Still, if you have your heart set on any of these, I wouldn’t stand in your way. And finally, the official Tom the Car Pro yay vote. These are your best choices in the small SUV class.

Small SUVs: The Nays

Chevrolet Trax

Original image of the Chevrolet Trax, which is among the poorer choices available in small SUVs.

Chevy’s little crossover doesn’t have a lot going for it. The engine is loud and acceleration is slow, but fuel economy is still poor for the class. Handling is competent but it’s not fun to drive, and the ride is far from the best in class. Inside, the narrow cabin actually delivers decent space otherwise, but the interior materials are cheap and the design feels dated. Owner satisfaction scores have been poor, too. Chevrolet has another small SUV just hitting dealerships now, the Trailblazer. I’m hopeful that it’s a more competitive entry in this hot segment.

Fiat 500L

Image courtesy of Fiat

In my intro, I said that getting a nay from me doesn’t mean it’s a bad vehicle. Well, I may have misspoke. The Fiat 500L is terrible. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the 500L. You may remember it from my list of 2020 models to avoid. So naturally, it’s not getting my endorsement here. While it has good interior space, this awkward looking tall hatchback/wagon/SUV thing has uncomfortable seats and an awkward driving position. The ride is harsh and it’s loud inside. Advanced safety technologies are not available, even as an option. This is unforgivable in a vehicle from the 2020 model year. While it actually gets decent fuel economy, the engine requires premium fuel, which minimizes some of the benefit of that efficiency. Adding insult to injury, predicted reliability is awful, and so are its owner satisfaction scores. Run, don’t walk, from the 500L.

Fiat 500X

An original image of the Fiat 500X, one of the worst small SUVs you could select.

It’s really not my intention to bully Fiat, but the 500X is about as bad as the 500L. It’s the better looking of the two, but don’t fall for its cool styling. It gets poor gas mileage, is noisy, and has an uncomfortable ride. Its transmission is frustrating in its operation, and it has a small cargo area as a result of its sloping rear end. Owner satisfaction ratings are bad, as is predicted reliability. Stay far away from this Fiat.

Ford EcoSport

An original image of the Ford EcoSport, one of the worst small SUVs you could choose.

Like the Fiat 500L, the Ford EcoSport made the list of one of the 2020 models to avoid. So, no surprise that this awkward looking little Ford earns a big fat nay here, too. It has a cheap and cramped interior. In spite of its name, it’s neither economical nor is it sporty. Fuel economy is bad for this segment, and while it is reasonably nimble to drive, acceleration is loud and slow. It actually has excellent predicted reliability, but it’s a very poor value. It’s way too expensive for the many compromises you’ll make. Ford can, and needs to do better.

Jeep Compass

The Jeep Compass looks great, like a small Grand Cherokee. And if you choose the Trailhawk trim, you’ll have a little SUV with some pretty decent off-road credentials. But it’s expensive for this class. Its engine looks fairly powerful on paper, but doesn’t appear to be in execution. It’s not fun to drive, and the ride is stiff. The Compass’s fuel economy is among the worst in the class. To cap it all off, owner satisfaction scores are bad. Skip this little Jeep.

Jeep Renegade

An original image of the Jeep Renegade, a poor choice among small SUVs.

The Renegade is half a size smaller than the Compass, but no more competent. The Renegade borrows some styling elements from the iconic Jeep Wrangler, but its abysmal owner satisfaction scores indicate that the Renegade’s looks are writing checks the rest of this baby Jeep can’t cash. Like the Compass, the Trailhawk trim of the Renegade does have some off-road capabilities. But also like the Compass, this Jeep isn’t enjoyable or comfortable to drive. The Renegade ties the larger Compass in its poor fuel economy. Reliability is below average, too.

Mazda CX-3

Image courtesy of Mazda

I haven’t had many compliments for the previous entries in this list so far, but unlike those, the Mazda CX-3 has a lot going for it. It has great handling, responsive steering, and a peppy demeanor that make it fun to drive. Fuel economy is pretty good, and predicted reliability is excellent. But, it’s very small inside. The cabin is narrow, and the rear seat and cargo area are cramped. Like most Mazdas, the CX-3 uses a rotary knob controller between the front seats to control the infotainment screen. You can get used to this type of setup, but it will never be as convenient as a well-designed touchscreen interface. These compromises, along with poor owner satisfaction ratings, are why the CX-3 gets a nay vote from me.

Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross

Image courtesy of Mitsubishi

The Eclipse Cross has sporty looking styling, but even so, those who remember the Mitsubishi Eclipse sporty coupe from the 1990s and 2000s consider the Eclipse Cross an abomination of the name. Mitsubishis have an excellent warranty, but that’s about the end of the Eclipse Cross’s pros list. The sloping styling means that rear visibility is poor, as is cargo space. The engine is sluggish while also delivering poor fuel economy. Like most Mitsubishis, the interior is cheap and dated. It’s expensive for the class, but even if Mitsubishi dealers are likely to discount the Eclipse Cross heavily, it’s not worth it.

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Image courtesy of Mitsubishi

Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport has been around for nearly a decade now without any major changes. But it wasn’t a good choice when it was new, and it’s a bad choice today. The Outlander Sport’s engine drones miserably as it struggles to build speed. There’s a lack of sound insulation, so road noise easily permeates the cabin, too. If you’re currently driving a vehicle from the late 1990s or early 2000s, then you might not object to the Outlander Sport’s interior design. Otherwise, you’ll find it dated inside. And for such a small crossover, fuel economy is pretty poor. Like the Eclipse Cross, even with steep discounts and a generous warranty, there are drastically better choices than the Outlander Sport.

Nissan Kicks

The Nissan Kicks is probably more of a tall hatchback than a true SUV, since it is front-wheel drive only. All-wheel drive isn’t available. Some might not consider the Kicks an SUV or crossover as a result, but this is my list! So, I’m including it. The Kicks is another baby ute that has quite a bit going for it. It gets excellent gas mileage for this class (helped in part by its front-wheel drive only layout), it has a clean interior design with simple and easy-to-use controls, and decent interior space. For such a small vehicle, the ride is decent and it’s fairly quiet inside. The Kicks is a pretty good value, too, and a fully-loaded example is still reasonably priced. But its handling reveals the economy car roots of the Kicks. It feels clumsy to drive and the body leans in turns.

The major reason why the Kicks earns a nay from me is its transmission. I talked about this in my write up of the new Nissan Rogue, but I have reservations about Nissan’s “Xtronic” transmissions. They’ve had a fairly high failure rate in the past, and until I see the data to indicate with certainty that those quality problems have been eradicated, all Nissans with these transmissions will earn a nay vote. If you must have a Kicks, stick to a lease. For now, I’m wary of long-term ownership of Nissan products.

Nissan Rogue Sport

The Rogue Sport is also a pretty appealing package. It wears attractive styling inside and out. It’s easy to drive and the ride is fairly quiet. Initial expected reliability is excellent, too. But fuel economy is only midpack, and the engine feels underpowered when accelerating. Legroom may be inadequate for tall drivers. But as I previously mentioned, the Rogue Sport uses Nissan’s transmission with a questionable quality record later in life, as the miles on the odometer climb. Until I’m more confident that this transmission’s frailty has been addressed, I recommend avoiding most Nissan vehicles. Like the Kicks above, if you really want a Rogue Sport, lease it.

Toyota C-HR

Original image of the Toyota C-HR, one of the poorer choices among small SUVs.

The C-HR made more sense for Toyota’s funky Scion brand, for which it was originally intended, but as it now stands as Toyota’s only small crossover, you’re best making another choice. It has aggressive, coupe-like styling, but overall interior space is pretty good. It handles well, and has a pretty comfortable ride. The C-HR is front-wheel drive only, which helps produce its good fuel efficiency. But as a result of the styling, the interior feels like a cave. The rear seat feels positively claustrophobic because of the tiny windows. Rearward visibility is poor, as is the cargo space. The C-HR’s small and economical engine is slow and loud. Average predicted reliability is actually a disappointing showing for a Toyota product, and owner satisfaction ratings are bad, proving that the weird C-HR just isn’t as usable and practical as the larger Toyota SUVs like the RAV4 and Highlander.

The Okays

Honda HR-V

By not naming the HR-V at the top of the class, I hope I don’t offend my mom. She bought one of Honda’s littlest SUVs a few years ago – and didn’t even check with me first! But in my parents’ defense, they knew that I probably would have gotten all worked up and dropped everything to drive down to Pennsylvania to try and help. My mom loves her HR-V, but while it’s a good choice in this segment, I wouldn’t call it the best among small SUVs.

The HR-V gets great fuel economy. Of the vehicles in this class with available all-wheel drive, it’s the most efficient. And, if you want a small SUV but cargo hauling is important to you, the HR-V is a great choice. It borrows the trick folding rear seats from the Honda Fit, and the innovative ways the seats can be stowed opens up a large cargo area for such a small vehicle. Rear seat space is good, too, and the controls are smartly laid out and easy to use. Predicted reliability is good. But on the road, the HR-V can get noisy inside, the ride gets choppy over bumps, and it’s not as fun to drive as the Fit upon which it’s based. If you have long legs, you won’t be comfortable behind the wheel of the HR-V due to limited seat travel.

Overall, the HR-V is starting to feel its age. It was introduced here for 2016, but that just shows you how quickly things change in this highly popular segment of the market. Even if the HR-V isn’t at the top of the small SUV class (sorry Mom!), it’s still a respectable choice.

Hyundai Venue

Image of the Hyundai Venue, a good choice among small SUVs.

The Hyundai Venue is the smallest vehicle in this class of already small SUVs, and it’s front-wheel drive only. However, those two factors make the Venue a good choice if you’re on a tighter budget. Many vehicles in this class will easily approach and pass the $30,000 mark when well equipped. But the base model 2020 Venue SE starts at $18,490 including destination. With every option, the Venue will be just over $23,000 – and that includes a decent list of equipment, so long as you have reasonable expectations.

The Venue’s engine looks puny on paper, but the small size and relatively light weight means that acceleration actually isn’t bad. Fuel economy is great, and at the top of this class. The interior feels open and airy, and space is good up front. The interior design is basic but clean, and the controls are a model of simplicity. Hyundais also now come with free oil changes and tire rotations for the first three years, too. On the flip side, the Venue is noisy when accelerating. The ride gets stiff and jumpy, and while the interior is simple, it’s mostly made of cheap-feeling plastics. The rear seat is pretty tight, and all-wheel drive isn’t available.

But at this low price, maybe those are sacrifices you’re willing to make. The Venue has enough going for it that, especially if you’re more frugal than most, it makes a good choice.

Kia Seltos

Image courtesy of Kia

Opinions on styling are subjective, but I think Kia’s newest small SUV wears the most handsome lines in this segment. It also has a surprising amount of space in the front and rear, and a cargo area that’s more accommodating than some larger crossovers. The controls are straightforward, and Kia’s infotainment systems are easy to use. Handling is responsive, and if you choose the optional turbocharged engine, the Seltos is peppy, too. But with the standard 4-cylinder engine, you’ll be satisfied with its fuel efficiency.

However, the base engine feels strained under acceleration. And the dual clutch automatic transmission that comes with the turbo motor can hesitate from a stop, and will take some getting used to. Whichever engine you choose, you’ll find a ride that is stiff, and more interior noise than some others in this class. And the interior design, though modern and clean, isn’t made of the most premium of materials.

Depending on your preferences around ride firmness and interior noise, the Kia Seltos is a good all-arounder in this class..

Small SUVs: The Yays

Hyundai Kona

Image of the 2020 Hyundai Kona: one of the best small SUVs.

On several occasions, the Hyundai Kona has been among my recommendations to clients shopping for a small SUV. As a perfect counterpoint to those who might still question Hyundai’s quality, predicted reliability of the Kona has been excellent. Front occupants will find plenty of room, and a clean, high-quality, easy-to-use dashboard design. As with all Hyundais, oil changes and tire rotations are on the house for the first three years of ownership. The Kona is also enjoyable to drive, with minimal body lean in turns, well-weighted steering, and an eager, playful demeanor.

As for the cons, while I think the Kona looks cool, it’s unique styling may not be to everyone’s liking. Power from the standard 4-cylinder motor is lacking but engine noise while gathering speed is not, but stepping up to the optional turbo 4-cylinder requires the same dual-clutch transmission I mentioned above in the Kia Seltos. The tradeoff for the eager handling is a firmer ride. Fuel economy is mid-pack for this class, and the rear seat can be tight on space depending on how far back the front seats are adjusted. Finally, while the interior feels well screwed together, it’s mostly made of cheap plastics.

There’s an excellent all-electric version of the Kona available, too. But even in the standard Kona, there’s a lot to love here.

Kia Soul

The Kia Soul is similar to the Nissan Kicks and Toyota C-HR in that it’s slightly more of a tall hatchback and less of a crossover, since it’s also front-wheel drive only. Although, with every new entry in this market segment, that line becomes more blurred. But whatever you want to call it, if you’re shopping for one of these small SUVs, you need to consider the Soul.

It’s easy to slide behind the wheel of the Soul, thanks to the tall roof but slightly lower ride height relative to others on this list. You’ll be surprised at how spacious it is inside the Soul, especially considering its compact exterior, even in the rear seat. Handling is good, and the Soul feels stable around turns. It’s fuel efficient, similar to the all-wheel drive SUVs on this list, if not quite as high as most of its front-wheel drive competition. You can equip a Soul with a surprising list of high-end features, but even so, the price stays reasonable for this class, making it an excellent value. Predicted reliability is excellent, and owner satisfaction scores are good.

However, the Soul’s styling is divisive. You probably either love it, or hate it. As I’ve mentioned already, all-wheel drive isn’t an option. With the rear seats up, cargo space is tight compared to more traditional crossovers. Like most in this class, the engine is loud on acceleration, and the ride can be stiff.

Mazda CX-30

Mazda’s newest crossover, the CX-30, is a sharp looking vehicle. It looks muscular and athletic, and has a powerful standard engine to deliver the performance to back up the styling. Fuel economy isn’t class-leading, but it’s on the better side of average. It’s agile through turns, like most Mazdas. And overall, the CX-30 appears to be a class above the rest of these SUVs. It has a feeling of substance that its competitors can’t match, and the interior is just as attractive as the exterior. The high quality of the appointments inside convey a sense of luxury. If you covered up the Mazda badges, the CX-30 would compete – favorably, no less – with the smallest SUVs from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

However, the tradeoff for the CX-30’s styling is that the interior doesn’t feel as airy as some, and cargo space isn’t as accommodating as the best in the segment. The ride is firm, and the rear seat isn’t among the most spacious. Like most Mazdas, as I mentioned above in the CX-3, the CX-30 uses the same rotary controller for the infotainment screen, which will have a learning curve.

Generally speaking, pricing for the CX-30 is comparable to its competition, but fully loaded, it’s one of the more expensive small SUVs. So equipped, the CX-30’s performance, handling, and substantial and luxurious feel more than justify the higher cost. But even without every bell and whistle, this is a fantastic choice.

Subaru Crosstrek

Image of the 2020 Subaru Crosstrek, one of the best small SUVs.

There’s a reason why the Subaru Crosstrek has nearly a cult-like following – it’s an excellent little crossover. If a comfortable ride is a top priority, move the Crosstrek to the top of your shopping list. It also has a feeling of substance that conveys a sense of high quality. Its handling is well balanced, and all-wheel drive is standard equipment. Fuel economy ties the Honda HR-V at the top of the AWD mini-SUV class. The interior is spacious and airy, with a great view out in all directions, and the controls are simple to use. There’s practical storage space throughout the cabin, and cargo space out back is good for this class.

But even the Crosstrek isn’t perfect. Acceleration is sluggish, and the engine can drone loudly under heavy acceleration. The styling of the Crosstrek reflects its practical, sensible nature. Nobody will call it beautiful. There’s a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the Crosstrek available, but it carries a substantial price premium over a top-trim Crosstrek Limited. Tax credits can minimize some of that extra cost, but when fully charged, the PHEV can only drive about 17 miles on electric power alone before the gasoline engine kicks in. After that point, once the PHEV is operating like a conventional hybrid vehicle, it will only get 33 mpg overall. This is about 4 mpg more than the standard Crosstrek, but nowhere near the efficiency of dedicated hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. The PHEV also has less cargo space than the conventional version due to the battery pack.

In spite of these shortcomings, once you add in excellent predicted reliability and high owner satisfaction scores, the Crosstrek only becomes an even better choice.

In conclusion…

There are a ton of options among small SUVs, and there are new entries in this popular segment all the time. At the moment, only four of them earn an easy yay vote from me: the Hyundai Kona, Kia Soul, Mazda CX-30, and Subaru Crosstrek.

And if you need a hand figuring out exactly which of these tiny SUVs is the best choice for you, or if you’d like help getting a great deal without the hassle of the traditional car shopping experience, shoot me a message and let’s chat! I’d love to help you. Thank you for reading!

1 thought on “Small SUVs: The Yays, Okays, and Nays”

  1. Pingback: Compact SUVs: The Yays, Okays, and Nays - Tom the Car Pro

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