Choosing the Best SUV

Why Buy an SUV?

SUVs appeal to a wide range of drivers. They provide versatile cargo-carrying space (although generally not as much as minivans), a higher driving position than passenger cars, varying amounts of towing capacity, and in models with three rows of seats, the ability to carry seven or eight people. With an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive system, they also provide extra traction in slippery conditions and the ability to tackle at least moderate off-road terrain. But because of their taller height, SUVs as a class are not as nimble as passenger cars and can roll over more easily in emergency handling maneuvers. Generally, their added weight and higher profile compromises fuel economy compared to a minivan or wagon, which can often provide a suitable alternative.

Car-Based vs. Truck-Based SUVs

There are two basic kinds of SUVs: car-based and truck-based. Car-based SUVs, sometimes called crossovers or CUVs, are built with unibody construction, where the frame and body are bonded into one piece, or unit. Like regular cars, most such SUVs have a fully independent suspension, which helps provide better handling and ride comfort than traditional, truck-based models. They offer all-wheel drive and can handle moderate off-road situations, but they generally aren’t designed for more challenging off-road conditions, such as traversing high rocks, deep water, loose sand, or steep inclines and descents. As with cars, the towing capacity of most car-based SUVs is limited.

Truck-based SUVs are getting harder to find these day, as the market shifts to crossovers. These are built with a body-on-frame platform (often the same one used for a company’s comparable-sized pickup). They typically offer greater cargo and towing capacity than a similar-sized car-based model, and when fitted with four-wheel drive, they are better equipped to tackle serious off-road terrain. But their handling can be cumbersome, and the ride can be bouncy and unsettled. Most body-on-frame SUVs use a solid (aka “live”) rear axle, similar to a pickup truck, though some have an independent rear suspension, which provides more refined ride and handling characteristics. For Consumer Reports’ testing purposes, we group SUVs according to size.

Subcompact SUVs
A growing category, subcompact SUVs such as the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade typically share a platform with similarly sized cars. Smaller than such models as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV, subcompact SUVs generally have less passenger and cargo capacity. But they do offer a similarly higher seating position and ride height, and some can be surprisingly roomy inside. They also are available with AWD, and their small footprint makes for easy parking and maneuvering. Just don’t expect huge cargo volume or serious off-road capability. Audi, Buick, Mercedes-Benz, and Mini Cooper offer near-luxury experiences within these smaller packagesĀ¦but be ready to shell out as much as $42,000 for the privilege.

Small SUVs
Well-suited for drivers who are looking for more room than a sedan can provide, small SUVs offer flexible cargo space and a higher driving position than cars. Some small SUVs’ fuel economy rivals that of some family sedans, though others can be thirstier and have a rough ride. For more adventurous drivers, a few models have true off-road capabilities. If you are just looking for a vehicle that provides flexible cargo space, you might want to consider a wagon or hatchback because they provide better fuel economy and are more affordable. Some wagons are available with all-wheel drive and elevated ride heights, such as the Subaru Outback.

Compact Sporty SUVs
The upscale small, performance-oriented SUVs typically offer better handling, quieter cabins, nicer fit and finish, and more amenities than regular small SUVs, though fuel economy and price are common trade-offs. Most entries in this niche are from European or Japanese prestige brands.

Midsized SUVs
Midsized SUVs have become alternatives to minivans and might satisfy the needs of many shoppers considering a large SUV. For many families, midsized SUVs provide the best balance of power, interior space, cargo room, and safety. Although many midsized SUVs offer an optional third-row seat, those seats are often cramped and not easily accessible by adults. Just about every mainstream manufacturer offers a midsized SUV, which gives you an idea of how white-hot this segment is.

Large SUVs
Most large SUVs offer plenty of power, interior space, and towing capacity, but they’re big, bulky, clumsy, and thirsty. For hauling a heavy trailer, they may be just the thing, but if it’s primarily seating and cargo capacity you’re after, you might be better off with one of the larger midsized models (such as the Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot) or a minivan. While it may not have an SUV’s adventurous image, a minivan is apt to get much better fuel economy and be quieter, more comfortable, and more flexible for switching between people and cargo duties. But a minivan will not be as capable for towing and certainly isn’t meant for off-roading.

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