Top 10 best small SUVs 2020
21 October 2020 - autocar
The UK car market is awash with high-riding SUVs that are spacious yet decent to drive when the occasion arises. Find out which make our top 10 list
Last year, around one in three registrations in the UK and Europe were of SUVs. It's a segment that has been growing steadily for years but has only now started to pick up real pace, prompting manufacturers to build entire ranges of high-riders.
These are just below average on the size chart but are the most popular, with the segment home to several brands' best-selling SUVs. Customers expect Tardis-like space and premium-brand quality on the inside and a commanding driving position, combined with the compactness of an average family car to keep palms dry in town and on narrow lanes.
1. Range Rover Evoque
Land Rover has seized the critical lead of what's undoubtedly the most important market segment in which it now plays with the second-generation Range Rover Evoque. Based on an all-new mixed-material platform, the car has adopted mild-hybrid engines and sits on a longer wheelbase than its predecessor for improved interior space without having grown significantly in any outward dimension. The Evoque derivative range also just gained an important plug-in hybrid entry, the Evoque P300e, which squeezes into the UK's six-percent benefit-in-kind company car tax band.
The car has taken big leaps forward on mechanical refinement, interior space, luxury ambience and technological allure. While it isn't the most practical car of its kind, it's very competitive on that score, with plenty of room for adults in the second row – albeit behind a fairly high shoulder line that restricts visibility a bit.
The D200 diesel engine is the best pick, providing strong driveability and better refinement than we're used to from Land Rover's four-cylinder diesels. We're yet to test the P300e, but hope to put it through a full road test soon.
Having rather come of age as a Range Rover, the Evoque now represents as luxurious-feeling a car as it's possible to buy in this class – and that'll help justify what's a fairly high price to a great many buyers.
2. Volvo XC40
Volvo's first attempt at a compact sibling for its established XC60 and XC90 SUVs is a real success, and in the XC40 the Swedish marque has given us a car with the sort of instant kerbside appeal you'd expect of the class-leading act that it very recently still was.
With a design sufficiently charismatic and alluring to bring younger family buyers into Volvo showrooms, the XC40 backs up its funky exterior with a cabin of laudable richness, comfort, usability and quality. While this isn't the most practical car in the compact SUV class, it certainly has plenty of luxury-car ambience, not to mention all the in-car technology you'd hope for.
The car's engine range has been recently revised, with all diesel derivatives withdrawn. There's now a choice of two plug-in hybrid models; a couple of mild-hybrid petrols; an entry-level T3 petrol; and the fully electric Recharge P8.
The XC40's ride and handling represents Volvo at its best and the small family 4x4 at its most relaxing. Rather than chasing other premium brands for driver appeal, the XC40 is happy to play the comfortable, refined, convenient and easy-to-use option – and it's an effective one. If an SUV's mission is to lift its driver above the hustle and bustle and filter out the pain from the daily grind, few do it better.
3. Mazda CX-5
This is arguably the best-looking SUV on the market and objectively much more refined than its predecessor, with respectable fuel economy and an unusual level of handling verve for this class.
The CX-5's interior is both solid and quietly stylish and offers plenty of passenger and boot space. CO2 emissions are a little on the high side, while the engine pumping it out is torquey if you opt for the diesel but no world-beater. Prices start a little higher than for some rivals, but standard equipment is generous.
The CX-5 offers a healthy mix of fun, frugality and family-friendly space, so it deserves serious consideration from buyers who want a car that does a little bit of everything.
4. Ford Kuga
The new Kuga sits above the reinvented Puma in Ford's SUV hierarchy, and happily shares a similarly impressive dynamic DNA with the smaller car. In short, it's unusually good to drive by the standards of the class, though this has been a strong point for the Kuga since it was introduced in the 2008.
What's changed, apart from the heavy redesign, is the range of powertrain's available, which now includes a 222bhp plug-in hybrid that can travel up to 35 miles on electric power alone – for now, the only model we've tested. Ford announced a safety recall for the Kuga PHEV earlier this year, and has temporarily taken the car off sale while it rectifies the problem. The car remains available in petrol- and diesel-engined form and as a mild-hybrid.
Highlights are the rolling refinement – which does more to push the Kuga upmarket than the interior – and good levels of comfort and practicality. Performance could be stronger for the heavy PHEV version, though, and we're eager to try 'lesser' petrol variants, which may prove to be the sweetest all-rounders in the range. All-in-all, the Kuga's well worth considering.
5. Volkswagen Tiguan
The Tiguan is Volkswagen's third-best selling model after the Golf and Polo hatchbacks. It's flexible, spacious, solidly built, comfortable and refined. With just a little more driver engagement, it would be an even more formidable package – but even as it is, it takes some beating. It's a slightly pricey option and its interior isn't particularly interesting, but what it lacks in visual drama it more than makes up for in solidity.
A recent facelifted has added a plug-in hybrid version and a range-topping Tiguan R performance derivative, among other powertrain lineup tweaks. The car's driving experience is a little bit spec-sensitive: with the better, more powerful engines and adaptive suspension, the Tiguan performs and handles very well, and rides with all the sophistication you'll want - but the more basic versions are more dynamically ordinary.
A premium offering? Perhaps not in every sense, but it's a cut above most cars in the growing compact SUV segment.
6. BMW X1
BMW's SUV range is growing all the time, but its smallest – the recently updated X1 – remains one of our top picks for those who want a practical small family car with a bit of dynamic bite. Among all the premium crossovers, it's relatively practical, it handles well and it's plush inside.
It's also less pricey than the Range Rover Evoque, despite being several thousand pounds up on the more mass-market offerings in this list. It's also among the firmer-riding SUVs in this bracket, and rather disappointingly is one of the less fuel efficient in the real world, although a plug-in hybrid version is now available with an electric-only range of 35 miles. If you can charge at home and drive less than 50 miles daily, that could prove very useful.
Overall, the X1 is practical, and being part-SUV and part-crossover hatchback, comes with an appealing blend of space and compactness than drivers of more sporting tastes will appreciate.
7. Mercedes-Benz GLB
While Mercedes' boxy new compact SUV may look somewhat like a boil-washed version of its GLS flagship, the GLB actually sits on the same MFA2 architecture as the much smaller A-Class and B-Class. Don't let its hatchback underpinnings fool you, though; its plush tech-laden interior (which makes use of Mercedes' latest MBUX infotainment suite) will, in fact, seat seven passengers. Of course, the third row is best left for children - but such flexibility can be hard to find in this class.
Engine-wise, there's a familiar selection of four-cylinder petrols and diesels, with the 302bhp unit that also appears in the AMG A35 hot hatch crowning the range. Our early test drive was of the entry-level GLB 200, which proved punchy enough while also impressing on grounds of refinement and response. We have since road tested a GLB 220d in the UK, which was less refined but still quite slick and easy to drive.
It's comfortable, too, and secure in its road holding capability. It's not exactly the driver's choice in the segment, but the focus it places on civility, practicality and premium appeal is very likeable indeed.
8. Audi Q3
If the second-generation Q3 looks familiar, that's because the design is heavily influenced by the aggression of Audi's sloping-roof Q8 flagship. And along with growth in the wheelbase, freeing up much-needed space for rear-seat passengers, even the base 1.5-litre 35 TFSI Sport now comes generously equipped, with LED lights, MMI Navigation Plus, a 10.2in Virtual Cockpit screen and rear parking sensors as standard.
But for all its clean-cut sophistication and cabin integrity, this chassis doesn't ride with quite the same suppleness as that of the Volvo XC40, while diesel versions are uncharacteristically short on mechanical refinement.
Neither does the Q3's precise but remote handling particularly impress. Although unflappable and easy to drive, it doesn't match up to the involvement you'll enjoy in the Mazda CX-5.
9. Jaguar E-Pace
Jaguar's follow-up act for the successful F-Pace will certainly catch your eye when you first see it. As you'll likely guess from the look of its curvaceous bodywork, it's not the most practical compact SUV in the segment, but the richness of its interior for the most part convinces you that it feels like the luxury prospect you took it for.
Some underwhelming four-cylinder diesel engines and a slow-shifting nine-speed automatic gearbox are foremost among the reasons why some versions of the car fail to deliver the sporting driving experience you expect of a Jaguar – although both perform smoothly and adequately well most of the time. The car has yet to receive the updated engine range of the related Range Rover Evoque and Discovery Sport.
The E-Pace's handling, too, is less distinguished than it might be. Although top-of-the-line turbocharged petrol versions of the car are certainly athletic and exciting enough to drive, there's less to praise mid-range versions of the car for – so much so that, if you covered up the emblem on the steering wheel, you'd be hard pushed to identify that you were driving a Jaguar at all with many of them.
10. Peugeot 3008
In the hotly contested SUV market, the 3008's sharp looks help it to stand out from the crowd - even if its engine refinement, handling and interior space don't. What it lacks in handling verve, though, it makes up for with generous standard equipment, and with a smattering of rich, high-quality materials inside.
It'll take many drivers some time to get used to the tiny steering wheel, which seems even more incongruous in an SUV than it does in smaller models, and while Peugeot's i-Cockpit layout is eye-catching, it's also more widely ergonomically flawed.
The 3008 is fairly competitively priced but doesn't offer as much interior space as rivals. It does, however, now come in two different plug-in hybrid versions which ought between them to keep it high amongst compact SUV contenders for fleet operators and company car drivers.