The UK and mainland Europe have something of a soft spot for SUVs. The segment has been growing steadily for years, but it has really taken off more recently. Manufacturers from across the spectrum have launched their own take on these high-riding, family-orientated cars, giving buyers more choice than ever before.
The ones listed here are just below average on the size chart, but are the most popular. Some even represent the best-selling SUV model for that particular brand. Customers expect Tardis-like space and premium-brand quality on the inside, as well as a commanding driving position and the compactness of an average family car to help keep palms dry in town and on narrow lanes. Here are our favourites.
1. Range Rover Evoque
Land Rover has seized the critical lead of 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 has also recently gained an important plug-in hybrid entry, the Evoque P300e, which squeezes into the UK's 12% 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 window line that restricts visibility a bit.
The D200 diesel engine is the best pick, providing strong drivability and better refinement than we’re used to from Land Rover’s four-cylinder diesels. The P300e model is also seriously impressive, with an exceptionally slick plug-in hybrid powertrain, strong electric range and engaging handling.
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 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 T2 and a T3 petrol, and the fully electric Recharge versions, which are available in 228bhp single motor or 402bhp twin motor guises.
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 easily one of the best-looking SUVs on the market and is 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 solid and quietly stylish and it offers plenty of passenger and boot space. A 2021 facelift introduces Mazda’s latest infotainment system, along with a new range-topping 2.5-litre petrol engine that previously appeared in the Mazda 6 saloon. Although it’s now a bit older than some of the other entrants on this list, the CX-5 hasn’t lost any of the handling pep that has made it one of our favourite compact SUVs.
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. Hyundai Tucson
The fourth-generation Tucson is something of a watershed moment for Hyundai. Stylistically, it’s a drastic departure from its handsome but slightly dull predecessors, and its cabin reaches new heights in terms of material appeal, too. Hyundai has long been trying to rebrand itself as an upmarket contender in Europe and the Tucson is its most convincing effort yet.
Dynamically, it plays things pretty safe, with a handling balance that prioritises ease of use over out-and-out dynamism, but it’s still enjoyable enough to pedal down a twisty road. Its hybrid powertrain offers strong performance and impressive efficiency, and - being a Hyundai - it comes incredibly well equipped and backed by a cast-iron warranty. More so than ever before, this is an impressively polished compact SUV that’s absolutely worthy of your attention.
5. Nissan Qashqai
Right up until the end of its life-cycle, the old Qashqai stayed doggedly at the sharp end of the sales charts in this class, and so with its new, lighter chassis, more commodious dimensions, and much-improved dynamics, you'd expect this new third-generation model to hit the ground running.
And, for the most part, it does. There's little here for keen drivers, and the only engine currently available is a 1.3-litre petrol MHEV (although a novel 'self-charging' range extender-style hybrid is on the way) that's a little breathless, but what did you expect? Performance and handling are not what this car is about, and as one tester put it, 'it's very thoughtfully designed for families, well-equipped, and costs peanuts to buy and run'. Convenience is everything, but while you have the Qashqai in two-pedal form and with a CVT gearbox, we'd go for the manual, simply because it improved the car's rolling refinement.
A game-changing effort? Not any more, but a demonstration that Nissan knows it's customer extremely well. It'll be difficult to beat among the non-premium ranks.
6. 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 line-up tweaks. The car's driving experience is a little 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. And don't forget there also the Allspace versions, for those that like what they see in the Tiguan but need space for seven (at a squuze).
7. 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, although this has been a strong point for the Kuga since it was introduced in 2008.
What's changed, apart from the heavy redesign, is the range of powertrains available, which now include 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.
8. Skoda Enyaq
Skoda's Enyaq crossover brings the brand's pragmatic and increasingly design-aware approach to the all-electric sphere, and it's currently our pick mid-sized family cars that come with a plug. A real-world range of more than 260 miles also means you might well consider this car as an alternative to the combustion-engined cars seen elsewhere on this page.
What we like about the Enyaq is that it's just so roomy, and the cabin fixings are high-quality in feel. The dynamics are also well-considered: hardly exciting, but pleasant and well-rounded. Finally, the pricing is attractive, with the Enyaq coming in cheaper than its cousins from the Volkswagen and Audi, despite its ability to rapid-charge at speeds of up to 125kW.
9. Kia Sportage
Given the Sportage has been such a big sales hit for Kia in what is normally a corner of the market with more conservative taste, it’s a bit of a shock to see that it's gone for bold with the all-new, fifth generation machine. Yet given the numbers already being seen on the road, it’s clear that buyers aren’t being put off by the new car’s, ahem, distinctive looks.
The truth is, behind the challenging exterior is a car that offers much the same as before, but in a more refined, grown-up and tech-laden package. It’s not quite as spacious as the best, but there’s enough room for most family needs, plus there’s a wide range of engines, from mild hybrid petrols and diesel through to a Benefit-in-Kind busting plug-in. It also comes loaded with standard kit, can be easily connected to your smartphone and, of course, is backed by the brand’s seven-year warranty.
To drive, the Sportage is something of a mixed bag. The handling is safe and predictable, but the Kia is fairly inert when pressing on, while poorly surfaced roads quickly upset its composure. It's reasonably refined but doesn’t ride as well as many rivals, jostling occupants over even smaller bumps. Experience suggests that opting for the smaller 17-inch wheels improves matters, but only a little.
Overall, the Kia is a smart, well-equipped and hassle-free family SUV, but those wanting a little emotional uplift should look elsewhere.
10. Citroen C5 Aircross
Demand for the C5 Aircross has remained strong since its introduction in 2018, so Citroen has played it safe with the car’s mid-life refresh. In fact, there are no sheet metal changes on the outside, but clever integration of some eye-catching LED headlamps and reprofiled grille create an even more distinctive look than before. Inside, there are some higher grade materials and new, more intuitive 10-inch infotainment screen and, well, that’s it.
In fairness, in terms of style and packaging, the Aircross didn’t need much tweaking, as its refreshingly quirky interior looks the part and serves-up more space than most, as well as useful items such as its trio of sliding and reclining rear seats. Comfort is also a strength, with the already cosseting front seats given even greater sofa-style appeal with extra memory foam inserts.
The easy-going vibe continues on the move, where the Citroen prefers relaxed and unhurried progress, particularly with the entry-level 128bhp 1.2-litre petrol (there’s also a similarly powerful diesel and 222bhp plug-in hybrid). Changes to chassis are non-existent, so you get the same soft suspension that results in a little wallow and roll when hustling hard, as well as light and lifeless steering. What Citroen calls its Progressive Hydraulic Cushion suspension (effectively fancy bump stops) serves-up pleasing waft over big, well-surfaced undulations, but potholes and sharp ridges result in some unwelcome crashiness.
It’s far from a thrill-a-minute to drive and it can’t match premium rivals for fit and finish, but the keenly priced Citroen is a practical, well-equipped and interesting alternative, plus its laid-back demeanour isn’t without appeal when it comes to taking the sting out of the daily grind.