Top 10 best small SUVs 2021
15 July 2021 - 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
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 6% 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, 402bhp 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 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 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.
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. 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.
A facelift for 2021 has introduced Jaguar Land Rover’s excellent new Pivi Pro infotainment system and few mild tweaks to the baby Jag’s exterior, but it’s beneath the surface where the biggest changes have been made. The old Ford-related D8 platform has been replaced by the same PTA architecture that underpins the Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery Sport.
This change is significant. Not only does Jaguar claim it helps to improve the slightly lacklustre dynamism of the original, but it also means you can now have your E-Pace with a range of mild-hybrid petrol and diesel engines, or even as a plug-in hybrid. The PHEV is the only example of the updated E-Pace that we’ve driven, but on the handling front, things look good. There’s a definite edge to the way it gets itself into a corner, and its ride is comfortable, too. It certainly feels more like a junior Jaguar SUV than its predecessor.
9. BMW X1
BMW's SUV range is growing all the time, but its smallest – the 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 among the firmer-riding SUVs in this bracket, too, and rather disappointingly is one of the less fuel efficient in real-world use, 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 that drivers of more sporting tastes will appreciate.
10. 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 people. 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 the 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 roadholding 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.