SUV Features Checklist
While the volume of available SUVs can be overwhelming, the number of features they all offer is staggering in its own right. When determining the most meaningful features for you, it's useful to review the range of available features across major feature categories. Later on, you can drill down to the really important decisions, like whether you want the sunroof, the hands-free tailgate ... or both!
Jump to category: Styling | Performance | Fuel Economy | Seating | Cargo Space | Infotainment | Safety and Driver Assistance | Off-Road Equipment
An SUV's exterior styling is its most subjective quality. Either you're drawn to it or you're not. Some SUVs broadcast rugged capability with reinforced lower panels, chunky tires and elevated ride height. Others are city slickers with elegant lines, dazzling LED accent lights and shiny chrome trim. Form usually follows function here, so be sure to determine how high you'll need to step in and out of the SUV. Also take note of the liftover height into the rear cargo area — that is, how high you have to lift your cargo to get it in. You don't want to end up with an SUV that you love looking at but have trouble using on a daily basis.
Even a small SUV can put a big strain on an engine, and automakers are constantly trying to balance power with fuel economy. That's why you'll often find relatively small turbocharged engines in today's SUVs — the turbo helps generate easy low-end torque, while the smaller size limits fuel consumption. Even SUVs with V8 engines tend to lean on turbocharging for the same reasons. In fact, today's turbo technology is advanced enough that a boosted four-cylinder engine can generate the power necessary to drive a large 3-row SUV. But not all small engines are created equal, so it pays to test-drive a few, particularly in passing situations on the highway.
SUV Fuel Economy
Today's SUVs are more fuel-efficient than ever, but they're still larger and heavier than their sedan counterparts, and the trade-off for that additional utility comes at the pump. Some smaller SUVs do almost as well on gas as regular cars. But fuel efficiency dwindles as SUVs grow larger, heavier and more muscular, with combined mpg in the teens for the real bruisers. Not surprisingly, the most fuel-efficient SUVs are hybrids, but only a handful of automakers even offer a hybrid SUV. That's changing, but it's worth contemplating whether you really need to hold out for a hybrid SUV when today's gas-powered SUVs are often capable of 25-30 mpg combined. Having said that, hybrid SUVs tend to do much better in congested stop-and-go driving than their conventional rivals. So if you spend a lot of time inching through the city, a hybrid SUV could save you a lot of gas money.
Today's SUVs seat anywhere from five to nine passengers (more exotic high-performance SUVs sometimes offer just four seats). But just because an SUV offers five seat belts doesn't mean you'll have five happy passengers. Many smaller SUVs can really only seat two adults comfortably in the rear seat, and if it's a subcompact SUV, rear legroom could be at a premium. Generally speaking, you'll need a midsize SUV or else an unusually spacious compact SUV if you want to ferry adults or growing teens in comfort.
Moving up to larger truck-based SUVs opens up more elbow room, and in the case of extended-length models, lounge-like levels of legroom. As for 3-row SUVs, they offer widely varying amounts of third-row space. Some third rows are suited for adults, while others are too cramped for all but small children. As always, your best bet is to visit the dealership and try it out for yourself.
SUV Cargo Space
One of the primary reasons to consider an SUV is for its cargo space, but not all cargo space is created equal. Some SUVs prioritize utility with interiors that make the best use of space and maximize every cubic foot. Others tend to compromise on cargo in favor of more extroverted styling flourishes such as fastback rooflines. Still others sacrifice cargo space for a roomier back seat.
When considering cargo space, cubic footage is not a definitive measurement, although it's a good ballpark figure. You'll also want to see how easy it is to load cargo (is the rear bumper too high?) and how flush the rear seats fold into the floor for maximum space. That said, even some compact and midsize SUVs offer space that rivals a small pickup truck's bed, so there's no shortage of utility if you look in the right places.
Automakers often use infotainment systems to distinguish their models from the competition, and SUVs are no different. When other capabilities are so closely matched, sometimes it's the ease — or frustration — of using an infotainment system that gives an SUV an edge with buyers. Here you want to look for 7- or 8-inch touchscreen displays, or even larger; some large luxury SUVs offer 10-plus-inch displays. Nearly all SUVs today offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, and many offer rear-seat USB charging ports or ports that can both charge and pass data (music files, for example) to the main entertainment system.
Some SUVs still offer rear entertainment systems that typically include an overhead display or dual displays mounted on the back of the front seats. More advanced systems also provide an HDMI input for connecting a separate video source, such as a portable player or tablet.
SUV Safety and Driver Assistance
Many drivers prefer SUVs to sedans because of the elevated height and superior view of the road. But sometimes that's where the SUV's advantage ends. The design and styling of most SUVs mean it's often hard to get a good look to the sides or rear, especially during a lane change or when parking.
Most SUVs today offer a blind-spot monitor (a visual or audible alert when another car is in your blind spot) as standard or at least optional, as well as front and rear parking sensors. Rearview cameras are a godsend in close quarters, especially those with 360-degree or top-down views. Rear cross-traffic alert, which warns when a vehicle is approaching or crossing your reverse path, is also a handy feature to look for and often comes bundled with blind-spot warning. Of course, advanced driving aids such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure prevention and automatic emergency braking are increasingly commonplace, with more exotic safety systems typically found first on luxury models.
SUV Off-Road Equipment
Given their elevated ride heights, most SUVs can go off-road, but only a handful are truly off-road-capable. The average compact SUV can handle a modest dirt trail en route to a trailhead or swimming hole, but only SUVs equipped with all- or four-wheel drive, fortified suspensions, and generous ground clearance can venture into rougher stuff.
Indeed, that go-anywhere adventurous spirit is fundamental to the appeal of classic truck-based SUVs from Toyota, Jeep and Land Rover, to name a few. But today you can find impressive off-road capability even in smaller crossovers from Jeep and Subaru. Note that while most SUVs offer all-wheel drive, these systems are typically designed only for stability on slick pavement, not for serious all-terrain work.
With SUVs surpassing the popularity of passenger cars in the United States, it's no wonder the options can bewilder even the savviest car shopper. But a little prep work in determining basic needs — how many passengers you'll usually have, how much cargo you'll typically carry, how much money you want to spend — goes a long way toward narrowing the list of choices.
For more insight, visit www.edmunds.com/suv to see which SUVs fared best in our latest rigorous testing.