Edmunds' SUV Buying Guide

Edmunds' SUV Buying Guide

Finding the Right Kind of SUV For You

Jump To: What Is an SUV? | What Kinds of SUVs Are Available? | SUV Features Checklist

We Americans can be picky car buyers. The sales data shows that we're not keen on hatchbacks or wagons — haven't been for decades. But raise the suspension a few inches, flare the fenders and call it an SUV, and dealers can't keep them on their lots. The early success of truck-based SUVs hinted at this formula, but today's mainstream car-based SUVs have raised it to an art form, delivering more comfort, better interior packaging and improved fuel economy.

The question is which kind of SUV is right for you? That's what we're here to help you figure out. There are so many different SUV types out there that it can be hard to know where to start. So come along for the ride as we walk you through the basics and get you zeroed in on the best kind of SUV for your needs.

What Is an SUV?

Hey, we said basics, right? So let's start with those three letters: S-U-V. Technically an acronym for sport-utility vehicle, "SUV" refers to a hot-selling automotive type that comes in many sizes, shapes and capabilities. Where SUVs were once little more than trucks with extended cabins, today's SUV fleet includes virtually anything with an elevated ride height and a hatchback-style body. If it's higher than a normal car and it has a wagon-style extended roofline rather than a trunk, it's probably an SUV.

You'll often hear the term "crossover," by the way, but it is simply a marketing term used to describe an SUV based on a car platform rather than a truck platform. We don't consider it an official vehicle type, but it does appear in automakers' advertising campaigns and such — just something to be aware of.

What Kinds of SUVs Are Available?

Today, compact and midsize SUVs tend to be the most consistent sellers, although subcompact SUVs have extra appeal for city dwellers. On the other end of the spectrum are buyers who still need that old-school SUV muscle for weekend getaways with a trailer in tow. And then there's the question of whether to spring for a luxury model or stick with the mainstream offerings, which are increasingly well-equipped. Let Edmunds help guide you to the best fit for your life.

Jump to segment: X-Small | Small | Small 3-Row | Midsize | Midsize 3-Row | Large | X-Small Luxury | Small Luxury | Midsize Luxury | Midsize Luxury 3-Row | Large Luxury | Super Luxury

X-Small SUV

At Edmunds we call the smallest SUVs "extra-small," although they're typically referred to as subcompact SUVs in the marketplace. For the most part, these vehicles are just high-riding hatchbacks derived from car platforms, but we don't mean that as a dig. Hatchbacks, after all, are inherently practical, and a higher ride means it's easier to get in and out. Most subcompact SUVs offer adult passenger comfort, although the rear seat can be cramped if the folks in front are on the larger side. The Hyundai Kona offers spunky turbo power and comes loaded with features for a great price, while its Kia Soul corporate cousin delivers many of the same benefits if you don't need all-wheel drive. Other subcompact SUVs such as the Jeep Renegade and the Subaru Crosstrek have bona fide off-road ability.

Small SUV

Small SUVs, also known as compact SUVs, are the lifeblood of today's SUV market. Nearly every major automaker offers one, and they've largely displaced compact and midsize sedans as the go-to vehicle for small families and commuters alike. Not surprisingly, compact SUVs (or "compact crossovers") are where you begin to feel like you're driving an SUV and not a hatchback. Most offer generous cargo capacity and ample room for rear-seat passengers, even with long-legged front occupants. The Honda CR-V has long reigned supreme thanks to its thoughtfully designed interior with huge maximum cargo space, while the Mazda CX-5 is prized for its sportier handling. We also like the Hyundai Tucson's all-around competence and reasonable pricing.

Small 3-Row SUV

If you like the size of compact SUVs but need three rows, there's a handful of compact 3-row SUVs that fit the bill. We admit we're not big fans of the idea, nor of the available options. Cramming three rows of seats into a smaller body comes with inherent compromises to passenger comfort. But if you'll only use the third row occasionally, the Volkswagen Tiguan and the Mitsubishi Outlander are decent picks. The former offers lots of safety and technology features, while the latter is rugged enough for some off-road activity, if somewhat unrefined. In general, we recommend stepping up to a midsize 3-row SUV if you really want those extra seats.

Midsize SUV

Midsize SUVs take the best parts of their compact counterparts and add even more cargo space and more room for passengers to spread out. At this level, you'll also start to see more engine power — sometimes even a V6 engine (most midsizers start with a turbo four-cylinder) — and extra towing strength for small toys and trailers. Many midsizers also offer modest off-road ability, or in some cases (think Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Grand Cherokee) exceptional ability. The new Honda Passport is tough to top given its comfortable ride, ample interior room and go-anywhere character, while the Ford Edge is a segment stalwart with appealing tech and power options. The Hyundai Santa Fe is a nice alternative if you get the turbo engine.

Midsize 3-Row SUV

Moving up to midsize SUVs with three rows, you're squarely in growing-family territory. These are the SUVs you want when you need to move a few kids and their things, but you can't stomach the thought of a minivan. Most offer a V6 engine or a high-power turbo four-cylinder, loads of room, and comfortable cabins made for long distances. Despite their size, these SUVs are fairly easy to drive in the city due to their car-like underpinnings. The Kia Telluride impresses with its spacious cabin, upscale interior appointments and adult comfort in all three rows, while the Honda Pilot competes well across the board. The Subaru Ascent pairs a quirkier character with more serious all-terrain ability. But if your off-pavement needs are modest at best, the Mazda CX-9 is arguably the best to drive of this bunch.

Large SUV

This segment is the last redoubt of the traditional SUV that dominated American garages from the 1990s into the 2000s. It's not hard to see the appeal of these brutes, what with their robust towing capabilities and massive interiors that can typically seat eight or nine passengers. On the other hand, large SUVs are relatively cumbersome from behind the wheel, and their interiors are compromised by truck-like platforms that impinge on available space. The Ford Expedition rates highly here since it can tow more than 9,000 pounds and be optioned up to exaggerated levels of luxury. Its GMC Yukon XL and Chevrolet Suburban rivals are similarly capable, and in the case of the GMC, just as luxurious.

X-Small Luxury SUV

Luxury subcompact SUVs might share the same size as their mainstream counterparts, but at this level, you can expect upgrades that match the elevated prices. That means more sophisticated interior materials and infotainment systems, advanced driver aids, and increased power and performance. There's no shortage of choices in this group, from Lexus to Cadillac to Mercedes. But the BMW X1 stands out for successfully distilling the brand's sporty character and traditional refinement into a pint-size package. Its Mini Countryman platform mate, meanwhile, delivers razor-sharp handling, good fuel economy and personality in spades.

Small Luxury SUV

Like their non-luxury brethren, compact luxury SUVs feel more like utility vehicles than hatchbacks. Here you'll find extensive lists of luxury equipment and advanced technology, along with more upscale cabins and higher-horsepower engines. The Mercedes-Benz GLC is a perennial favorite thanks to its old-world elegance, remarkable comfort, and advanced infotainment and safety tech. There are also great options from Audi and Acura, among others, but the Volvo XC60 is possibly the most underrated entrant in this group and well worth a look.

Midsize Luxury SUV

Midsize luxury SUVs are all about interior refinement, top-shelf technology, and often the option of serious power and handling, if you're into that sort of thing. For peak performance, the European models are a class apart, exemplified by the Mercedes-Benz GLE with its exquisite cabin quality, cutting-edge infotainment system and near-perfect powertrains. The sporty Porsche Cayenne and the understated Audi Q8 are different takes on this formula from the same automaker (Volkswagen Group), while the BMW X5 provides a more traditional SUV feel with the latest technology and some of BMW's best engines.

Midsize 3-Row Luxury SUV

Like their 2-row counterparts, 3-row midsize luxury SUVs focus on comfort, serenity and tech, although it's harder to find bonkers horsepower numbers in this group. If you're looking for adult-size space in the third row, it's worth noting that you're actually more likely to find it among mainstream 3-row midsizers. Provided you only want the extra seats for occasional use, the Audi Q7 merits close consideration, as it hits the trifecta of impeccable design, cutting-edge technology and upper-crust refinement on the road. The Land Rover Discovery is another solid choice with its plush interior and rugged capability in the dirt.

Large Luxury SUV

Large luxury SUVs are essentially old-school SUVs in a tuxedo. You still get the same eight-passenger seating (although most offer optional second-row captain's chairs that reduce capacity to seven), big power and robust towing capacity. But here you'll find exclusive luxury amenities such as high-quality leather upholstery, premium-branded stereo systems, and power seats with seemingly countless adjustments. Some big luxury SUVs also offer extended-length variants, while nearly all deliver bold styling. On the domestic front, the Cadillac Escalade has long been the leader, but the rival Lincoln Navigator is a strong up-and-comer. Across the pond, the Mercedes-Benz GLS offers a distinctly European interpretation of this vehicle type, while the brash BMW X7 has one of the biggest grilles in the business.

Super Luxury SUV

This class is almost self-explanatory. It's where luxury and ultra-luxury brands bring their loyal customers when the priorities are extra cargo space and a commanding view of the road. No luxury is too precious. Hence you'll often find leather upholstery softer than you can imagine, exotic wood inlays, crystal accents around the cabin, and bespoke interior color schemes. These SUVs also tend to come with V8 or even 12-cylinder engines, six-figure prices and impressive off-road capabilities. Of note, the Bentley Bentayga blends impeccable old-world craftsmanship with absurd thrust and optional seven-passenger seating, while the Lamborghini Urus distills the Italian brand's visceral performance and styling into a sharply creased SUV suit. But for many shoppers in this segment, the blocky Mercedes-Benz G-Class is just too boss to resist.

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

SUV Styling

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, while 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. You don't want to end up with an SUV that you love looking at but have trouble using on a daily basis.

SUV Performance

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 different examples, 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.

SUV Seating

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.

SUV Infotainment

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.

Next Steps

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 further insight, visit www.edmunds.com/suv to see which SUVs fared best in our latest rigorous testing.

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