Edmunds' SUV Buying Guide
Finding the Right Kind of SUV For You
There are so many kinds of SUVs that it's hard to keep them all straight. Let Edmunds be your guide. We'll walk you through all the different kinds of SUVs and help get you to the right place.
By Cameron Rogers | December 15th, 2021
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 one of the mainstream offerings, which are increasingly well equipped. Let Edmunds help guide you to the best fit for your life.
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 Mazda CX-30 looks great and is a blast to drive without sacrificing comfort, while the Hyundai Kona offers spunky turbo power and comes loaded with features for a great price. The Kia Soul and Honda HR-V deliver many of the same benefits, though only the latter offers all-wheel drive. AWD comes standard on the Kia Seltos and the Subaru Crosstrek, while the Buick Encore GX excels thanks to its near-luxury interior and driving experience.
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 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 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. This class is also the domain of the Jeep Wrangler, the preferred choice of serious off-roaders for decades, as well as the revived Ford Bronco that promises to give it a run for its money. For shoppers who prefer sticking to pavement, the Ford Bronco Sport delivers Bronco styling with the road manners of a crossover.
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 Kia Sorento includes it as standard, and its attractive and quiet interior stand out in the class. The Volkswagen Tiguan and the Mitsubishi Outlander are also decent picks. The former offers lots of safety and technology features, while the latter, if somewhat unrefined, is rugged enough for some off-road activity. In general, we recommend stepping up to a midsize 3-row SUV if you really want those extra seats.
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 Honda Passport is tough to top given its comfortable ride, ample interior room and go-anywhere character, while the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport pairs rugged good looks with well-executed tech features. The Hyundai Santa Fe is a nice alternative if you get the turbo engine, and the Toyota Venza is the only midsize crossover with a hybrid powertrain.
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. Both the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade impress with their spacious cabins, upscale interior appointments, and adult comfort in all three rows. The Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander compete well across the board, while the Volkswagen Atlas delivers incredible passenger and cargo room. If your off-pavement needs are modest at best, the Mazda CX-9 is arguably the best to drive of this bunch.
This segment is the last stronghold 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 since it can tow more than 9,000 pounds and be optioned up to exaggerated levels of luxury. Keep an eye out for the Chevrolet Tahoe and Chevrolet Suburban siblings, along with their corporate cousins — the GMC Yukon and GMC Yukon XL. All four are fully redesigned for 2021, with new suspensions and interiors for increased comfort — there's even an optional turbodiesel engine for additional towing capacity and fuel economy.
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 Infiniti. But the Mercedes-Benz GLB makes the most of its size with a spacious cabin, loads of tech and genuinely adventurous performance. You can also consider the Audi Q3 and the Volvo XC40, which are built more for the urban jungle than dusty trails, serving as quiet and comfortable SUVs for small families and empty nesters. The Mercedes-Benz GLA is smaller than the GLB yet is pleasant and accommodating in its own right, while the BMW X1 adds driving excitement to the fold.
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 Porsche, among others, but the Volvo XC60 is possibly the most underrated entry in this group and well worth a look. Shoppers should also check out the Acura RDX, a relatively affordable compact SUV with sharp handling and a cabin design inspired by the NSX supercar.
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 a range of near-perfect engines. The same can be said of the BMW X5, which also has the distinction of having one of the only plug-in hybrid powertrains in the class. The sporty Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q8 are different takes on this formula from the same automaker (Volkswagen Group), while the return of the Land Rover Defender offers a modern take on the brand's rough and rugged roots. These established models should be on high alert, however, with the tech-laden Genesis GV80 hot on their tails.
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 newly restyled Audi Q7 merits close consideration thanks to cutting-edge technology and upper-crust refinement on the road. You can turn down the pragmatic path with the Acura MDX, or the opulent one with the Lincoln Aviator. And if you're looking to tackle off-road courses, the Land Rover Discovery is another solid choice.
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 and unveils a new look for 2021, 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. 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. Restyled for 2021 and armed with a new tech interface, the Bentley Bentayga blends impeccable old-world craftsmanship with absurd thrust and optional seven-passenger seating. On the sportier side are the Lamborghini Urus — which distills the Italian brand's visceral performance and styling into a sharply creased SUV suit — and the Aston Martin DBX — perfect for buyers who want to live out their James Bond fantasies on the way to soccer practice. But for many shoppers in this segment, the blocky Mercedes-Benz G-Class is just too boss to resist.
Old school meets new school as automakers seek to transition the SUV to alternative energy. Several are betting that luxury crossovers are the best vessel for EV power and, indeed, the initial crop of premium electric SUVs combines practicality and sharp looks with an added "cool factor." These vehicles are stylish, silent and, in many cases, very fast. Check out the Audi e-tron, an electric vehicle that doesn't shout it to the world and will please passengers with its smooth and stable ride. The Jaguar I-Pace is more invigorating, with head-turning design and a sporty driving experience that will grab hold of your senses. But if you want to start a conversation, the Tesla Model Y leads the way due to its impressive range, snappy acceleration, and access to the nationwide Supercharger network. The Ford Mustang Mach-E promises exhilarating performance and a tech-focused interior, and the Volkswagen ID.4 intrigues with its generous passenger space and affordable price tag.
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!
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.
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.
If you need help choosing the best SUV for your family, let the Edmunds experts be your guide. Here are the best family SUVs based on our rigorous testing.
Best Hybrid SUVs
Finding the right hybrid SUV can be a daunting task, but not because the options are overwhelming. With just a handful of good choices in this group, you'll need to accept some compromises, but they come with hybrid-powered rewards.
Best Luxury SUVs
Edmunds editors choose the best luxury SUVs on sale today, from sporty subcompact crossovers to limolike full-size SUVs capable of seating seven and towing a boat.
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