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The UK car market is awash with high-riding small SUVs that are spacious yet decent to drive when the occasion arises. These are our top 10 picks

The archetypal small SUV dates all the way back to the 1940s with the Willys Jeep and Series 1 Land Rover. Some 80 years on, the formula's now as fashionable as it ever has been.

It’s easy to understand the appeal, with many compact SUVs providing a commanding view of the road ahead, without the heft – or indeed cost – of traditional full-size Chelsea Tractors. Radical-looking cars such as the Nissan Juke and Range Rover Evoque have also helped to push the envelope for small SUV design, drastically improving the kerb appeal of the entire ‘soft-roader’ class.

They might not be as good to drive as the equivalent hatchback or saloon, nor as fuel-efficient, but they often come close. For many people, that's good enough; the best-selling cars charts don’t lie.

So, what are the very best small SUVs on sale right now? These are our picks of the bunch.

Top 10 best small SUVs

1. Volvo XC40

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Volvo%20XC40%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Volvo's first attempt at a compact sibling for its established XC60 and XC90 SUVs has been a real success. In the XC40, the Swedish marque has given us a car with instant kerbside appeal.

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 small SUV class, it certainly has plenty of luxury car ambience, not to mention all the in-car technology you'd hope for.

The XC40 has been around since 2017, and in that time, the model line-up has shifted around. There used to be manual, diesel, four-wheel-drive and plug-in hybrid options, but for 2024, only a pair of front-wheel-drive automatic petrols and a pair of EVs (recently renamed EX40) remain.

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.

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2. Mazda CX-5

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Mazda%20CX-5%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Like the XC40, the Mazda CX-5 is one of the senior citizens of this class. And yet it's easily one of the best-looking SUVs on the market and in the right spec has respectable fuel economy and an unusual level of handling verve for this class.

The CX-5's interior is solid, stylish and beautifully made and has the sort of usability that many other car makers could learn from. It offers plenty of passenger and boot space too.

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 small SUVs.

Of the engines, it's the unfashionable 2.2-litre diesel that's the pick, its blend of mid-range brawn and decent efficiency making it well suited to the CX-5's SUV remit. The petrols are a little smoother, but with no forced induction, the 2.0-litre feels a little overwhelmed by the car's rather bulky frame, while the automatic-only 2.5 is no economy miracle. The manual gearboxes are delightful, but the automatics are quite slushy.

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.

3. Hyundai Tucson

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Hyundai%20Tucson%20front%20quarter%20tracking

The arrival of the fourth-generation Tucson was something of a watershed moment for Hyundai. Stylistically, it was 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 has helped move the firm much closer to the Germans.

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. It’s at its best in simpler specifications: the 1.6 mild-hybrid petrol works well with both the manual and automatic gearbox, while the hybrids are potentially very efficient but a tad slow-witted.

More so than ever before, this is an impressively polished small SUV that's absolutely worthy of your attention. It’s getting an interior overhaul soon, which will take away some of the uniqueness but should still keep the usability that Hyundai is very good at.

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4. Kia Sportage

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Kia%20Sportage%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Given that 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 went for a bold design with the fifth-generation car. Yet given the numbers on the road, it's clear that buyers aren't being put off by the, ahem, distinctive looks.

The truth is that behind the challenging exterior is an SUV offering 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 diesels through to a BIK tax-busting plug-in hybrid.

It also comes loaded with standard kit, can be easily connected to your smartphone and, of course, is backed by Kia's market-leading seven-year warranty.

To drive, the Sportage is something of a mixed bag. The handling is safe and predictable, but it's fairly inert when you're 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 17in wheels improves matters, but only a little.

Overall, the Sportage is a smart, well-equipped and hassle-free family SUV, but those wanting a little emotional uplift should look elsewhere.

5. Citroën C5 Aircross

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Citroen%20C5%20Aircross%20front%20quarter%20tracking

It has taken Citroën’s entry to the small SUV class until middle age to feature in this list. Like a lot of Stellantis products, the C5 Aircross has wanted for a really good engine – and now that’s exactly what it has received. The familiar 1.2-litre three-cylinder has gained the help of an electric motor and has swapped its eight-speed automatic gearbox for a seven-speed dual-clutch unit.

If you’re tired of every car pretending to be sporty, the C5 Aircross is for you: soft, pillowy seats and pliant suspension combine to make quite a relaxing car. It’s roomy and decent value too.

The multimedia is quite clunky and around town the ride can deteriorate. The entry-level manual is also vague, while the plug-in hybrid doesn’t have the punch its 221bhp promises.

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6. Nissan Qashqai

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Nissan%20Qashqai%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Right up until the end of its lifecycle, 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 both the 1.3-litre mild-hybrid petrol and novel e-Power hybrid are a little breathless, but what did you expect? Performance and handling aren't what the Qashqai is about and, as one tester put it, "it's very thoughtfully designed for families, well equipped and costs peanuts to buy and run". If you must have a two-pedal version, we’d go for the hybrid, rather than the wheezy CVT petrol.

The interior doesn’t look as jazzy as some, but the materials are pleasing, it’s solidly built and it's very easy to use, thanks to plenty of real buttons.

All early Qashqais had a multimedia system that was easy enough to use but looked slightly dated. About two years in, higher trims got a new system that retains all the usability but looks a lot nicer.

A game-changing effort? Not any more, but it's a demonstration that Nissan knows its customers extremely well. It's difficult to beat among the non-premium ranks.

7. Mercedes-Benz GLA

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Mercedes-Benz%20GLA%20front%20quarter%20tracking

While the first GLA was little more than an A-Class hatchback on stilts, this second iteration is more of a proper SUV. It’s still slightly smaller than the BMW X1, since Mercedes also has the larger, blockier, seven-seat GLB sitting on the same platform.

You get a choice of petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid powertrains in the GLA, and there's even an electric version in the form of the EQA. In this case, we’d stick with the ones that have an engine, because the transformation to EQA isn’t quite fully formed.

The GLA 200 petrol benefits from mild-hybrid tech post-facelift, while the GLA 300e plug-in hybrid recently gained some extra electric-only range to make it cheaper to run as a company car.

Most GLAs have a fairly firm, sporty suspension set-up but do handle adequately well. The 300e gets softer suspension and rides a little more comfortably. All are somewhat noisy on the motorway, though.

The interior is familiar from the A-Class, and while it doesn’t have the same level of tech tinsel as the X1, it’s much easier to use and just as solidly built.

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8. Audi Q3

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/Audi%20Q3%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Now in its second generation, Audi’s Q3 is a stalwart of the class and comes with a good range of powertrains: petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid.

There’s also the option of the slope-backed Sportback bodystyle, although you’re better off maximising interior space with the regular version.

The Q3 is in general a strong contender, with slick drivability and plenty of space, but there are some quirks to the line-up. For one thing, the PHEV is surprisingly good value. For another, rolling refinement isn’t always as strong as it might be.

The powertrains are well mannered enough, but just make sure you don’t overdo it on the size of the wheels and ruin the ride. The latest versions are also lacking just a touch in terms of that bulletproof interior feel.

9. BMW X1

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/BMW%20X1%20front%20quarter%20tracking

Like all of us, the BMW X1 has been getting larger as it gets older. In fact, the third-generation version, which made its debut in 2022, is now only a biscuit shorter than the original X3 – a car that's theoretically in the class above. Still, this swelling is good news for those with growing families, because it means you can fit more people and things inside.

Built on the same UKL platform as the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer MPV, the X1 gets a wide range of engines, from mild-hybrid petrols and diesels through to a pair of plug-in hybrids and even an all-electric BMW iX1, complete with a handy official range of 272 miles.

Regardless of motive force, the X1 is a composed and capable steer but perhaps not the very embodiment of the 'ultimate driving machine' that BMW's marketeers would have you believe. There's decent grip and body control, but the steering is mute and nervous unless you’re on the door handles – which isn't the way that most people will drive their family bus. It also doesn’t ride well enough to excuse the lack of handling panache.

What will take the most getting used to, however, is the multimedia system. BMW has got rid of its signature rotary controller in cheaper models like the X1 – and with it, a lot of other physical buttons have migrated to the screen. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it were logical to use, but sadly it isn’t.

Read our BMW X1 review

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10. DS 7

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https://newsletter.autocar.co.uk/DS%207%20front%20quarter%20tracking

You might think the preferred wheels of the French president is a more luxurious version of the Citroën C5 Aircross a bit higher up this list. To an extent, it is, being quieter at a cruise and more lavishly leather-lined inside. It also offers more powerful plug-in hybrid options, with up to 355bhp. On the other hand, it’s more sports SUV than luxobarge in its suspension settings, without being truly outstanding to drive, and it uses the same slightly clunky multimedia system as the Citroën.

Still, manage your expectations and the DS 7 is quite an enjoyable, slightly alternative thing. The 225 Hybrid is the most well-rounded option, but if you do lots of motorway miles, don’t discount the BlueHDi 130, a 1.5-litre diesel, which might be the most relaxing DS 7 and is capable of 60mpg.

Read our DS 7 review

Charlie Martin

Charlie Martin Autocar
Title: Editorial Assistant, Autocar

As a reporter, Charlie plays a key role in setting the news agenda for the automotive industry. He joined Autocar in July 2022 after a nine-month stint as an apprentice with sister publication, What Car?. He's previously contributed to The Intercooler, and placed second in Hagerty’s 2019 Young Writer competition with a feature on the MG Metro 6R4

He is the proud owner of a Fiat Panda 100HP, and hopes to one day add a lightweight sports car like an Alpine A110 or a Lotus Elise S1 to his collection.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

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Peter Cavellini 7 December 2023

I've run an X2 2.0S-drive for the last few years and it's been flawless, autobox is good,and in sport mode it's quick enough,it's well built, mpg isn't great buy today's standards (37-40mpg) but I don't do big mileage, it's a base model but it's still well enough equipped, but the rise in price in the past three years to close to £40K is too much, so an X1 might be on the cards, as for the cars mentioned, none of them appeal, none of them get a glowing report here either.

Andrew1 20 September 2023
Did you forget the 3008 or was it ruining your JLR advertisement?
catnip 20 September 2023

Surely cars like the Qashqai, CX5, Q3, Tiguan, Tucson, Sportage etc are family size SUVs, not 'small' ones. Juke, T-Cross, Q2, Puma etc are the small ones.

Cobnapint 10 December 2023
Precisely. I think this summary must have used the FFRR as it's benchmark.