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Numerous brands claim to make the best family SUV. Our definitive top 10 list lays that argument to rest

The SUV came, saw, and pushed estates, MPVs and the odd hatchback off many families’ driveways. Offering estate-like space, but with a higher load area and of course the all-important high driving position, the best family SUVs have become the do-it-all vehicles of choice for many people.

Four-wheel drive is standard on many of these larger SUVs, which heightens their towing abilities and gives them some mild off-road capability. For any hardcore mud-plugging, a proper off-roader is the way to go, however. On the flipside, some of them are actually a pretty decent steer on a twisty road.

There should be a powertrain to suit every need here. Many of these cars still offer torquey yet frugal diesel engines, as well as petrol and full-hybrid options. Some offer tax-busting plug-in drivetrains for those looking to run one as a company car. If you’d rather go fully electric, have a look at our 10 best family electric cars.

The best family SUVs

1. Nissan X-Trail

 Nissan X-Trail

Pros: Good to drive, high-quality interior, option of seven seats

Cons: Not as efficient as the best rivals, smallish boot, jittery low-speed ride

Unusually, the X-Trail is powered exclusively by three-cylinder engines. That doesn’t bode well for effortless motoring, but for the e-Power hybrid versions at least, the opposite is true.

Nissan claims that its new hybrid system – where the engine only ever powers a generator and the wheels are driven by electric motors – provides an EV driving experience, but with the reassurance that you can simply fill up with petrol. The X-Trail gets very close indeed, which makes it a very undemanding car to drive. Motorway efficiency is good, but could be better, while efficiency in town is excellent.

Away from the novel powertrain, the new X-Trail is very well considered. It’s a slightly smaller vehicle than cars like the Hyundai Santa Fe or Skoda Kodiaq, but still offers seven seats as an option. The second row has plenty of space, the rear doors open 90deg and the boot space is competitive. In front, the X-Trail feels familiar from the smaller Nissan Qashqai, but that’s a good thing, because there are big buttons for commonly used functions and the infotainment is mostly logical, which makes the car very easy and frustration-free to use. The front seats are very comfortable, too.

On the road, the X-Trail is an easy-going companion. It suffers from a slightly crashy low-speed ride, but is very supple everywhere else, and even offers some dynamism in the corners.

Read our Nissan X-Trail review

Save money with new X-Trail deals from What Car?

2. Land Rover Discovery Sport

 Land Rover Discovery Sport

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Pros: Excellent to drive on road, brilliant off road, looks and feels like a premium product

Cons: So-so economy, rivals have punchier powertrains, PHEV versions don't have seven seats

The Discovery Sport is the entry-level Land Rover, but that doesn't mean it's short on the brand's trademark capability, comfort or charm. Compared with some of the other options on this list, it’s pretty expensive as well.

Facelifted for 2019, the Discovery Sport sits on the same PTA platform as the Range Rover Evoque, but hasn't lost out on any of the characteristics that we liked about the original. It's still higher-riding than many of its opponents and affords better visibility. True to the Land Rover brand, the four-wheel-drive versions will also go further off road than most owners will ever needs. However, it also handles in an impressively tidy fashion, with accurate steering, good body control and surprising agility.

Its practical interior is available with seven seats for those who need them. The current versions have plenty of premium appeal and benefit from the latest Pivi Pro infotainment system, which help give it a similar feel to the firm's upper-crust Range Rover offerings.

Most of the petrol and diesel engines have 48V mild-hybrid assistance, but the particularly slick P300e plug-in hybrid is the standout version, thanks to its well engineered integration that allows smooth transition between petrol and electric power. However, its claimed EV range of 34 miles is no longer class-leading (and lands it in the 12% BiK band), plus the need to accommodate the motor and battery pack means there's no seven-seat option on this version.

If you want a family SUV with more versatility and off-road ruggedness than the class average, the Discovery Sport delivers that with very few compromises. Still one of the best 4x4s by far.

Read our Land Rover Discovery Sport review

Save money with new Discovery Sport deals from What Car?

3. Hyundai Santa Fe

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Pros: Clever engines, spacious interior, excellent towing credentials

Cons: Occasional clunky ride, big on the road

From value-for-money bargain basement brand to genuine premium player, Hyundai's head-spinning progress over the past decade or so almost beggars belief. Yet you need to take only a cursory look around the Santa Fe to appreciate just how far the South Korean firm has come. This futuristic SUV features distinctive looks and a spacious and classy cabin, plus a range of drivetrains that includes a full hybrid and a plug-in hybrid.

The key to the Santa Fe's appeal is its interior, which blends a real upmarket vibe with plenty of space. Unlike many seven-seat rivals, there's actually room in the third row for adults and access is fairly straightforward. There's a vast boot, too: 725 litres with five seats in place. Quality is excellent, with numerous high-grade materials, loads of standard kit and a decent infotainment set-up.

It's not the most exciting car to drive, but the steering is light and precise and the Hyundai handles corners with surprising composure for something so tall and heavy. It's at its best when taking it easy, which is no bad thing when you consider its family-friendly credentials. The relatively soft suspension can become a little discombobulated over really challenging surfaces, but the rest of the time the Santa Fe is refined and relaxing companion that's as happy mooching about town as it is taking in a long haul trip.

If you need a show-stopping car that fits seamlessly into family life, the Hyundai takes some beating. Compared with a lot of rivals, you’ll get far more space and equipment for the money, too.

Read our Hyundai Santa Fe review

Save money with new Santa Fe deals from What Car?

4. Volvo XC60

 Volvo XC60

Pros: Hugely refined, handsome and understated design, impressive safety kit

Cons: Vague handling, slow-acting automatic gearbox, so-so performance

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The XC60 is now one of the oldest cars in Volvo’s line-up, having been introduced in 2017, but it’s as handsome as ever. Although the refresh in 2022 makes for a good game of spot the difference, Volvo made plenty of useful changes that keep it at the sharp end of this list.

The XC60 still isn’t the last word in driver appeal, but as a slick, comfortable, easy-to-use family wagon, there's plenty to recommend here. The revised engine line-up means that all XC60 variants now offer some form of electrification. The B-series petrol and diesel models now have 48V mild-hybrid power for fractional reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and they remain the choice for private buyers.

Company car drivers will be delighted by the recent upgrade to 18.8kWh for the Volvo XC60 T6 and T8 Recharge PHEVs, which gives them well over 40 miles of EV range and drops the benefit-in-kind rate to just 8%.

If you want an SUV for making stylish and serene progress, look no further than the XC60.

Read our Volvo XC60 review

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5. BMW X3

 BMW X3

Pros: Good to drive, excellent engines, upmarket interior

Cons: Standard equipment is lacking in some versions, so-so fuel economy, no seven-seat option

What's this: a decent-handling mid-range SUV? Before BMW set about making SUVs, the idea would have been borderline laughable, but the X3 has handling appeal sorted.

It also has powertrains with plenty of power and performance. The smaller diesel version can be a touch unrefined, but the multi-cylinder M40d and BMW X3 M40i are both rapid and smooth.

In fact, the BMW is a car of contrasts, with the all-electric BMW iX3 at one end of the scale, the fairly monstrous 503bhp BMW X3 M at the other and in between the BMW X3 xDrive 30e plug-in hybrid version. Yet for most, it's the conventional four-cylinder petrols and diesels that are best suited to the X3, although the increasingly unfashionable 3.0-litre straight-six diesel in the BMW X3 xDrive 30d is still unrivalled for refined and efficient muscle. Whichever X3 you choose, it'll steer neatly and precisely but is still happier taking it easy than being driven on its door handles.

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The X3’s cabin is classy in the way that we’re used to from BMW. It received a facelift in 2021 but escaped the button purge that’s been happening at BMW recently. As a result, it still has the older, clearer infotainment system with its rotary iDrive controller and physical climate control buttons.

Standard equipment is a bit mean on some trim levels, but the car's perceived quality is above that of almost all others and serves up just enough space that you'll never feel you have to leave something behind. There's no seven-seat option (you'll need the bigger and pricier BMW X5 for that), but in all other respects, this is a roomy, versatile and satisfying family SUV.

Read our BMW X3 review

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6. Skoda Kodiaq

 Skoda Kodiaq

Pros: Plenty of space for seven, well-priced, great petrol and diesel engines

Cons: No electrified powertrains, no Isofix in the third row, often-restless ride

Even though the Kodiaq is one of the older models in the Skoda line-up, a facelift in 2021 means it’s still an excellent all-rounder, and as long as you’re careful with the options, it’s pretty good value, too. In particular, it undercuts even the cheapest of the ‘premium’ offerings on this list by a significant sum.

So what are you sacrificing? A chunk of premium-feel materials for a start, although it's not as much of a step down as you might think, plus everything feels well screwed together. There are more upmarket family SUVs than the Kodiaq, but not many that offer as much space for the money. Seven seats are standard on all Kodiaqs apart from the entry-level trim.

Even lower-end versions handle tidily, with commendable agility and composure, and a good feeling of connection from the steering fooling you into thinking it's smaller than it actually is.

The Kodiaq still lacks electrified powertrains and is unlikely to get them until its replacement goes on sale in 2024. That makes it less attractive as a company car, but its range of petrol and diesel engines is impressively frugal in the real world. If you want to go all-electric, the Skoda Enyaq is an excellent option, but doesn’t offer seven seats.

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The only version we’d avoid is the Skoda Kodiaq vRS, which switched from diesel to petrol power with the 2021 facelift. The diesel suited the big-boned SUV quite well, but the petrol engine is slightly overwhelmed.

Read our Skoda Kodiaq review

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7. Jaguar F-Pace

 Jaguar F-Pace

Pros: Spacious interior, excellent infotainment, engaging drive

Cons: PHEV has distinctly average EV range - and is expensive

Jaguar's first SUV came to market with typically good handling back in 2016, as well as plenty of cabin space and looks that rocketed it into the position of becoming Jaguar's best-selling model until it was overtaken by the smaller Jaguar E-Pace.

It received a facelift in 2021, which was fairly subtle on the outside but also involved Jaguar throwing most of the old interior in a skip and starting over. And to good effect: the design now looks modern but classy, and perceived material quality is excellent across the board. The clunky old infotainment has also been replaced with the much more user-friendly Pivi Pro system.

Under the bonnet, an expanded range of engines now includes petrol and diesel four-cylinder engines, as well as a pair of mild-hybrid straight sixes. The facelift also introduced the slick Jaguar F-Pace P400e plug-in hybrid. It was initially down on range compared with rivals, but newer models benefit from a larger, 19.2 kWh battery, which lifts the claimed EV range to 40.4 miles and drops the car into the 8% BiK company car bracket.

While the straight-six petrol F-Pace P400 is lovely, it is thirsty, so for balanced in-town and out-of-town driving, the F-Pace D300 diesel is still our choice, while the mild-hybridised four-pot diesels have better drivability and refinement than than they used to.

The go-faster Jaguar F-Pace SVR is an absolute riot and a fine example of a brilliantly executed performance SUV brimming with V8 drama, although its thirst and bombast mean you'll have to be happy to be marked out as a devotee of conspicuous consumption.

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Read our Jaguar F-Pace review

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8. Audi Q5

 Audi Q5

Pros: Excellent technology, superb petrol and diesel engines, smart interior

Cons: Undramatic styling, blunt handling, too many options

It's hard to pick faults with such a classy and consummate all-rounder as the Audi Q5, although slightly anodyne handling is what will prevent it from really appealing to keener drivers. This shortcoming hasn't stopped the Q5 emulating the sales success of its predecessor, though, which was a car that became the best-seller in its segment in nearly every country in which it was offered.

Although a pricey option, the Q5 is quiet, practical and desirable, with outstanding driving refinement and material finish. And if you prefer your SUVs with a little more style and less utility, there's a swoopy-roofed Audi Q5 Sportback version as well.

The Q5 received a pretty wide-reaching facelift for 2020, with efficiency-boosted mild-hybrid powertrains going in under the bonnet, some new digital technology going into the cabin and a wider trapezoidal grille going onto the front end. The big-selling Audi Q5 40 TDI diesel version got a 14bhp power boost as part of that revision, and it remains a refined, comfortable, assertive-performing and easy-driving family car, while the 2.0-litre petrol-powered Audi Q5 45 TFSI is a punchy and smooth device. If you want more than four cylinders, the V6 diesel Audi SQ5 is your only option.

The 50 TFSIe plug-in hybrid is a particularly smooth operator, with its electric motor and 2.0-litre turbo petrol four-pot combining to produce just shy of 300bhp. However, with its electric-only range of 39 miles, the Audi just misses out on the lowest company car tax bracket of 8%, falling into the higher 12% banding instead.

Read our Audi Q5 review

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9. Seat Tarraco

 Seat Tarraco

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Pros: Smart styling, economical, good infotainment

Cons: Cramped third-row seats, no significant electrification

The Seat Tarraco is Seat's first attempt at a full-sized SUV, and it's a pretty good-looking one. Being a Volkswagen Group product, this Spanish SUV shares practically everything with the Skoda Kodiaq, although, unlike its sibling, the Tarraco comes equipped with seven seats as standard across the range.

It feels a touch more incisive and agile than other SUVs of its size, but this sharper handling does seem to come at the expense of rolling refinement and outright comfort. In a car such as this, comfort and refinement should arguably be of greater focus. That said, it's far from uncomfortable, and for any keen driver who has previously had to sacrifice fun at the altar of family-friendly practicality, the extra injection of agility and ability will be welcomed.

Being based on the same stretched, seven-seat version of the VW Group's MQB platform as the Kodiaq means it's hobbled by some of its flaws too, the biggest of which is that there are virtually no electrified powertrain options. That's not a big deal from a driving perspective, but given the popularity of these machines in the company car sector, the lack of a PHEV is something of an oversight.

Still, the interior is well finished and the petrol and diesel engines are impressively refined and pretty economical. It's priced competitively, too.

Read our Seat Tarraco review

Save money with new Tarraco deals from What Car?

10. Kia Sorento

 Kia Sorento

Pros: Comfortable, refined, spacious interior

Cons: Hybrid isn't especially economical, ride and handling lack polish

Well, the Sorento has really come a long way since the bland, boxy original model that turned up in 2002, hasn't it? On design appeal alone, this new fourth-generation model easily has what it takes to mix it with the genuine premium players in this class.

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Thanks to its cavernous interior and seven-seat layout, it wins serious points for being one of the most spacious, practical and versatile cars on this list. With an appealingly affordable price, it would seem on the surface that there's very little that this handsome Korean SUV can't do.

There is a but, though. Its conventional hybrid powertrain isn't quite capable of delivering the gains in fuel efficiency you might hope to see during balanced daily driving, and dynamically the car is pretty average. It's refined and comfortable enough at a steady cruise, but dig a little deeper and it begins to show itself up, particularly where body control, ride sophistication and steering feel are concerned.

The Sorento does have an ace up its sleeve compared with other seven-seat SUVs like the Kodiaq and Tarraco: there's a plug-in hybrid version that's rated for 35 miles of EV range, putting it in the 12% BiK band. Together with the mechanically related Hyundai Santa Fe, it's one of very few seven-seat PHEVs. As long as the battery is charged, this version also drives more assuredly than the regular hybrid. High-mileage drivers will still be better off with the diesel, though, which offers decent refinement and performance.

The reason it doesn't finish higher up this list is because the Sorento now costs a far chunk of money. With prices starting at £49,000 and rising to nearly £60,000, Kia's flagship proves the brand isn't quite the value-for-money choice it once was.

Read our Kia Sorento review

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FAQs

Which car is best for a family?

There’s a vast choice of models for those looking for a sensible, useable family car. SUVs are extremely popular for good reason: the lofty seating position means plugging in child seats is easy, the boot lip is great for sitting on to change muddy boots and the square shape of most SUVs means there’s usually plenty of interior space. The tall stance of most SUVs means there’s a commanding view ahead, which isn’t just beneficial for the driver; kids are less likely to get car sick, and the dog should be able to see out, too. 

Are MPVs losing out to SUVs?

In a word: yes. MPVs were once a familiar sight on the road, but aside from a few models derived from vans, there aren’t many left at all. Conversely, the SUV market continues to go from strength to strength: they’re desirable, increasingly good to drive, and the raised ride height frees up some very convenient space for manufacturers to store batteries as the world moves towards full electrification. If there is a drawback, it’s that unashamedly boxy MPVs are – or were – often the last word in interior space and practicality. 

What is the difference between an SUV and a crossover?

To a lot of people the terms SUV and crossover are interchangeable. And the actual definition varies depending on which part of the world you are from. In the UK, the term crossover generally refers to a car-like SUV rather than something that looks or feels that little bit more rugged. A Peugeot 2008 might be referred to as either a crossover or a small (or compact) SUV.

What does SUV mean in cars?

SUV stands for Sports Utility Vehicle. The acronym has been used for decades, but only really came into common usage in the UK in the late 1990s. The term replaced the ‘soft roader’ tag given to models like the Toyota RAV4 or Suzuki Vitara, and as models became more road-focused, largely replaced the term ‘off-roader’, too.

What are SUV cars good for?

SUVs are the stylish face of practicality. They mostly blend car-like driving dynamics in a practical bodystyle. Many drivers like the rugged looks, four-wheel drive and increased rode height because it endows – or appears to endow – the vehicle with a little more off-road ability, even if drivers will rarely leave the tarmac.SUVs are great for families and those who need a little more utility than a hatchback or estate car can provide. Sporty dynamics aside, they’re excellent all-rounders.

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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Newreg 7 November 2023

My family and I went on a big road trip with our Toyota RAV4. It handled the long journey really well, and we were comfortable. We even drove through tough terrains, and the RAV4 did a great job. This article helped us pick the right SUV, and our trip made us love family SUVs like the RAV4 even more.

Newreg 7 November 2023

My family and I went on a big road trip with our Toyota RAV4. It handled the long journey really well, and we were comfortable. We even drove through tough terrains, and the RAV4 did a great job. This article helped us pick the right SUV, and our trip made us love family SUVs like the RAV4 even more.

repeatroute 16 May 2023

A Disco is not the ideal family automobile. My Q7 is also a  wonderful family car, but from the perspective of a family budget, they both fall short. Consequently, Kia/Hyundai or Skoda should be considered, and eventually a Citroen Belingo or a Dacia, as the finest affordable family automobile.