There may never have been a greater need for an Autocar group test than there is right here, right now. Six cars stand before us in a Surrey car park, in preparation for a comprehensive review. They are all what the industry calls ‘compact SUVs’, but to an increasing proportion of the British car-buying public, they simply represent a breed that has become the default choice for all-purpose, all-weather, all-encompassing point-to-point convenience: the family 4x4.

To a road tester, this is an intimidating bunch. In a growing segment as important as this one, the arrival of one model can be enough to trigger a big comparison test. In this case, there are three cars among the band new enough to have beaten the dealer demonstrators to UK roads: the Ford Kuga, Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander.

The Honda CR-V is slightly older, but not much. It has yet to pass its first birthday as a showroom model, and the Hyundai Santa Fe has yet to pass its second. In this company, our sixth inclusion – the bookies’ favourite – looks decidedly long in the tooth. It’s the Land Rover Freelander, appearing in 2013-model-year form but really tracing its roots back as far as 2006.

Regular readers may have already read full road tests on some of these cars, but remember that all were done week by week, in isolation. There’s nothing like lining up six cars like this side by side and systematically sorting the winners from the losers. There will be surprises – plenty of unexpected relative shortcomings mixed in among the predictable strengths. There may even be a revelation or two – a new class champion, perhaps.

We’ve gone as far as we can to ensure a level playing field. These cars all line up with sticker prices as close to £30,000 as we could achieve, with four-cylinder diesel engines of broadly similar power and torque output, and – with one exception – with manual gearboxes. They will be road tested, performance tested,measured and thoroughly inspected both on the specification sheet and out in the real world. So by the time we reach a verdict, you can be sure that it’s the right one.

PRACTICALITY

You don’t need us to tell you which of these cars you particularly like the look of, or which of their badges you desire the most. The road tester’s job starts where ‘styling’ and ‘brand’ ends and tangible, measurable, discernible substance begins. Often, with a tape measure.

Usable space is one of the best reasons to trade up to an SUV. If you have a big family – or an active, paraphernalia-packed life – it might be the only reason you need. Just 190mm separates the shortest car (the Freelander) from the longest here (the Santa Fe). But which car can you get the most gear into?

Manufacturers’ claims on boot space are to be treated with a heaped teaspoon of salt. Some measure up to the window line, others up to the roof; some even include space under the boot floor. We measure boot space more simply: load length along the boot floor up to the second-row seatback, boot height from the floor to the roof, and boot width between the narrowest points of the boot opening.

Do that and you’ll find that the smallest boot here in volume terms is that of the Kuga. The largest is a less easy guess; it actually belongs to the CR-V, by a gnat’s wing. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. The Santa Fe’s load bay is the moral victor, being both the longest and the widest of all six, and it loses out only narrowly to the Honda’s on volume because of the loading height eaten up by the Hyundai’s third row of seats. The Toyota deserves an honourable mention in this department, but the Land Rover certainly doesn’t and languishes second from last.

Where passengers are concerned, the tale of the tape measure makes even more uncomfortable reading for Land Rover. Being the shortest car on test, this would make sense, but it’s no less surprising that the Freelander – Autocar’s class favourite, remember – offers the least front-row headroom and second-row legroom. Getting into the Land Rover is very easy, thanks to the highest ride height and resultant hip point of the entire group. But once you’re in, there’s no mistaking it: the Freelander does feel like a slightly smaller car than the rest of the group. And ‘small’ isn’t what customers in this class are looking for.

This time, it’s the Toyota that ties with the Hyundai as overall passenger space champion. And lower down the order, credit’s due to Ford for offering the most second-row headroom overall.

The over-arching message is plain. Want the most practical 4x4 you can afford? Buy a Hyundai Santa Fe.

CAPABILITY

Owning a 4x4 is a bit like having a St Bernard. Most people don’t actually treat them any differently from any other household pet. But you like to think that, if by some random act of God the need arose, ‘Beethoven’ could rescue you from flood, field, snow or mountain. It’s also quite amusing that he makes the Labradoodle (read M Sport BMW 1-series) over the road look like a Pomeranian (or Isetta bubble car).

‘Beethoven’ types will naturally be drawn towards two members of our group. The lure of the Land Rover brand is clearly not to be underestimated, but only because it’s based on a genuine dual-purpose remit. The Freelander has 15mm more ground clearance than the next best car. Relative to the rest, it looks like you could drive a go-kart between the axles. Its off-road angles are, by an equally generous margin, the highest here. And it’s one of only two cars supplied on ‘mud and sand’ (M+S) tyres. If you really do have anything that even approaches serious off-roading to do, it’s the only car to choose.

But you should note that the Land Rover is beaten on towing capacity and outright pulling power by the same car that makes it look like a five-door supermini on interior space: the Santa Fe. The Hyundai will tow 2.5 tonnes on a braked trailer. It’s beaten on ground clearance by everything but the CR-V, so it can’t be cracked up as the ultimate rugged 4x4 workhorse. But with that exception, the Korean contender seems strong where it matters.

But so does the surprise package in this ‘go anywhere, do anything’ section: the Kuga. It has the second-heaviest rating for towing. It also has the second-highest ground clearance. Once again, the Ford is punching above its weight.

Before we move on, a quick real-world test of torque and traction– two of the things that matter most in an SUV. We’ve got a 100-yard, one-in-four-graded test hill at our disposal. It’s dry asphalt, so not the most slippery test that a 4x4 might face, but a tough one all the same. How quickly can they go from a standing start to 30mph on that kind of a climb?

With the timing gear in place, the Land Rover Freelander, RAV4 and Outlander all do it in precisely 6.0sec – roughly twice as long as it would have taken on a level surface. The Honda takes only a tenth of a second longer. The Ford is slowest all, taking 6.3sec; with no lockable centre diff, it’s subject to a touch of initial wheelspin and then has the least torquey engine of the bunch to haul it onwards.

Biggest disappointment here is the Toyota, which throws up electronic complaints about an overheating four-wheel drive system after its second attempt at the climb. It’s a sign that perhaps this car isn’t as rough and ready as it wants you to believe.

Fastest of all? It’s that Hyundai again: 5.2sec to 30mph up a one-in-four gradient. It’s big, it’s heavy – but it’s got the powertrain to carry that bulk without breaking a sweat.

ON THE ROAD

If it goes well up a steep hill, it’ll go well anywhere. But good everyday performance is about much more than pulling power. Flexibility, response and refinement are equally important hallmarks of a class-leading 4x4, which will offer a convincing balance of all four.

The fastest-accelerating car here, according to the claims, should be the automatic Freelander. It isn’t. The Land Rover is not under-endowed – far from it – but like everything else gathered, it can’t match the sheer grunt of that Hyundai.

When we road tested the Santa Fe in 2011, it hit 60mph in 9.0sec dead – and this one feels every bit as brisk. That puts it closer on performance to a 2.0-litre diesel BMW X3 than the rest of this group. Hyundai’s diesel engine is quiet, smooth, attentive to your right foot and so gutsy. If it’s got a failing, it’s fuel economy. But we’ll come to that.

The next most impressive powertrain belongs not to the Land Rover, but to the cheaper, less powerful, manual Honda CR-V. You could let your granny drive this car; it’s that easy to get on with. The engine is muted and unimposing, the gearshift short, light and positive of action.

Below that, the Freelander’s powertrain just about manages to distinguish itself, being above average for potency and slickness and seemingly well insulated under the bonnet. For their engines, neither the Kuga nor the Outlander has much that merits praise. The Ford feels a little bit short on low and mid-range urge at times and the Mitsubishi hates being revved hard. The RAV4, meanwhile, is the only car whose engine is worthy of serious criticism. Perhaps the pace of improvement in this class has surprised Toyota. Whatever the excuse, its engine is noisy and breathless beyond 3000rpm and isn’t particularly hard-working lower in the range.

The RAV4’s handling is equally rough hewn. M+S tyres account for some of the stodgy imprecision, but not all of it. The car’s steering is heavy and cumbersome off centre, and levels of grip and body control on the road seem surprisingly low once you bother to plumb their depths. All in all, it’s a car that reminds you how SUVs used to feel. And in this class, reminiscence is no recommendation.

The same charge can be levelled at the Outlander. It feels soft and slightly wayward when push comes to shove. Both it and the Toyota are functional, secure, largely inoffensive cars to drive most of the time, but neither has the dynamic sophistication to improve the breed.

By contrast, there’s unmistakable polish and class to the way that the CR-V and Santa Fe flow calmly down the road. Neither is athletic or involving; their trick is in mixing compliance with fleet-footedness and effectively disguising their mass. Of the two, the Honda is marginally the better at that trick, but both pull it off. Both are good-handling 4x4s in the modern sense.

And yet Freelander and Kuga still go one better. The Land Rover is a fine-handling 4x4 in spite of its limitations. It has the highest centre of gravity here and, like the Toyota, grips the road via M+S rubber only. But neither fact has prevented Land Rover from dialling in remarkable consistency of weight, clarity of response and general precision to the car’s steering system. The Freelander rolls generously when you turn in, but it remains easy to guide towards the apex and balanced even under plenty of power. It doesn’t ever seem to pitch or squat on its long-travel springs. Damping is supple but effective. It was, and remains, the traditional high-rise 4x4 perfectly house-trained for the road.

The Kuga is something else entirely. After the Land Rover, it feels like a hot hatchback: hunkered down, agile, ready to engage. Changes of direction come easily and instinctively. There’s very little roll steer to contend with and never any temptation to wind on steering angle without altering the path of the car in reliable proportion. The trade-off? The Kuga is a little firmer riding, and a bit more bodily reactive, than the comfort-oriented class norm – but it’s far from uncomfortable. It’s a different take: a truly sporting drive, in a class where utility still predominates. Here’s your revelation, folks.

COSTS OF OWNERSHIP

There is only one car here that qualifies for a £120 tax disc; only one capable of busting through the 50mpg barrier, according to manufacturer claims. It hasn’t been achieved by a fluke; the Outlander is also the lightest car here and deserves its moment of recognition. In the cold light of day, it won’t deliver an average of 52.3mpg, but as our test is drawing to a close, the 41.3mpg return that its trip computer shows is unbeatable fuel economy for this kind of car.

The Honda’s return is closest to it (40.6mpg) and the Ford’s isn’t too far behind (38.6mpg). Thereafter, the stragglers’ returns are much closer to our expectations for this class. The Land Rover’s 33.6mpg is poorest – but then it was penalised by that torque-converter automatic ’box.

There isn’t a great deal to choose between like-for-like examples of these cars on CO2-derived company car tax. In that respect, the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Toyota are the smart buys. In terms of retained value, the Ford tops the list and the Toyota props it up.

The surprising disparity is between the cheapest and more expensive options on the cost of insurance – something that has always taken SUV owners slightly unawares. Qualifying for group 29E, the RAV4 will cost the average Brit driver £790 a year. The Ford (group 21) will cost the same driver £618 and the Hyundai (group 19) just £580.

CONCLUSION

At the end of two days of driving, measuring, testing and number crunching, our long, hard look at this increasingly enticing segment of the new car market has thrown up surprises in abundance. It has also made the new class hierarchy abundantly clear.

It’s hard to separate the Mitsubishi Outlander and Toyota RAV4. Both are practical choices in their own way, and neither passes for much more than ‘adequate’ when you’re actually driving it. With your back against the wall, you’d pick the Outlander if you had to have either, mainly because it would be cheaper to own.

But that’s only assuming that you couldn’t pick the CR-V. This Honda is the kind of car that’ll spend years and years quietly impressing the pants off you – just being easy to use and pleasant to own, with its big boot, clever back seats, economical engine and unimposing drive. Keep your order simple – small wheels, manual ’box, no factory sat-nav – and the results will repay you. It should be cheaper to insure, and it could do with a bit more ground clearance. A bit of styling pizazz wouldn’t go amiss, either.

That brings us on to the podium – and to a deposed former class champion. If you want a marker of how much compact SUVs have changed in the past decade, look no further than the current Land Rover Freelander. This car was designed before it became obvious how little genuine off-road ability matters to 4x4 buyers compared with carrying capacity, towing capacity, fuel efficiency and cabin space. It takes a test like this to realise it, but the class has moved beyond this car. And yet the Freelander’s finely tuned, premium-brand ride and handling remain appealing enough to earn it a ranking berth.

Which leaves two cars: the one with all the space, utility and value for money, not to mention a cracking powertrain, and the winner. You’re wondering how a car that has so completely dominated almost every facet of this test isn’t getting the credit it has so evidently earned. Hyundai has never come closer to the sharp end of such an important Autocar group test verdict. But the truth is that, great as the Santa Fe undoubtedly is, it’s a car that you have to have a need for. It’s not a Freelander rival as much as a cut-price Discovery – engineered to tow double-axle caravans and horseboxes, to transport big families, to move student teenagers off to university. And if you don’t have needs like that, you might end up wishing you’d plumped not for ‘big’, but for ‘big enough’.

‘Big enough’ is what the Ford Kuga does brilliantly, and it brings a whole lot else into the equation. This car offers more than you’d expect to get, either for the price or the size – on space, when towing, off road and as an ownership prospect. On top of that, Ford’s typically taut, instinctive handling remains the unique selling point – and it really is a supreme one next to this kind of competition.

Ford gets the nod, by the slimmest of margins. But Seoul sticks one to Solihull. It’s been a long time coming.