Currently reading: Top 10 best small SUVs 2023
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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. Find out which make our top 10 list

When it comes to sales volumes, these small SUVs have become the engine rooms for their respective makers. 

It isn't difficult to appreciate why. Compact SUVs provide a commanding view of the road ahead, only without the cumbersome footprint of full-size family SUVs from a class or two above. They’re also quite a bit less expensive and, in recent years, they've raised their game considerably when it comes to design and simple kerb appeal. They exist both in more affordable and more ‘premium’ flavours, so there is something for everyone. Purists may disagree, but the best-selling cars chart doesn't lie. 

Tending to exhibit car-like drivability, small SUVs are easy to live with but that bit of extra ride height means they’re happy enough trundling down rutted lanes (within reason). Hatchback-like mechanicals also keep running costs reasonable, and instead of locking differentials, you’ll find hybrid powertrains and one or two pure-electric options.

1. Volvo XC40

Pros Wide range of engine options, interior ambience, blend of ride and handling

Cons Only so-so to drive, not as spacious as some

Volvo's first attempt at a compact sibling for its established XC60 and XC90 SUVs is a real success, and 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. 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 XC40 Recharge EVs 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.

Read our Volvo XC40 review

Save money with new XC40 deals from What Car?

2. Mazda CX-5

Pros Good to drive, excellent interior, comfortable over distance

Cons Straight-line performance not always up to snuff, can be loud at a cruise

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Like the XC40, the Mazda CX-5 is one of the senior citizens of the class. And yet it is 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, beautifully made and with 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 compact 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 Mazda's rather bulky frame, while the automatic-only 2.5 is no economy miracle. The manual gearboxes are delightful, but the autos 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.

Read our Mazda CX-5 review

Save money with new CX-5 deals from What Car?

3. Hyundai Tucson

Pros Potentially very economical, striking design, grown-up interior

Cons Sluggish automatic gearbox, lacklustre driving dynamics

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 works well with both the manual and automatic gearbox, while the hybrids are potentially very efficient, but a tad slow-witted.

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More so than ever before, this is an impressively polished compact 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 Hyundai is very good at.

Read our Hyundai Tucson review

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4. Kia Sportage

Pros Striking design, neat and appealing interior, broad range of engines

Cons Hybrid powertrain can be coarse, ride and handling balance isn’t that sweet

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

The truth is that behind the challenging exterior is a car 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 diesel through to a benefit-in-kind-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 the Kia is fairly inert when 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.

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Read our Kia Sportage review

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5. Citroën C5 Aircross

Pros Comfortable, roomy and decent value

Cons Clunky multimedia, poor manual gearbox

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, it 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 auto for a seven-speed dual-clutch auto, and all of a sudden, the C5 Aircross has the affordable and frugal yet effortless powertrain it needed.

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.

Read our Citroën C5 Aircross review

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6. Nissan Qashqai

Pros Likeable interior, comfortable in all scenarios, updated infotainment is easy to use

Cons Manual gearbox is hard work but CVT is dull

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 petrol mild-hybrid 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.

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The interior doesn’t look as jazzy as some, but the materials are pleasing, it’s solidly built and 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.

Read our Nissan Qashqai review

Save money with new Qashqai deals from What Car?

7. Mercedes-Benz GLA

Pros PHEV has strong electric range, good to drive, intuitive user experience

Cons Somewhat forgettable, noisy on the motorway

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

You get a choice of petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid powertrains, and there is 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 the mild-hybrid tech it has received with the facelift, while the GLA 300e plug-in hybrid recently gained some extra electric 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, however, gets softer suspension and rides a little more comfortably. All are somewhat noisy on the motorway, however. The interior is familiar from the A-Class and while it doesn’t have the same level of tech tinsel as the BMW X1, it’s much easier to use and just as solidly built.

Read our Mercedes GLA review

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8. Audi Q3

Pros PHEV is good value, captures some of the appeal of larger Audi SUVs

Cons Not as refined as you might be expecting, interior quality

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, though you’re better off maximising interior space with the regular and perhaps just as handsome standard variant.

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 plug-in hybrid 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. The latest versions are also lacking just a touch in terms of that bulletproof interior feel.

Read our Audi Q3 review

Save money with new Q3 deals from What Car?

9. BMW X1

Pros Sky-high perceived quality, PHEV has good EV range, quite roomy

Cons Gearbox and steering aren’t up to BMW standards, poor user interface

Like all of us, the BMW X1 has been getting larger as it gets older. In fact, the latest 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 in size 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, the X1 gets a wide range of engines, from mild-hybrid petrols and diesels through to a pair of plug-ins and even an all-electric BMW iX1 complete with a handy claimed range of 272 miles.

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Regardless of motive force, the BMW is a composed and capable steer but perhaps not the very embodiment of the 'ultimate driving machine' that the brand'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 is not the way 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, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it was logical to use. Sadly it isn’t.

Read our BMW X1 review

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10. DS 7

Pros High-quality materials inside, fine handling, less common than other small SUVs

Cons Ride is quite poor, plug-in hybrids don’t feel as fast or effortless as they should

DS can be a confusing brand. The preferred wheels of the French president, you might think this DS 7 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 is also available with more powerful plug-in hybrid options – up to 355bhp.

On the other hand, it’s more sports SUV than luxo-barge 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 it is quite an enjoyable, slightly alternative thing. The DS 7 225 Hybrid is the most well-rounded option, but if you do lots of motorway miles, don’t discount the DS 7 BlueHDI 130 with its 1.5 diesel, which might be the most relaxing DS 7 and is capable of 60mpg.

Read our DS 7 review

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Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet
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. 

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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.