Currently reading: Top 10 Best family SUVs 2021
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Numerous premium brands claim they make the best family SUV but we can now put that argument to rest with our definitive top 10 list
Autocar
News
9 mins read
13 July 2021

Dominated by premium offerings, this chart is populated by some of the best family cars on the road – vehicles that can cope with the school run as well as tackling wintery conditions, mildly rugged terrain, trips to the tip, towing duties and long-distance motorway cruising.

It's a hotly contested and strategically important segment where style, safety and space rank at the top of the agenda for buyers and, often, room for seven occupants is required. That importance is underestimated by manufacturers at their peril, given that the segment has effectively obliterated the MPV market and is only expected to keep on growing in the future.

Despite a lack of variety in the styling and approach taken by many, it's now a fairly diverse segment that has attracted different brands into the fold of SUV making. Many models are now available as tax-friendly plug-in hybrids too, as manufacturers scramble to grab a bigger slice of the increasingly emissions-conscious fleet market. Here are our favourites.

1. Audi Q5

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 the car from really appealing to keener drivers. This shortcoming hasn’t prevented the Q5 from 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 with a long options list, 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 now a swoopy-roofed Sportback version as well.

The Q5 received a pretty wide-reaching facelift for 2020, with efficiency-boosted mild-hybrid engines going in under the bonnet, some new digital technology going into the cabin, and wider trapezoidal grille going onto the front end. The big-selling 40 TDI version got a 14bhp power boost as part of that revision, and it remains a refined, comfortable, assertive-performing and easy-driving family car. 

The 50 TFSI e 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, while the 55 TFSI e ups that to pretty close to 400-. Electric-only range and CO2 emissions have come down for both versions of the car, making them more competitive offerings on benefit-in-kind tax than they used to be.

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Audi replaces the best-selling Q5 SUV with a model very much on the same theme, but does more sophistication make it a more compelling option than the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLC or the Volvo XC60?

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2. Land Rover Discovery Sport

The Discovery Sport might be the entry-level Land Rover in the showroom range, but it isn't short on trademark Land Rover capability, comfort or charm.

Facelifted for 2019, the Discovery Sport now sits on the same PTA platform as the Range Rover Evoque but hasn’t lost out on any of the characteristics we liked about the original. It’s still higher-riding than many of its opponents, affords better visibility and 4x4 capability than many, and feels more like a traditional SUV to drive than some while still handling in an impressively tidy fashion. It has a practical interior - a huge selling point in this segment being the available of seven seats for those who need them - that has now been given a much needed lift in premium appeal and also fitted with Land Rover's latest 'Pivi' infotainment setup.

Its petrol and diesel engines are now supplemented by 48V mild-hybrid architecture in a bid to improve fuel economy, but the particularly slick P300e plug-in hybrid version is the stand-out version with its usefully long electric range. 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 associated compromises.

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3. BMW X3

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

The X3 has powertrains with plenty of power and performance; the smaller diesel offerings can be a touch unrefined, but the multi-cylinder M40d and M40i are both rapid and smooth. The plug-in X3 xDrive30e PHEV might not shine quite as bright as its conventionally powered rangemates dynamically because, as things stand, it can't be had with the all-important adaptive M suspension (which brings with it mass-checking adaptive dampers), but in other areas the petrol-electric X3 is slick and pleasing to drive, although it isn't the most tax-efficient PHEV of its kind due to a fairly small electric range. 

The BMW comes a close-run third-in-class behind the classier Q5 and more useful Discovery Sport, then. Standard equipment is a bit mean on some trim levels, but the car's perceived quality is above that of almost all others, and its on-road manners are hard to fault.

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4. Jaguar F-Pace

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

There are one or two details that detract a little from the overall driving experience, among them some undistinguished four-cylinder diesel engines, a hesitant automatic gearbox and a slightly jittery, noisy ride in certain specifications. But Jaguar did much for the appeal of the car as part of its major mid-life facelift in 2021, with a much richer interior and a vastly improved infotainment system being added, and an expanded range of engines that now includes a torquey six-cylinder mild-hybrid diesel and a six-pot plug-in hybrid petrol. For balanced in-town and out-of-town driving, the D300 diesel would still be our choice, while the mild-hybridised four-pot diesels have better drivability than they used to.

The go-faster F-Pace SVR is an absolute riot, too, and is a fine example of a brilliantly executed performance SUV brimming with V8 drama.

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5. Skoda Kodiaq

The Kodiaq is our top family SUV not to come from a premium manufacturer and it undercuts even the cheapest of the plusher offerings on this list by a not insignificant sum.

So what are you sacrificing? A chunk of premium-feel materials for a start, although everything feels well screwed together. The top four SUVs on this list all have better-balanced handling and ride quality than the Kodiaq, but not all of them offer a third row of seats.

Aside from the slightly over-firm and remote way in which the Kodiaq drives, though, it's an impressive car in most respects. An oily-bits facelift could easily rectify its main problems - and we're due to drive one soon.

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6. Mercedes-Benz GLC

The second half of our top 10 is where the handling element sorts the class leaders from the also-rans.

The updated Mercedes GLC, with its well-appointed and luxurious-feeling interior, deserves its place in the top 10, but its numb steering means it's far from the first choice for keen drivers. It's more car-like to drive than many of the full-blown SUVs on this list, but it also rides less serenely than a Mercedes-Benz should on standard steel coil suspension, making it harder to recommend in base spec.

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On optional air suspension, though, it's among the most laid-back, effectively comfort-oriented cars in the class, and it can be had in mechanical flavours as different as the GLC 300e petrol-electric PHEV, the GLC 300de diesel-electric PHEV and the GLC 63 V8 hot-rod SUV. Worth considering.

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7. Alfa Romeo Stelvio

Alfa Romeo took the platform and engines that made the Giulia, added some ride height, a raised hip point and four-wheel-drive technology, and created a fine-handling SUV in the shape of the Stelvio.

Remarkable handling and typical Alfa Romeo film-star looks come as standard, with a strong if gruff diesel engine to boot. Unfortunately, Alfa's focus on decent handling has resulted in a slightly restless ride on poorer UK roads, and some of the cabin materials feel plain and cheap - just as they do on the Giulia.

A facelift during 2020 improved things ever so slightly in this respect and added a new infotainment system and improved driver aids, but it’ll still take a keen eye to spot the differences between this and the original. It's priced reasonably competitively, though, if not quite to the extent that it was at its launch three years ago. It’s one for the keener driver without question; but perhaps not for the dynamically disinterested SUV devotee.

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8. Volvo XC60

This was the safest car ever tested by Euro NCAP at its launch in 2017, and all this time later, it’s still one of the most handsome family SUVs currently on sale.

The XC60 is not the last word in driver appeal, but as a slick, comfortable, easy-to-use family wagon, there’s plenty to recommend here. Volvo has revised its engine line-up, too, so that all XC60 variants now offer some form of electrification. The ‘B'-series petrol and diesel models now have 48V mild-hybrid architecture for fractional reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, but it’s the T6 and T8 Recharge plug-in hybrids that offer the greatest potential for low-cost running. They don't have quite as much electric range as rivals, though.

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9. Seat Tarraco

The 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. Still, the interior is well finished and the petrol and diesel motors are impressively refined. It's priced fairly competitively, too.

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10. Kia Sorento

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. 

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 this handsome Korean SUV can’t do.

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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 sophisitcation and steering feel are concerned.

Still, as a practical, well-made, well-equipped and sensibly priced family SUV that’s easy to drive, it has a lot going for it. The diesel models offer decent refinement and performance, too; and the PHEV is more assured and drivable than the regular hybrid also.

It’d arguably be more of a head-over-heart choice than any other car on this list, but there’s nothing much wrong with that.

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